When the Denver Broncos take the field Sunday in New York, they'll be doing so without a player who had been a vital part of their defensive efforts for the last half-decade. And while players get lost to injury or cut for cap reasons all the time, the story of how Denver came to be without star pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the strangest sequences of the off-season.
Denver wanted their "Gloom and Doom" pass rush tandem of Dumervil (Doom, presumably) and Von Miller intact for 2013, but Doom was going to need to take a pay cut. Denver and Dumervil's agent, Marty Magid, went back and forth for more than a week before finally agreeing to cut Dumervil's 2013 base salary from $12 million to $8 million.
And then, things got weird.
As well as the story can be reconstructed, Dumervil assented to the new deal about 35 minutes before the 4 p.m. negotiating deadline. But with Magid in his office in Philadelphia and Dumervil in Miami, logistics got a tad tricky. Somehow, it fell to Dumervil to find a Miami Kinkos to fax his signed contract to Denver, and said fax failed to arrive at Broncos HQ until six minutes after the deadline. At 3:59, the Broncos informed the league that they were cutting Dumervil rather than face a $13 million-plus cap charge for the season. When the story broke, a basic set of questions erupted, such as:
- Is fax technology the best way for billion-dollar organizations to consummate multi-million dollar deals in 2013?
- While Miami > Philly in March, would it maaaaybe have been worth Dumervil's time to be on hand with his agent as negotiations reached the critical stage?
- Was part of the delay due to the fact that Magid was wearing his pants on his head?
Magid was promptly fired by Dumervil and later fined and suspended by the Players' Association for his role in the fiasco, and Elvis himself ended up signing a five-year, $35 million (with incentives) deal with the Ravens after spurning the Broncos' subsequent attempt to bring him back into the fold.
Regardless of who's to shoulder what portion of the blame for the bizarre blunder, Denver found itself without one of the league's top pass rushers as they started the 2013 season. They've overcome that handicap to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but what was the season-long impact of losing Dumervil and how will his absence impact their chances on February 2nd?
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First off, it's important to take a look at the Broncos' overall cap situation in the context of their 2013 roster moves. Per the latest figures available at OverTheCap.com, Denver ended up with a 2013 cap spend of $120.9 million, leaving them with just over $6.6 million in cap room. Had they brought Dumervil back at his original $12 million base salary, they'd have been over the cap with all their other offseason moves held constant. But had Denver successfully inked (or lasered, or whatever goes onto a facsimile transmission) Dumervil to the agreed-upon pay cut, they would only have seen a net $4.75 million increase in their cap (factoring in the original contract's pro-rated bonus money against the $4.8 million dead money figure that Dumervil ended up slapping on their cap this year).
Denver's impact offseason acquisitions -- corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, receiver Wes Welker and defensive tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton -- were already signed four days prior to the fax fiasco, so it's not as if the Dumervil Dollar Delta "freed up" resources to make those moves. The surplus cash arguably enabled some lower-impact additions like Quentin Jammer and Paris Lenon, as well as freeing some extra 2013 dollars to be thrown in to left tackle Ryan Clady's big-money extension.
But in terms of on-field impact for this year's Broncos, the assessment really comes down to Dumervil versus Shaun Phillips. Phillips was signed to a one-year deal in April, ostensibly as a backup to Von Miller though he ended up logging all of his snaps at Dumervil's vacated defensive end spot.
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So how has that swap worked out for Denver?
The NFL is a pass-first league, so any roster changes should be evaluated first and foremost on their pass-game impact. Phillips' season looks solid at first glance, as his top-line figure of 11 sacks wasn't too far off from Dumervil's three-year average of 13.7 from 2009-2012 (Dumervil missed the 2010 season with a torn pec). But sacks only tell part of the story for any pass rusher.
Fortunately, the Pro Football Focus boys have plenty of time on their hands to dig deeper into advanced metrics, and their Pass Rushing Productivity score is a great measure of total pass rush impact -- factoring in a rusher's sacks, QB hits and pressures against their total number of pass rush opportunities. Dumervil averaged a 10.1 percent PRP score from 2009-12 (and logged a tremendous 15.1% this year in Baltimore) against Phillips' 8.6 percent mark for the Broncos this season. What's more, Phillips' ability to get hands on the QB seemed to tail off as the season went on -- he logged a combined 12 sacks or QB hits in the season's first 10 games while amassing a mere three during the final six contests. He did bag Philip Rivers twice in the Divisional Round, but on balance, it's fair to say that Denver suffered at least a moderate pass rush downgrade when Dumervil left town.
On the run side of the ledger, both PFF's Run ratings and the eyeball test confirm that Phillips brings more to the table as a run defender than Dumervil. Stout run defense has been a Denver staple this season even after the loss of Derek Wolfe, and every little bit helps when you're about to face Beast Mode. Taken in toto, Denver's secondary could be the determining factor in just how much the Broncos end up missing Dumervil against Seattle.
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Without Dumervil and Von Miller, the Broncos' pass rush has relied much more on delivering pass rush pressure along a broad front and bagging coverage sacks than it has on elite rushers quickly defeating blocks and ruining blocking schemes. Knighton and Malik Jackson have been an effective interior pass-rush tandem, but Denver's mediocre pass defense (ranked 21st by FootballOutsiders) reinforces that pressure often hasn't arrived swiftly enough to save a beleaguered secondary. The good news for Denver is that a healthy Champ Bailey played well in their defeat of the Patriots, and he may more than make up for the loss of slot corner Chris Harris Jr.
The Seahawks' roster of pass-catchers is just OK, and the biggest threat might come from Percy Harvin on the kinds of screens and hitches that the pass rush can't impact much anyways. A strong effort from the secondary could yield some coverage sacks, but you want to get as much heat as possible on a guy who's as mobile and creative as Russell Wilson. If Shaun Phillips and the rest of the Broncos' front can keep Wilson in the pocket and prevent him from creating his special brand of downfield magic on broken plays, Denver has the advantage to carrying the day and Lombardi Trophy. If they can't, the Broncos could find themselves wishing that a faulty fax hadn't taken Elvis out of the building.