Ramblings of an Idiot: Defense Wins Championships?

While reading and commenting in other threads today the question of how defense relates to championships again reared its ugly head. We've all heard it, and most of us have said it or believed it at one time or another. Defense wins championships. The question: Is it true?

Being a huge fan of defensive football myself, I'm going to have to work hard to remain objective on the topic. Any of you that have been around Arrowheadpride.com for a few years can bare witness to my defensive homer-ism. I love sacks, pressures, huge hits, stuffed runs, quarterbacks picking turf out of their face masks, and all manor of defensive domination. In my not so humble opinion, there is no better game of football than a 9-6 or 10-7 contest between two defenses that rack up ten sacks, thirty pressures, five interceptions, eight batted down passes, sixteen runs for a loss, and countless numbers of bruises and sprains resulting from smash mouth style hits. Keep your 45-38 offensive juggernaut games off my television. I'm likely to turn the channel to some other game out of boredom.

I don't want to get to complex or include too much number crunching as to get away from the basic question so I've opted to stick to just rankings. However, I'll be using the simple rating system from Pro-Football-Reference.com as my starting point. All numbers that I use will come from their base ratings, in which 0.0 is the average and teams are ranked in relation to that average. (Above for better, below for worse). Please click that link if you'd like a breakdown of how the numbers are generated.

Without further ado: the jump.

First off a couple notes:

  • Years are listed based on the year in which the regular season started. For instance, the Giants just defeated the Patriots in a February 2012 Superbowl game. However, the season started in the calendar year 2011, so that game is listed as 2011.
  • As stated before 0.0 is the average rating for that season. Positives are better than average, negatives are worse.
  • "Winners" and "Losers" refer to the Superbowl match up. As championships are the game in question we're only looking at the final game that determines the championship for comparison.

Season Winners Offensive Rank Winners Defensive Rank Losers Offensive Rank Losers Defensive Rank
2000 0.0 8.0 -1.3 3.8
2001 1.2 3.1 10.4 2.9
2002 -1.0 9.8 6.3 4.3
2003 2.1 4.9 -1.5 0.6
2004 6.3 6.5 2.0 3.5
2005 3.8 4.0 5.8 3.4
2006 6.9 -1.1 4.9 3.0
2007 2.8 0.4 15.9 4.2
2008 1.6 8.2 4.1 -6.0
2009 11.2 -0.5 4.4 1.5
2010 3.1 7.9

2.5 7.7
2011 3.1 -1.5 9.4 -0.1

We can immediately throw out the idea that the best defense in the league wins the championship with any measurable regularity. If things were that simple no one would ever debate this topic and the Ravens would be a dynasty. We can also toss out the idea that the best offense in the league wins the Superbowl with any regularity as well. It simply doesn't happen.

In the last twelve championship games the better defense has won the game eight times while the worse defense has been victorious four times. That's a simple enough two-thirds ratio of defenses winning championships when only defense is considered. Four times in that span the team with both the better offense and the better defense won the Superbowl. That's not at all surprising. It's what we would all expect. Twice, however, in 2007 and 2011 the team with the lower ranked offense AND the lower ranked defense managed to hoist the Lombardi trophy. The thing that's really facinating about that is that BOTH times this has happened the game matched the Giants against the Patriots. Both times the New England had the higher ranked offense AND defense but still lost the game. Does this mean Tom Coughlin is the superior coach over Bill Belichick?

In the twelve years represented on this table the better offense (regardless of defensive ranking) has prevailed six times, while the worse offense won the game six times. Clearly, we can state that there was no coloration from having the better ranked offense to winning the Superbowl. After all, it doesn't seem to matter if you have the better unit or not.

That leaves us with the mixed years. The years in which no team had the better offense AND the better defense. The teams in question split the two categories with each other. In those instances (it happened six times) the better defense won the game four times out of six. Yet another two-thirds ratio in favor of the defense. So, at a quick glance it appears that defenses actually do win championships.... two-thirds of the time. If I were sitting in a Vegas casino I'd play absolutely any game that gave me 66.666.....7% odds of winning. After all, the house has the advantage on every bet in the building except the backing bet on a pass line bet on a craps table, which is about fifty/fifty odds. (But, I've never gambled a single time in my life. Gambling is evil! Kids, just say no. It'll keep the idiots among you from sitting down left chair at a blackjack table and ruining my day by taking a hit on 14 when the dealer is showing a 3 and I'm sitting on 17)

But I digress, on to more important things. (Seriously though, If you don't know how to play Blackjack the CORRECT way you should always sit in the far right chair so you don't screw up everyone at the table that actually knows what they are doing. And telling me, "It's my money, I can play however I want", is akin to begging me to slap the smug off your face.)

Hmmm, I appear to have digressed again. Ignore that degenerate Vegas addicted gambler. He's an idiot. I hear he rides a motorcycle without a helmet and spreads strawberry jelly on top his grilled cheese sandwiches too.

Season Winner Total Ranking Loser Total Ranking Winner Total (-) Loser Total Final Score Differential
2000 8.0 2.5 6.0 27
2001 4.3 13.3 -9 3
2002 8.8 10.6 -1.8 27
2003 7.0 -0.9 7.9 3
2004 12.8 5.5 7.3 3
2005 7.8 9.2 -1.4 11
2006 5.8 7.9 -2.1 12
2007 3.2 20.1 -16.9 3
2008 9.8 -1.9 11.7 4
2009 10.7 5.9 4.8 14
2010 11.0 10.2 0.8 6
2011 1.6 9.3 -7.7 4

Since I've gone to all the trouble of learning how the chart building tool works, lets look at another one. This chart adds together the offensive and defensive rankings for each team and then shows the mean difference between the teams as compared to the final score of the Superbowl.

Maybe it's not the better offense or the better defense that wins the game. Someone once told me the better team usually wins. In related news, I've also been told that moving the kick off forward by five yards completely ruins the game and takes away the entire play out of football and that we might as well just eliminate the kick and start on the twenty yard line. In order to appease that person, I'm going to pretend like special teams don't exist and just focus on offense and defense again.

As you can see, if one team ranks clearly above the other team when offensive and defensive ranks are added together, it doesn't mean a damn thing in relation to who's going to win the championship. In the last twelve years the team with the highest combined ranking has won six Super Bowls, and lost 6 Super Bowls. I guess you don't have to be the better team to win the championship.

In 2007 the Patriots team total is a whopping 16.9 points higher than the Giants. So, of course, the Giants won the game by a field goal. The very next season in 2008 the Steelers could have looked at that chart and been worried that an 11.7 point dominate out-ranking would set them up to lose the game. It didn't, they won by four.

Well, at least we can say that the more dominate one team is over another, the more lopsided the score will be IF the dominate team manages to win...right?..... You guessed it, the answer is an emphatic no. The 2003 Patriots are 7.9 ranking point favorites and won the game by a field goal; While the 2009 Saints at only a 4.8 ranking advantage defeated the Colts by fourteen points.

There doesn't appear to be any coloration at all between offensive ranking and winning championship games.Half the time the better offense wins, half the time they lose. Simply put, offense doesn't matter. (....and here comes the hater's in the comments... /sticks out tongue and gives the raspberry). Having the better overall team ranking is a wash as well. Half the time you win, and half the time you lose. Even when you win or lose the game score doesn't even match up with the disparity in total team rankings.

BUT......

If we only look at defensive rankings (paying no attention to offense) the team with the better defense wins the Super Bowl 66.66...7% of the time. A clear two-thirds advantage goes to the best defensive unit. Four times in the last twelve years the team with the better offense AND the better defense won, as compared to twice when the worse offense AND worse defense went home champions. Again, a two-thirds advantage. Finally, in the years where the teams matching up in the championship game split offensive and defensive dominance, defense wins four out of the six times. Amazing! Another two-thirds advantage in favor of the defense.

So to answer the question in the title of the post: Does defense win championships? Yes, 2 out of 3 times... any way you slice it. Now if you all will excuse me, I've got to start placing my 50:1 bets on the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season. Right after I smack the smug off a few blackjack players.

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