You’re probably familiar with this old football axiom: “defense wins championships.” Recently though, some have claimed that perhaps we are entering a new era – one where offenses rule. Will today’s younger generation grow up saying “offense wins championships”? Probably not. Take a look at the post-merger Super Bowl winners and their offensive and defensive rankings (points scored/points allowed):
The first thing that stands out is that elite (top 5) scoring offenses have won a Super Bowl just 3 times since 2000. So 8 of the 11 Super Bowl winners had a non top 5 offense. In the 20 years previous, only 6 teams had a non top-5 offense. Between 1970-1999 only two Super Bowl champions had a non top-10 offense. That’s happened 5 times in the last 11 years. Furthermore, 2 of the last 4 Super Bowl winning teams (2007 Giants, 2008 Steelers) had very mediocre offenses. Also weakening the “offense wins championships” is the fact the 2007 Giants’ “bad defense” was (almost single-handedly) responsible for a Super Bowl win and played much better down the stretch than their overall season ranking indicates.
Looking ahead to Super Bowl 46, we see two teams with better offenses than defenses. The Patriots were 3rd in offense, 15th in defense. The Giants were 9th in offense and 25th in defense. However, like in 2007, the Giants (and also the Patriots) are playing much better defense of late. Because both offenses are so good, Super Bowl 46 could possibly be a repeat of Super Bowl 42 where a statistically unimpressive defense is responsible for winning the game.
Lastly, if Kyle Williams doesn’t turn 2 punts over, or if Billy Cundiff hits an easy FG, we are probably looking at at least 1 – if not 2 – elite defense/mediocre offense teams in the Super Bowl. In that case, we might be talking about a totally different type of shift (away from elite offenses winning the Super Bowl) It seems to be more of a case of statistical noise, small sample sizes and some flukey luck (e.g. the 2nd ranked 2006 Patriots defense suffering several illnesses and injuries in the AFC Championship to the Colts) more than a real shift away from “defense wins championships.”
One has to look no further than the 2011 Saints and Packers to see that the NFL is still very much a league where an effective defense trumps an elite offense.
Listening to the media and reading sports messageboards, you might get the impression that the 2011 Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots have historically awful defenses. A common claim is that neither team can win the Super Bowl unless their “offense is perfect” because their defenses are so appallingly bad. Fortunately for Packers and Patriots fans, the claim that these teams’ defenses are terrible is completely bogus.
If you checked out my 2011 Defensive Efficiency Rankings, you probably noticed that the Packers rank 8th and the Patriots 13th. That seems so far beyond the media narrative that one would be quick to dismiss my rankings as inaccurate or flawed. But taking a quick look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why these teams’ defenses score pretty well.
The big reason why my rankings are out of whack with the common perception of these teams’ defenses is that I don’t have much use for yards allowed. The Patriots and Packers are 32nd and 31st in the league in yards allowed. By this measure, both teams are horrific. The Patriots are allowing roughly 41.4 Yards Per Drive, the Packers 39.8 Just how bad are those numbers? Only 3 teams since 1970 really compare: The 2008 Denver Broncos (41.05 YPD), 2008 Detroit Lions (39.45) and the 2008 Kansas City Chiefs (39.07). The Patriots are on track to give up more YPD than any team in post-merger history, and the Packers aren’t faring too much better. The Houston Texans lead the league in YPD allowed giving up an impressive (by 2011 standards) 26.3 YPD.
That said, neither team gives up tons of points per game. In fact, both are about league average. In terms of defensive points allowed (this excludes points given up on special teams and offense) through 14 games, the Patriots have given up 287 (20.5 PPG), the Packers 291 (20.8) . League average is 292 (20.9). Since preventing points is the primary goal of a defense, the least we can say about these teams is that they are “about league average” defensively. Saying these teams are the worst in the league implies that one would prefer a team which gives up fewer yards, but more points (since those defenses would be “better”). For example, the Denver Broncos allow 31.4 YPD – a little better than league average, and significantly better than either Green Bay or New England. But they allow 22.6 points per game – 6th worst in the league.
So both teams are pretty average in the most important measure of defense – points allowed. However, both teams excel at creating takeaways. The Packers are tied with the 49ers for best in the league (forcing a turnover on 22.9% of their opponents drives) and the Patriots are 3rd in the league (20.0%). League average is 14.9%. Both teams are significantly better than league average in takeaways.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are thought to have an excellent defense – it’s 4th best in the league in yards allowed. But they only allow about one fewer point per game than the Patriots and Packers (19.6 PPG). However, the Jaguars don’t force nearly as many turnovers – on only 13.8% of their opponents drives. Furthermore, they allow points more easily – their YPP allowed is 15.6 compared to the Patriots’ 20.2 and the Packers’ 19.1.
The name of the game on defense is to prevent points and create turnovers (which can lead to points, either directly or indirectly). The Jaguars are a little better than Patriots/Packers at the former, but much worse at the latter. Which defense would you prefer? It’s not as easy of a choice as you might have thought.
These days, the idea that Bill Belichick is a defensive “genius” seems to be taking a beating in the media. Looking at the yards his defenses have given up lately, it’s easy to see why some could claim that he’s lost his proverbial fastball. Has the game passed Belichick by? A quick look at his defenses over the course of his career suggests that Belichick’s defenses are still very good (although not even I would argue that the 2011 Patriots’ D is any better than mediocre).
Between 1986-2010, Belichick oversaw 26 defenses (7 New York Giants, 5 Cleveland Browns, 3 New York Jets, 11 New England Patriots). Of these defenses, 12 gave up more yards than league average. His defenses average a YPD+ of 101 over that period. Can we really call him a genius for having defenses give up 1% fewer yards than average? Of course not, but luckily yards don’t really matter – points do. In those same 26 seasons, Belichick coached defenses have given up fewer points than average 20 times, averaging a DPPG+ of 113 – meaning his teams give up 13% fewer points than average.
Yesterday, I discussed the idea of “bend but don’t break” – teams who have a big difference between DPPG+ and YPD+. Take a look at how Belichick coached teams stack up:
As you can see, defenses which perform much better at preventing points than preventing yards are a Belichick specialty. Of the 100 teams with the biggest difference between PPG+ and YPD+, nine were coached by Bill Belichick. Two of the Patriots’ Super Bowl winning teams (2001, 2004) were well below average in YPD allowed but both excelled at preventing points. While I’m sure he’d like to force a 3-and-out every time his opponent has the ball, it’s pretty clear that he is willing to give up yards as long as his defenses can clamp down in the red zone and create turnovers.
Yesterday, I posted my final Offensice Efficiency (O-SCORE) rankings for 1970-2010 (you can find them here: 1970-2010 Rankings). Here are the 2011 scores, along with their all-time rank:
|1||3||Green Bay Packers||52.46|
|2||18||New Orleans Saints||39.56|
|3||38||New England Patriots||33.02|
|8||354||San Francisco 49ers||9.07|
|9||385||New York Giants||7.69|
|18||582||San Diego Chargers||0.52|
|22||814||New York Jets||-7.70|
|26||1042||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||-17.60|
|31||1193||Kansas City Chiefs||-33.77|
|32||1209||St. Louis Rams||-37.79|
Through 11 weeks, the Packers have the 3rd most efficient offense since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger. They still trail the 2007 Patriots significantly in most variables, so I doubt they will get to #1. It’s possible that they overtake the 1984 Dolphins (52.64) though, given Green Bay’s fairly soft schedule the last 5 weeks.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 2011 Rams have the 13th worst offense since 1970. It’s possible (especially if A.J. Feeley gets more starts) that they drop into the bottom 10 but even a total collapse probably wouldn’t get them in the bottom 3. St. Louis’ 2009 offense was 5th worst since 1970. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976, 1977) are the only other team to have two appearances in the bottom 20 within 5 years of each other. The 1977 and 1985 Buffalo Bills and 1972 and 1998 Eagles are the other repeat offenders.
The big surprise for me here is the Minnesota Vikings being a little better than the Steelers. This is mostly due to turnover % (the Steelers have had 5% more offensive drives end in a turnover than Minnesota) and Yards Per Point (the Steelers are 23rd best, the Vikings are 16th).