The Only Training Camp Question That Matters: Defense

Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) closes in to sack Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) in Super Bowl 50 at Levi
Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) closes in to sack Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) in Super Bowl 50 at Levi /

While all of the questions of training camp for the Denver Broncos are important, the biggest factor could be how the defense performs  after winning the Super Bowl the year before.

There are plenty of enticing storylines emerging from the early days of training camp. Bennie Fowler and Kapri Bibbs seem to have a “this is the year” aura to them, and the quarterback competition is completely up in the air. Those are fine and all, but there is really only one question that matters. If the Broncos do not bring back the Death Star on defense, they will not repeat as champions.

Winning back to back titles is difficult for great teams, let alone one half of a great team. Looking into the past can be helpful, but typically numbers are all we can use to make something resembling an objective argument. This is where football and baseball diverge. All “who is better” debates in baseball should be predicated upon stats due to the fact that it is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. Every action on a football field is interconnected, and numbers will never tell the full story, so comparing teams across eras is probably a fool’s errand. DVOA attempts to navigate the obvious conflicts in this project, and even though it is the best all-encompassing stat, it is far from perfect.

For example, the Broncos defense finished with a higher DVOA than any other offense last year, which is a rare occurrence, yet they are not even in the top 15 all-time defenses. Tampa Bay’s #3 all-time defense had a DVOA (-31.8%) that still rated lower than Trent Green, Priest Holmes and the 8-8 Kansas City Chiefs #1 offense (35.4%) in 2002*. It’s pretty clear that eras have a sizeable effect on any numbers that attempt to compare across them, and the current offensive explosion that is the NFL results in a ceiling that pre-Brady/Manning defenses did not have.

Note: dates describe the year in which the season started, not the one in which the Super Bowl was played.

DVOA is similar to WAR in baseball. It attempts to create a simple value to describe all the actions of a team or player in a method that allows you to compare it across the league. It’s calculated using play by play data, which is further complicated by the fact that it doesn’t exist for games before 1989. For Football Outsiders, Andreas Shepard “collected total box score statistics for each team on offense, defense, and special teams…and calculated each team’s per-play average for each of these stats. [He] then normalized each stat against the league average for that season.” He claims it is 95.8% accurate, and this is probably one of the best methods you’ll find to compare NFL teams across generations.

Last year the Broncos defense finished (-25.8%) overall, (-28%) versus the pass, and (-22.8%) against rush. Their total DVOA would tie them for 16th all-time with a Seattle team that Bronco fans are all too familiar with, as the #LegionofBoom reminded Bronco fans of our sordid Super Bowl history. The #NoFlyZone wouldn’t make the top 20 of the list above, which definitely will make any Bronco fan doubt the accuracy of these numbers.

Football has changed quite a bit over time, and defenses are constructed very differently from what they were five years ago, let alone forty-five years ago. With that said, we still want (need) to know if the Broncos defense can still be that badass action movie hero that tore through the league last season, so let’s compare them to three other free agency era teams dragged to championships by their defenses.

2000 Baltimore Ravens

Big Bad Wolves: Ray Lewis, Rod Woodson, Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Rob Burnett

Super Bowl Season: Everyone remembers the Ravens as the first dominant defense of the century, but per DVOA, this was the 3rd best Raven defense of the last fifteen years. The 2003 and 2008 iterations both rank higher, and looking at the rosters, it’s not hard to see why, considering they have guys like Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs in addition to a more mature Ray Lewis.

Their offense was a certified catastrophe, scoring 3 touchdowns (all in the same game) between weeks 3 and 9 before breaking the streak in Cincinnati. They won the next 10 games in a row, holding their opponents to an average of 8.1 points per game, allowing only one touchdown (to Eddie George) throughout their entire playoff run. They finished 2nd to Tennessee in DVOA and were buoyed by a historically great run defense, ranking 1st all-time in DVOA. (-36.6%). They did however, do all this against the 31st easiest defensive schedule that season, per Football Outsiders.

Next Season: They went 10-6 and lost in the Wild Card round to Pittsburgh. Elvis Grbac was supposed to be an upgrade on the tire fire that Trent Dilfer and Tony Banks set at the position the year before, but you would never know it was a different guy at QB if it weren’t for a new number on his jersey.

2000 Dilfer: 59.3% completion, 6.6 YPA, 12 TD’s 11 Int’s

2001 Grbac: 56.7%, 6.5 YPA, 15 TD’s 18 Int’s

The defense remained fairly healthy, and despite a 112 tackle season out of Ray Lewis, it slipped to 5th overall. Comparing the 2001 Ravens to the 2016 Broncos is probably more apt at quarterback than on defense. Despite the 2000 Ravens being a memorable defense, they do not hold up when evaluated next to the truly historic defenses of all time like the Steel Curtain of the 70’s, the 1985 Bears, or this next one.

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2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Big Bad Wolves: Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, Ronde Barber, Jon Gruden’s scowl

Super Bowl Season: Holy hell was this team loaded. The fancystats back it up too, as they were the best pass defense ever per DVOA. Rice and Sapp’s 23 combined sacks may have had something to do with it. They blew through the playoffs, winning by an average of 35-12.

Next Season: They went 7-9, losing five of their next seven after some guy named Manning did this to them.

They went 2-7 in one score games, and Warren Sapp and John Lynch’s play dipped a bit in their last seasons in South Florida. The Bucs defense fell from historic to simply being one of the best in the league. The Ravens finished well ahead of everyone in defense in 2003, but when Kyle Boller is your quarterback, there’s only so much you are capable of, and they missed the playoffs too. The only obvious reason the Bucs were tripped up seems to be because of father time – as in addition to Sapp and Lynch, Derrick Brooks (30) and Shelton Quarles (32) began to turn into different players as well.

2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

Big Bad Wolves: Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Dick LeBeau

Super Bowl Season: Everyone remembers this team as the winner of maybe the most entertaining 4th quarter in Super Bowl history – as Santonio Holmes’ fingertip catch erased Larry Fitzgerald’s brilliance in the final seconds. However, DVOA puts this as the 5th best defense of all time. Neither the pass nor the run D ranks in the top 20, but Dick LeBeau dominated the league from the sidelines by letting a once in a generation player prowl his famed 3-4 structure in the first ever Polamalu position.

Next Season: Polamalu played in five games, they went 9-7, and missed the playoffs. The rest of the usual suspects showed up and played well, but the defense slipped to 9th overall.  Over the next few years it would become clear to everyone that the line between good and great in Pittsburgh fell on the injury status of one of the best defensive players of all time. The 2008 Steelers gave way to a new generation of new defenders, and in 2009, players like William Gay, Lawrence Timmons, and LaMarr Woodley, began to take more and more snaps from members of the old guard like James Farrior, Casey Hampton, and Brett Kiesel. The most notable moment the new guys created was giving ESPN its biggest Tebowner ever.

2015 Denver Broncos

Big Bad Wolves: Von Miller, Demarcus Ware, Chris Harris Jr., Brandon Marshall, Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Wade Phillips

Super Bowl Season: The defense scored in six of the first eight games. They held Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards on 22 attempts. The Giants hit Tom Brady 9 times in Super Bowl 42; Demarcus Ware hit him 7 times in the AFC Championship as the defense delivered the biggest beat down the Golden Boy has ever received.

Next Season: That’s what we’re all eagerly anticipating. There are bits and pieces of each of these historic defenses to learn from. The Steelers were dependent upon a hurricane posing as a human disrupting every facet of the offense. The Ravens and Bucs had dominant defenses against each element of an offense’s attack, before slipping back to mere mortality the following season. The Steelers and Ravens were partially undone by father time, but why the Bucs did not continue at somewhere near a historic pace is more difficult to discern. Like the Broncos, most of their core’s athletic prime includes both their Super Bowl season and the next.

Shelton Quarles was their only key player who didn’t play at least 14 games the next year (he played 11). And even though Warren Sapp was no longer the football version of the Hulk, Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Simeon Rice still performed at their Hall of Fame levels. I won’t lie, it’s a little disturbing to look at this team as a Broncos fan. Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning hidden within the 2003 Buccaneers: that true greatness is by definition, difficult to replicate. Hopefully I’m wrong, but based on recent memory, it looks like we may want to temper the super human expectations this all-time great defense has created for itself.