Thirty days have passed since I laid out my plan for the Detroit Lions' 2010 draft, and I don't see any reason to change my thinking. In fact, my desire for a defense-first draft has blossomed into a yearning for a complete organizational identity predicated on a strong defense. (Read more about that philosophy here .)
The goal for the Lions, and all other NFL teams, is to secure a place in league lore with a Super Bowl Championship. The defense of a defensive philosophy (pardon the pun) is easily found in a study of Super Bowl participants since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. I compiled the list of where each Super Bowl Champion and runner-up ranked offensively and defensively in the season in which they made the Super Bowl.
This link contains the raw data, as well as some analysis that helped to identify some clear trends and points of interest when considering Super Bowl history. Given the Lions' lack of success over the last five decades, many fans would be satisfied with simply making the Super Bowl.
While there may be many roads to the Super Bowl, there are some clear distinctions between the make-up of Super Bowl winners and losers. If the Lions are going to build this thing, they might as well build it right.
What do the average Super Bowl teams look like?
A fair question to ask, since it is important to know what something looks like in order to emulate it. Super Bowl champions have an average offensive rank of 7.5 and an average defensive rank of about 6.5 in the NFL; this shows a slightly better defensive team than offensive team.
The average Super Bowl loser has an offensive rank of seven and a defensive rank of 9.85; this shows a bias towards the offensive side of the ball. First interesting point: On average, the Super Bowl loser has a better offense than the champion.
OK, so Super Bowl Champs are generally better defensive teams. What happens when strength meets strength?
A great question, because Super Bowls are determined by two specific teams, not averages. A top-three ranked offense has gone head-to-head with a top-three ranked defense eight times in Super Bowl history. In those games the team with the top three defense is 7-1.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and their 24th ranked offense, defeated the Oakland Raiders in the last such match-up. The only top-three offense to defeat a top-three defense came in the 1989 season when the San Francisco 49ers (Offense: No. 1, Defense: No. 4) defeated the Denver Broncos (Offense: No. 15, Defense: No. 3).
What about the 49ers of the 1980's and the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf"? Those were some great offensive teams!
Yeah, they sure were, but those teams never made a Super Bowl without a defense ranked in the top-10. You know what other teams had great offenses? The Buffalo Bills of the early 90's.
The Bills ranked sixth, first, second, and sixth during their four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, while their defenses ranked eighth, 27th, 12th, and 27th. The 1991 and 1993 Buffalo Bills defenses still rank as the two worst defenses in Super Bowl history. Therefore, four straight Super Bowl loses doesn't seem so inexplicable anymore.
The New Orleans Saints' 25th ranked defense became the lowest ranked defense to ever win a Super Bowl. Is this an example of a truly terrific offense trumping defensive shortcomings? Perhaps, but it is worth noting that the victory came over the Indianapolis Colts and their 18th ranked defense. Hardly a historic triumph of offense over defense.
So what does this mean for the Detroit Lions and the upcoming draft?
To put it simply, the best way to become a champion is to do what champions do. Super Bowl history has shown a strong correlation between defensive prowess and success. Developing a championship caliber defense won't happen by accident. It will take total commitment, from the front office to the coaches to the players.
That commitment will need to begin with April's draft if the Lions are going to start looking like a championship-caliber team. This year's draft is regarded as a deep defensive draft from top to bottom; a perfect time for the Lions to begin beefing up that side of the ball.
With prospect rankings in constant flux and the scouting combine still two weeks away, it is of little use to project an ideal Lions draft beyond what is out there from ESPN and the like. Our first indication of how the Lions may approach the draft could come as early as Mar. 5 with the opening of free agency.
If the Lions can fill offensive holes with free agents, then the team will be free to stockpile defensive talent through the draft and set themselves up for a new generation of Lions football. If not, the temptation to grab offensive players to compliment Matthew Stafford may be too great, without a clear commitment to developing a defensive identity that runs through the entire organization.