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Does defense win football championships?

By Elad De Piccioto
 keith-johnston-
*Updated 2020 
“Defense wins championships” is one of the oldest clichés in professional sports in general and in football in particular. Many words have been spilled on this debate, yet you can still find proponents for both sides: Those who claim that defense wins football championships versus those who believe that it’s not all defense and, in fact, offense has taken over the NFL.
Here are three arguments for defense and three against it.

 

3 reasons defense wins football championships

 

Defense provides consistency

Getting to the Super Bowl (and then winning it) means you have to be a consistent performer. A team needs to win three or four playoff matches in a row against the best teams in the league in order to win the NFL championship. That`s difficult, and is why, between 2000-2010, only 25% of the best teams in a regular season actually won the Super Bowl.

During NFL playoff games, this is when defense wins games. Defense is about hard work, and it allows players to be competitive during games when nothing else works for their team. Defense gives players the consistency they need to win the NFL championships, especially the NFL playoffs.

 

Great defense is the best offense

Playing great defense will lead to more offense opportunities, as shown in the 2019 Patriots’ AFC championship win against the Kansas City Chiefs. In football, good defense provides a good field position, which allows the offense to start their drive-to-goal in a better position, thus allowing an easier time scoring.

Good defense forces turnovers on the opponents, and turnovers’ impact on football scores cannot be overestimated. A positive turnover differential significantly increases the probability to win. Moreover, in today’s professional football, interceptions are much more likely to be returned for touchdowns. Thus, defense is the best offense.

 

It’s part of any game’s nature

First-class defenses, with an elite coach, are nearly impossible to beat. No matter the sport, defensive plays can create a huge psychological impact on the opponent`s offense; they put great pressure on opponents and can frustrate them.  A brilliant defensive strategy can change the course of the game, whether football, basketball or soccer. In fact, the importance of a great defense in football is much like its importance in basketball, or the importance of the goalie in hockey and in soccer. A team just can`t win games or championships without defense; it`s part of the nature of any game.

 

3 reasons defense doesn’t win football championships

 

Football stats prove differently

Contrary to what might be believed, a deep look into statistics proves defense doesn`t win NFL championships, at least not more than offense does. In 2012, Moskowitz and Wertheim, authors of “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won,” analyzed data from 45 Super Bowls.

A worn claim by the defense advocates is that the top-ranked defense during the regular NFL football season has won 15 Super Bowls, whereas the top-ranked offense has won only eight. Moskowitz and Wertheim’s deeper look into statistics contradicts this claim. They assert that 38 out of 45 Super Bowls have been won by a top 10 defense and 22 have been won by a top 3 defense. Meanwhile, 38 Super Bowls have been won by a top 10 offense and 20 were won by a top 3 offense. So, if you widen the sample size, the differences are marginal, if they even exist.

 

The NFL’s changes favor offense

The NFL is always evolving. During the past decade,  there has been a shift in the league that favors the offense. Rules have changed that mostly favor offense. For example, with the Concussion Protocol, the ban of hitting a quarterback helmet-to-helmet, and of the “horse-collar tackle,” offense numbers are high.  

This trend is reflected in recent NFL seasons, which have been dominated by quarterbacks and passing offenses.  The ball flies more, and apart from Super Bowl 50, recent seasons were dominated by offenses and specifically by Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Defense might have won football championships decades ago, but it doesn’t anymore.

 

Defense is glorified because the influence of offense is obvious

Historic NFL teams with great defense, like the 1984 Chicago Bears or the 2015 Denver Broncos, are rare and therefore more memorable than teams with great offense. They demonstrate and validate the virtues of defense, which are often overlooked. This brings many sports figures (from players to commentators) to glorify defense and to believe that it wins NFL championships. While great defense has won championships for certain NFL teams, it doesn’t mean that defense always leads to championship victories. The main difference is that because the importance of offense in football is obvious, it isn’t as glorified as defense. But this doesn’t mean that offense doesn’t win championships or that defense more often wins championships.

 

challenge to defense
Brady overcomes Steelers’ defense (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Bottom Line: The fact that good defense leads to more opportunities for offense, and that it gives football players consistency helps determine that defense wins NFL championships. On the other hand, football has recently become a game of offense. Which do you think is more important? 

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