Defense. Wins. Championships.
You have heard it before. Every winter this philosophy seems to get proven on big stages. Every spring teams try to live by it. Every fall it seems to shift the power structure of the league. Just a few short years ago, the Seattle Seahawks were a middling franchise with a string of postseason disappointments, the Rams were a perennial punching bag, the 49ers were down on their luck for the better part of a decade, and the Cardinals were still limp in their post-Warner era. The entire NFC West was a joke.
Look at them now. All four franchises, regardless of their record, are some of the more dangerous teams in the league. All four of them have incredibly destructive defenses. Despite what some NFC West fans might think, you could make an argument that there is not an "elite" quarterback in the entire division, and yet you would be hard pressed to find a scarier foursome in the game today.
When looking around the league, the pattern of defensive dominance bringing rejuvenation and success to franchises is equally prevalent elswhere. The Kansas City Chiefs went from an awful 2-14 season and a first overall pick to a 9-0 start on the backs of Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Brandon Flowers, and Dontari Poe. The Panthers stacked their front seven with talents like Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei, and Kawann Short in consecutive drafts and rode them all the way to a first round playoff bye. The Saints brought in Rob Ryan, signed Keenan Lewis, and drafted Kenny Vaccaro, suddenly becoming dangerous again overnight.
Going back through history, the Ravens’ improbable playoff run in 2012 was propelled by the return of the "big four" of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, and Terrell Suggs. In 2011 and 2007, the Giants’ pass rush stifled two of the greatest quarterbacking seasons of all time on their way to two Super Bowl victories. The 2010 Packers, despite all of their injuries, still had the second ranked scoring defense in the league. The ’05 and ’08 Champion Steelers had the number four and number one ranked defenses, respectively. The ’06 Colts had a largely mediocre defense throughout the regular season, but the return of Bob Sanders in the playoffs vaulted their defense to the top of the postseason rankings, allowing just 238 yards and 16 points per game. The Patriots' dynasty had a top six scoring defense every year they won the Super Bowl. The ’02 Buccaneers won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson at quarterback because they also brought with them a historic defense that contained no less than four surefire Hall of Famers. Just two years earlier, the Ravens claimed their first championship with an equally historic defensive unit with Trent Dilfer as their signal caller.
Defense. Wins. Championships.
Since the start of this millennium, you could make the case that just one Super Bowl winning team out of fourteen--the 2009 Saints--was carried to the Promised Land on the back of its offense. Even that team was able to seal their victory over the Colts with a decisive interception return for a touchdown. The correlation between defense and Super Bowls is staggering to say the least, and the continuance of the tradition by the Seattle Seahawks this past weekend might be sticking on the mind of every team in the NFL, and the Texans in particular.
Houston faces a very unique choice this coming May, yet it is the same dilemma that they seem to find themselves in every half decade or so – take a quarterback, or take a once in a generation defensive end? I personally find it amusing that every single time a "can’t miss" defensive prospect shows up in a draft class, the Texans always seemed poised to snatch him up. This year’s decision seems different. The last two times that Bob McNair and company faced this choice, their options at quarterback were David Carr and Vince Young. Carr was given an expansion team with no supporting cast, while Young was just flat out bad.
2014, however, sees the rise of Teddy Bridgewater. More adept at quarterbacking than Young, and poised to inherit a better team than Carr, Bridgewater could legitimately give the Texans a signal caller who can match Andrew Luck’s "clutchness". That being said, for all the value that a franchise quarterback can provide, it would be hard for me to believe that the Texans are not taking a hard look at the formula for victory that the Seahawks made abundantly clear (again) on Super Bowl Sunday – play defense, don’t screw up on offense, and see if the opposing team’s quarterback can score points while running for his life.
Is the best play for the Texans to embrace the "get to the tournament, play defense in January" philosophy that always, always seems to win out in the end instead of grabbing a quarterback that would likely end up being pretty damn good in his own right? That much I cannot say. What I can say, however, is that my personal feelings on the decision are a whole lot murkier than they were a few days ago.
Since the draft order was made official, I have approached this draft in a win-win mentality. Either Bridgewater gets taken and he unlocks the full devastating potential of the Bill O’Brien offense, or Jadeveon Clowney gets taken and enables J.J. Watt to open up a medieval can of whoop-ass on the entire NFL. No matter what, the Texans cannot lose…or can they? If the trend holds true and only teams with good defenses can win a ring, the Texans might be throwing away their best chance at a Super Bowl by not creating possibly the most intimidating young defensive tandem in the history of the sport. That line of thinking is not as farfetched as it seems.
Think about the ripple effect a talent like Clowney would create in a Romeo Crennel 3-4. If Watt plays his usual 5-technique position on the left side, Clowney plays as a 5-tech on the right, and a heftier nose tackle is drafted in the middle rounds (let’s say Beau Allen, for argument’s sake) to play over the center, you have a sudden nightmare for an offensive line. If Brooks Reed is kicked inside to stuff the run with Brian Cushing, then suddenly Trevardo Williams is elevated to the left outside linebacker position next to Watt, Whitney Mercilus stays next to Clowney at right outside linebacker, and the nightmare only gets worse.
Does the right guard slide to stop Watt inside, leaving the athletically gifted Williams one-on-one with a tight end on the edge? Does the left tackle slide to take on Mercilus while the guard has to find a way to cut off Clowney all the way in the 5-tech? If the tackle takes on Clowney, does any offense feel comfortable leaving a running back one-on-one with Mercilus all game long? If the center needs help with Allen, who is a good penetrator in his own right, who is left to help him? There is no offense in the world that can afford to allocate four blockers to two defensive ends for an entire game. The outside linebackers wreaking havoc unopposed on the edge will force Watt and Clowney into one-on-ones sooner or later, and when they do get individual matchups, both of them are gifted enough to shred protection in the blink of an eye. There is no place to hide. There is no way to change the math in the offense’s favor. If you can’t block it, you can’t beat it. Period.
The obvious downside of not taking Bridgewater, of course, is what becomes of the offense. For all the times that defensive units have ushered their teams to the history books in the last 15 years, those championships were still won by quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson. The lesson here, if you hadn’t guessed, is that successful teams have both good defenses and a quarterback that can put points on the board. There is rarely a time when just one element can take a team all the way, which means that Houston has to decide not only between two stud players at the top of the first round, but also between two distinct philosophies in the game of football. There really is no way to compare the value of a quarterback like Andrew Luck leading a historic comeback against the Chiefs by putting up ridiculous point totals and the value of the Seahawks' defense shunting nearly every single advance by the Broncos' offense in the Super Bowl. How can one determine which side of the ball is more important? How can one claim that defense will always reign supreme when Tom Brady has engineered so many game-winning playoff drives through the years? How can only claim that a quarterback like Tom Brady is all you need to win a ring when his defense was utterly incapable of stopping the Broncos without Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, or Aqib Talib? This question, above possibly all others in the game of football, is impossibly hard to answer.
As hard as it is to believe for some members of the Bridgewater and Clowney camps, the Texans need both a franchise quarterback and a stingy defense to stand upon the mountain top. The choice, of course, is which to prioritize. Clowney with the first overall pick and a trade up into the back of the first round to secure a quarterback like Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, A.J. McCarron, or Jimmy Garopollo (with a fifth year option on the contract) is certainly enticing. So is taking Bridgewater and hoping a talent like Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, or Aaron Lynch can be picked up at a reasonable price.
I suppose the real "question behind the question" is this – do you believe that any of the four quarterbacks mentioned above can put up enough points in the NFL? Do you believe that the Seahawks have emphatically stood tall and proclaimed once again, for a hundred million people and every team in the league to see, that defense still is the key to winning championships?