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Does defense win football championships?

By Elad De Piccioto
 keith-johnston-
“Defense wins championships” is one of the oldest clichés in 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, and those who believe it`s not all defense. Here are three arguments for defense and three against it:

 

3 reasons defense wins championships

 

Defense gives you consistency

Winning the Super Bowl 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 that’s why, between 2000-2010, only 25% of the best teams in a regular season actually won the Super Bowl.

In sports, like in life, there are times when things just don’t work out as planned. The difference is that while you go to work the next day, an NFL football team that experiences mistakes in a playoff game goes home. This is when defense wins games. Defense is about hard work, and it allows players to be competitive during games when nothing works for their team. Defense gives players the consistency they need to win NFL championships.

 

Great defense is the best offense

Playing great defense will lead to more offense opportunities. 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 the game`s nature

First-class defenses, with an elite coach, are nearly impossible to beat. They create a huge psychological impact on the opponent`s offense; they put great pressure on opponents and can frustrate them.  A brilliant defensive move can change the course of the game (and it has done so not once or twice).

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 the championship without defense; it`s part of the nature of the game.

 

3 reasons defense doesn’t win championships

 

The stats prove differently

Contrary to what might be believed, a deep look into statistics proves defense doesn`t win championships, at least no 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 season has won 15 Super Bowls, whereas the top-ranked offense has won only 8. Moskowitz and Wertheim’s deeper look into statistics contradicts the 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 three defense, whereas 38 Super Bowls have been won by top 10 offense, and 20 were won by top 3 offense. So, if you widen the sample size, the differences are marginal, if they even exist. And there`s plenty of additional data that proves the same.

 

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. Since the beginning of the millennium, rules have changed that mostly favor offense (like the Concussion Protocol, the ban of hitting a quarterback helmet-to-helmet, and of the “horse-collar tackle”). Accordingly, offensive numbers are hitting an historical high.

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

 

Defense is glorified because the influence of offense is obvious

Teams with great defense, like the 1984 Bears or the 2015 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 championships. While great defense has win championships for certain 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 gloried 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)

Bottom lines: The fact that good defense leads to more offense opportunities, and that it gives players consistency helps determine that defense wins NFL championships. On the other hand, football has recently become a game of offense, and stats prove that either offense or defense is more important.

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