When I'm not watching Chiefs games, Bill Maher or shows about Nazis, I love watching Mythbusters on the Discovery Network.
Of course, part of the fun of that show is to watch Jamie and Adam use high explosives to destroy large pieces of hardware - whether they intended to do so or not! But the core of the show is to take a common, everyday idea that many people might accept as fact, and attempt to prove or disprove it.
So during the off-season, I'm going to take a look at a few commonly accepted ideas among NFL fans, and try to find out of there is, indeed, any truth to them.
And if there is a way to use high explosives, I'll try to find it.
Today's myth: Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.
This myth (more accurately a truism) is in two parts, so we'll take them one at a time. Does offense sell tickets?
If this were true, we would expect to find that the teams with the best offenses sell the most tickets. So this table shows the tickets sold by all 32 NFL teams during the 2009 season, along with their relative rankings for offense, defense and won-lost record.
2009 NFL Attendance
|Team||W/L Rank||Off Rank||Def Rank||Total||Average|
Offense doesn't seem to have much to do with ticket sales, does it? The team that sold the most tickets had only an average offense - but a top-ranked defense - in 2009. It's also true that the Cowboys did pretty well, finishing in the top quarter of the league-wide standings.
But then how do you explain Washington, which played terrible offense, average defense, finished close to the bottom of the standings...and had the second highest attendance? Or New Orleans, which finished second in the standings, had a magnificent offense to go along with their somewhat average defense... and had the eleventh-highest attendance?
In fact... looking at this data, it's hard to see much of a correlation between ticket sales and on-field performance of any kind. And this isn't really surprising. Many things go into how many tickets a team can sell. Market (and stadium) size, local economic conditions, team history (and longevity) all play a part. But just to be sure, let's sort the attendance list by percentage of seats sold - rather than the raw number of tickets sold - and see what happens.
2009 NFL Attendance by Percentage
|Team||W/L Rank||Off Rank||Def Rank||Pct|
There's just not that much difference. Certainly the top three teams in terms of sales percentage had top-tier seasons - but then again, Chicago and Seattle had only average seasons, and sold all their tickets anyway. San Diego had a great season - and New Orleans is going to the Super Bowl - but neither team was able to sell out its stadium.
And there still doesn't seem to be much of a correlation between offensive success and ticket sales.
In fact, the only thing I can conclude from comparing attendance data to on-field success comes from looking at the very bottom of these two lists: simply stated, it sucks to be Al Davis.
(Those of you who are thinking that one season isn't enough data to draw a conclusion about this... please settle down. I looked at the last five NFL seasons, and they all looked pretty much like this one - right down to Al Davis sucking. I just don't want to bore everybody with four more tables, OK?)
Still... I am reluctant to call the first part of this truism "busted."
Just from anecdotal evidence, it seems pretty clear that most fans sitting in an NFL stadium on a Sunday afternoon (and I use the term "fans" in its big-tent sense, including hard-core folks who follow the NFL 365 days a year with people who come to the stadium just to eat barbecue and drink cocktails in corporate suites) that it is the offensive skill players who are the face of any franchise. There are exceptions to this, of course - Ray Lewis, Derrick Thomas and Jared Allen come to mind - but it is always the players who handle the ball who get the public name recognition and the glory - not to mention the blame when things go bad.
Besides... let's be realistic: people who bring up this truism (and I have frequently been one of them) aren't trying to make a point about the importance of offense. They bring it up because they're trying to make a point about the importance of defense!
So let's get to the meat of the truism: does defense win championships?
Super Bowl Offensive and Defensive Rankings
In the last ten Super Bowls, four of the winners had the league's top defense - yet only one had the league's top offense. And three times, the league's top offense lost the Super Bowl!
In these ten Super Bowls, eight winning teams had a defense ranked in the top quarter of the league, but only four had an offense ranked that highly.
Furthermore, during these ten seasons, the only two Super Bowl winners that failed to bring a highly ranked defense to the postseason - the 2006 Colts and the 2007 Giants - won in the postseason because their defenses played well above expectations.
The 2006 Colts had allowed 22.5 points a game during the regular season, but just 16.3 in the postseason - and that average includes 34 points given up to the Patriots in the conference championship game! They gave up eight or fewer in two playoff games, and just 17 to the Bears in the Super Bowl.
The 2007 Giants, of course, entered the postseason as a wild card, and played all of their playoff games on the road. They gave up 21.9 points a game during the regular season, but just 15.5 in the playoffs - and in the Super Bowl, just 14 to the Patriots, who had averaged 36.8 during their 16-0 season, and 26 in their two playoff wins.
I've initially focused on the last ten Super Bowls for a specific reason: because there are many who believe that recent changes in NFL rules have put defense in the back seat - that it takes an overpowering offense to win a championship in today's NFL. While you can make an argument that this might be true during the regular season, this data clearly shows that it has not been true during the last ten postseasons.
Simply stated, when the season is on the line, it is still defense that wins the day.
In fact, the primary poster child for this erroneous view of offensive dominance - the Patriots of the last ten years - had a defense ranked the same or better than their offense in all three of their Super Bowl wins! The only time they came to the postseason with a defense ranked lower than their offense, they lost... to the aforementioned 2007 Giants.
The other poster child for the idea that offense is king - the Colts - provides additional evidence.
In the ten seasons ending in 2008, the Colts made the playoffs nine times. In seven of those seasons, they had a top five offense. But only twice - in 2005 and 2007 - did they also bring a highly ranked defense to the postseason.
Unfortunately for the Colts, those defenses didn't perform to the level of their competition in the postseason. In 2005, they were the first victim in Bill Cowher's Wild Card March to an eventual Super Bowl win, as Pittsburgh's defense allowed them just 18 points - well below their season average of 27.4. In 2007, the Colts defense simply couldn't stop the rampaging Patriots... although in the Super Bowl, the Giants finally did.
Ironically, if you want to point to a period where Super Bowl winners seemed to rely more on offense, you have to go back another decade. From 1989 through 1998, five Super Bowl winners came to the postseason with the league's leading offense, while only two came to the playoffs with the top defense. Even so, not a single team from that decade won a Super Bowl without a highly rated defense, and one - the 1990 Giants - won with the top defense, and only an average offense... handing the Bills the first of four straight Super Bowl defeats.
(While we're at it, we might as well knock off a couple of the commonly believed reasons why the Bills never won the Super Bowl from 1990 through 1993. It wasn't because they drafted OJ Simpson, or because they couldn't play in a Super Bowl without choking. It was because in two of those seasons, their defense simply wasn't very good - and in the other two, the other team in the Super Bowl had a better one!)
Over the long haul...
Among Super Bowl winners, the average defensive ranking is 4.5. The average offensive ranking is 5.4.
Among Super Bowl losers, the average defensive ranking is 7.0. The average offensive ranking is 5.1.
Fourteen teams (33%) won the Super Bowl with a number one ranked defense, but only nine teams (21%) have won with the number one offense.
Twenty-three teams (53%) have won the Super Bowl with an defensive ranking in the top ten percent of the league. Seventeen teams (40%) have have won with a offense ranked in the top ten percent.
Twenty-eight teams (65%) won the Super Bowl with a defense ranked better than their opponent. Twenty-two teams (51%) won with an offense ranked better.
So... does offense sell tickets? Maybe. But defense definitely wins championships.
And oh, yeah... I promised I'd try and find a way to use high explosives. But like Adam and Jamie say, you shouldn't try the stuff they do at home. So click here to enjoy one of my favorite Mythbusters moments - the exploding cement truck - via YouTube.
(Please note: throughout this article, offensive and defensive rankings were determined based on points scored and points allowed - not yardage gained or allowed. Won-lost rankings shown in the first two tables are not playoff seedings. Instead, they were calculated by sorting by each team's won-lost record, with ties broken by scoring differential.)