Football Freakonomics: Tackling the Old Defense-Wins-Championship Cliche

(Photo: Joint Base Lewis McChord)

The following is a cross-post from our Football Freakonomics project at NFL.com. Check out the interactive graphic and, at the end of this post, the video.

We all know the cliché. Go ahead, put on your best John Facenda voice and say it with us:

DEFENSE. WINS. CHAMPIONSHIPS.

What’s that even supposed to mean? That defense is more important during the playoffs than the regular season? That defense is generally more important than the offense?

Or is the saying maybe the collective echo of some grizzled defensive coordinator in a long-ago championship game, trying to fire up his troops during halftime? “Men, you and I know that our teammates on offense are good men, tough men, talented men. And they helped get us here. But let me be clear, gentlemen: DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS!”

Whatever the case, the cliché is very much alive and well — even this year, when the Giants and Patriots made it to the Super Bowl teams while ranking 27th and 31st, respectively, in total regular-season defense.

So we took a look at the numbers, putting together a collage of evidence about whether defense is in fact disproportionately important in championship football.

We leaned on the research of Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats, who finds that elite offenses historically outperform elite defenses.

We also leaned on the research of Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheimthe authors of Scorecasting. They looked at data from Super Bowls as well as 10,000-plus regular-season games, and similarly found the cliché to be unsupportable.  

But wait, there’s more!

As you can see in the graphic, scoring is much higher in Super Bowls than in regular-season games. Over the past 10 seasons, Super Bowl teams have each scored 25.3 points per game, compared to 20.5 points per game during the regular season; and the winning Super Bowl teams have averaged 31.6 points per game. (Kind of seems like an argument for a new cliché, doesn’t it – OFFENSE. WINS. CHAMPIONSHIPS!)

One more small wrinkle to consider, also portrayed in the graphic: the team that leads the league in defensive touchdowns during the regular season tends to have … yes, a really bad won-loss record.

So why does the cliché live on?

One explanation may be that truly great defenses (the 1985 Bears, the 2000 Ravens, the 2002 Buccaneers, for instance) are so breathtaking (in a suffocate-your-opponent kind of way) that they stand out in our memory, the way any big anomalous event tends to stand out.

Here’s another fascinating explanation, courtesy of Moscowitz and Wertheim:

If defense is no more critical to winning than offense is, why does everyone from Little League coaches to ESPN analysts extoll its importance? Well, no one needs to talk up the virtues of scoring. No one needs to create incentives for players to score more touchdowns. There’s a reason why fans exhort “DEE-fense, DEE-fense!” not “O-ffense, O-ffense!” Offense is fun. Offense is glamorous. Who gets the Nike shoe contracts and the other endorsements — the players who score or the defensive stoppers?

Let’s not kid ourselves. No matter how great your offense is, of course you want a great defense to go along with it. But the idea that a great defense is some magic bullet – able to transcend gravity, logic, and time – is something we should probably stick in the drawer. Unless, of course, you’re the grizzled old coach who invented the cliché. It is a catchy saying, and you, sir, are entitled to use it forever, untrue as it may be. 


frankenduf

BRADY.WINS.SUPERBOWLS- already empirically validated, but i guess they'll play the game anyway to air the new commercials

Jim In Frankfort

Really bad timing dude! ... but guess what, if the PATRIOTS had a defense that didn't literally RUN OUT OF THE WAY maybe they would have won. ... maybe they should have put Brady in as a linebacker for that series!

Tony

Defense DOES win championships. The problem is that so do offense and special teams!

steve

Another reason the cliche is dated - the rules have changed over the last decade to favor offense more and more. protecting the QB from hits, making it difficult to hit a 'defenseless receiver' to break up a pass... You can debate wheter or not you like these rules, but you can't debate that they have swung the game in favor of big O.

caleb b

Once source for origin of the phrase might be that a typical game will have 2-5 plays that dramatically change the likely outcome. Those plays are often explained by a poor defense, or stellar defense, so the notion persists that it is defense that wins.

Example: when a running back breaks tackles, we usually fault the tacklers for missing their chance. The next time you watch a highlight where some guy dodges his way to the end zone, listen as the announcers count the number of missed tackles, in essence, blaming the defense.

1unitwagers.com

Defense probally will play a bigger role in this Super Bowl than most think.

Em

Defense does play a huge part in winning championships. But so does offense. That's why its called a team, right?

Rick

As far as I can tell no defensive player has ever been awarded MVP.

Joseph

@ Rick...Cornerback Larry Brown won the MVP for my beloved Cowboys in Super Bowl 30.

Rick

Thanks Joseph. Well deserved.

Mike B

The phrase means that during the regular season a team with a good offense will beat poor teams with poor offenses and generally gain a good record. However in the playoffs most teams can be assumed to have a good offenses else they wouldn't have made it that far so at that point defense becomes more critical because it is the one thing remaining that can differentiate teams.

HDD

Defense used to be far more important in the playoffs because of weather! Before domes, an elite passing offense could light it up in September or October, but would face serious problems in the wind and snow of January. Running games based on speed (rather than power) faced similar problems.

Ben

I think defense is obviously important in winning a championship (and I tend to agree that offense may be more important), but teams shouldn't be judged on their defenses and offenses as if they are completely separate entities. Its clear that teams adapt, and that there are other factors behind winning and losing, especially late in the season (i.e. the playoffs, the Super Bowl). Are some coaches inherently better at managing the teams? Are special teams more of a factor than they sometimes appear to be? Are teams that have less injuries and therefore more depth better able to win games later on in the season? These are all valid questions to ask when considering how much weight we put behind offense vs. defense debates.

achilles3

And other sports???
Basketball? Baseball?

Molly

On Superbowl Sunday, who cares?

Jim In Frankfort

Perhaps a better cliche would be "Turnovers win championships" ... and good defenses usually cause turnovers. (I don't have the numbers, but I would bet there is pretty strong correlation between a higher take-away/give-away ratio and overall record) ... but on the flip side a good offense won't make as many mistakes (forced or unforced) ... so maybe good offenses win championships too!

Pamela

Well John, Nebraska played in the Big 12 mascpionhhip game last year, with mostly Bo Pelini recruits. This year, we've lost a total of one game with pretty much entirely Bo Pelini recruits. Perhaps a better question might be what Bill Callahan was able to build with Bill Callahan's recruits? Or, since you mentioned Suh, we could talk about how he was prepared to transfer to Oregon State had Bo Pelini not become our coach - and took a player who was being dominated and turned them into an All-American and future All-Pro. As for your recruiting ranking comment, please write back with a breakdown of Bill Callahan's classes, and how they ranked. Just don't use Tom Lemming's rankings, as he named Santino Panico the Illinois state player of the year as a senior Do me a favor and start with offensive linemen, and how well he did signing them, developing them, and keeping them in school. I'll be waiting.

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Mike S.

The way I've always considered the cliché (in a football context at least) is that offenses tend to rely on the abilities of a few exceptional players; a great quarterback, an explosive running back á la Adrian Peterson, etc. With more concentrated talent, offenses are more susceptible to fluctuated play. Therefore, as the cliché goes, offenses win games, but might not generally be consistent enough to win championships. Great defenses, with more evenly-distributed talent, are probably more stable to win championships. Obviously offenses depend on a lot more than just a QB or RB, however, such as a good O-line, and if the data says otherwise, I will certainly start to think differently about this.

Bryce

The number one defense wins Super Bowls 16 of the 19 times they were involved. The best offense meanwhile has a 10-9 record. So there might be something to the phrase after all.