Recently, we saw the old adage "Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships" raised once again in the course of football discussions as various fans sought to advance their case as to why their teams had the "best" shot at going all the way. It has been seen in various media (print, video, social, etc). It has shown up in casual football conversations.
One of the more interesting things about the saying is that no-one seems to be able to determine exactly where it came from. Some people attribute it to legendary college football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant Jr. It has also been attributed to college basketball coach Dave Thorson. Depending on where you look, you can find other people being given credit for it. The point is, it has become widely used and an often accepted truism -- even in the NFL.
The question raised among the Water Cooler Quarterbacks is "Given the way the NFL is catering to the offensive side of the game -- witness some of the ridiculously biased rules and penalty interpretations (okay, that's a topic for another discussion) -- is that adage particularly applicable in the NFL today?"
We decided to take a look at how the defense has fared of late in championship games -- read, Super Bowl. We decided to look at the last twenty-five Super Bowls (we did not have the time nor the energy to look at all of them). We thought it would be fun to look at the which ranked offenses and defenses made it to the big game.
Now, about the rankings. There is a lot of discussion (or should we say "dispute") about how to rank offenses and defenses in the NFL. Some people advocate using points scored for the offense and points allowed for the defense. The problem with that one is that, for the less research-minded fan, points scored and points allowed lump defensive and special teams scores into those figures. For example, in the game between the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins, the Broncos scored 45 points. However, 7 of those points were scored by the defense. Also in that game, Denver gave up 21 points, but 7 of those were scored by the Redskins' defense. So, unless someone wants to take the time to review every score of every game for every team during a season, points scored/allowed is not currently a quick way to take the measure an offense/defense. There are a variety of other options being promoted by various groups and fans.
For this study, we took the easy (read lazy) way out and chose to use the current method used by the NFL for ranking offenses and defenses -- total yards. One of the weaknesses of the method is that it does not account for other important parts of the defense's play, such as interceptions. Example, the Broncos are currently ranked as the #21 defense in the NFL in 2013, yet they are tied with Seattle for 1st place in interceptions. Yes, we agree that it is not the best measure out there, but for the time being it is the simplest. It is also currently the most widely used when talking about ranking offenses/defenses.
Keeping that in mind, we first looked at which teams were ranked #1 in offense and #1 in defense in each of the last twenty-five seasons (2013 excluded). We then looked to see how those teams fared in the post-season. What we found was the following (remember each team is listed as the #1 team in offense or defense based on yards):
#1 Offense & #1 Defense in the Previous 25 Seasons
The #1 offense has made the post season 20 times.
The five exceptions to this were: 2010 San Diego, 2008 New Orleans, 2005 Kansas City, 2004 Kansas City and 2003 Minnesota.
The #1 defense has made the post season 20 times.
The five exceptions to this were: 2012 Pittsburgh, 2010 San Diego, 1998 San Diego, 1991 Philadelphia and 1990 Pittsburgh.
The #1 offense has appeared in 6 Wildcard games. It's record is 3-3.
|2011||New Orleans defeated Detroit 45-28|
|2000||St. Louis lost to New Orleans 28-31|
|1997||Denver defeated Jacksonville 42-17|
|1995||Detroit lost to Philadelphia 37-58|
|1994||Miami defeated Kansas City 27-17|
|1990||Houston Oilers lost to Cincinnati 14-41|
The #1 defense has appeared in 8 Wildcard games. It's record is 2-6.
|2011||Pittsburgh lost to Denver 23-29|
|2009||New York Jets defeated Cincinnati 24-14|
|2007||Pittsburgh lost to Jacksonville 29-31|
|2005||Tampa Bay lost to Washington 10-17|
|2003||Dallas lost to Carolina 10-29|
|1999||Buffalo lost to Tennessee 16-22|
|1993||Minnesota lost to New York Giants 10-17|
|1988||Minnesota defeated Los Angeles Rams 28-17|
The #1 offense has appeared in 17 Divisional Round games. It's record is 14-3.
|2012||New England defeated Houston Texans 41-28|
|2011||New Orleans lost to San Francisco 32-36|
|2009||New Orleans defeated Arizona 45-14|
|2007||New England defeated Jacksonville 31-20|
|2006||New Orleans defeated Philadelphia 27-24|
|2002||Oakland defeated New York Jets 30-10|
|2001||St. Louis defeated Green Bay 45-17|
|1999||St. Louis defeated Minnesota 49-37|
|1998||Minnesota defeated Arizona 41-21|
|1997||Denver defeated Kansas City 14-10|
|1996||Denver lost to Jacksonville 27-30|
|1994||Miami lost to San Diego 21-22|
|1993||San Francisco defeated New York Giants 44-3|
|1992||San Francisco defeated Washington 20-13|
|1991||Buffalo defeated Kansas City 37-14|
|1989||San Francisco defeated Minnesota 41-13|
|1988||Cincinnati defeated Seattle 21-13|
The #1 defense has appeared in 14 Divisional Round games. It's record is 9-5.
|2009||New York Jets defeated San Diego 17-14|
|2008||Pittsburgh defeated San Diego 35-24|
|2006||Baltimore lost to Indianapolis 6-15|
|2004||Pittsburgh defeated New York Jets 20-17|
|2002||Tampa Bay defeated San Francisco 31-6|
|2001||Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 27-10|
|2000||Tennessee lost to Baltimore 10-24|
|1997||San Francisco defeated Minnesota 38-22|
|1996||Green Bay defeated San Francisco 35-14|
|1995||San Francisco lost to Green Bay 17-27|
|1994||Dallas defeated Green Bay 35-9|
|1992||Dallas defeated Philadelphia 34-10|
|1989||Minnesota lost to San Francisco 13-41|
|1988||Minnesota lost to San Francisco 9-34|
The #1 offense has appeared in 14 Conference Championship games. It's record is 9-5.
|2012||New England lost to Baltimore 13-28|
|2009||New Orleans defeated Minnesota 31-28|
|2007||New England defeated Jacksonville 31-20|
|2006||New Orleans lost to Chicago 14-39|
|2002||Oakland defeated Tennessee 41-24|
|2001||St. Louis defeated Philadelphia 29-24|
|1999||St. Louis defeated Tampa Bay 11-6|
|1998||Minnesota lost to Atlanta 27-30|
|1997||Denver defeated Pittsburgh 24-21|
|1993||San Francisco lost to Dallas 21-38|
|1992||San Francisco lost to Dallas 20-30|
|1991||Buffalo defeated Denver 10-7|
|1989||San Francisco defeated Los Angeles Rams 30-3|
|1988||Cincinnati defeated Buffalo 21-10|
The #1 defense has appeared in 9 Conference Championship games. It's record is 4-5.
|2009||New York Jets lost to Indianapolis 17-30|
|2008||Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 23-14|
|2004||Pittsburgh lost to New England 27-41|
|2002||Tampa Bay defeated Philadelphia 27-10|
|2001||Pittsburgh lost to New England 17-24|
|1997||San Francisco lost to Green Bay 10-23|
|1996||Green Bay defeated Carolina 30-13|
|1994||Dallas lost to San Francisco 28-38|
|1992||Dallas defeated San Francisco 30-20|
The #1 offense has appeared in 9 Super Bowls. It's record is 5-4.
|2009||New Orleans defeated Indianapolis 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV|
|2007||New England lost to New York Giants 14-17 in Super Bowl XLII|
|2002||Oakland lost to Tampa Bay 21-48 in Super Bowl XXXVII|
|2001||St. Louis lost to New England 17-20 in Super Bowl XXXVI|
|1999||St. Louis defeated Tennessee 23-16 in Super Bowl XXXIV|
|1997||Denver defeated Green Bay 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII|
|1991||Buffalo lost to Washington 24-37 in Super Bowl XXVI|
|1989||San Francisco defeated Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV|
|1988||Cincinnati lost to San Francisco 16-20 in Super Bowl XXIII|
The #1 defense has appeared in 4 Super Bowls. It's record is 4-0.
|2008||Pittsburgh defeated Arizona 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII|
|2002||Tampa Bay defeated Oakland 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII|
|1996||Green Bay defeated New England 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI|
|1992||Dallas defeated Buffalo 52-17 in Super Bowl XXVII|
It's tempting to say at this point that the #1 ranked offense is twice as likely to get a team into the Super Bowl than the #1 ranked defense. It would also be easy to argue that if and when the #1 ranked defense reaches the Super Bowl, it will win the game. While technically accurate, neither of these statements captures the whole picture that is the Super Bowl. Think about it -- the #1 offense and the #1 defense have a combined twelve appearances in the last twenty-five Super Bowls. That is less than half the championship games that have been played. This raises the question of what were the rankings of the other teams that have made it to the Super Bowl.
Who ELSE has made the Super Bowl?
The data shown above only accounts for half of the last twenty-five Super Bowls, do the question becomes which offenses and defenses HAVE made the Super Bowl? More importantly, who has won the Super Bowls -- in terms of relative offensive and defensive rankings. We looked at four situations:
1)The winning team's offense ranking was higher than the loser's defense AND the winner's defense was ranked higher than the loser's offense. This has happened five times.
|1999||SB XXXIV||St. Louis had the #1 ranked offense versus Tennessee's #17 ranked defense|
|The Rams had the #6 ranked defense versus the Titans' #13 ranked offense|
|1996||SB XXXI||Green Bay had the #5 ranked offense versus New England's #19 ranked defense|
|The Packers had the #1 ranked defense versus the Patriots' #7 ranked offense|
|1994||SB XXIX||San Francisco had the #2 ranked offense versus San Diego's #14 ranked defense|
|The 49ers had the #8 ranked defense versus the Chargers' #11 ranked offense|
|1992||SB XXVII||Dallas had the #4 ranked offense versus Buffalo's #12 ranked defense|
|The Cowboys had the #1 ranked defense versus the Bills' #2 ranked offense|
|1989||SB XXIV||San Francisco had the #1ranked offense versus Denver's #3 ranked defense|
|The 49ers had the #4 ranked defense versus the Broncos' #15 ranked offense|
2)The winner's offense was ranked higher than the loser's defense but the winner's defense was not ranked higher than the loser's offense. This has happened ten times.
|2011||SB XLVI||New York Giants had the #8 ranked offense versus New England's #31 ranked defense|
|The Giants had the #27 ranked defense versus the Patriots' #2 ranked offense|
|2009||SB XLIV||New Orleans had the #1 ranked offense versus Indianapolis' #18 ranked defense|
|The Saints had the #25 ranked defense versus the Colts' #9 ranked offense|
|2006||SB XLI||Indianapolis had the #3 ranked offense versus Chicago's #5 ranked defense|
|The Colts had the #21 ranked defense versus the Bears' #15 ranked offense|
|2005||SB XL||Pittsburgh had the #15 ranked offense versus Seattle's #17 ranked defense|
|The Steelers had the #4 ranked defense versus the Seahawks' #2 ranked offense|
|2004||SB XXXIX||New England had the #7 ranked offense versus Philadelphia's #10 ranked defense|
|The Patriots had the #9 ranked defense versus the Eagles' #9 ranked offense*|
|1998||SB XXXIII||Denver had the #3 ranked offense versus Atlanta's #8 ranked defense|
|The Broncos had the #11 ranked defense versus the Falcons' #7 ranked offense|
|1997||SB XXXII||Denver had the #1 ranked offense versus Green Bay's #7 ranked defense|
|The Broncos had the #5 ranked defense versus the Packers' #4 ranked offense|
|1993||SB XXVIII||Dallas had the #4 ranked offense versus Buffalo's #27 ranked defense|
|The Cowboys had the #10 ranked defense versus the Bills' #6 ranked offense|
|1991||SB XXVI||Washington had the #4 ranked offense versus Buffalo's #27 ranked defense|
|The Redskins had the #3 ranked defense versus the Bills' #1 ranked offense|
|1988||SB XXIII||San Francisco had the #2 ranked offense versus Cincinnati's #15 ranked defense|
|The 49ers had the #3 ranked defense versus the Bengals #1 ranked offense|
3)The winner's defense was ranked higher than the loser's offense but the winner's offense was not ranked higher than the loser's defense. This has happened five times.
|2010||SB XLV||Green Bay had the #5 ranked defense versus Pittsburgh's #14 ranked offense|
|The Packers had the #9 ranked offense versus the Steelers' #2 ranked defense|
|2008||SB XLIII||Pittsburgh had the #1 ranked defense versus Arizona's #4 ranked offense|
|The Steelers had the #22 ranked offense versus the Cardinals' #19 ranked defense|
|2003||SB XXXVIII||New England had the #7 ranked defense versus Carolina's #16 ranked offense|
|The Patriots had the #17 ranked offense versus the Panthers' #8 ranked defense|
|2000||SB XXXV||Baltimore had the #2 ranked defense versus New York Giants' #13 ranked offense|
|The Ravens had the #16 ranked offense versus the Giants' #5 ranked defense|
|1990||SB XXV||The New York Giants had the #2 ranked defense versus Buffalo's #6 ranked offense|
|The Giants had the #17 ranked offense versus the Bills #8 ranked defense|
4)The winner's offense was not ranked higher than the loser's defense AND the winner's defense was not ranked higher than the loser's offense. This has happened five times.
|2012||SB XLVII||Baltimore had the #16 ranked offense versus San Francisco's #3 ranked defense|
|The Ravens had the #17 ranked defense versus the 49ers' #11 ranked offense|
|2007||SB XLII||The New York Giants had the #16 ranked offense versus New England's #4 ranked defense|
|The Giants had the #7 ranked defense versus New England's #1 ranked offense|
|2002||SB XXXVII||Tampa Bay had the #24 ranked offense versus Oakland's #11 ranked defense|
|The Buccaneers had the #1 ranked defense versus Oakland's #1 ranked offense *
|2001||SB XXXVI||New England had the #19 ranked offense versus St. Louis' #3 ranked defense|
|The Patriots had the #24 ranked defense versus the Rams' #1 ranked offense|
|1995||SB XXX||Dallas had the #5 ranked offense versus Pittsburgh's #3 ranked defense|
|The Cowboys had the #9 ranked defense versus the Steelers' #6 ranked offense|
*We considered ties in rankings as not being better than the other team.
One final observation. We have listed the scores from each of the last twenty-five Super Bowls below:
The winning team has scored 20 or more points in 24 of the 25 contests.
The winning team has scored 30 or more points in 14 of the 25 games.
The winning team has scored 40 or more points in 4 of the 25 contests.
The winning team has scored 50 or more points in 2 of the 25 games.
The losing team has score 20 or more points in 10 of the 25 contests.
The losing team has scored 30 or more points in 1 of the 25 games.
If we adjust the scores by removing points scored by the defense/special teams, the ratios become this:
The winning team scored 20 or more points in 19 of the 25 contests.
The winning team scored 30 or more points in 8 of the 25 games.
The winning team scored 40 or more points in 3 of the 25 contests.
The winning team scored 50 or more points in 1 of the 25 games.
The losing team scored 20 or more points in 8 of the 25 games.
More importantly, the defensive/special teams scores only directly affected the outcome in four of the Super Bowls.
SB XLVII Baltimore scored 7 defensive points, San Francisco gained 2 points on a safety. Without those
scores, the 49ers would have won the game 29-27.
SB XLV Green Bay gained 7 defensive points. Without them, Pittsburgh would have won 25-24.
SB XLIII Pittsburgh gained 7 defensive points and Arizona gained 2 points from a safety. Without them
Arizona would have won that game 21-20.
SB XXXVI New England gained 7 defensive points. Without them, St. Louis would have won that game 17-13.
When all of this information overload was said and done, we came to a very simple conclusion: the very arbitrary offensive and defensive rankings used by the NFL and other sources, for all intents and purposes, do not really mean squat (one of the other Water Cooler Quarterback's term, not mine). It was our impression that winning the Super Bowl has more to do with match-ups and the ability to capitalize on the opportunities presented -- both during the regular season and in the post-season -- than it does with arbitrary rankings.
Think about it, the so-called #1 offense and the #1 defense have only managed to appear in a combined thirteen of the last twenty-five Super Bowls -- in other words, just over half the time. While teams with radically low rankings have often gone on to win the Super Bowl -- New England, for example, won Super Bowl XXXVI with the #19 ranked offense and the #24 ranked defense, despite their opponent -- St. Louis -- have the the #1 ranked offense and the #3 ranked defense.
What it really boils down to is our belief that until such time as someone creates a metric that is able to account for all of the contributions of each unit (offense, defense, special teams) and how those contributions impact the play of each of the other units, then the idea of ranking the units is rather meaningless. Winning or losing in the playoffs can have as much to do with sheer dumb luck -- Pre-Tuck Rule anyone? -- as it does with so-called rankings.
As a result, we tend to doubt the oft-repeated truism "Defense wins championships."
The Water Cooler Quarterbacks wish you another great weekend of football.