By: Chris Dagonas
Since 2000, when the Baltimore Ravens steamrolled all competition with their ferocious defense, the dogma in the NFL has been that Defense Wins Championships. The mantra was simple: build an elite defense, don’t allow yards or points, and you’ll lift the Lombardi Trophy come February.
The problem is, particularly in the past 5 years, this ideology is not supported by the statistics. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, in 2006, Roger Goodell became the commissioner of the NFL, and began shifting the focus of fans and referees from defense to offense. Pass interference calls were increased and quarterbacks were granted unprecedented protection. Not coincidentally, the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl that season, boasting a bottom-10 (yes, bottom-10!) defense. Only once since 2006 has the best defensive team won the Super Bowl (2008-09 Pittsburgh Steelers), while between 2000 and 2006, the best defensive team won the Super Bowl 3 times, and 2 other Super Bowl winners had top 3 defenses in their winning year.
Secondly, the growth of fantasy sports and NFL digital cable deals have led to a new star-worship of offensive players, particularly quarterbacks and running backs. The NFL knows it makes its bacon through TV deals and sponsorship. And what fan wants to watch a bunch of low-scoring, defensive minded affairs? This year’s experiment with Thursday night marquee matchups shows that people will watch, if given no other options, but those games have been terrible to watch. Imagine if the whole league looked like those Thursday Night games looked? Someone, point me to a basketball game, quick!
Can you name the starting quarterbacks that have been recent Super Bowl Winners? Of course you can! Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger. Now, can you name the middle linebackers, often considered the “quarterbacks” of the defense, for those same teams? I’ll wait… it’s much tougher, isn’t it? Sure, the serious NFL fan might have been able to come up with names like Clay Matthews or Jonathan Vilma. But by and large, these teams are built around their offenses, as is the entire NFL.
Not since Ray Lewis in 2000 can a defensive player be said to have been the true leader of a Super Bowl winning team. Ed Reed and Brian Urlacher have also been dominant players, but never won it all as the de facto leaders of their teams. Meanwhile, this season, J.J. Watt has grabbed early headlines as a defensive presence for the Texans, but still, just on his own team, Arian Foster, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson all outshine Watt.
Which rookies have garnered headlines this year? Obviously Luck and Griffin are the two easy answers. But we can also look at later offensive draft picks who have already become the centerpieces of their offenses. First, there is Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins, who has become a steady, if not spectacular, starting quarterback. Further down, Brandon Weeden is another in a long line of Cleveland Browns’ potential franchise quarterbacks. Last, and certainly not least, Doug Martin, Tampa Bay’s running back and possible Rookie of the Year candidate, was taken 31st overall, after more than a dozen defensive players, none of whom have made a significant impact just yet, in a league that continues to grow friendlier to offenses and sterner towards defenses.
A more important statistic to determine likely Super Bowl winners is point differential, which compares points scored to points against. Since 2000, of the 12 Super Bowl winners, only two have not been in the top 10 in Point Differential. Both of those were the New York Giants of 2007 and 2011, and everyone knows the Giants broke the mold in all sorts of ways when it comes to winning championships.
To maintain a successful point differential, teams have to maintain a balance between offense and defense. You do not have to be the very best team on defense, as may have been true in decades past, because resources allocated there are less valuable than those same resources (contracts, coaches, etc) allocated to the offensive side of the ball. This season, the 49ers currently hold the title of “best defense” (judging by fewest points allowed). The Bears are stealing the show, yes, but their loss to the Texans shows that offense does still play the larger role in the grand scheme. And don’t forget those Patriots, still quietly lurking, third in point differential and able to score a ton of points every week.
This is the NFL that Roger Goodell has given us, and though the adage that defense wins championships will continue to die hard, the statistics will continue to show that the best defense is a powerful offense.