Nolan, Crennel could struggle with move to 3-4

OK, so it isn't exactly the football equivalent of "That '70s Show," we agree.

But with most of the dust having settled now in the NFL's annual offseason coaching carousel, it appears at least seven franchises in 2005 will employ the 3-4 defense as their principal "base" front. Three more clubs figure to incorporate the 3-4 scheme part-time into their overall defensive philosophies and one of those could still switch full-time to the three-man front.

That represents the most potential 3-4 franchises since the defense was all the rage in the '70s, when approximately three-quarters of the clubs swore by it, and it is an increase of three teams from the 2004 campaign. The net gain of plus-three for the defense can be attributed, in part, to the elevation of defensive coordinators Romeo Crennel and Mike Nolan, at Cleveland and San Francisco, respectively, to head coaching positions. Two other teams, Denver and Dallas, have also decided to add the 3-4 to their repertoire. The Broncos may yet decide to change to the 3-4 as their "base" defense.

In fact, the only 3-4 team from last season that will switch to the more standard 4-3 front in 2005 is Baltimore, where Rex Ryan has supplanted Nolan as the coordinator.
So why the sudden re-emergence of a scheme that, a few years ago, seemed permanently consigned to the NFL trash bin?

"It's a great equalizer," said Nolan, who installed the 3-4 in Baltimore in 2003, after he supplanted Marvin Lewis as the coordinator there. "There still aren't that many teams using it, so it presents a challenge for offenses that have to prepare for it. And it's very flexible and allows you to do a lot of things."

Nolan last week hired Billy Davis, who in 13 league seasons has never before been a coordinator, to run his defense. Davis got the job, in part, because his principal area of expertise has been linebackers, the key to any 3-4 front. And he has extensive experience in the scheme, having worked on staffs with notable 3-4 proponents like Bill Cowher, Dom Capers and Wade Phillips.

Of the six franchises that deployed in the 3-4 as a "base" defense in 2004, all of them in the AFC, three were division winners and the New England Patriots, of course, claimed a third Super Bowl title in four seasons. Three of those teams finished in the top six in the league in fewest points surrendered and a fourth ranked 11th in that category. Three of the teams – Pittsburgh (No. 1), Baltimore (No. 6) and the Patriots (No. 9) – ranked among the NFL's top 10 statistical defenses.

Five of the six full-time 3-4 teams in '04 had takeaway differentials of plus-five or better and four of those teams were in the top 10. On balance, the 3-4 defenses made a lot more big plays than they surrendered.

Little wonder that Denver coordinator Larry Coyer, despite a unit that statistically was the fourth-best in the NFL, is seriously considering a switch to the 3-4. Or that New York Jets coordinator Donnie Henderson will once again use the 3-4 as a complement and that Dallas coach Bill Parcells will increase its presence in the Cowboys defensive playbook. The only full-time 3-4 franchise that failed miserably in 2004, the Oakland Raiders, hope that a second campaign under coordinator Rob Ryan and enhanced familiarity with the scheme will provide the kind of results other clubs are realizing.

"You look around," said Raiders linebacker Tyler Brayton, a onetime defensive end who was moved to a stand-up position in the 3-4, "and see what other teams are doing with it, and it's easy to see its potential. There are a lot of good elements to it."

One element that will bear watching in 2005 is how rapidly Nolan and Crennel can make it work with units that, in 2004, ranked 24th and 15th, respectively, and which seem to be missing some key personnel components.

In San Francisco, there is considerable linebacker strength with which to work, assuming that "franchise" player Julian Peterson returns from the Achilles injury that scuttled his 2004 season, and can rejoin a standout group that includes Jamie Winborn, Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith. Because of his enormous athletic skills and his hybrid football persona, Peterson is particularly compelling for Nolan, who could easily craft a more attacking role for one of the NFL's most well-rounded strongside linebackers.

San Francisco has struggled in the past to parcel out playing time for the four 'backers, but all of them would be starters in the 3-4 scheme.

The dicey situation for Nolan is that the 49ers appear to lack the kind of defensive linemen that are needed to play the 3-4 front effectively. Young veterans Isaac Sopoaga and Anthony Adams might be able to convert to the nose tackle spot. But there is some question about whether 11-year veteran and longtime Pro Bowl performer Bryant Young will be able to successfully move to the strongside end spot.

The 3-4 demands much bigger ends than does the 4-3 front, but Young has always played inside, where his quickness provided him an instant advantage over the more ponderous offensive guards he was matched up against. The other end, former first-rounder Andre Carter, is a 265-pounder who might not be able to anchor against the run in the 3-4 front, and who might have to be used as a linebacker.

In Cleveland, for Crennel, the questions are more about the linebackers than the linemen. Most observers felt in 2004 that the Cleveland linebacker corps was one of the worst in the league. It is shy of both talent, depth and playmakers, and Crennel probably will have to revamp much of the unit.

He will also have to divine how to reshape a defensive line group comprised mostly of 4-3 players. Can the underachieving Gerard Warren, a tackle who has always preferred to be a one-gap player, morph into an effective nose tackle? Will oft-injured end Courtney Brown be able to hang in against the run at 270 pounds or should Crennel attempt to have him shed a little weight and use him as a linebacker? Tackle Orpheus Roye, who played in the 3-4 at Pittsburgh in his first NFL stint, likely will do well at end, but the Browns line is going to have to make some overall alterations, and Crennel will discover quickly he isn't working from the same talent base he had in New England.

Crennel, though, is set on installing the 3-4 scheme and continuing to seek disciples who will buy into the success the defense has enjoyed elsewhere.

"It's been good to me and, if the players work hard and accept the concepts, it will be good for them, too," he said. "I don't think you can argue about its success."

Which is why, while the 3-4 defense will probably never return to the preponderance of the '70s, continues to find new converts.

Around the league
• After a couple of weeks at home in California, quarterback J.P. Losman arrived back at the Buffalo Bills complex this week to begin offseason workouts, and there is a pretty good reason why the 2004 first-round pick is suddenly the team's early bird in the weight room. The decision has essentially already been made by Bills officials, several sources told ESPN.com, that Losman, who missed much of his rookie season recovering from a broken leg suffered in training camp, will be the starter in 2005. In fact, it is believed that Buffalo officials have apprised Drew Bledsoe of the plan to elevate the former Tulane star to the top of the depth chart and are giving the 12-year veteran some time to consider the ramifications of the move, and to determine if he wants to return to the Bills as the backup. Bledsoe is due a $1.05 million roster bonus in early March, and a base salary of $3.3 million for 2005, and has a salary cap charge of $6 million-plus. The Bills seem to feel they have gone about as far as they can with Bledsoe, and view the success of Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh this season as validation that you can win with a young quarterback when you surround him with solid talent. Losman appeared in just four games in 2004, all cameos, and threw only five passes. But head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff are enamored of the former Tulane signal caller, both from a physical and intangibles standpoint, and are ready to make the transition. As for Bledsoe, well, the Bills maintain a great deal of respect for the veteran and want to do right by him. There has been some speculation that the Dallas Cowboys might be interested in Bledsoe, who began his NFL career under Bill Parcells at New England in 1993 and at 33 is eight years younger than Vinny Testaverde. Then again, Bledsoe might prefer to be released, and then choose his own landing spot for 2005. If he did wind up in Dallas, there would be some irony to such a relocation. It was the Cowboys who dealt Buffalo a first-round pick in the '04 draft, and the extra selection was used by the Bills to grab Losman. It should be noted, in the case of Bledsoe and other veterans suddenly on the bubble with their teams, that players cannot be officially released until Feb. 22.

• That Feb. 22 date means that another veteran quarterback whose current team will move in a different direction, Jeff Garcia of the Cleveland Browns, has less than two weeks until he is handed a pink-slip by the team that last spring signed him to a four-year, $25 million contract. Truth be told, given the rebuilding job that will be promulgated by new Browns general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel, being released probably will be a good thing for Garcia, who will find a market for his services. Things never did work out for Garcia during his one-year tenure in Cleveland. The Browns never installed the offense they had promised him. ESPN.com has confirmed that Browns officials had promised Garcia they would bring in Bill Walsh as a consultant to help with the transition to a West Coast-style design, and that never happened. The offensive line disintegrated because of injuries and the running game was sporadic. Garcia didn't help himself, of course, by going public with his criticisms of the offense. And there were a number of off-field issues that made him a convenient target as well. But teams would be wise to go back and take a look at Garcia's performance in an Oct. 24 home loss to Philadelphia. Hard to believe, given the way in which the Browns season ended, but Cleveland was 3-3 going into that game. Garcia played exceptionally, completing 21 of 32 attempts for 236 yards against a Super Bowl-caliber defense, in a 34-31 defeat. For his career, Garcia has an 87.2 quarterback rating, has completed 61.0 percent of his passes and has 123 touchdown passes versus only 65 interceptions. Sure, Garcia will be 35 later this month. Yep, he's probably got to be in a system conducive to his talents. But the guy may not be quite as far over the hill as some Cleveland critics would contend. The bet here (with a little inside knowledge) is that Garcia will be of interest to a couple teams once he is officially released.

• Once the Browns cut ties to Garcia, where will they go for a quarterback, at least one to get them through the spring? Cleveland will make a concerted effort in coming weeks to re-sign Kelly Holcomb, the eight-year veteran who actually opened the 2003 season as the starter, and who is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Holcomb, 31, likely would be interested in returning to Cleveland, because he might have a chance to start there. The only other quarterbacks under contract to the Browns, youngsters Luke McCown and Josh Harris, aren't ready to be the starter. With the third overall selection in the draft, Cleveland could opt to take a quarterback, but the Browns still need a veteran on-hand. And for Holcomb, it might be the best gig available.

• It hasn't garnered much publicity, but the NFL has ended its relationship with Levitra, the drug for erectile dysfunction, and an officially licensed league sponsor for the past two seasons. Seems the league had grown uncomfortable with the direction of the Levitra commercials and marketing initiatives and opted to cut ties after two years of a three-year agreement. In so doing, the league forfeited $6 million of the $18 million contract. "It just wasn't working out the way we felt it would," acknowledged league vice president of communications Greg Aiello. "(The marketing) had gone in a direction that we didn't feel was consistent with what we wanted. The original plan had been to market it as a 'men's health' product, but it moved on to something beyond that." The manufacturer, pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, can still buy commercial time on NFL games, of course, but will no longer be a league sponsor. Aiello said that the Levitra commercials had ceased displaying the NFL "shield" or logo a while ago. But the "shield" and the claim that Levitra is "an official sponsor of the NFL" remains on its web site.

  • Read a column in a Fort Worth (Tex.) newspaper last week that suggested the failure of former Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first time as a finalist "smelled of a conspiracy." What really smells, I can attest as one of the 39 Hall of Fame selectors, are the charges that there is anti-Cowboys bias among the voters, that there is some insidious and sinister plan to ignore the achievements of former Dallas players. There is, flat-out, no truth to the suggestions that voters plot to keep out former Dallas and New York Giants players. There are, no doubt, a few of the voters who have fueled the charges with their post-selection remarks. Those selectors ought to go back and revisit the Hall of Fame's confidentiality by-laws.

    • You've got to love the chutzpah of Rick Neuheisel, the former college coach (most recently at the University of Washington), who was hired by the Baltimore Ravens a few weeks ago as the team's new quarterbacks coach. At his trial in Seattle this week, at which Neuheisel is claiming wrongful termination by the Huskes and seeking to regain lost wages, he spoke of his 2003 interview with the San Francisco 49ers. You remember, the interview he initially claimed never took place, and for which he ripped a couple of ESPN and ESPN.com staffers for reporting? Neuheisel contended that he had been on a ski weekend at Sun Valley while he was actually interviewing with then-San Francisco general manager Terry Donahue for the right to replace Steve Mariucci as head coach. Well, both Neuheisel and his attorney strongly suggested this week that he was actually offered the 49ers job (which eventually went to Dennis Erickson), that Donahue had discussed a salary approaching $3 million annually, but that Neuheisel then removed himself from consideration because of his commitment to the university. In testimony under oath, Neuheisel further told the jury that, prior to his interview, Donahue told him that the only way he wouldn't get the job is if he punched the owner in the nose. The guy really struggles, we can tell you, with details. The truth is -- and this came directly, at the time, from one of the San Francisco people involved in the coaching search -- that 49ers people knew five minutes into the interview of Neuheisel that he wasn't the right guy for the job. In fact, the 49ers official used the term "in over his head" to describe how poor a fit Neuheisel was for an NFL head coaching job at that point in his career.

    • William Fuller. Remember the name? Terrific defensive end for the Houston Oilers, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers, and a guy selected for multiple Pro Bowl appearances. Fuller retired following the 1998 season with the Chargers so, after six seasons away from the game, why is his name suddenly relevant? Because Philadelphia team president Joe Banner, arguably the NFL's premier salary cap manager, cited Fuller last week as the reason the club changed its negotiating policies. The Eagles are famous now for signing "nucleus" players to extensions well before their current contracts lapse, and Banner recalled Fuller's exit from the Eagles in the spring of 1997 as the primary motivating factor for adopting such an approach. "He was a player we really wanted to keep," Banner said. "We were competitive (financially), but he left anyway, and it was a big loss for us. So I went back and really studied the cap, came up with a plan to try to eliminate as best we could losing players we wanted around. We haven't really lost many big-time players, guys we wanted here, since (Fuller) left." Look for the Eagles to make a few key strikes in free agency again this offseason. They might not make the big splashes they did a year ago, when Philadelphia acquired defensive end Jevon Kearse and wide receiver Terrell Owens, but the Eagles could add a few pieces to the puzzle. "Last year really wan't a huge deviation from our basic philosophy," Banner said. "In the past, we have gone after some major (free agents) and signed them. But we feel that we've got a pretty good group in place here now."

    • Want a prime example of how good the Eagles have been at choosing players, identifying the youngsters they want to keep for the long-term, and then negotiating extensions with them? Look no further than two-year wide receiver Greg Lewis, a former undrafted college free agent unearthed by personnel director Tom Heckert and his staff, and the guy who will render the mouthy Freddie Mitchell expendable this offseason. In three playoff games, Lewis averaged 22.8 yards on eight receptions. He had catches of 52, 45 and 30 yards, the last coming in the waning minutes of Super Bowl XXXIX, a touchdown grab that pulled the Eagles to within three points of New England. Lewis, who played collegiately at Illinois and who had just six catches as a rookie, figures to play a far more significant role in the Philadelphia offense in 2005. A big enough role, likely, for the Eagles to dump Mitchell and the headaches that accompany him.

    • As reported in this space two weeks ago, the Eagles on Thursday afternoon exercised the "franchise" tag on defensive end Corey Simon, rather than allow him to perhaps exit as an unrestricted free agent. It will be interesting now to see how Philadelphia deals with its other defensive starters who can be free agents. Jeremiah Trotter, who essentially had to beg the Eagles to re-sign him last summer and who earned a Pro Bowl spot despite starting only nine games, desperately wants to return. He also wants much more than the $535,000 minimum base salary he made in '04, but the Eagles are philosophically opposed to overpaying for a middle linebacker, a position they do not organizationally feel is a premium spot. End Derrick Burgess had three sacks in the postseason, and likely created a pretty healthy market for himself, and time will tell if the Eagles can keep him around. Philadelphia has been good to Burgess, keeping him around for two seasons that were basically lost to foot injuries, but there will be teams willing to reward the very active end with pretty solid contract proposals.

    • About a month ago, we opined in the "Tip Sheet' that teams seeking a proven pass rusher in free agency might do well to look at New Orleans veteran end Darren Howard. The assessment was based on the supposition that the Saints, who used the "franchise" marker to keep Howard around in 2004, wouldn't exercise the tag again on him. And that with former first-round ends Charles Grant and Will Smith as the starters, and Howard relegated to playing tackle over the second half of the season, New Orleans would not attempt to retain the five-year veteran. And now we say: Oops. It now seems, we have learned, that the Saints might slap the franchise tag on Howard for a second consecutive year, with no intentions of signing him to a long-term deal. It will cost the Saints a whopping $7.8 million (20 percent more than his "franchise" qualifying offer from a year ago) to "tag" Howard, but that seems to be the direction the club is headed. Despite just 12 starts in '04, and having lost time to injury, Howard still posted a team-best 11 sacks, tying his career high. Its glut of defensive ends aside, New Orleans realizes how tough it is to find proven pass rushers, and how you can never have enough of them.

    • One more, well, actually two more reasons, why Mike Lombardi of the Oakland Raiders is the best personnel man that only the most hard-core fans and some media members know about: Very quietly and with no announcement from the club, Lombardi signed defensive end Mark Word and safety Marquis Smith to minimum-salary contracts this week. The two former Cleveland defenders, neither of whom played a single snap in the NFL in 2004, might not even make it to training camp. But they are indicative of the kind of intriguing players, guys who are flying under the radar screen, that Lombardi always seems to unearth. Word, who last played in the league in 2003, had 12 sacks in 32 games for the Browns as a part-time pass rusher. The former Jacksonville State star is 29 and, clearly has some rust, but it never hurts to take a look at a player with obvious pass-rush skills. Smith was a third-round pick in Cleveland in 1999, the Browns' first season back in the league as an expansion team, and played 46 games in three years. The guy was a physical specimen, a player who definitely passed the "eyeball test," but never quite played up to his press clippings. He bounced back and forth between strong safety and weakside linebacker, and even the Raiders probably aren't certain yet exactly what he is, but there is no denying his athleticism. Butch Davis eventually released Smith and the former University of California standout failed to stick with Carolina in 2003. But his new agent, Ronald Todd, got him a contract in Oakland and a second chance at having a career in the NFL. The odds are against both Word and Smith, for sure, but Lombardi has turned such modest investments into solid contributors in the past. He'll sign players some other teams won't even consider auditioning and, on occasions, such gambits will pay dividends. And, let's face it, given the sorry state of the Raiders, they've got nothing to lose in getting a free look at players such as Smith and Word.

    Punts: The Green Bay Packers have hired former Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill to replace Edgar Bennett as director of player development. Bennett recently moved to the coaching staff to replace the venerable Johnnie Roland as running backs assistant. ... The Washington Redskins continue to make no headway in their attempts to ameliorate the fat cap charge for left offensive tackle Chris Samuels. The team would like to lower the cap value by extending his contract, but Samuels and agent Jimmy Sexton don't seem inclined to finish a deal. ... Several teams have indicated an interest in Arizona offensive tackle L.J. Shelton, the former first-rounder who last week was given permission by the Cardinals to seek a trade. ... Despite rumors to the contrary, New York Giants offensive lineman Barry Stokes, who missed the entire '04 season with a back injury, does not plan to retire. ... New York Jets coach Herm Edwards said this week that he will consider re-signing Quincy Carter as a backup if the troubled quarterback doesn't find an opportunity to start elsewhere. And in a potential hint of the Jets' interest in acquiring Randy Moss in a trade, Edwards also noted that he would have no problem handling the petulant wide receiver. ... What you should know about a potential Moss trade: Some of the Minnesota executives who are dismissing the likelihood of a deal have been the media's best sources in detailing plans to dump Moss in the offseason. ... The league likely will move the 2005 draft from Madison Square Garden. The Dolan family, which operates MSG and which opposes the Jets' plans for a new stadium, recently bid $600 million for the tract on the West Side of Manhattan that is the proposed site for a Jets facility.

    The last word: "The thing that was very interesting to me, intriguing to me, is his success over the years in dealing with the younger players, the 19-, 20-, 21- and 22-year-old players, year after year in a pro-style offense that has really been unmatched. Very few mistakes. He directs a player-friendly offense that can be as complicated as you want it to be, or as simple as you want it to be, on a weekly basis. We felt that we know the direction our offense wants to go and I felt, without question in my mind, that he's the right guy to get us there." -- Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher on the hiring of Southern California offensive coordinator Norm Chow

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.