Warner's future hangs in the balance

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

INDIANAPOLIS -- Kurt Warner wants to return for another season with the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals want Warner back.

That is the easy part.

Determining Warner's value is more complicated, one reason Warner remains without a contract for 2009 with only four days remaining until free agency.

"We would very much like to get the deal done before free agency starts," general manager Rod Graves said at the scouting combine, "but we are not overly concerned with that thought."

The Cardinals demonstrated their relative lack of concern by naming linebacker Karlos Dansby their franchise player. If they feared losing Warner as much as the New England Patriots feared losing the far less accomplished Matt Cassel, they could have used the franchise tag on Warner for one year and $14.65 million.

Instead they chose to take their chances.

It's an unusual situation.

Warner emerged from training camp last summer as a frustrated 37-year-old backup. He finished the 2008 regular season ranked among the NFL's top five in pass attempts, pass completions, completion percentage, passing yards, touchdown passes and passer rating. He led the Cardinals to their first NFC championship. He drove them to the go-ahead touchdown with less than 3 minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLIII.

Those achievements, backed by two previous Super Bowl appearances with the St. Louis Rams, define Warner as an elite quarterback.

Elite quarterbacks generally earn $12 million to $16 million per year over the course of several seasons.

Warner reasonably can claim he deserves that type of payout. The Cardinals never would have reached Super Bowl XLIII without him. The evidence suggests Warner gives Arizona its best chance to contend again in 2009.

But there's no reason for the organization to pay millions more than might be necessary.

The Cardinals know Warner wants to finish his career in Arizona. They know Warner wouldn't be as effective playing in a cold-weather market without Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. They reasonably can conclude other teams wouldn't pay Warner in that $12 million to $16 million range. In most cases, Warner would be adjusting to a new offense with new receivers at age 38, reducing his value to another team.

The Cardinals are navigating through their own changes after Todd Haley left his job as offensive coordinator to lead the Chiefs. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has kept Warner apprised of his plans for the offense in 2009.

"Just in our conversations about where we're going this year and changes that we've made, it's all been positive," Whisenhunt said.

Two NFL salary-cap managers polled at the scouting combine estimated Warner's market value between $6 million and $10 million if the quarterback decided to sign with another team. One suggested Warner might command as little as $6 million to $7 million per year. Another estimated the quarterback's market value between $8 million and $10 million.

The Cardinals are reportedly offering around $10 million per year.

It's tough to find logical destinations for Warner beyond Arizona's borders.

The quarterback-challenged Minnesota Vikings play half their games in a dome, and their running game would take pressure off Warner. The New York Jets could use a productive quarterback after whiffing on Brett Favre.

As much as Warner enjoyed playing for Haley, he presumably wouldn't want
to start over with a rebuilding project in Kansas City. The Chicago Bears seemingly have committed to Kyle Orton for 2009. The San Francisco 49ers would have made for a better fit for Warner before coach Mike Singletary installed a possession-oriented offense.

Warner's situation could be unique in NFL history. Pro Bowl quarterbacks coming off Super Bowl seasons simply do not hit the market.

The 49ers traded 36-year-old Joe Montana to the Chiefs after posting a 14-2 record in 1992, but Steve Young already had established himself as the starter.

Randall Cunningham enjoyed an unexpected revival in passing for 34 touchdowns with a 106.0 passer rating for the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings in 1998. He was 35 years old and had averaged fewer than seven starts per season over the previous six years.

But the Vikings already had established a pattern of switching from one veteran quarterback to another, even after winning seasons. Before Cunningham became the starter, Minnesota replaced Rich Gannon, Jim McMahon, Warren Moon and Brad Johnson, even though each won at least half his starts the previous season.

Cunningham wasn't "The Man" in Minnesota so much as "The Next Man." And when the Vikings lost at home in the NFC Championship Game, they were underachievers. The Cardinals emerged from the Super Bowl feeling as though they had enhanced their standing, even in defeat. And Warner played at an MVP level in rallying Arizona into the lead.

Gannon was under contract for the next season when he improbably led the Oakland Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVII at age 37.

In the end, every player is worth only what he can get. The issue in Arizona is whether Warner would press the issue in free agency if the Cardinals held their ground.

"We are encouraged by the fact Kurt wants to be back with us and has stated so," Graves said. "We are looking forward to getting Kurt done sooner rather than later."

The alternative -- watching Warner sign with another team -- wouldn't make sense for anyone.