Defense Wins Championships?

In revisiting an article originally written in 2003, Seahawks.NET's Dylan Johnson takes a second look what what makes a Super Bowl winner. He discovered, once again, that while defense is important, balance is best.

“Defense Wins Championships”. Everybody knows that. Why, since 2000, three number one defenses have won the Super Bowl. See? Defense Wins Championships.

As great of a soundbite as those three words make, is there any truth to 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 one and an Offensive Rank of two would be counted as balanced, whereas the 1986 New York Giants with a Defensive Rank of one and an Offensive Rank of 6 would be considered weighted towards defense. For a complete list of teams and rankings used in this article, click here. Please note that all rankings are based on points scored for offense and points allowed per defense.

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, 70 teams have gone to the Super Bowl. Of these teams 58.6% were balanced, 22.9% were more heavily weighted towards Offense and 18.5% 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 other franchises 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, 35 teams have won the Super Bowl. Of these teams 65.8% were balanced, 14.2% were more heavily weighted towards Offense and 20% 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, 7 teams have gone the Super Bowl with an offense out of the Top Ten, and 5 have won whereas 11 teams have gone to the Super Bowl with a defense out of the Top Ten and 3 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 51 times and won 27.

The percentages break down like this: Defense 14%, Offense 8.7%, and Balanced 77.3%.

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 (71.4%) 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 70 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.

Back when this article was originally published in 2003, I claimed that the recent run of defensively strong teams was a “statistical anomaly that should correct naturally over the course of the next few years”. Lo and behold, since then, 6 teams have gone to the Super Bowl – three balanced, two offensive and one defensive with one team from each category winning the game.

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 that done, however. Last year, only three teams met those qualifications: Chicago, New England and Jacksonville, who didn’t even make the playoffs.

As a side note, I discovered two solid stats in doing research for this article that 98.8% of Super Bowl teams share in common: Of the 82 teams who have played in a Super Bowl only one averaged LESS that 300 yards a game of offense – the 1973 Dolphins who averaged 299.7 yards per game on offense and only one 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 met this criteria.

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

When he's not our Power Rankings gurure during the season, Dylan Johnson can be found cultivating his inner Keith Moon. You can reach him here. Top Stories