Type to search

By the Numbers: Top Defense or Top QB?

Aaron Rodgers: QB1

Ever since the Seattle Seahawks and their $750K a season quarterback opened a jar of whoop-ass on the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, there has been a lot of discussion regarding the worth of the franchise quarterback and whether having one is detrimental to the construction of a defense capable of winning a Super Bowl.

Actually, even before that disgrace, the thought had already been in my mind that a top-of-the-market quarterback and a championship-caliber defense may NOT be able to cohabitate within the same salary cap.  This is a rather easy conclusion to come to for Green Bay Packers fans, who have seen the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and possibly the Carolina Panthers all eclipse the Packers in the NFC. All three of those teams have dominating defenses and cheap quarterbacks still within the terms of their rookie contract.

It also is easy to accept the logic that the more money spent on the quarterback obviously means less money for the defense. However, other than the simple logic of it and the impression given by three teams, is there empirical evidence to suggest that paying your quarterback a top market salary hinders your chances of fielding a good defense?

I have put all the numbers together to help us find out.

Offensive Rank QB Average Salary Defensive Rank
1. Denver Broncos $19 million 19
2. Philadelphia Eagles $690,000 29
3. Green Bay Packers $22 million 25
4. New Orleans Saints $20 million 4
5. San Diego Chargers $15 million 23
6. Detroit Lions $17 million 16
7. New England Patriots $14 million 26
8. Chicago Bears $18 million 30
9. Washington Redskins $5.3 million 18
10. Cincinnati Bengals $1.3 million 3
11. Houston Texans $10 million 7

In this first table of numbers, I have listed the top 16 offenses in the league, the salary average that they are paying their quarterback, and the rank of their defense. This table clearly shows that if you want an offense in the top half of the league, then you will either be paying your quarterback over $10 million per season or you are lucky enough to have a quarterback who is still finishing out his rookie contract. It also shows that having a top offense is likely to mean having a bottom defense. Not only are 11 of the 16 top offenses paired with a defense in the bottom half, but that includes eight of the 10 worst defenses in the NFL.

If you just look at the top 10 offenses, eight of those 10 have defenses that are ranked in the bottom half. The Bengals are an exception to this, but they pay their quarterback peanuts. The New Orleans Saints are the anomaly in this entire exercise, but I at least partially consider them an aberration because Sean Payton’s suspension in 2012 landed them a favorable draft position for last season. That influx of talent along with a new defensive coordinator resulted in at least a temporary boost to their defense.

The performance of the Saints suggests that consistently drafting at the end of rounds might have just as big an impact on the defense as giving the quarterback the big contract does. The Packers themselves support this, considering that 2008 was the last time the Packers had a losing season and the following 2009 draft was the last time the Packers obtained a Pro Bowl player on defense.

Finally, I put the 2013 playoff teams in bold. As you can see, eight of the top 16 offenses made the playoffs. That means if your offense finished in the top half of the league, you had a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs. That also means if your offense finished in the bottom half, you had a 25 percent chance of making it.

Quarterback Salary Defensive Rank
Aaron Rodgers $22 million 25
Matt Ryan $21 million 27
Joe Flacco $20 million 12
Drew Brees $20 million 4
Peyton Manning $19 million 18
Jay Cutler $18 million 30
Tony Romo $18 million 32
Matthew Stafford $17 million 16
Eli Manning $16 million 8
Philip Rivers $15 million 23
Tom Brady $14 million 26

This second table is a more direct look at the evidence regarding whether having a top-paid quarterback usually means a poor defense. I have the 11 highest-paid quarterbacks in the league, which is essentially one-third of the starters, their salaries and the corresponding rank of their defense. The obvious answer here is — yes. Eight of the 11 have defenses ranked no better than 16th, and of those eight, six are among the 10 worst defenses in the NFL.

Ironically, two of the exceptions to the trend here — the Ravens and the Giants, have terrible offenses, even with their highly-paid quarterbacks. Thus, having good defenses still didn’t get them to the playoffs.

Defense QB Salary
1. Seattle Seahawks $749,000
2. Carolina Panthers $5.5 million
3. Cincinatti Bengals $1.3 million
4. New Orleans Saints $20 million
5. San Francisco 49ers $1.2 million
6. Arizona Cardinals $8 million
7. Houston Texans $10 million
8. New York Giants $16 million
9. Cleveland Browns $2 million
10. Buffalo Bills $2.2 million
11. New York Jets $1.2 million

This is simply looking at the same argument from the other direction. I have listed the top 11 defenses in 2013 and the salary of their starting quarterback. Again, only the Saints and Giants stand out as teams paying top money for a quarterback and yet managing to field a quality defense. In fact, seven of the top defenses have quarterbacks still on their rookie contract.

So, by the numbers, we have somewhat convincing, if perhaps inconclusive, evidence that paying your quarterback at the top of the market indeed does typically lead to a poor defense. If that is the case, then the question for every GM is which one is better? Is a team more likely to win it all with a top defense than with a top quarterback?

Does defense win championships?

Well, of those top 16 defenses in the league, only the top five made the playoffs in 2o13. That means that having a top-half defense gave you a 31 percent chance of making the playoffs, as compared to the 50 percent chance that a top-half offense had of making it. Of course, what happens when you make the playoffs? Do the defenses rise to the top?

Super Bowl Champ Defensive Rank Offensive Rank
Seattle Seahawks 1 17
Baltimore Ravens 17 16
New York Giants 27 8
Green Bay Packers 5 9
New Orleans Saints 25 1
Pittsburgh Steelers 1 22
New York Giants 7 16
Indianapolis Colts 21 3

For this final table, I listed the last eight Super Bowl winners and their ranking on each side of the ball. What this shows us is that at least empirically speaking, there is NO trend. Good, bad and mediocre defenses have won the Super Bowl, and good, bad, and mediocre offenses have won the Super Bowl. In fact, the 2010 Green Bay Packers are the only Super Bowl winner in the last eight years who had an offense and defense in the top 10. Every other champion was stronger on one side of the ball than on the other, and the Baltimore Ravens weren’t particularly great on either side last season.

That suggests to me that current NFL GMs have it right. A better quarterback gives you a better chance of having a better offense, which gives you a better chance of making the playoffs. Once you’ve made the playoffs, anything can happen. As Packers fans have seen, it is easier to get it right with one player than it is with 11. Therefore, teams will continue to pay their quarterbacks top dollar while hoping to cobble together a defense good enough for a playoff run.


Shawn Neuser attended UWGB and lives and works in Green Bay. He enjoys long walks on the beach and being intimate with game film.



  1. Richard February 18, 2014

    It’s probably worth pointing out that Seattle spent more money on offense than defense this past year. That obviously won’t hold up for very long and along with a Russell Wilson contract should bring them back down to earth.

  2. GBslacker February 18, 2014




  3. rebelgb February 18, 2014

    I have to say, even though I have voiced off in opposition of some of the points in the article; this may be the single most informative, to the point, and indisputable article I have ever seen on TP.

    I am not one to change my opinion easy but this break down cannot be argued against. Until we see a trend of defenses dominating the post season and the Super Bowl, Shawns article tells us that the post season is a horse a piece. And now i believe that.

  4. SA packerfan February 18, 2014

    Great article – I also tells me that the Pack needs to put most of the energy of change into the defense to go deeper into the playoffs. I have watched them not change the defense in any meaningful way in the last three years. So what the shit is going on?

  5. TyKo Steamboat February 18, 2014

    1st rd. draft picks – A.J. Hawk, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry & Datone Jones

    2nd rd. – Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward

    3rd rd. – Morgan Burnett

    1. Phatgzus February 19, 2014

      Add Mike Daniels and Josh Boyd to that list as well.

      1. TyKo Steamboat February 19, 2014

        I like the potential of Josh Boyd & the contributions of Jolly

        I put those names above on here because you’d think with 8 defenders drafted in the first 2 rounds of the draft dating back to 2006 that we’d be one of those “Top Defenses”

        Just can’t stay healthy. We missed Casey Hayward & Nick Perry a lot last season.

        1. Phatgzus February 19, 2014

          Agreed, we really can’t: Chronic hammy, knee/wrist, ankle, knee/various, ACL, acute hammy (x2).

          The defense did seem to be on it’s way to being a top 10 unit then they faltered for one or two games and injuries followed, maybe they would have been just as bad without all of the injuries, I’d like to think they would’ve been at least top half. maybe Burnett’s poor play was a result of not being 100%, suppose we can only wait until next year to find out and hope to God that half of our draft picks from the past 3 tears manage to survive more than half the year so we can actually get a decent appraisal of where the D is really at.

  6. Moolla February 19, 2014

    Shawn I just wish you had more frequent contributions.
    Random A-Rodg sightings and disproportioned plastic eye-candy pics are fine and all but we can do with more of the above.

  7. Vijay February 19, 2014

    Well done Shawn.
    “it is easier to get it right with one player than it is with 11”
    That to me was a key statement. Perhaps the most key. You have two different philosophies for building a Championship contender. One is old school, one if new-ish.

    Scenario #1: (Old School) Run the ball and hit passes off play action with a very good game manager at the helm; Play lights out defense by locking up man to man with a simple scheme and a small army of dominant pass rush players up front who constantly collapse the pocket and force mistakes or fumbles.

    Scenario #2: (New-ish school) High scoring and complex/ multiple set offense with an elite, rare QB who audibles more frequently than the run-first teams; Get a play maker at each level of the defense, disguise more blitzes, play more zone and create more INT turnovers from passing mistakes (hopefully).

    Since, as you pointed out, it’s harder to find all 11 over 1, I can understand why the Packers are continuing to go this route and remain competitive. That’s why adding a couple more play makers on D and a healthy Clay for a season might spell a return trip to the big show for the Pack!

    Thanks for the clarity.