Does Defense Win Championships?

So Super Bowl XVIII went exactly as expected. Opening safety. Broncos shut down. Seattle dominating.

Well, it wasn’t as expected, obviously. But if you listen to the Sports Media Twerps, we should have foreseen it because “defense wins championships”. If you put a great defense against a great offense, especially in the playoffs, the defense will win. Right?

Right?

Well, Joe Posnanski threw a little bit of cold water on this:

The ultimate sports cliche was trotted out again and again on Sunday: Defense wins championships. I don’t believe that’s actually true. Great defense certainly CAN win championships but great offense can too. For every dominant defense like Seattle, I can point to a dominant offense like Kurt Warner’s Rams team; you talk about the great defense of the 2008 Steelers, I point to the great offense of the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

But I think there is SOMETHING to the cliche, and it’s this: We do often forget the power of great defense. Great offense is easier to see, easier to understand, easier to build up in our imaginations. I think it was easier to imagine the Broncos scoring a lot of points against Seattle because we saw them score so many points all year; those touchdowns are vibrant in our minds. So then we watch a great defense dominate the way the Seahawks’ did, and it’s jolting, it’s visually gripping, and we think: “Great defense is better than great offense. Great defense wins championships.”

And the next time a great offense comes along, we start the whole process over.

I would rephrase that a little bit. Great offenses capture our attention. So when they flop in the playoffs, we notice. Great defenses, unless they are historically great, tend to be missed. So when they flop in the playoffs, we don’t notice.

This tendency has been exacerbated the last few years because of the changes in the game. Every year, records are being set for scoring so whichever offense happens to be the best is hailed as the greatest offense of all time. This is clearly insane. If Jerry Rice’s 49ers — who led the league in scoring six times and won two Super Bowls in those years — were around today, they would be putting up similar numbers. The game has changed. And that tends to warp our perception. So when we see record-setting offenses stopped in the Super Bowl, we immediately jump to the conclusion that defense wins championships. After all, if Manning’s record-shattering offense can’t win the big game, that must mean offense is over-rated, right?

I wanted to look at this systematically and without a bias toward recent years. So I went through all 48 NFL post-seasons and tracked the records of the league’s best offenses and best defenses. I kept it simple, just looking at total points. Doubtless, someone like Football Outsiders can use a more sophisticated metric, but I wanted to do this in a couple of hours with a web browser and a spreadsheet.

So does defense win championships?

  • The league’s best offenses were 65-33 in the post-season. The league’s best defenses were 66-33. So, defense doesn’t win championships.
  • Or maybe it does. Top offenses were 10-12 in the Super Bowl while top defenses were 14-5. When the two have faced off, the top defenses were 4-1.
  • Or maybe not. Overall, top defenses were more likely to fall in the divisional and wild card rounds. Outside of the Super Bowl, top offenses were 3-3.
  • Or maybe it does. There have been some great offenses — Fouts’ Chargers, Marino’s Dolphins, Kelly’s Bills, the Patriots of the last seven years — that have failed to win championships.
  • Or not. Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters didn’t win a title. Atlanta’s great ’78 defense didn’t even make the playoffs. The early 80′s Eagles couldn’t win one. Chicago won the Super Bowl in ’86, but that year they also had a great offense. They didn’t make the Super Bowl again despite having the best defense in two of the next three years. New Orleans had a great defense in the early 90′s that went nowhere.
  • Or maybe it does. In the last 15 years, the top defense has won five Super Bowls while the top offense has won one.
  • or maybe not. During the 90′s, the top offense won five Super Bowls in nine years while the top defense won twice. And one of those years, the top offense and defense was the same team.
  • My point is that you can cherry-pick these data all you want to make any point you want. But based on looking at all the data, I would say that Joe is right. Defense doesn’t win championships; but it can. So can offense. You could make a slight case that when defense is at a premium, having a great defense can give a team an advantage (as it has for the last decade). And when offense is at a premium, having a great offense can give a team an advantage. But in the end, there are many ways to win a Super Bowl. The best way is to be good at everything.

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