Commentary

Offense earns air of superiority

Quarterbacks, offense owned NFL in 2009; Can defenses close gap going foward?

Originally Published: January 27, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

With the two best quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning and Drew Brees -- in the Super Bowl, offense won out as the main theme for the 2009 NFL season.

Rex Ryan and the New York Jets did their best to keep defense in the spotlight, but Manning figured out how to attack Ryan's blitzes and eventually pulled away in the AFC Championship Game.

I was still amazed how many people jumped on the Jets' bandwagon in the days before the game. Many of those who follow the Jets closely felt the team's defense could keep the game close and allow the Jets to win it in the fourth quarter. But ultimately, the Colts' offense won out.

What I'm going to be interested to see during the offseason is how defenses bounce back and try to combat elite quarterbacks and explosive offenses. More teams are switching to the 3-4. The Redskins plan to make the switch and the Bills are trying to see if they can find Chan Gailey a defensive coordinator who can help with the conversion.

Don't expect any major rule changes that will tip the scales either way. At the moment, the rules favor offense. With concussions and injuries on league officials' minds, quarterbacks will always have the benefit of the rules. The ratings and the quality of the games this year only reinforced the value of minimizing the hits on quarterbacks and keeping the best ones healthy enough to start 16 games.

What will help defensive coaches this offseason is the pending labor problem. If there is an uncapped year, it will be harder for teams to improve on offense because fewer quality players will be available in free agency. Under the uncapped scenario, it would take six years of experience for a player to become an unrestricted free agent. With less roster turnover, teams will be close to what they were at the end of the 2009 season, giving defensive coaches the chance to study them and make further adjustments.

This league always has a history of giving offenses the lead and then watching defenses catch up. The question will be whether less offseason turnover and a draft loaded with quality defensive players will level the playing field.

From the inbox

Q: John, as a big Bears fan, can you tell me why Lovie Smith treats offense as an afterthought? Why would you trade for an All-Pro QB and not tailor the offense around his strengths? I think one of the reasons Jay Cutler failed was because of the horrible system and play calling of Ron Turner, but what good is getting rid of him if Lovie will not allow the next guy to open up the offense?

David in New Haven, Ind.

A: This doesn't apply to you, but sometimes fans ask for change and then later regret it. A lot of fans and critics in Chicago wanted the offensive coaching staff fired. Smith fired most of his offensive assistants. Now he's having an impossible time replacing them because candidates think this is only going to be a one-year job if things don't go well for the Bears in 2010. It's a mess. Smith hasn't neglected the offense, but, like Dick Jauron before him, he never really found the right personality to make the offense grow. Sure, there was early success that led to a trip to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman. He draws applause for that. He stressed running and defense in those days, but he clearly hasn't found the right type of system to take Cutler to the level he was at in Denver. His job is on the line now. It's a tough spot.

Q: The Lions had a lot of success last year in the draft, and I believe that was because of the individual workouts they had with each player. So, how much impact will coaching the Senior Bowl have on the Lions' draft?

Gary in Middlebury, Ind.

A: This will be a great help from the second round and thereafter. The San Francisco 49ers had two very good drafts during the two years Mike Nolan and his staff coached the Senior Bowl. Having those players in meetings all week, studying their character, and then seeing how they respond on the field is invaluable. It may not help as much in the first round because half of the players who will go in that round are underclassmen or elected not to be in the Senior Bowl. The Lions had a very solid draft last year -- coaching the Senior Bowl will help them do even better this year.

Q: I read your article on the 10 greatest QBs. Loved it. And agree with all of them. As a total Saints homer, what will Drew Brees have to do to get onto that list? He already has some amazing accolades.

Liam in New Orleans

A: That's a tough task because he would have to be a Hall of Fame quarterback and it takes almost 10 years of great play to achieve such a status. Look at Kurt Warner -- as great as he has been, he needed this great season to put him over the top and be considered a Hall of Famer. I think he's there now. A Super Bowl ring would help Brees. Four or five more years playing at this level can do it. Brees is already in rare territory, but the longer he plays at this level, the better his chances of becoming a Hall of Famer.

Q: You said that the percentage of passes from the shotgun went from 26 percent five years ago to 56 percent this year. Doesn't that make the argument that Tim Tebow is not well suited to the NFL game a myth because experts argue he took almost no snaps under center?

Joe in Atlanta

A: Most of the quarterbacks coming out of college now come from spread formations in which they played mostly out of shotgun. Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger were able to make quick adjustments. Taking almost no snaps from center isn't an indictment of Tebow -- he has time to learn the NFL game. The knock against him is accuracy. If he doesn't improve his delivery, he won't be a successful quarterback. Watch the Senior Bowl practices -- when he throws, his arm drops to his hip and he has an elongated delivery. That's more concerning than a few dropped snaps from center. He'll work hard enough to improve the center exchange, but I don't know if he can fix his delivery and accuracy.

Q: Let me first start by saying that I am a huge Peyton Manning fan, so my opinion may be a bit biased. But you ranked Manning as the No. 8 quarterback of all time. Are you kidding me? I realize that it is your opinion, but I have to say that that is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard.

Matthew in Honolulu

A: I'm glad you wrote. Understand, I have to put what I see in perspective with what is there, and remember, Manning is still in the middle of his career. I believe he will end up in the top three, but you can't yet put him ahead of Tom Brady in an era in which they played each other and Brady has three Super Bowl titles compared with Manning's one. In the end, I believe he will beat out Brett Favre and Dan Marino for career passing statistics. I still believe he will win two more Super Bowls.

Q: I've been a Seahawks fan for quite some time now. I think they should draft Sam Bradford if he's there. Agree?

Jeff in Williamsburg, Ohio

A: I don't think the Seahawks will have a chance at Bradford unless they trade up to the third pick in the draft. I think Bradford is going to the Redskins. The interesting debate is whether the Seahawks should consider taking Jimmy Clausen at No. 6. Last year, a segment of the fan base believed the Seahawks should have taken Mark Sanchez instead of Aaron Curry. If you think Clausen is as good as Sanchez, that might be the pick.

Q: With the Bengals lacking a legitimate deep passing threat, how do you see them filling that void? The WR draft class seems underwhelming, but there are a few big-name players available through free agency or trades.

William in Cincinnati

A: They probably have to get the deep threat in the draft, which might be tough. The big-name free agents -- Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson -- will be restricted free agents if there is an uncapped year. I don't think they will trade for Marshall or Anquan Boldin, who doesn't offer them the deep speed. That leaves them with only the draft to find answers to the separation problem at wide receiver, which was very apparent once they lost Chris Henry.

Q: Why aren't the 49ers brought up as one of the teams in the market for Brandon Marshall? They have two first-round picks and a need for a true No. 1 receiver. It would be more productive to trade a first-round pick for a proven pro than giving tons of money to an unproven rookie. What do you think?

Orlando in Benicia, Calif.

A: Orlando, did you miss the selection of Michael Crabtree? He is the true No. 1 receiver the 49ers have been seeking. He looked great last year and will be even better in 2010. They need help on the offensive line and in the secondary. They have pretty well firmed up the idea of going into next season with Alex Smith as their starting quarterback and Shaun Hill as the backup. There is no need to trade for Marshall when they have the perfect split end in Crabtree.

Q: Any chance the Titans land themselves a solid receiver in free agency?

Robert in New York City

A: I believe the Titans are out of the receiver market because of their two main catches in 2009 -- first-round pick Kenny Britt and free-agent acquisition Nate Washington. Those were nice finds. Britt has big-play ability, and Washington has nice elusiveness once he catches the ball. You are never going to see a Jeff Fisher team air it out with a lot of passes to wide receivers. His philosophy is to run the ball well and play great defense. They will always have a balanced attack. The fact that they added two receivers who are young should keep them solid for the next couple of years.

Q: There are a lot of spread offenses in college. Why don't colleges implement more pro-style schemes?

Gerard in Cork, Ireland

A: What is best for college may not be best for the pros. The spread works well in college because there aren't enough cornerbacks to match up with the receivers, so smart offensive coaches just send receivers into routes and have quarterbacks throw to them in spots. Receivers in college don't have to learn the entire route tree. In the old days, the wishbone didn't translate into the NFL, but it worked for colleges and that was fine by them. When you get to the pros, the cornerbacks are the best of the best, so receivers not only have to learn all the routes, they have to learn the adjustments as they run those routes. It's not as though college and the pros are two different games, but you can't blame the colleges for not worrying about how things translate into the pros for the players. The college teams worry about one thing -- winning games.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer