Cheaper by the eleven

If you believe ESPN's John Clayton, the Steelers will be likely unable to field their traditionally dominating 3-4 defense if they want to pay Ben Roethlisberger the big bucks he'll soon command. "Hogwash!" claims SteelCityInsider's contract guru Ian Whetstone ...

Recently, John Clayton at ESPN put together his own NFL Dream Team that would fit under the 2006 salary cap. I'm not sure that he put together the best roster, but I commend his willingness to comb through mountains of boring contract data to fill the summer football doldrums. His explanation of his selection process, however, included an odd assertion:

"Perhaps the biggest fundamental concept that allows all of this to work is an acceptable cap philosophy that isn't given much publicity. The Cover 2 defense, employed by the Colts' Tony Dungy and several other coaches, is a better system to work under the cap than the 3-4. In the 3-4, teams must pay big money for at least a couple of starting linebackers, a couple of defensive linemen, a hard-hitting strong safety and for bigger, more physical cornerbacks. The Steelers' starting 11 in the 3-4 defense totals around $34.88 million and the Chargers' $30.6 million, while the Colts' starting 11 in the 4-3 is $26 million."

Does he really believe that? The cap totals are artificial, and his examples very selectively chosen. Pittsburgh's defense has been very good for quite a while, and consists of veteran players who are much deeper into their big-money contracts; of course they count more against the cap. Nine of their projected starting eleven for 2006 are on their second contracts, compared to just five of Indy's starters. Clayton does address the issue of youth with an explanation that such youth is systematic, and made possible by the Cover 2 itself:

"The Cover 2 in a 4-3 allows for a younger flow of players. Younger usually means cheaper, but Cover 2 defensive coaches are accustomed to grooming young linebackers with speed."

That sounds plausible, but I don't see a lot of evidence to support it around the league. Indy's model for their Cover 2 defense, Dungy's old team in Tampa, fields what might be the league's most expensive starting eleven at $44.6 million. Meanwhile, Dallas will field a starting 3-4 at around $25.6 million. Baltimore will trot out eleven in whatever alignment they hope will protect Ray Lewis this season for about $38.9 million.

What do Pittsburgh's, Tampa Bay's, and Baltimore's defenses all have in common that makes them expensive? They've all been consistently very good for several seasons, and are stocked with expensive veterans. What do Indy's and Dallas's defenses have in common? They've been good for a very short while and are stocked with recent draftees. Indy's starting defense is so relatively cheap because so many of their starters are still on their rookie contracts, and because until recently they didn't have many defenders worth paying.

As far as the expense relative to alignment, from what I can tell Clayton is exactly wrong. The Cover 2 places greatest emphasis on the defensive players who command the most money: the pass rushers. The 3-4, on the other hand, de-emphasizes those same positions, and part of its appeal is that it lessens the need to continually find those rare athletic (i.e. expensive) pass-rushing linemen. Let's see how cheap it is for Indy once Dwight Freeney is the highest-paid defensive player in football and Robert Mathis is in the thick of his new deal. And limiting the examination to the starting eleven masks a very real part of the cost of the Cover 2—defensive line depth for an effective pass rush rotation. Most teams wouldn't be paying a guy who played 35% of the 2005 defensive snaps $5 million a season, as Indy just ponied up for Mathis. Pittsburgh's entire current defensive line roster counts a total of about $16.6 million in 2006, compared to almost $25 million for Indy's rotation. That's while Mathis and Freeney are relatively cheap, and Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton are relatively not. Dallas's young 3-4 linemen clock in at a mere $12.4 million, and Tampa Bay's guys at a portly $33.5 million.

What Dungy has developed in Indy is a defense that can probably be maintained at a functionally-acceptable performance level without investing big money in the back seven, so long as they continually draft successfully to restock the linebackers and secondary. They're cheap in large part because they have to be, because they've got so much cap space tied up in the offense. A huge part of their defensive success, too, relies on that high-powered offense scoring points and placing opposing offenses in positions of limited options. A defense can get by on a great pass rush and cheap youth elsewhere when the league's highest-paid player (Peyton Manning), highest-paid receiver (Marvin Harrison), highest-paid second receiver (Reggie Wayne), and highest-paid third receiver (Brandon Stokley) put up 27 points per game. They're not a defense that's going to carry a team to a championship like the expensive units in Baltimore and Tampa Bay have done in recent years.

And, ultimately, any defense that stays good will get expensive. There's no schematic solution to that problem in the salary cap era.

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