Examining the cliché

Stephen J. Dubner determines whether a good defense is really necessary to win a championship in the NFL.


More myth than reality?

By Stephen J. Dubner

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


What is 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 result of a still-echoing entreaty of some grizzled defensive coordinator trying to fire up his troops during a championship game long ago? "Men, you and I know that our teammates on offense are good, tough and talented men. And they helped get us here. But let me be clear: 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 with the 27th and 31st ranked regular-season defenses, respectively.

To determine whether defense is in fact disproportionately important in championship football, we examined the numbers.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats found that elite offenses historically outperform elite defenses.

Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim -- the authors of "Scorecasting" -- support Burke's findings. 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're more!

As you can see in the graphic above, teams score much more in Super Bowls than they do 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, with champions averaging 31.6 points per game. (Kind of seems like an argument for a new cliché: OFFENSE. WINS. CHAMPIONSHIPS!)

One more wrinkle to consider: 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 do people cling to the idea that defense is king?

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

Here's another fascinating explanation, courtesy of Moskowitz 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 kind of magic bullet -- able to transcend gravity, logic, and time -- should probably be stuck away in a 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.

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