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Does Defense Win Championships?

January 21, 2011

Last night Joe Veno of Statician Magician Tweeted: “Can’t someone do a “defense wins championships” study? Based on defensive/offensive rankings if nothing else?” I’m not sure if he was talking about the NFL specifically or not. But that’s where I took it. The phrase seems to be bandied about on every pre-game, post-game, and halftime show, not to mention during the play-by-play. I had been thinking about the oft- (and over-) used phrase myself, and considered this a providential technological nudge to awaken my inner nerd. (Don’t worry, there’s a Reilly post coming later today). Then I saw this on ESPN. (More after the jump. WARNING: There will be more numbers from here on out than snark…there will still be snark.)

It was mostly nonsense and dealt with scoring offense and scoring defense in terms of winning Super Bowls. Here’s the really stupid part:

Regardless of which team wins Super Bowl XLV, it will mark the 34th time a Super Bowl champion finished the regular season as one of the league’s six best scoring defenses. A top-six scoring offense has lifted the Lombardi only 29 times.

Right, only 29 times has a top-six scoring offense won the Super Bowl, that’s five less than defense! See! Defense Wins Championships!

Talking heads, pundits, and sportswriters are constantly throwing the phrase, “Defense Wins Championships” around as if it was etched into the keystone of Lambeau Field by Knute Rockne. But it seems simplistic, and is almost never accompanied by an explanation.

I know what your saying, “But without it, how would Shannon Sharpe try to look smart?” I hear you, those snazzy suits he wears aren’t fooling anyone.

So I compiled some data and took the “if nothing else” course. Meaning, I listed the top defense and top offense each year from 1970 (in terms of yards per game) and also the Super Bowl winner from that year and their respective ranks. (I start at 1970 because the defensive rankings aren’t available before that…also, I hate the Jets and didn’t want to include them.)

The yards-per-game stat is not perfect by any means, as there are many variables that go into it. If a team is just absolutely awful at special teams and routinely sees their opposition start at the 50 yard-line they’d give up more yards. Further, as we saw with the Saints last year, sometimes defenses overachieve by creating tons of turnovers. These are certainly things to consider, but I think they’re largely anomalous.

Here’s the (rudimentary) data:

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Let’s parse it a bit.

  • The league’s top offense has won the Super Bowl 8 times.
  • The league’s top defense has won the Super Bowl 8 times.

So we start off with a tie of sorts.  Going deeper…

  • Of the eight #1 offenses to win, only one team, 2009 Saints, had a defense that ranked outside of the top-5. (25th)
  • Of the eight #1 defenses to win, two teams, the 2008 Steelers (22nd) and the 2002 Buccaneers (24th) had offenses ranking outside of the top 20. While four teams also had top-five offenses, and the two others had top-ten.
  • On the other hand, 8 teams have won the Super Bowl with defenses ranking outside the top-10.
  • And 8 teams have won the Super Bowl with offenses ranking outside the top-10

Again, it’s remarkably even, although we may be able to say that the top defense is able to carry a weak offense, better than a top offense is able to carry a weak defense. But that is saying something different than, “Defense Wins Championships.”  (But considering that about half of football commentators were hit on the the head for half their lives, I guess we can’t expect them to make that distinction.) A few more numbers:

  • There are 25 teams that won the Super Bowl with both a top-ten offense and a top-10 defense.
  • There are 2 teams that won the Super Bowl with neither a top-ten defense or a top-ten offense (1980 Raiders and 2001 Patriots).
  • So of the 40 Super Bowls since 1970, 27 of them have been won by a team with both a good defense and a good offense, or both a poor (relatively) defense and a poor (relatively) offense

There is more information here that can be parsed, but I think this goes a long way. There will always be a team or two whose defense is so good that it doesn’t have to have a high-octane offense, but the opposite is also true.

The real takeaway here, I think, is that the majority of Super Bowl winners had both a good defense and a good offense. That is, they were good teams. They were a BUNCH OF FOOTBALL PLAYERS (as Jon Gruden would say).

I’m not sure, then, why the “Defense Wins Championships” mantra exists. Most likely it’s a way for sports-talkers to sound tough and smart without having to explain themselves, because most championships are won by having a good defense and a good offense, which of course, sounds obvious. And it kind of is.

It’d be nice if, like, one person who talks about football on T.V. would stop trying to out-yell his fellow talkers for a second and actually check (or just ask someone) if the Defense Wins Championships trope is true. Because it isn’t. Not really.

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