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03 Mar 2010

Four Downs: AFC East

by Aaron Schatz

In the only NFL division where every team now plays the 3-4, defense is the biggest story of the 2010 offseason. Three teams desperately try to improve on defense, while the fourth tries to repeat a defensive performance so good it dragged a poor offense all the way to the AFC Championship game.

Buffalo: How do the Bills fit their personnel into a 3-4 defensive scheme?

It's been an offseason of change in Buffalo, as the Bills desperately try to break out of an endless cycle of mediocrity. Perhaps the biggest change will come on defense, where new coordinator George Edwards will toss out the NFL's last fad scheme (Cover-2) in favor of the NFL's current fad scheme (the 3-4).

A move to the 3-4 probably favors Buffalo's younger players more than its veterans, particularly at linebacker. Aaron Maybin, the team's 2009 first-round pick, was pretty much invisible as a rookie, going without a single sack. A number of 3-4 teams were interested in drafting the athletic pass-rush specialist as an outside linebacker a year ago. He simply doesn't have the size to take on run-blocking linemen as a 4-3 end and will have more freedom to make plays in the new scheme. Maybin and 25-year-old inside linebacker Paul Posluszny both have experience playing for a Penn State defense that uses a lot of the 3-4.

On the other hand, last year's starting defensive ends will be 33 (Aaron Schobel) and 31 (Chris Kelsay) next season. Neither player has the size needed to play end in a 3-4 scheme or experience dropping into coverage as a linebacker. Schobel may retire, while Kelsay could end up limited to playing in nickel situations where 3-4 teams often still use four-man fronts.

Most teams that switch to a 3-4 begin with a big hole at the nose tackle position, and the Bills are no exception. Marcus Stroud has told the press he would be fine with playing a two-gap nose tackle position, but he's likely to slide over to defensive end. It's odd to say a 310-pound man doesn't have enough size to do anything, but Stroud fits a lot better as a 3-4 end because those 310 pounds are stretched over a 6-foot-6 frame. Right now, a typical-sized nose tackle would be Jamal Williams of San Diego, who is 6-3 but weighs 40 pounds more than Stroud. Stroud has much more in common with Igor Olshansky and Richard Seymour. The only nose tackle of similar size is Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys (6-4, 303 pounds).

Incumbent defensive tackles Spencer Johnson and Kyle Williams also lack the size to play the nose in a 3-4 and would likely battle for the end position opposite Stroud. (Truthfully, Williams, a "gap-shooter," doesn't really fit into a 3-4 at all and is likely trade bait.) The only prototype 3-4 nose tackles on the Bills roster is a developmental prospect named Lonnie Harvey who spent half the year on the practice squad. The only realistic choices for Buffalo are to sign a nose tackle in free agency or add one through the draft. The good news is that a lot of quality veteran nose tackles are unrestricted free agents. The bad news is that those players -- Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton, and Aubrayo Franklin -- are almost guaranteed to get franchised. The best player after that, Jason Ferguson, will be 36 next year and may retire.

Buffalo could break the bank and make a big splash by stealing Wilfork away from their division rivals with a big-money contract. However, just reading a sentence with the words "Buffalo" and "big-money contract" required a massive suspension of disbelief. Expect to see Buffalo go with a big defensive tackle when the 2010 draft hits the ninth overall pick.

Who could leave?

Terrell Owens will not be brought back, but otherwise, roster changes in Buffalo are less about which contracts are up and more about which players won't fit under the new regime. The Bills also won't offer new contracts to defensive end Ryan Denney or veteran Josh Reed, who is a slot receiver of reasonable quality (average DVOA over the past four seasons). He would make a good signing for a team that needs receiver depth, particularly receivers who can run-block well. (Carolina, perhaps?) Starting guard Brad Butler shocked everyone by retiring at the age of 26, so he'll need to be replaced. Kirk Chambers started half the year at tackle and is a UFA, but he makes more sense as a depth guy. Lee Evans, the Bills' best offensive player, is caught in that class of players who go from UFA to RFA with the uncapped year.

Who could they sign?

Honestly, the Bills could use pretty much any player at any position except for running back. Even at cornerback, they could use depth, although Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee are a good starting set. The offense is a mess, and the defensive strengths they had last year are torn asunder by the move to the 3-4.

Miami: Can Mike Nolan do for the 2010 Dolphins what he did for the 2009 Broncos?

Mike Nolan helped turn around the Broncos defense after a terrible 2008 season, so it was a bit of a surprise when the franchise announced he was leaving after just one year. Denver's loss is Miami's gain. If Miami were to improve in 2010 as much as Denver did in 2009, the Dolphins might have the league's best defense. But don't expect Nolan to work the same miracles.

Earlier this year at FootballOutsiders.com, I took a look at the history of poor defenses that hire well-regarded defensive coordinators. A number of defenses this year saw big improvement after hiring big-name defensive coordinators like Nolan, Gregg Williams (New Orleans), and Dom Capers (Green Bay). But surprisingly, 2009 was an exception, not the norm.

I went looking for trends by looking at the Football Outsiders advanced DVOA ratings (explained here) for every team from 1995 to 2008 that had a defensive DVOA above 0% (i.e. worse than average) the previous season. You know these teams will improve, on average, because of regression to the mean. But how did teams with new coordinators -- in particular, experienced coordinators -- differ from the larger group of teams coming off bad defensive years? The answer: They didn't.

  • All defenses above 0% improved by an average of -5.5% DVOA.
  • All defenses above 0% that hired a new coordinator improved by an average of -5.5% DVOA.
  • All defenses above 0% that hired a new coordinator with previous coordinator experience improved by an average of -5.3% DVOA.
  • All defenses above 0% that hired a new coordinator who previously was coordinator of a top-10 defense improved by an average of -4.0% DVOA.

It's going to be hard for Nolan to have a huge impact on the Miami defense since the Miami defense wasn't that bad in the first place. The Dolphins were barely below average last year, 18th in DVOA. That's a far cry from the Broncos, who were coming off a season with one of the worst defensive DVOA ratings in history.

The personnel circumstances in Miami are also much different than they were a year ago in Denver. Nolan was getting Denver's best defensive player (Champ Bailey) back from injury, and the Broncos signed free agents to fill the other three spots in the starting secondary. Miami, however, isn't getting any new defensive backs. There's no reason to believe the safeties on the free agent market are any better than Yeremiah Bell or Gibril Wilson, and the Dolphins aren't going to let veterans get in the way of developing the two cornerbacks they took early in last year's draft, Vontae Davis and Sean Smith.

Of course, top-drafted cornerbacks usually take three or four years to develop, not two. So don't be surprised if the Miami defense does improve significantly ... in 2011.

Who could leave?

The Dolphins have very few free agents this year. Chad Pennington could look for a starting job elsewhere, or retire, but the Dolphins would be happy to have him back if he can accept being the veteran backup to Chad Henne. Jason Taylor is a free agent, but it is hard to imagine him going anywhere after his aborted one-year excursion to Washington. The other starting outside linebacker, Joey Porter, will be cut. Veteran Nate Jones is a good nickel back who is expendable because the Dolphins are getting younger at the position. 35-year-old Jason Ferguson will probably either retire or re-sign with Miami, but he could get overpaid by some other team given the current disconnect between supply and demand for 3-4 nose tackles.

Who could they sign?

The Dolphins need linebackers. One of last year's outside starters is already gone (Porter) and the other is too old to play every down (Taylor). The situation at inside linebacker is also a problem; Akin Ayodele, long a solid but unspectacular player, had a tough 2009. This year we tracked broken tackles for the first time as part of the FO game charting project; the numbers are still very preliminary, but right now we have Ayodele with the worst "broken tackle percentage" among all inside linebackers, 16 percent. (That's broken tackles divided by tackles + assists + broken tackles.) Channing Crowder comes in third at 11.5 percent, behind Ayodele and the Chiefs' Corey Mays. The Dolphins could take a shot at one of the many excellent RFA linebackers (Elvis Dumervil?) or go after one of the top UFA veterans, like Karlos Dansby or Aaron Kampman (although it makes more sense for Kampman to return to end and sign with a 4-3 team). The Dolphins could take a linebacker with their first-round pick, but the draft is also a good place to look for Ferguson's replacement (either immediate or eventual) at nose tackle.

New England: Can the Patriots come to an agreement with Vince Wilfork?

The Patriots are locked in a financial standoff with their best defensive player, nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The team put the franchise tag on Wilfork to prevent him from signing with another team. Wilfork will likely threaten a hold out rather than come back to the Patriots without the financial stability of a long-term contract with a hefty signing bonus.

Wilfork is so good against both the pass and the run that it's hard to imagine what the Patriots would do without him. However, there might be a way for the Patriots to lose Wilfork and still improve on defense, by taking advantage of the shifting economic market for football players.

Nose tackles like Wilfork have become a very valuable commodity in recent years as the 3-4 defense has spread throughout the league. As recently as 2006, only six teams played a pure 3-4 as their main defensive scheme. Now, 14 teams plan on using the 3-4 as their main scheme, with a 15th team (Washington) also considering it. In the AFC, the 3-4 is actually the majority defense: The only 4-3 teams left are the four AFC South teams, Cincinnati, and Oakland.

The demand for players whose skills fit the 3-4 has exploded, but the supply has stayed the same. The same 3-4 players who were once undervalued in the market are now overvalued. This is much like what has happened in baseball during the past decade. When Michael Lewis wrote "Moneyball," teams like Oakland and Boston were looking for players with good on-base percentages because those players were undervalued in the market. But after a while, enough teams were trying to copy "the Moneyball philosophy" that players with good on-base percentages weren't ignored anymore -- so they didn't offer particularly good value for the price. Smarter franchises have moved on to the next undervalued commodity (outfield defense, apparently).

The Patriots think a lot like those guys up 93 who run the Red Sox. Last season, with 3-4 defenders becoming more scarce, they moved towards a hybrid defense which switched back and forth between three-man and four-man fronts. While other teams are desperate for nose tackles, the Patriots' biggest problem has been finding the outside linebacker "tweeners" that were easy to pluck out of the free-agent market a few years ago.

That's why the New England Patriots might actually be wise to consider letting Wilfork leave. Not for nothing in return, of course. Perhaps they could work out some sort of sign-and-trade deal with another team in exchange for a package of draft picks that is significant but not quite as unrealistic as the two first-rounders it takes to sign away a franchise player. The Patriots could use those picks to help re-shape their defense as a 4-3 scheme. This type of deal would also allow the Patriots to decide where Wilfork landed -- and keep him out of the AFC East.

Who could leave?

The Patriots have more free agents than their three division rivals, particularly when it comes to the few veterans remaining on a young, developing defense. Besides Wilfork, UFAs include cornerback Leigh Bodden, defensive end Jarvis Green, and outside linebacker/nickel rush ends Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain. The Patriots will probably try to retain Bodden, Banta-Cain, and Green, but Burgess was a disappointment this year. Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas will be cut, although the Pats may try to get a low-round pick for him first. On offense, the big names are running back Kevin Faulk, tight end Benjamin Watson, and guard Stephen Neal. It's hard to see Faulk leaving, but he would be a nice fit for another team that likes to use running backs in the passing game. (Philadelphia?) Watson is a perennial disappointment to fans, and has trouble staying on the field, but DVOA numbers suggest that he wouldn't necessarily be as replaceable as most fans think -- he led all tight ends in DVOA for 2009 (minimum 25 passes). It's hard to see the Pats paying Neal a lot of money when guard is the easiest position on the line to fill. The Pats could sign a free agent, draft someone in the middle rounds, or even try moving Nick Kaczur over now that Sebastian Vollmer has (mercifully) taken his starting spot at right tackle. (Kaczur is oddly listed as a UFA on a lot of websites, but the Pats signed him to a four-year extension during the season.)

Who could they sign?

If the Pats don't pay to keep Neal, it is hard to see them ponying up for a good veteran guard like Bobbie Williams, especially when they need to get RFA Logan Mankins paid long-term. If Bodden leaves, the Pats would likely add another veteran cornerback to help Shawn Springs mentor the youngsters. The most likely free agent addition would be a wide receiver who can start opposite Randy Moss; after all, there's a reason why long-time special teams ace Sam Aiken is known as "long-time special teams ace Sam Aiken."

New York Jets: Will the defense be this good again next year?

"What?" you say. "Aren't the Jets biggest questions for 2010 on offense?" In some ways, yes, but they are generally questions that the Jets can only answer by waiting for the games to start. Nobody from last year's starting offensive lineup is an unrestricted free agent. The team is locked in to Mark Sanchez as quarterback and expects him to improve with experience. The offensive line and receivers are likely to be the same. The one major change is the release of Thomas Jones and promotion of Shonn Greene to replace him as starting running back.

The offense had better improve, because the Jets aren't likely to dominate the league on defense again in 2010. There's nothing in particular wrong with the Jets; defense is simply less consistent than offense from season to season.

The Jets weren't just the best defense in the league last year -- they were the best by a big margin. Our DVOA ratings say the Jets were 23 percent more efficient than an average defense. The gap between the Jets and the second-ranked Packers was bigger than the gap between the Packers and the team ranked eighth. (The Bills, surprisingly, who had an excellent pass defense even though your grandma could probably rush for five yards per carry on them.)

Here's a look at the best teams in defensive DVOA over the past 10 seasons, and how they did the year afterwards. The best defensive DVOA ratings are below zero because these teams allow less scoring than average (zero).

YEAR Team Defense
DVOA
Next
Year
Change
2008 PIT -26.9% -2.9% 24.0%
2007 TEN -13.3% -16.6% -3.2%
2006 BAL -23.6% -8.7% 14.9%
2005 CHI -21.5% -19.7% 1.9%
2004 BUF -28.8% 7.8% 36.6%
2003 BAL -27.1% -20.5% 6.6%
2002 TB -32.1% -21.0% 11.1%
2001 PHI -20.4% -10.1% 10.3%
2000 TEN -27.0% 6.5% 33.5%
1999 BAL -27.0% -26.3% 0.7%

Some of these defenses stayed strong, like the 1999-2000 Ravens (who won the Super Bowl the next year, after all) and the 2007-2008 Titans (the only one to improve in the second year). However, the average team on this list got worse on defense by about 14 percentage points. If the Jets defense declined by the same amount, it would still be one of the five or six best defenses in the league. But unless the offense improved by a similar amount, that defense wouldn't be good enough to get the Jets a return trip to the playoffs.

Who could leave?

The Jets have already made a change at kicker, signing Nick Folk and letting Jay Feely leave in free agency. Jones will be cut Friday, but the Jets are fine at running back with Greene and Leon Washington. Otherwise, the biggest UFA is defensive end Marques Douglas, a solid and underrated player who seems to constantly bounce around from one 3-4 defense to the next. Douglas' free agent status emphasizes one of the Jets' two defensive weaknesses: age on the defensive line. Even if Douglas returns, all three starters are over 30. The Jets have not drafted a lineman since 2006, and the only two on the roster under age 31 are backup Mike Devito and Ropati Pitoitua, a long-term developmental project.

The other weakness on the defense is the cornerbacks opposite Darrelle Revis, who had good charting stats thanks to the Jets' excellent pass rush but -- as we learned in the AFC Championship -- aren't really that great. Lito Sheppard will be cut along with Jones, which leaves Dwight Lowery as the new starter unless the Jets want to shop the free agent market or look for something in the draft.

Who could they sign?

Leigh Bodden and Dunta Robinson would both be excellent improvements across from Revis and would help the Jets defense combat regression to the mean. Jarvis Green would be a suitable replacement for Douglas and signing him would hurt the Patriots, always a plus in Gang Green country. Another soon-to-be-ex-Patriot is Adalius Thomas, and he really, really wants to play for the Jets, but do they even need him? Green or Pittsburgh's Travis Kirschke are better fits for a defense that needs linemen a lot more than it needs linebackers (although Kirschke, age 35, probably doesn't have much longer to go).

(Portions of this article appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 03 Mar 2010

25 comments, Last at 09 Mar 2010, 12:32pm by commissionerleaf

Comments

1
by jackgibbs :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 12:49pm

I know most people will balk, but trading wilfork really does seem like a good move, considering he's like the only guy on the defense suited for the 3-4. there's a lot more quality defensive linemen available in the draft than linebackers, and considering Mayo's the only guy on that unit with any football ability, I would think the fewer linebackers they have on the field, the better.

I think Josh Reed sounds like a good fit to play opposite Moss, as well, especially if edelman turns into something in the slot

7
by KarlFA :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 2:39pm

The problem with trading Wilfork is that you'd still have to replace him. It's not as if the rest of the Pats' defensive line is a bunch of studs. Combined with a weak LB corp, and what looks to be a depleted secondary with the upcoming exodus of UFAs, compounded by this year's weak free agent class due to the CBA situation, New England would actually need two first round picks to keep their defense legit if they moved Wilfork.

Karl, Miami

9
by Eddo :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 4:43pm

I think jackgibbs was suggesting a move to a 4-3 defense, hence his mentioning that there are many lineman available in the draft.

18
by FooBarFooFoo (not verified) :: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 6:42am

To me it looks like the Pats could be severely screwed if some team signs Mankins to an offer sheet. If they lose Mankins and Neal and Green, how much quality would be left?

And looking at the past drafts, Belichick's picks weren't always as impressive as people tell.

And I always had trouble understanding why Ben Watson wasn't used more? Remember game one this year when he caught both late TDs? Is he bad at catching the call (honestly, how bad can you be if you are worse than the Pats No 3 receiver????) or bad at running routes?

24
by jackgibbs :: Fri, 03/05/2010 - 12:18pm

he's a little of both, I think. for every great catch I've seen him make, I've seen him drop an easy crossing route. I'm not an expert on routes, but it does seem like brady only looks his way on seam routes.

it's a shame, really. I had such high hopes after he chased down champ bailey.

2
by BadgerDave :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 1:01pm

A lot of Packer fans have Julius Peppers on their "dream" free agent pick up list this offseason, would Adalius Thomas be more a more realistic possibility to play across from Matthews?

20
by Mr Shush :: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 11:27am

More realistic, perhaps, but not terribly useful. Thomas just isn't very good at this point.

3
by njjetfan12 :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 1:21pm

Just a couple points on the Jets.

1. It's not a sure thing they're going to let Feely leave. If anything, I think Folk is insurance in case Feely gets a sizable offer from elsewhere.

2. The main reason the Jets will probably go after Thomas is the fact that they can only sign players that were cut by other teams, so that eliminates a lot of the players mentioned above.

3. Ropati Pitoitua is awesome.

4
by James-London :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 1:30pm

Miami could also use recievers. I know it's not the current front office's M.O to chase WR's, but a real #1 would help enourmously. And are we sure there's nothing better than Gibril Wilson available at FS?

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

6
by KarlFA :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 2:36pm

James - you're dead on. If Dez Bryant falls to us in the draft...it's going to be tough to pass up on him. The upside? We'd most likely be picking someone Sparano and crew coached in the North-South game. Great position to be in this year.

Gibril Wilson's performance last year was atrocious. Or as Charles Barkley is prone to say "just turrible". Antrel Rolle would be a welcome improvement (but at what cost?). Hell, any replacement would be welcome at this point.

We need to sign Karlos Dansby.

Karl, Miami

5
by AnonymousA (not verified) :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 2:02pm

Which Vince Wilfork are you watching Aaron? Not the mediocre, over-rated one I saw, certainly.

8
by Johnny (not verified) :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 3:58pm

Oh please. Stop trolling. If you believe that, you honestly don't know anything about football. Any informed Pat fans knows Wilforks worth. When he missed two games (or so) with injury, and we had to put in Pyor and Brace, our run-d was atrocious. Teams shreaded us up the middle. That's a fact. Look up the numbers.

That's not even mentioning all of the plays Wilfork made in the running game, drawing double teams, and eating up the middle. They even moved him to DE against the Fins and he did a serviceable job against Jake Long.

Get your misinformed trolling out of here.

12
by Weszilla (not verified) :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 5:25pm

Week 15: 105 RushYds against
Week 16: 88 RushYds against

No TDs in either.

That's a fact.

15
by R. Carney (not verified) :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 9:59pm

Oof. The classis Football Outsiders mistake. Claiming something is a "fact" without indeed knowing if it is so. If you claim something to be a fact around here, you'd better do your research, because someone WILL call you out on it, and don't get mad, because it's your own fault. Thanks for doing the research, Wes. One thing about posting as a fan is that sometimes things can look a lot better or worse than they actually are. As an objective observer, I don't really think Wilfork is the difference maker that he is thought to be, or that he wants to get paid to be.

21
by Mr Shush :: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 11:46am

It may be a fact, but a rather limited one. Giving up 105 yards at over 4.5 ypc against a below average run offense that was trailing almost the entire game does not suggest great run defense, to me at least. I grant that (from a statistical standpoint at least) it is tough to find fault with the performance of the Patriots run defense against the Jags, but you don't help yourself appear objective by ignoring completely the week 17 game against Houston, in which an undrafted rookie playing his third NFL game ran for 119 yards and two TDs on 20 carries, behind an offensive line missing both its starting guards. I don't find it hard to see how that game would give the impression of the run defense struggling without Wilfork.

To be completely honest, I'm not really sure how much information can really be gained on Wilfork's impact last season, given that two of the three games he missed were against out-and-out bad offenses and won comfortably by the Patriots, and the third involved Brian Hoyer.

22
by Johnny (not verified) :: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 12:08pm

Thank you. Watch the games, don't just look at the box score, and you'll see the Pats run-d were bad in those games.

23
by Jimbo :: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 1:03pm

Nose tackle seems to be a really difficult position to grade when it comes to average and above average tackles. The analysis would - I think - have to be like measuring a black hole. You have to guage the damage around it.

The most prescient item about the Wilfork situation in this article is that the Patriots may deem him overvalued due to the demand of nose tackles; however I'm unsure if Belichick will switch to a base 4-3, not so much because it would imply any shift, it's just that base defenses aren't so base any more. Sub packages of all stripes rule in our pass heavy world.

10
by buzz :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 4:46pm

This isn't necessarily AFC east related but what happened to the annual FO awards article that was up for vote? I don't think I missed it as I check in most every day but I haven't seen it yet. Looking forward to seeing some of the results!

13
by Aaron Schatz :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 5:36pm

It is coming tomorrow. I've lagged on it.

11
by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 4:52pm

Vince Wilfork will only be traded if the Pats were moving to a 4-3 scheme. Has anyone observed Belachick with a "Cover-2 for Dummies" book under his arm? hanging out in bars with Tony Dungy scribbling on napkins? Cutting deals with talented pass rushing defensive ends? No?

Then Wilfork stays. Wilfork is the right age for New England (He'll be around about as long as Brady will) and there are plenty of linebackers available in the league over the next few years. I'd like to see the Pats bring in Dunta Robinson -and- resign Bodden, given that they don't have many linebackers and spent half the year in nickel (dime, stc.) anyway. A base 3-3-5 scheme makes more sense than having Belichick run a 4-3.

14
by Yuri (not verified) :: Wed, 03/03/2010 - 7:10pm

I think the below statement is universally true in the NFL because things are done on looking-forward basis.

A [scheme change] probably favors [team's] younger players more than its veterans.

16
by Key19 :: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 12:24am

Man, Wilfork looks fat in the lead pic of the article.

19
by Dean :: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 11:18am

He probably prefers the term "husky."

17
by Mike19531 (not verified) :: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 4:26am

Hey Aaron or any of the other Outsiders,
Do you think that the Pats will kick the tires on Karlos Dansby, Antonio Bryant or Julius Peppers? I saw almost all of their games and the most immediate needs seem to be some sort of pass rusher, a wr across from Moss (You pegged that) and the right side of the o line.

25
by commissionerleaf :: Tue, 03/09/2010 - 12:32pm

Mankins would be worth a poison pill contract from Indy, right? THAT would be pretty hilarious. Contract becomes unconditionally guaranteed if you play more than four games in long johns? If you see Gisele Bundchen at more than one game a year?