You’ve often heard the adage that football games are won in the trenches, but how true is this axiom when it comes to winning championships?
I decided to take a deep dive into the financial commitment to offensive and defensive lines across the NFL over the past five years. The idea recently sparked in mind with all the media attention that the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive line has received regarding how much of the cap is allotted to the team’s deepest unit.
The Jaguars currently have $60.6 million dollars (31.37 percent of the cap) allocated to 13 defensive lineman, which is a staggering amount especially considering that their most explosive edge rusher, Yannick Ngakoue, is still operating on a third round rookie contract. While this is a league-leading amount by a wide margin (only the Bucs and Eagles have at least $50+ million invested), the Jaguars rank 24th in money allocated to their offensive line ($29.4 million; 15.22 percent of the cap) despite shelling out the second-richest offensive guard contract in the NFL to Andrew Norwell in free agency.
If you add these sums together, that’s a jaw-dropping $90 million that Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell have committed to the trenches.
For Coughlin, however, this is hardly a foreign trend. Dating back to his Super Bowl wins in 2007 and 2011, Coughlin always invested in waves along the defensive line and offensive line talent. But is there a definitive correlation between trench spend and postseason success?
Based on research, the answer is, well, kind of.
When the Seattle Seahawks beat down the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl 48, Seattle led the NFL in trench spending with $59.7 million. The Seahawks were a dominant team in 2013 and one that many pundits have compared to this year’s Jaguars squad.
Staying with the Broncos, Denver finished the 2015 season ninth in trench spending with $43.1 million invested in line units that not only played a big role protecting Peyton Manning, but harassing Cam Newton and causing a Super Bowl-clinching fumble and recovery touchdown by Malik Jackson.
The Carolina Panthers finished sixth in trench spending that season on their way to their first Super Bowl appearance in 12 years.
Last year’s Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles? Second in trench spending with $63 million behind only Jacksonville ($67.9 million), who were minutes away from ice fishing for a trophy in Minnesota. Basically, unless your team has Tom Brady at quarterback to cover up roster deficiencies and Bill Belichick sorcery beneath the headset, some correlation between trench spending and making it to the big dance does seem to exist.
In addition to Super Bowl appearances, data also loosely suggests trench spend facilitates playoff appearances. Last season, five of the top seven spenders on the offensive and defensive lines made the playoffs, with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins being the exceptions. The Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, and New Orleans Saints were 11th, 12th, 13th, and 15th respectively, with the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Rams bucking the trend at 20th and 21st.
In 2016, the Miami Dolphins ($54.4 million) and Oakland Raiders ($54.3 million), two teams that haven’t had much playoff success in the past decade, both qualified for the postseason after leading the league in trench spending. The same held true for the Bengals and Cardinals in 2015, who finished second and third in trench spending with $50.7 million flooded into their lines.
Here’s the full spend tracking that I compiled:
Does an NFL team investing in its trenches mean they are destined to lift the Lombardi?
Not by a long shot.
Does it mean the Jaguars are making it to the Super Bowl this year?
In the words of our king: “You tell me.”