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Defense Wins Championships... Sometimes

With three of the past five Super Bowl winners ranked below average in total defense, it seems safe to wonder whether having a great defense is still a requisite to win it all in the NFL. As rule changes spurred by player safety concerns further handcuff defensive units in football, the old adage "defense wins championships" may be on its last legs.

An average defense might be all Rob Ryan needs to deliver for the Saints to contend.
An average defense might be all Rob Ryan needs to deliver for the Saints to contend.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, while the first football game is reported to have been played in 1869. Had he been alive in the football era, he might have added a few words to his famous quote: "...death, taxes and defense wins championships."

Defense wins championships. We have all heard it said and we believe it to be true for the most part. The wittier ones have even added to the adage by saying: "offense wins games, but defense wins championships." This has led my over-inquisitive mind to ponder the difference between games and championships much longer than was necessary.

A cliché is very much like a stereotype: a general statement about an observed trend, which perhaps stood true at the moment it was witnessed and stays engraved in our collective memory. Yet, as the trend evolves or changes, our minds are neither quick nor keen to do the same. Thus the truism endures, even when its veracity has waned.

With that in mind, I decided to test the consistency of one of the NFL's favorite sayings by taking a closer look at the regular season defensive ranks of the Super Bowl winners of the past 10 years. Does defense really always win championships? Let's take a look.

Among the many defensive statistics available nowadays, I chose to focus on four significant categories:

1) Yards allowed per game (YAG), commonly referred to as "Total Defense."

2) Number of points allowed per game (PAG), commonly referred to as "Scoring Defense."

3) Number of interceptions (Int.)

4) Number of fumbles recoveries (FR)

My reasons for choosing these four statistical categories are simple. Total defense (YAG) is the most commonly used figure to rank defenses in the NFL, as it describes how many yards in average a team allows each opponent over the length of a season. Scoring defense (PAG) enables us to take in account defenses that may give up a lot of yards, yet keep the other team from scoring many points. Interceptions (Int.) and fumble recoveries (FR) account for the total number of turnovers caused by a defense, which have a direct influence on both total and scoring defense.

Select Defensive Statistics of Super Bowl Winners from 2003 to 2012.

YAG / NFL Rank

PAG / NFL Rank

Int. / NFL Rank

FR / NFL Rank


Baltimore Ravens

350.9 / 17th

21.5 / 16th

13 / 19th

10 / 10th


New York Giants

376.4 / 27th

25.0 / 25th

20 / 6th

9 / 10th


Green Bay Packers

309.1 / 5th

15.0 / 2nd

24 / 2nd

6 / 28th


New Orleans Saints

357.8 / 25th

21.3 / 20th

26 / 3rd

9 / 15th


Pittsburgh Steelers

237.2 / 1st

13.9 / 1st

20 / 6th

8 / 18th


New York Giants

305.0 / 7th

21.9 / 17th

15 / 20th

10 / 12th


Indianapolis Colts

332.3 / 21st

22.5 / 23rd

15 / 20th

11 / 11th


Pittsburgh Steelers

284.0 / 4th

16.1 / 3rd

15 / 19th

12 / 7th


New England Patriots

310.8 / 9th

16.3 / 2nd

20 / 7th

15 / 2nd


New England Patriots

291.6 / 7th

14.9 / 1st

29 / 1st

10 / 13th

YAG = Yards Allowed Per Game. PAG = Points Allowed Per Game. Int. = Interceptions. FR = Fumble Recoveries

By looking at the numbers in this table, we can draw a few interesting conclusions:

A) Of the past 10 champions, four of them (Ravens in 2012, Giants in 2011, Saints in 2009 and Colts in 2006) ranked outside the top 16 in total defense. With a total number of 32 teams in the NFL, this means that 40% of the Super Bowl winners since 2003 had what can be considered a below average defense when it comes to yards allowed per game.

B) Of the four Super Bowl champions with below average defense teams cited above, only one came during the five years from 2003 to 2007 (Indianapolis Colts in 2006). The other three came during the following five years from 2008 to 2012. This could be an indication of a developing trend in the NFL.

C) It seems that the concept of keeping teams from scoring to win is being slowly challenged by the idea of outscoring them to win. Of the 10 teams listed in the table, 50% display an average to below average scoring defense, which is notably the case for three of the last four NFL champions. The lowest ranking (25th) belongs to the New York Giants in 2011.

D) An opportunistic defense that causes a high number of turnovers will often compensate for poor rankings in total defense. This is particularly observed with the Saints (35 turnovers caused in 2009) and the Giants (29 turnovers caused in 2011). It points to the fact that the amount of yards given up can be misleading when judging defensive efficiency.

Among our beloved (or insufferable) NFL clichés, "it's a quarterback league" seems to ring truer than "defense wins championships" nowadays. As the offensive side of the game has been evolving freely throughout the years, the defensive side of the ball has been somewhat handcuffed by a multitude of rules changes over players safety concerns. Today, up-tempo and wide open spread offenses are the rage in both college and pro football, while a defensive end barely sneezing on a quarterback is likely to draw a 15-yard penalty.

It still pays great dividends to have a great defense in the NFL, just not as much as it used to. This bodes well for a team like the New Orleans Saints, as they're hoping to turn around what was a historically bad defensive unit in 2012. Rob Ryan has his work cut out for him as the Saints new defensive coordinator, but if producing an average defense is in his wheelhouse, New Orleans could find itself not only contending for a playoff spot, but also playing for all the marbles come February.

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