3-4 vs. 4-3 Defense: Linebackers Rule?

Figure 1. Pearson correlation between regular season wins and salary cap spent on linebackers

As things slow down and we enter the offseason, the biggest questions for most teams revolve around player acquisition: Who should we draft? Which free agents should we pursue? How much cap flexibility should we preserve? 

These questions keep NFL front office executives up all night, and they got us thinking about whether the way in which teams allocate their money actually affects how they do. More specifically, we wondered what the relationship is between 1 teams’ distribution of available cap space across positions and team performance? To begin, we looked at the relationship between team spending per position and regular season and playoff wins (separately).

Strikingly, a single finding consistently emerged from these four different ways of slicing the data: Spending more on linebackers is significantly related to winning more games in the regular season (r  = .15 to .20) (Figure 1) and winning more playoff games (r  = .13 to .19)2. On average, teams that commit a greater percentage of their salary cap to linebackers win more games3. No other positional group showed these kinds of results.

% Cap Spent per LB    2.3%        1.8%
% Cap Spent per DL
Average Regular Season Wins per Year
Average Playoff Wins per Year    0.50        0.25

Upon reflection, this finding might make sense — some of the league’s successful teams of the past few years have prided themselves on strong linebacker play (e.g. the Ravens, 49ers, Packers, Panthers). However, as your undergrad stats professor told you — correlation does not equal causation. Thus, we dug a bit deeper into this relationship to see what exactly was going on. 

Differences in Defensive Scheme

One interesting possibility is that differences in defensive scheme may explain the relationship between linebacker pay and wins. For instance, linebackers play a more dynamic role in the 3-4 defense, so teams who run a 3-4 defense may invest more heavily in linebackers than teams who play a 4-3. Perhaps these 3-4 teams intuitively understand that investing in their linebackers will help them win more games.

On average, 3-4 defenses, spend more on linebackers and less on defensive lineman than 4-3 defenses. This allocation of resources, however, is beneficial — 3-4 teams win an average of 1 more game per season than 4-3 teams, and twice as many playoff games per season.

So, what’s the point?

These results are more than likely not saying, “spend more money on your linebackers and suddenly you’ll win more games.” A lot is going to depend on who your linebackers are. In reality these results might really be saying “invest in quality linebackers and thus pay them what they are worth.”

While quarterbacks and other offensive stars may get all the press, it appears that linebackers, one of the least publicized positions, may be the hidden gems. When deciding whether to spend the $7 million you have left under the cap on that TE with all-world potential who just needs the right offensive system (ahem…Jared Cook) or on a productive linebacker, consider bang for your buck. 

Teams that spend more on their linebackers tend to win more games — both in the regular season and playoffs. Similarly, teams who place a greater emphasis on their linebackers by running a 3-4 defense win more regular season and postseason games on average. 

Scout critically, train smart, and then pay your damn linebackers. For once, the Raiders might be onto something.

1 Bivariate Pearson’s correlation

2 While these relationships are not super strong, they are highly significant (all p’s < .01) in a relatively small sample (N = 288).

3 3-4 defense (100 team seasons) 4-3 defense (188 team seasons)

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