2014 Will Prove, Again, That Defense Doesn't Win NFL Championships

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2014

AP Images

After the punishment Seattle's Legion of Boom defense inflicted on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos' No. 1 offense in Super Bowl XLVIII, the tired belief that defense wins championships has gained traction. But one Super Bowl win by a No. 1 defense does not prove a sweeping generalization.

The old adage that "offense sells tickets but defense wins championships," attributed to Alabama coach Bear Bryant, no doubt sticks in people's minds the same way exceptionally stout defenses of the past do—the Pittsburgh Steelers' Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s, the '85 Bears, the 2000 Ravens and the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

But over the past decade at least, franchise quarterbacks have proven essential to winning championships, while some of the teams with the best defenses haven't made a single trip to the Super Bowl.

Let's begin by taking a look at the Super Bowl champions of the last decade and their regular-season total-offense and total-defense rankings.

Super Bowl Winners' Regular-Season Offense & Defense Rankings
YearChampionOffense RankDefense Rank
2014Seattle Seahawks181
2013Baltimore Ravens1617
2012New York Giants827
2011Green Bay Packers95
2010New Orleans Saints125
2009Pittsburgh Steelers221
2008New York Giants167
2007Indianapolis Colts321
2006Pittsburgh Steelers154
2005New England Patriots79
2004New England Patriots177

Some outliers jump out from that table that the pro-defense crowd wants to use to justify its argument that defense is more essential than offense to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.

Just this past February, Seattle's Legion of Boom—which could be on its way to becoming the Steel Curtain of the 21st century—managed to shut down Peyton Manning's Broncos, the highest-octane passing offense the league has ever seen, breaking records for points scored and passing yards.

Manning's gaffes and the Broncos' offensive dismantling in Super Bowl XLVIII certainly don't stand as the pinnacle of why offenses, not defenses, win NFL championships. But let's be clear about what the argument here is: Great defenses can absolutely help a team win a Super Bowl. But great defenses in the absence of great offenses rarely do. 

Defense alone has not helped teams win championships in the last decade. 

The table below identifies the team with the best total-defense ranking in each of the last 10 years and its regular-season record and, if applicable, playoff results. 

No. 1 NFL Defenses' Season Records & Postseason Results
SeasonTeamRegular-Season RecordPostseason Results
2013Seattle Seahawks13-3Won Super Bowl
2012Pittsburgh Steelers8-8-
2011Pittsburgh Steelers12-4Lost Wild Card Round
2010San Diego Chargers9-7-
2009New York Jets9-7Lost AFC Championship
2008Pittsburgh Steelers12-4Won Super Bowl
2007Pittsburgh Steelers10-6Lost Wild Card Round
2006Baltimore Ravens13-3Lost Divisional Round
2005Tampa Bay Buccaneers11-5Lost Wild Card Round
2004Pittsburgh Steelers15-1Lost AFC Championship
2003Dallas Cowboys10-6Lost Wild Card Round

Two of the teams with the top defense in the last 10 years have won the Super Bowl: the 2013 Seahawks and the 2008 Steelers. 

Of course, the Seattle Seahawks offense, led by phenom franchise quarterback Russell Wilson, scored the eighth-most points per game (26.1) and had the fourth-most rushing yards per game (136.8) and rushing yards overall (2188) in 2013. Wilson threw just nine interceptions, the sixth-fewest in the league. 

In Super Bowl XLVIII, Wilson threw for 206 yards and two touchdowns, completing 69 percent of his passes with no interceptions. He had a 123.1 passer rating, which is the ninth-best passer rating in Super Bowl history, per sportslistoftheday.com. 

Sure, Seattle's stout front and rangy secondary shut down Manning's Broncos and helped the team to win the title. But make no mistake: Wilson may have helped the Seahawks even more.

Super Bowl XLIII, in which the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23, is the top exception of the last 10 years. Pittsburgh's defense, which has been the No. 1 defense five of the last 10 years, had held opponents to a league-low 13.9 points per game on average in the 2008 season.

Ben Roethlisberger was underwhelming that February, throwing one touchdown and one interception, though he did complete a whopping 70 percent of his passes.

And yet, Roethlisberger is a big part of the reason why the Steelers won that Super Bowl, despite having the best defense five of the last 10 years. Though he wasn't flashy in Super Bowl XLIII, he was efficient and composed, exactly what a franchise quarterback needs to be in a championship game. 

Roethlisberger steered the Steelers to a win that year, despite the Pittsburgh defense allowing Arizona to score 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. His game-winning pass to Santonio Holmes somehow found the receiver's hands, despite the lane being clogged with three Cardinals defenders and Holmes toeing the boundary of the end zone. 

Those game-saving, playmaking qualities are what all franchise quarterbacks share, and they are what has led most of the Super Bowl-winning teams to their titles in the last decade—one that has seen the passing game explode and, with it, the importance of quarterbacks.

One major way that the game has changed in the last 10 or 15 years is regarding the rule changes that protect quarterbacks and receivers and rein in defensive players. Could this be part of a shift toward defenses having less impact in championship wins? Quite possibly. 

In 2001, the league announced it would enforce roughing-the-passer penalties more strictly. From 2002-2009, the NFL expanded illegal hits to include any helmet-to-helmet contact with a quarterback and barring any hits to quarterbacks below the knees. Hits to the head of a defenseless receiver were banned in 2009. 

Put simply, the lights-out defensive players who led the Steel Curtain defense and '85 Bears to glory played in a time with far fewer penalties enforced on defensive players. 

The link between successful offenses and successful defenses can't be ignored. Of course it's true that, often, elite offenses need good defenses in order to perform highly—a good defense can set an offense up with favorable field position. But the opposite holds true, as well—poor offenses can't stay on the field, wearing out the defense and likely increasing the total yards and points it allows opponents. 

But if defense truly won championships, then the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texans and even the St. Louis Rams should have won titles in the last 10 years. 

Houston had the No. 3 pass defense in 2013, allowing just 3,123 yards. Its secondary allowed an average of just 195.2 passing yards per game

But the Texans' quarterback carousel destroyed the team's chances of postseason glory. Both Matt Schaub and Case Keenum were included in Pro Football Focus' 10 worst quarterbacks of 2013 (subscription required). 

And of course, the 2009 New York Jets defense was incredibly stingy, allowing a league-low 236 points—including just 47 over the final six games of the season. But the offense, by contrast, was only scoring a pedestrian 21.8 points per game

Every single Super Bowl champion included in the first table above had a franchise quarterback at its helm: Tom Brady, Roethlisberger, Peyton and Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Wilson. And especially in the last decade, those quarterbacks have proven to be more important than the defense in the pursuit of championships. 

After all, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts surrendered the most points (360) of any Super Bowl champion, per ColdHardFootballFacts.com, until the 2011 Giants allowed 400 points. The 2007 Giants allowed 351 points. But Peyton and Eli Manning put those teams in position to win a championship.

Referring once again to the first table above, a few teams' defenses have performed better than their offenses in the regular season in the last 10 years. But this doesn't prove that defenses win championships.

The table below shows that good regular-season defenses often allow more points in championship games, meaning it's their offenses that have to go to work to win the title. While this isn't always true, it makes it hard to argue that the 2004 and 2005 Patriots, 2009 Steelers, 2011 Packersand especially the 2013 Ravenswon their championships on the shoulders of their defenses. 

Super Bowl Winners' Points Per Game Allowed
YearSB WinnerRegular Season PPG AllowedSuper Bowl Points Allowed

Teams are now scoring much more in Super Bowls than they do in regular-season games over the past 10 seasons, per NFL.com's Football Freakonomics feature. Over the last decade, Super Bowl teams have each scored 25.3 points per game, compared to 20.5 points per game during the regular season. Super Bowl champions have averaged 31.6 points per game. 

There may be exceptions along the way, but the trend is clear: If teams hope to bring home a Lombardi Trophy in 2014, they better have an offense led by a quarterback who can score points.

The current Vegas odds for the teams most likely to win the Super Bowl, per Vegas Insider—in order, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, New England, Green Bay, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Chicago—all have dominant quarterbacks. Six were included in Pro Football Focus' top 10 quarterback rankings for the 2013 season.

Unless the teams with top-performing defenses in 2013 (Cincinnati, Arizona, Houston, Cleveland and Buffalo) that didn't have exceptional quarterback play can improve at the position, their chances of winning a Lombardi Trophy are slim.


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