System, Player, or Coach? Linebackers

Under Tony Dungy, the Colts have shown tremendous improvement on defense. Is it the result of coaching, the Cover 2 defense, or the players themselves? Brad Keller takes a look at the Dungy-era linebackers.

The Colts offense has been consistently potent throughout Tony Dungy's tenure as coach, but his defense has been up-and-down and certainly has not been blessed with the talented players, stars, and high draft choices that the offense has been given since he took the job in 2002.

Since it's safe to say that offensive stars such as Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Marvin Harrison would succeed no matter who drafted them — and Edgerrin James has had some success in Arizona — defense will be the focus of this series, starting with the linebackers.

Mike Peterson was a second-round choice of the Colts in 2002
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Stability has been an issue along the depth chart, but the linebacker position has not been as turbulent as other positions on defense.

Indianapolis has used a fair number of high draft choices on linebackers that played during the Dungy years, but all of the day one picks were taken prior to 2002, with Mike Peterson drafted in the second round in 1999, Rob Morris selected in the first round in 2000, and Marcus Washington selected in the second round in 2000. Current starter Freddy Keiaho was drafted in the third round in 2006.

That represents quite an infusion of talent, particularly in the early part of the decade, and means that Dungy, Ron Meeks, and linebackers Coach Mike Murphy had a lot to work with.

However, current starters Tyjuan Hagler (fifth round, 2005) and Gary Brackett (undrafted, 2003) fit the mold of players that Dungy and Bill Polian identified as their type of player — someone that was considered undersized to play the position and possessed outstanding short-area quickness and some refined coverage skills.

Despite going undrafted, Gary Brackett has been solid in the middle for Indianapolis
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Cato June (sixth round, 2003) and David Thornton (fourth round, 2002) were both second-day selections that fulfilled those criteria as well.

Although the Colts never had the same starting three from one season to another due to free agency or injury, the fact that they have only had eight players start at those three positions for the past six seasons — seven if you count 2008 — is actually fairly remarkable in the salary cap era, especially for a team that allocates most of its resources to the offensive side of the ball.

With several players that spent multiple years in the system and enjoyed production, but not accolades, the assumption would follow that the coaching these players received and the system they played in superseded any skill that they may possess.

The fact remains, though, that all of these men are still in the NFL in some capacity — Morris is the only player of the eight not currently on an NFL roster.

Peterson left the team following the 2002 season and has an extremely productive career with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Washington left after the 2003 season, signed with the Redskins, and proceeded to make the 2004 Pro Bowl and was name an alternate for 2005 and 2006.

Thornton has been more productive in his two seasons with the Tennessee Titans since leaving the team after 2005. 

The common thread among all of these players is that none of them left the Colts to join another team that deploys the Cover 2 as their base defense.

Cato June saw his production drop after leaving the Colts in 2007
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As a matter of fact, there are a number of Dungy acolytes around the NFL that run the Tampa 2, so it would stand to reason that any team looking for a free agent fit would take a player that learned the defense from the architect himself.  None of the coaches on the Dungy Tree signed these players, though, and they all went on to have careers that were at least as productive as the ones they enjoyed in Indianapolis, with many earning more personal accolades than they ever received with the Colts.

One outlier in all of this is Cato June, a man who left Indianapolis to sign with Tampa, Dungy's former team, and who is now being coached by Monte Kiffin, Dungy's former defensive coordinator.

June has seen a sharp decline in his numbers.  After being voted to the Pro Bowl in 2005 and posting 142 tackles in 2006, he accumulated only 74 tackles and authored only two big plays — one forced fumble and one interception — in 2007 with the Buccaneers.

This could be an example of system over talent in terms of production, since June used to play the Derrick Brooks role when he was with the Colts and, obviously, Derrick Brooks plays the Derrick Brooks role with Tampa. 

When Brooks retires in the next few seasons, June will most likely fill Brooks' position, provided he is still with the team.  At that point, a full assessment can be made.

At this point, given all the other data and production that former Colts linebackers have enjoyed in other systems, June seems to be more of an exception than the rule.

Verdict: Players.

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