“Defense wins championships.” It’s an iconic phrase that’s been seared into our collective football consciousness for decades. But is it true? Not really, as it turns out.
Sure, great defensive teams have won plenty of Super Bowls. But plenty of great offensive teams without great defenses have won Super Bowls as well.
In this article, written just prior to last year’s Super Bowl between the Panthers and Broncos, Freakanomics writers Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers essentially debunk the idea that top defensive play is necessary to Super Bowl success.
What we found: when it comes to winning championships – or winning in general, for that matter – defense and offense carry uncannily similar weight. Among the 49 NFL Super Bowls, the better defensive team, measured by points allowed that season, has won 30 times. The better offensive team has won 25 times. It’s a slight edge to defense, but it’s a pretty close call, and not different from random chance. The Super Bowl champ has been a top-five defensive team during the regular season on 31 occasions. How many times was the Super Bowl champ ranked among the top five in offense? 27. Damn near even.
Doing my own unscientific research, I decided to look at the 20 Super Bowl matchups since the Dallas Cowboys faced off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX and won 27-17. (The MVP of that game was cornerback Larry Brown, who intercepted two passes that turned the game in Dallas’s favor, so maybe defense does matter?)
That’s 20 matchups, 40 teams, each with its own offensive and defensive rankings on the season. I looked at points scored and points allowed rankings, rather than yards gained or allowed, because points win games. What I found was:
- 20 teams - 50% - had a higher offensive ranking than a defensive one on the season.
- 10 teams - 25% - had defenses ranked 10th in the NFL or lower.
- Eight teams - 20% - had defenses ranked 15th or lower.
- Two teams ranked 15th, one each ranked 17th, 20th, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, and 28th.
Were those defensively-challenged teams always paired with top offenses? Usually, but not always. These are some of the splits of Super Bowl teams over the last 20 seasons with the first half of these splits the offensive ranking of the team, and the second half the defensive ranking: 1/22 (Denver 2013), 10/12 (Baltimore 2012), 9/25 (Giants 2011), 3/15 (Patriots 2011), 1/20 (New Orleans 2009), 3/28 (Arizona 2008), 14/17 (Giants 2007), 2/23 (Indy 2006), 15/10 (Carolina 2003), and 7/15 (Tennessee 1999).
In these last 20 years, Dallas has had three teams that fit these criteria: 2006 4/20, 2007 2/13, and 2014 5/15. The team didn’t make the Super Bowl, but you can easily spin out scenarios where they could have, if a play here or there had turned out differently. Certainly the 2007 and 2014 teams were strong enough to make the NFC Championship game, and would have been favored in 2007 had they gotten there.
Is there any reason to think the Dallas Cowboys have no chance to contend this season? The team’s defensive ranking fell from 15th in 2014 to 16th in 2015, but given the inept offense and lack of turnovers, there was so much more pressure on that unit than there is likely to be this year, so you’d have to consider it a step forward last year.
Can the defense make additional progress in 2016? The major negatives are the loss of Greg Hardy (perhaps not such a negative, as no other team was willing to take on his baggage) and Rolando McClain, and the suspensions of Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. On the plus side, Cedric Thornton was added inside, Terrell McClain has returned, Tyrone Crawford is healthy, Orlando Scandrick is back, and Byron Jones is now the free safety. With the potential for improvement from lots of young players, and a certain bounce back in the turnover department, it’s not hard to see Dallas ranking in the middle of NFL defenses again, with the chance to do slightly better.
On offense, so much depends on the play of Dak Prescott, and it’s so difficult to project regular season performance for rookies off preseason stats, that we’ll have to wait and see before we know how good the offense might be. The same will be true when Romo returns, given his recent spate of injuries and inability to string healthy and productive games together over the last two years. But whether we know or not, it’s certainly easy to be excited about the potential at quarterback.
With an unmatched offensive line, what could be the strongest running game in the NFL, a deep set of receivers, and strong special teams play, why can’t Dallas contend for a championship in 2016? The defense may not help that cause, but the evidence demonstrates it’s possible to win a championship with a mid-pack defense.
America’s Team faces uphill odds making the Super Bowl this year, but its defensive ranking isn’t going to keep the team from having a chance.