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Defense Wins Championships...Or Not

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In 2014 the New Orleans Saints had a top 10 offense and the 31st-ranked defense. Is that the reason why they are at home watching instead of playing in the Super Bowl in a few days?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For as long as I can remember, I have heard the expression. Be it in a bar, on television or around the water cooler, anyone and everyone who knows anything about football (or would like you to think that they do) has said it. At one point, I even came to fully believe it. Must be how the whole brainwashing thing works: people repeat something over and over and eventually it starts ringing truer than it really is.

Alright, let me back up a little here: defenses have won championships. They still do every now and then, and if the defending champions Seattle Seahawks have anything to say about it, defense will win them a second ring in a row in less than two weeks in Arizona. The thing is: offense wins championships...too. And that's much more often than you might think.

I have written on this topic before, but like everything in the 21st century, the world of football metrics evolves. My last piece on this subject is a flip phone. Back in the days, you could use it to go on internet, but not only would the browser be slow and blurry as ever, five minutes online would cost you about 100 dollars. This piece here is a smartphone. Yes, it still crashes and autocorrects you wrongly every now and then, but you know that it is much, much smarter than that old flip phone you gave grandma Suzie so she could play Tetris or Pac Man.

What led me to take another, refreshed look at this topic is the fact that in 2014, the New Orleans Saints had a pretty good offense (although turnover-prone) and a nastily bad defense. We all know how the Black and Gold season ended: the Saints went 7-9 and are at home watching the playoffs on TV with us when they're not busy inviting "dancers" err..."personal assistants" to stay at their place.

The most straightforward narrative here could be that since New Orleans' defense was terrible, the abominable 2014 season simply confirms the fact that defense wins championship. Many Saints fans adhere to this view, I call them the "DWC" Crew.

Others on the other hand, think that the Saints offense was so turnover-prone that it never gave its defense a chance. This is the Brees is Gassed "BIG" Crew, aka Stop Kissing Brees' A** aka "STOKIBA" Crew.

Finally, there's a crew (to which I belong) that thinks that the Offense Was Enough "OWE" and that the defense owes every single offensive player an apology for the failure that was 2014. Of the three crews, which one is closer to the truth? Let's try to find an answer.

In order to do so, let's take a look at the offensive and defensive rankings of Super Bowl winners in the last ten years (plus the rankings of the two participants in the upcoming Super Bowl). As we all know, there are no perfect metrics to rank football teams. However, there are certainly some incredibly flawed ones and some that are much better in their approach. If you have skimmed my work before, you know that I really like the methods used by the folks at Football Outsiders, hence the fact that I will be using their rankings in this piece. What I like most about the way they rank teams either on offense or on defense is that their methods include pretty much everything that needs to be accounted for, including turnovers.

Superbowl Winner Rankings

SB Winners Rankings Legend

For the sake of making things a bit easier to look at for all of us, I divided the offensive and defensive units into three tiers:

a)      The Elite: 1st to 10th

b)      The Middlings: 11th to 22nd

c)      The Bad: 23rd to 32nd

So here is what we see:

-          Of the last ten Super Bowl winners, eight of them (80%) had at least one "elite" unit, either defensively or offensively.

-          The next Super Bowl winner (Seahawks or Patriots) will follow this trend.

-          Only the 2007 New York Giants and the 2012 Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl while having two "middling" units (both defensive and offensive). Also, for each of those teams, the higher "middling" unit was ranked 13th, right on the cusp of "elite" status.

-          Since 2004, more teams have won the Super Bowl with a "middling" defense (4) than with a "middling" offense (3).

-          In ten years, one team (the 2006 Colts) has won the Super Bowl despite having a "bad" defense, whereas none has won it with a "bad" offense.

-          Five of the last ten Super Bowl winners (50%) had an offense ranked higher than their defense. If the Patriots win the 2014 Super Bowl, that will be six of eleven winners (55%) to do so.

What these numbers tell me is that for the last ten years, what has won championships for NFL teams is having either two elite units on offense and defense, or any combination of an elite offense and a middling defense or an elite defense and a middling offense. The Giants of 2007 and the Ravens of 2012 clearly are exceptions with two middling units.

We could actually take this little study a bit further and look at the Super Bowl losers of the last ten years as well. Despite not winning it all, these teams got to the Big Dance and certainly were good enough to get there.

Super Bowl Losers DVOA II

SB Tiers Legend

Just like we dissected the Super Bowl winners table, here's what we can conclude from looking at the runner-ups chart:

-          Of the last ten Super Bowl runner-ups, six of them (60%) had a "middling" defense and one had a "bad" defense. In other words, seven out of ten teams (70%) reached the Big One with a less than elite defense.

-          Since 2004, seven out of ten Super Bowl runner-ups (70%) had an elite offense. Both the Seahawks and Patriots have reached Super Bowl XLIX helped by an elite offense (5th and 6th respectively).

-          In ten years, not one team with a "bad" offense has played in the Super Bowl. However, the New England Patriots in 2011 reached and nearly won the Super Bowl with the 30th ranked defense.

This table simply confirms to me that the NFL certainly has changed in the past decade. Complimentary football is as important as ever for a team's success and one unit does not really matter more than the other anymore.

What the numbers as a whole tell me is that the 2014 Saints, who had the 8th ranked offense (elite) and the 31st ranked defense (bad) had at least one Super Bowl-worthy unit and another that, had it been simply middling, would have had the team competing at least for a playoffs berth, maybe for even more: a championship, as most expected prior to the start of the 2014 season.

The study of the Saints offensive and defensive numbers throughout Sean Payton's tenure in New Orleans is the subject of my next piece. This article's aim was simply to whet your appetite, and re-introduce this offense/defense topic for a grander discussion to come: the discrepancy between the Saints offense and their defense for the past nine years. Stay tuned.