What Matters More to Win A Super Bowl? Offense or Defense

You’ve probably heard the phrase “offense wins games, defense wins championships.” It is a cliche that gets thrown around in sports like a rag doll. While a good defense certainly helps, is it the end all be all of winning a Super Bowl in the NFL?

What matters more? A great offense or great defense. Let’s dive into the numbers.

I was reading a very well written article breaking down the Saints defense in their win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can find it on Hold The Mayo (Click here). My buddy Devin is running some great content for that site with a string of writers including the young dude who wrote that. Devin told me he was 17, so that is freaking awesome. Keep it up fam. HOLD IT!

I like reading quality content from others because it can inspire me to write my own content, plus I like putting my friends over. Consider me the Chris Jericho of sports blogging.

In his article, he talks about the New Orleans Saints and the impact the defense has on their 5-1 record in 2019. That is without Hall of Fame Quarterback, Drew Brees. He is certainly spot on with the role the defense has played in those wins.

If someone came to me and said “offense wins games and defense wins championships” prior to the mid 2000s, I would be inclined to agree. When you look at yesteryear of the NFL, there were many amazing defenses that sparked Super Bowl runs in a time where offensive output wasn’t what it is now.

For example, the Steel Curtain Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the best defenses giving up less than 14 points per game, meanwhile the offenses were near the top of the league averaging roughly 21 points. That number has swung by more than 10 points in the modern era. You better be scoring 26 or better to be near the top.

As athletes have gotten better, the evolution of the game resulted in higher scoring. You really started to see the shift in the mid 2000s, roughly 2005-2006. You can thank Peyton Manning for that.

He evolved the quarterback position to be the alpha male of every NFL roster. Prior to that, head coaches were the alphas. Think of all those guys in the 90s and early 2000s from Jimmy Johnson to Mike Holgrem to Mike Sherman to Mike Shanahan to Brian Billick and of course the great Bill Parcells just to spitball some names.

You can have a great head coach now and still lose if the QB play is sub standard.

Offenses have evolved into QBs having more freedom with RPO systems and pre snap reads. Peyton was the guy doing pre-snap better than anyone for years. He was the only guy in the league who called his own plays regularly and took the play clock down to under :07 seconds almost every play. He is a transcendent cornerstone of today’s NFL.

That being said, there are a handful of teams who hoisted the Lombardi Trophy that had phenomenal defenses and average offenses since the mid 2000’s.

  • 2008 – Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 2015 – Denver Broncos (ironically, awful Peyton Manning in final year)

The Seahawks 2014 Legion of Boom is also up there, but that offense could move the ball well. They finished 10th in points per game. So I will say, include them if you would like. I am not opposed to it. The defense was clearly better than the offense.

In today’s NFL, offense and quarterback play matters far more than defense though taking away the outliers. Building a historically great defense (like those mentioned above) is easier said than done. Find your QB to operate your offense and you probably found a recipe for sustainable success.  Instead of finding 11 pieces, find the once piece. The proof is in the pudding. I looked up all the scoring units offensively and defensively dating back to 2006 of teams that played in the Super Bowl. Here is what that looks like…

DEFENSE
Average Rank – 9.3
Ranked in Bottom Half – 7
Ranked in the Bottom 5 – 2
Lowest Ranked Winner – 28th
Top 5 Defense – 11
Top 10 Defense – 17
Number 1 Defense – 5

OFFENSE
Average Rank – 5.6
Bottom Half – 1
Bottom 10 – 0
Lowest Rank – 17th
Top 5 – 15
Top 10 – 21
Number 1 Offense – 7

The numbers clearly show that offense matters has a slightly greater impact if we are talking about winning Super Bowls. Just like at the teams in the bottom half on both sides of the ball, 7 to 1.

Aside from the outlier of the Dolphins this year, even the worst offense typically average about 14 points per game each year. The best offense is usually flirting around 32 or so.

The league as a whole has stayed within the range of 22-23 points per game averaged out by team since the mid 2000s. While you had years from 1970-2005 where it reached those numbers, it was more of a roller coaster and far less consistent. The range could be as low as 17 and as high as 21 most years.

Breaking down the offensive importance even further with the QB position, DVOA is an adjusted stat category that accounts for everything from yards to play calling to time of possession to pace and everything in between. If your offense keeps your defense on the field because they can’t move the chains, the defense is rated accordingly. If your defense is keeping your offense on the field because they’re getting stops or negative plays consistently, the units are rated accordingly.

Sure, you can take individual stats such yardage per game on both sides, points per game (which I did above), sacks or turnovers, but why not take a more tried and true measurement of everything to test the theory of what is more important?

Of the 156 teams who have made the playoffs since 2006, I took which teams ranked in the top 6 in total DVOA in the NFC and AFC to get a pulse of how much it mattered.

122 of the 156 teams were ranked in the top 6 of their respective conference for a 78% success rate.

Now, of course there are years where a division may be sub standard and it becomes a battle of the bad much like the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010. There were a total of seven cases where that happened.

If we take those seven and add them to the mix because one team from each division automatically makes it, then we are looking at 129/156 for an 83% success rate.

I pulled the offensive and defensive DVOA numbers when I was talking with someone about the Big 4 QBs of the last 15 years. Those four are the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. There is a general misconception that Brady has always been backed by great defenses and the DVOA numbers show otherwise. However, he has always operated a great offense dating back to 2006. I use him as the benchmark because he’s won and played in the most Super Bowls by far. Since 2006 when the shift began, he has only had two seasons in which he didn’t have a top 5 offense.

Tom Brady DVOA Ranks By Year (offense/defense) – * Denotes SB Appearance
2006 – 6th offense / 2nd defense
2007 – 1st offense / 19th defense *
2008 – N/A Injury
2009 – 2nd offense / 13th defense
2010 – 1st offense / 11th defense
2011 – 3rd offense / 28th defense *
2012 – 2nd offense / 15th defense
2013 – 2nd offense / 24th defense *
2014 – 3rd offense / 13th defense
2015 – 10th offense / 9th defense
2016 – 1st offense / 1st defense * (28-3 never forget)
2017 – 1st offense / 22nd defense *
2018 – 4th offense / 13th defense *

Average Offensive Rank – 3
Average SB Rank – 2
Average Defensive Rank – 14.2
Average SB Rank – 17.8

Aaron Rodgers DVOA Ranks By Year (offense/defense) – * Denotes SB Appearance
2006 – 21st offense / 13th defense
2007 – 4th offense / 17th defense
2008 – 10th offense / 12th defense
2009 – 3rd offense / 2nd defense
2010 – 1st offense / 11th defense *
2011 – 2nd offense / 27th defense
2012 – 4th offense / 11th defense
2013 – N/A Injury
2014 – 1st offense / 18th defense
2015 – 21st offense / 11th defense
2016 – 4th offense / 7th defense
2017 – NA injury
2018 – 10th offense / 30th defense

Average Offensive Rank – 7.4
Average Defensive Rank – 14.5

Peyton Manning DVOA Ranks By Year (offense/defense) – * Denotes SB Appearance 
2006 – 1st offense / 24th defense *
2007 – 1st offense / 3rd defense
2008 – 5th offense / 9th defense
2009 – 8th offense / 19th defense *
2010 – 7th offense / 26th defense
2011 – N/A Injury
2012 – 3rd offense / 2nd defense
2013 – 1st offense / 10th defense
2014 – 6th offense / 3rd defense *
2015 – 18th offense / 1st defense * (Osweiler) – Historically great defense

Average Offensive Rank – 5.6
Average SB Rank – 8.5
Average Defensive Rank – 10.8
Average SB Rank – 11.8

Drew Brees DVOA Ranks By Year (offense/defense) – * Denotes SB Appearance
2006 – 7th offense / 8th defense
2007 – 5th offense / 29th defense
2008 – 1st offense / 21st defense
2009 – 4th offense / 23rd defense *
2010 – 11th offense / 10th defense
2011 – 1st offense / 25th defense
2012 – 6th offense / 28th defense (No Sean Payton)
2013 – 5th offense / 9th defense
2014 – 9th offense / 28th defense
2015 – 5th offense / 28th defense
2016 – 6th offense / 19th defense
2017 – 2nd offense / 6th defense
2018 – 7th offense / 6th defense

Average Offensive Rank – 5.3
Average Defensive Rank – 18.7

The Super Bowl Seasons for the QBs

2006 – Manning 1/24
2007 – Brady 1/19
2009 – Brees 4/23 and Manning 8/19
2010 – Rodgers 1/11
2011 – Brady 3/28 (Well that’s funny)
2013 – Brady 2/24
2014 – Manning 6/3
2015 – Manning 18/1
2016 – Brady 1/1
2017 – Brady 1/22
2018 – Brady 4/13

It is clear as day that the QB moves the needle more than any other position on the field. What position does the QB play? Offense.

Based on the numbers since 2006 when we saw a major spike in offensive output, offenses are more in the driver seat than defense whether you’re going by points of DVOA.

That is not to say that defense does not matter at all. It obviously does. If you have a historically bad defense like the Saints have had on multiple occasions, it doesn’t matter what your offense does. You’re fighting an uphill battle.

Based on the two most dominant forces of this era (Brady and Manning), an elite offense paired with an average defense will warrant you multiple trips to the Super Bowl.

When people say “offense wins games, defense wins championships,” that statement signifies that the defense is more important which is clearly not the case recently. Just like the days of tackling with the crown of the helmet, we should throw away that outdated cliche. At least when it comes to the NFL and it’s brand of football.

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