Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
31 Aug 2005
by Mike Tanier
The Vikings have been inept on defense for years. The Chiefs too. Every year, they try to change coaches, draft a defender, maybe sign a star free agent. But nothing has worked. So this year, both teams adopted a take-no-prisoners approach:
The Vikings signed CB Fred Smoot, S Darren Sharper, and DT Pat Williams. They acquired LB Napoleon Harris in the Randy Moss trade. All four players are projected starters. For good measure, they drafted DE Erasmus James with the 19th pick overall.
The Chiefs signed safety Sammy Knight, LB Kendrell Bell, and DE Carlos Hall. They traded for Pro Bowl CB Patrick Surtain. With the 15th pick in the draft, they selected LB Derrick Johnson.
These are extreme defensive makeovers. While it's not unusual for teams to turn over four or five positions on defense, the changes usually come from promotions within the organization or bargain-priced acquisitions. Of the players above, only Williams and Hall are second-tier free agents; the rest of the players are big names expected to make a big difference.
To judge how successful the Vikings and Chiefs will be with all of their new defenders, we looked at every team since 1998 that a) finished near the bottom of the league in defensive DVOA; and b) went on a spending spree to fix the defense. "Spending spree" isn't a very scientific term; teams made the study if they acquired four new defensive starters via free agency, trades, or in the first round of the draft, and if at least two of those new starters could be considered "big name" acquisitions.
(DVOA, for those new to Football Outsiders, is our advanced metric Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here. You'll find 2000-2004 ratings listed under JUST THE STATS on the menu atop the page; we're still trying to find time to get the 1999 ratings up on the site.)
1999 DVOA: -0.2% (22nd)
2000 DVOA: -14.2% (7th)
The Redskins weren't terrible on defense in 1999; DVOA is built upon the high offensive norms of the last few seasons, which is why an average rating like -0.2% placed them near the bottom of the league. But their raw defensive stats (30th in yards allowed) looked awful, the defense faded late in the year, and new owner Dan Snyder wanted to give his checkbook a workout. So the team signed Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Mark Carrier, and Kevin Mitchell, drafted LaVar Arrington, and hired coordinator Ray Rhodes. Sanders and Smith were future Hall of Famers on the downside of their careers. Carrier was an aging three-time Pro Bowler. Mitchell was a sometime starter who had never lived up to his potential with the 49ers and Saints, but he was penciled in at middle linebacker. The Redskins defense did get better, but the team dropped from 10-6 to 8-8, and the new acquisitions had little to do with the improvement. Sanders played hurt much of the year. Smith wore down, as Rhodes made the 38-year old an every-down starter. Arrington held out and had a poor rookie year, and Carrier showed that he was near the end. The biggest difference maker was an incumbent: Champ Bailey went from rookie to All Pro. One year later, Marty Schottenheimer replaced Norv Turner as head coach; Smith and Sanders nearly mutinied against the no-nonsense Schottenheimer, and he lasted just a year in the capitol.
1999 DVOA: 4.0% (26th)
2000 DVOA: 4.4% (20th)
The Bears won 14 games from 1997 through 1999, and their once-proud defense had fallen on hard times, finishing 29th in the league in yards allowed, 28th in yards per play, and 27th in third down efficiency. So they went shopping. DE Philip Daniels was signed after a nine-sack season in Seattle. DT Chris Mims, who had once sacked 28 quarterbacks in a three-year period, was added as an aging specialist. In the secondary, the team signed CB Thomas Smith, a six-year starter in Buffalo, and safety Shawn Wooden. LB Brian Urlacher and safety Mike Brown arrived in the draft. Most of the free agents made minimal contributions (Mims didn't even make the roster), and the Bears were no better in 2000. Urlacher and Brown made their presence known in 2001, however, when they helped the Bears to a 13-3 record.
2000 DVOA: 11.9% (26th)
2001 DVOA: -20.8% (3rd)
A year removed from the Super Bowl, the Rams needed a major overhaul on defense. Out went former starters Kevin Carter, D'Marco Farr, Keith Lyle, and Todd Lyght. In came six-time Pro Bowl CB Aeneas Williams; former Ravens' starting safety Kim Herring; LB Mark Fields, a five-year starter in New Orleans and a former first round pick; DE Cedric Jones, another former top pick who had 7.5 sacks for the Giants in 1999; and DE Tyoka Jackson. But the splashiest acquisitions came through the draft: three defenders in the first round, most notably Adam Archuleta, and two more on the first day of the draft. The Rams expected to start as many as seven new defenders in 2001. And while top draft picks Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett had little impact, Williams had four interceptions, Archuleta, Herring, and rookie Tommy Polley started all year, and the Rams returned to the Super Bowl.
2000 DVOA: 17.3% (29th)
2001 DVOA: -0.6% (16th)
The 2000 Seahawks signed four major free agents: DT John Randle, LB Levon Kirkland, DE Chad Eaton, and safety Marcus Robertson. Randle and Kirkland had both been to the Pro Bowl, Robertson had started for nearly a decade with the Oilers/Titans, and Eaton was a two-year starter in New England. Their defense improved substantially, but the free agents aged (and in Kirkland's case, grew fat) quickly. By 2002, their DVOA was near the bottom of the league again (9.1%) so they picked up more aging free agents: DT Norman Hand, DE Chike Okeofor, safety Damien Robinson, plus rookie DBs Marcus Trufant and Ken Hamlin. Their DVOA improved to -0.6%, but the team's fascination with older players keeps them from turning the corner defensively to this day (hello, Jamie Sharper).
2001 DVOA: -1.3% (22nd)
2002 DVOA: -1.7% (18th)
Like the 1998 Redskins, the 2001 Cowboys had a defense that was somewhat sub-par but looked worse thanks to low interception and sack totals. Like Dan Snyder, Jerry Jones threw money at the problem, acquiring DT La'Roi Glover, LB Kevin Hardy, and CB Bryant Westbrook, and drafting safety Roy Williams out of University of Whatever. And like the Redskins, the Cowboys had mixed results. Glover, already a two-time Pro Bowler in 2002, was a great pickup, as was Williams. But Westbrook (a former first-round pick) and Hardy (a 1999 Pro Bowler) contributed little. The defense was only marginally better and the team didn't improve, going 5-11 for the third consecutive year.
2003 DVOA: 8.7% (25th)
2004 DVOA: 14.3% (27th)
Just last season, the Raiders spent big bucks to revamp a defense that finished 25th in the league in DVOA, 30th in yardage allowed and yards per play, and dead last in rushing yards allowed. Warren Sapp was given a seven-year, $36 million contact. Ted Washington was given $14 million dollars. Veterans Ray Buchanan, Danny Clark, Denard Walker, and Ike Charlton arrived to sure up the linebacking corps and secondary. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, son of the one-of-a-kind Buddy Ryan, was hired to get the most from the team's investment. But the Raiders defense actually got worse. They finished dead last in the NFL in numerous defensive categories. Sapp was ineffective and played with a "take the money and rarely run" attitude. The veteran defensive backs were of little use. Ryan's system never clicked. The best acquisition turned out to be the lowest-profile one: Clark, an unknown in Jacksonville, became the Raiders' best defensive player.
2002 DVOA: 8.6%, 24th
2003 DVOA: -12.1%, 7th
The Bills aren't counted among the teams listed above because they didn't target one of their key acquisitions: he fell into their lap just days before the start of the season. The Bills signed LB Takeo Spikes, DT Sam Adams, and LB Jeff Posey after a poor 2002 season, adding DE Chris Kelsay with their first draft selection (though it was a second-rounder, and Kelsay didn't start all year). It was a good haul of defenders, but not a noteworthy one. But late in the offseason, the Bills scooped up Pro Bowler Lawyer Milloy after the safety had a contract-related falling out with the Patriots. Buffalo's defensive DVOA improved drastically in 2003, and continued to improve in 2004 when they ranked first in defensive DVOA (-24.5%).
It's the young talent that matters, not the old, broken-down millionaires with the name recognition. Many of these teams got significantly better defensively. But none of the teams in this study got elite production out of all of their free agent signees. Most got some help from one or two of the veterans but much better performance from either from rookies or second-year players.
The Rams won the NFC title thanks to their rookies and Williams (oh yeah, and that offense). The Bears surprised everyone in 2001 because Urlacher and Brown became stars. The Redskins signed a dream team of old-time stars, but youngsters Arrington and Bailey did the most to make the team better. The Cowboys still count on Glover and Williams; the others are long gone. The Raiders cut several of last-year's acquisitions and toyed with the idea of releasing Sapp.
The good news for the Vikings is that they have a crop of young players (Kevin Williams, Kenechi Udezi, James) who could get better suddenly if they get a little boost from Sharper and Smoot. The Chiefs aren't quite as fortunate, but they can hope Derrick Johnson joins Jared Allen, Ryan Sims, and Kawika Mitchell in forming the core of a fine young defense.
But both teams are relying, to a great extent, on the free agents. And history shows that several of those veterans won't do anything but tie up cap space.
16 comments, Last at 03 Sep 2005, 11:40pm by MikeT