Defense Wins Championships?

"Defense Wins Championships" - it's a cliche you hear all the time. But what factors really go into the creation of a championship team? NET's Dylan Johnson takes a closer look.

“Defense Wins Championships”. Everybody knows that. Why, just look at this year’s World Champion New England Patriots. They ranked number one in defense and number 12 in offense. See? Defense Wins Championships.

As great a sound bite as those three words make, is there any truth to the saying? Does defensive superiority win championships?

For the purposes of this article, a team will be considered balanced if their offensive and defensive rankings are within 5 of each other. For instance, the 1985 Chicago Bears with a Defensive Rank of 1 and an Offensive Rank of 2 would be counted as balanced, whereas the 1986 New York Giants with a Defensive Rank of 1 and an Offensive Rank of 6 would be considered weighted towards defense. For a complete list teams and rankings used in this article, click here. Please note that all rankings are based on points scored for offense and points given up on defense. That’s the way the NFL ranks ‘em, so I’ll stick with that method.

The first question that needs to be answered is, how often do teams from each of our categories fare in reaching the Super Bowl? Since 1972, when the NFL began tracking Offensive and Defensive Rankings, 64 teams have gone to the Super Bowl. Of these teams 59.4% were balanced, 21.8% were more heavily weighted towards Offense and 18.8% were more heavily weighted towards Defense.

Interestingly enough, if you are the Baltimore Ravens (1 appearance), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1 appearance) or New York Giants (3 appearances), Defense is the ONLY way. For all of the others who went to the Super Bowl with a significantly stronger Defense, they all, without exception, went to the Big Game as balanced teams, too. There’s even the case of the extremely balanced Denver Broncos who have gone 6 times, twice with offense (1-1), twice with defense (0-2) and twice balanced (1-1).

But I’m cheating, right? The saying is “Defense Wins Championships” not “Defense Gets You To The Championship Game”. Well, since 1972, 32 teams have won the Super Bowl. Of these teams 68.8% were balanced, 12.5% were more heavily weighted towards Offense and 18.8% were more heavily weighted toward Defense. The closer we get to Championship, the less likely you are to succeed based on defensive strength alone.

There are other ways of searching for answers, of course. Perhaps it’s not how far apart the offense and defense are that’s significant, maybe it’s where they rank overall that makes a difference. Since 1972, 8 teams have gone the Super Bowl with an offense out of the Top Ten, and 5 have won whereas 10 teams have gone to the Super Bowl with a defense out of the Top Ten and 2 have won. This would tend to support the “Defense Wins Championships” axiom; that is until we reveal that teams with both categories in the top ten have gone 45 times and won 25.

The percentages break down like this: Defense 15.6%, Offense 6.3%, and Balanced 78.1%.

Conclusion: your odds of getting to Super Bowl with a heavily weighted Defensive team are 5 times less likely than getting there with a balanced team, however if you do manage to make it, the success rate (62.5%) with a defensive team is high.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the stats to come out of my research into the Top Ten rankings was this: Of the 64 teams to make the Super Bowl since 1972, only one had both offense and defense out of the Top 10 – the 1979 Los Angeles Rams, who ranked 15th on offense and 11th on defense. So, Rule Number One: Have either offense or defense in the Top 10. It doesn’t guarantee a Super Bowl berth, but it’s nigh impossible to get there without it.

So, we’ve revealed the statement as a cliché, right? Well, maybe not. Since 2000, half of the teams that have made the Super Bowl have done so with Defense and three of them were winners! My statistics textbook tells me that this is an “anomaly” that should correct naturally over the course of the next few years, and, indeed, there has never been a stretch of more than 2 years where a balanced team has not won the Super Bowl. So statistics say that a balanced team with at least one category in the Top Ten will win the Super Bowl next year. That’s easier said than done, however. Last year, only four teams met those qualifications: Baltimore, Denver, Philadelphia and Carolina. All of these teams made the Playoffs and two played each other in the NFC Championship Game.

So what does that mean to you, the Seahawk Faithful? Well, it means, based on the statistics cited here, that Seattle is halfway to the Brass Ring with a Offense ranked #7 and Defense ranked #15. Last year, Ray Rhodes improved the ‘Hawks D from #23 up to #15. If he can continue the trend, the Super Bowl is, statistically speaking, in the team’s sights. To that end, the Seahawks have been very active using both free agency and the draft to plug holes on the defensive line and bolster the secondary.

As a side note, I discovered two solid stats in doing research for this article that 98.7% of Super Bowl teams share in common: Of the 76 teams who have played in a Super Bowl only one averaged LESS than 300 yards a game on offense – the 1973 Dolphins, who averaged 299.7 yards per game on offense. In addition, only one team averaged LESS than 20 points a game – the 1977 Denver Broncos who averaged 19.6 points per game. Last year, all of the Playoff teams (including Seattle) met this criteria save Dallas who averaged only 18.1 points per game and made a first round exit.

So you want an all expenses trip to Jacksonville next February, Coach? Your best chance is to have a well-balanced team with Top Ten Offense and Defense that averages over 300 yards and 20 points a game on offense. Unless, of course, you’re the New York Giants for whom “Defense Wins Championships.”

Dylan Johnson writes for Seahawks.NET. He’s also well-known as “NJSeahawksFan” on our Fan Forum. Top Stories