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Defense Wins Championships…Or not?


Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics.com looks at the credibility of the old adage “Defense wins championships.”  In light of this past weekend’s big event, its always interesting to dissect the importance of defense and offense and the impact each has on winning football games; more specifically, the impact each has on winning a Super Bowl.  In addition, this season in the NFL there have been a few times that have had great success while having poorly ranked defenses.  Two of these teams, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, made it to the Super Bowl.  Dubner, because of the recent surge of good football teams with mediocre defenses, decided to dwelve a little deeper into statistical findings that help to disprove something those around the game of football have blindly (more or less) believed in.While we have seen some great defenses (maybe most recently the Buccaneers in 2002 and the Ravens in 2000) win championships, we also have seen prolific offenses win championships more recently.  In addition, I disagree with isolating defenses and offenses as separate factors to winning a football game.  Special teams is a grossly overlooked facet of a team that can win games on just one play.  In addition, coaching specialties and preparations as well as willingness to adapt game plans can also contribute greatly to winning football games.  Breaking a team down to just defenses and offenses mistates the matchup, and overlooks key parts of the game that have significant implications for victory or defeat. 

However, I also think maybe one of the most important factors in winning championships is luck.  I realize this is general and highly unscientific, but there is a specific type of luck that is important for teams – avoiding injuries.  If an elite team can be lucky enough to have most of their players healthy at the end of the season, there are surely poised for success in the postseason.  I also realize that injuries will happen, this is football we’re talking about!  But when you look at teams that lose players to injury, especially important players for a prolonged period of time, the entire season is in jeopardy. 

Looking at an article published on the Bleacher Report, one can see that every team is greatly affected by injuries.  One might even say that injuries happen to every team, and therefore they are somewhat negligible when deciding what is important to winning championships.  However, while I understand this point of view, I still believe that they should be taken into account because of the impact they have on great teams.  Injuries decimated the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, and they have been to three Super Bowls (winning two of them).  It was clear their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger was unable to play well in their playoff loss this season because of leg/ankle problems.  One injury destroyed the Steelers’ season; I would argue that if Roethlisberger wasn’t as injured, the Steelers may have been in the Super Bowl.

But we do have to understand that injuries are part of the game and at some point we have to turn our attention to analyzing other aspects of the game (although still keeping in mind the importance of injuries).  I just wanted to explain my beliefs as to what is important when trying to win a championship.  To go back to Dubner’s argument, we can also look at the last 3 Super Bowl winners: the Giants, the Green Bay Packers, and the New Orleans Saints.  These offenses, were prolific in the postseason.  Eli Manning put in one of the greatest offensive performances this month, and Aaron Rodgers (Packers) along with Drew Brees (Saints) are some of the most impressive quarterbacks to ever play the game.  Offense dominated these Super Bowls, and this is no coincidence.  ESPN decided to dedicate this past year as The Year of the Quarterback, evidence that offense might deserve more glory, and more believers.  ESPN chronicles how each great quarterback was so instrumental to their team, and maybe the most responsible for winning big games.  People are beginning to see that offenses, and not defenses, contribute more to championships.

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About Ben K.

I'm a senior management major at Bucknell University, hailing from Westchester, NY. Upon graduation, I will begin work as a management consultant.

Discussion

10 thoughts on “Defense Wins Championships…Or not?

  1. So of course, like a true American, I watched the Super Bowl last night. When watching last night’s game, I would have never have thought to think about the impact that injuries could have on the success of the team. You would think that extra players on the bench would be able to carry the team if your first string player was injured. But as Ben pointed out with last year’s Steelers and Green Bay game, the Steelers could have possibly won if their quarterback wasn’t injured. My question is, coming from a new-be to football, how important is a star player to a football team. We have seen this past season with the Miami Heat that the team can win without having Lebron James or Dwayne Wade play. Is it different for football or for any other sport for that matter?

    Posted by Dana Silverstein | February 7, 2012, 12:22 am
  2. The Superbowl example and your post in general got me to thinking about other factors that contribute to a team’s success or failure. You touched on this as well, but I think that a lot of people grossly underestimate luck as a factor. Football, especially, is a game of inches (reaching for that first down marker on third and short), and I think luck is a large determinant of whether a player makes the catch or it goes off his fingertips, or whether he got that second toe down before going out of bounds. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that skill plays a role as well, but I would argue that a lot of things happen by chance (the wind carries the ball wide-right and the kicker misses the field goal, the defensive end is at the right place at the right time and lands on the fumble). Another factor that came to mind is home field advantage. And although it doesn’t really apply to the Superbowl, I was curious to know your thoughts?

    Posted by Lauren McGuiggan | February 7, 2012, 12:21 pm
  3. As a college football player, and more specifically defensive player, I felt obligated to comment on this post. Interesting article Ben. You sound much like our coach here when you preach about the 3 different facets of football (offense, defense, special teams). I am obviously pretty biased towards the notion that defense wins championships. Not only because I play defense, but because of personal experiences. I can’t tell you how many times both in high school and here at Bucknell where defense has dictated the outcome of the game. You have a point though, Ben and its interesting to hear an outsider’s view.

    With regards to the “luck” factor you mentioned, I STRONGLY disagree with this. Members of not only football teams, but all athletic teams spend countless hours year round preparing. Morning runs, multi-hour lifts, skill work, position-specific work, agilitys and sprints are among numerous drills that I personally partake in. What’s the purpose? To tweak one’s body to it’s peak performance to ensure constant performance throughout the season; put in other words, to last the entirety of the season without injury. I would argue that although injuries are unfortunate, I’m not sure luck is the best way to describe them given the amount of preparation teams, especially NFL, spend preparing. Food for thought.

    Posted by Patrick | February 7, 2012, 1:19 pm
  4. Lauren – In terms of home field advantage, I’m really not sure how I feel about it because that, too me, generally depends on how the players feel. There’s no doubt that there’s a high level of motivation when playing on your home field, what with the lack of travel, the “home cooking”, the fans who cheer when you do something valuable for your team. But there’s also the side of the spectrum – how great of a feeling would it be to shut up 60,000 fans in an opposing stadium because you made a great play. This, I’m sure, motivates players coming to opposing stadiums. There have been numerous studies on whether home field advantage truly affects an outcome of the game (and it is interesting to look at that question within different sports), but I would really like to talk with actual professional (even amateur) athletes to know their feelings on the importance of home field advantage.

    Patrick – You bring up great points, and there is obviously a whole lot of truth to what you’re saying. Validation comes from the fact that you’ve played football for much of your life, and at a high level. I think what I was thinking about, or at least what first came to mind when writing my post, was that some injuries are impossible to prepare for and avoid. This is not to say that some aren’t, it’s clear that much of the preparation players go through is instrumental in helping to avoid injuries. However, there are injuries to players such as lineman and running backs, even quarterbacks, that are difficult to avoid. One of those injuries is the torn ACL. On many plays in a single game, players are exposed to unintentional contact with other players (including those on the same team), and these events can sometimes lead to injury. The ones that first come to mind are these:

    Jamaal Charles – season ending injury in 1st game due to incidental contact on the sideline

    Terrell Thomas – important defensive player injured for rest of season due to contact with teammate
    http://tinyurl.com/7x6baaw

    These are just a few that come to mind when I think of luck and injuries. But I see your point – hard work and preparation are the main reasons there aren’t more injuries in the NFL. Thanks for posting that.

    Posted by Ben K. | February 7, 2012, 4:34 pm
  5. As a diehard Ravens fan, I was pretty interested in your post. I spent the entire night crying (seriously) after our playoffs game where we lost to the Patriots, and there were tons of reasons we lost our game. Obviously Cundiff’s failed 32-yard field goal was the last thing to lose the game, but what about when our offense chose to have Flacco attempt a pass at a fourth down in the third quarter instead of kick the easy field goal? Or Evans dropping the beautiful pass earlier in the fourth quarter that would have put us ahead of the Patriots?

    All of these may have been offensive acts, but I cannot deny the importance of defense. If our defense had been able to sack Brady more, if we had denied more first downs, who knows if we would have been at the Superbowl this week? There is no denying that this season, our games were often saved by a stellar defense on weeks when Flacco appeared to have forgotten how to throw and our offensive players all simultaneously forgot how to catch a football. But it’s easy to blame actions that we are in control of (like choosing to run a play or who to throw to), instead of actions that we can only respond to (we have no idea who Brady will throw that football to, or if he’ll pass it off, etc). Plus all of the other random influences we don’t think of – a player has to sneeze before a play and is distracted, a rowdy crowd unnerves players, a certain football has a flaw that affects the spiral mid-air, etc.

    Interesting post! Thanks for the food for thought.

    Posted by Caitlin H. | February 7, 2012, 11:50 pm
  6. Did you get to comment on their blog? Can you provide URL of the original post and/or your comment?

    Posted by Jordi | February 8, 2012, 12:01 am
  7. Of course it is luck! If you replayed every game this season, what are the odds that you would have Patriots versus Giants? Tiny. If you replayed the superbowl 1,000 times, the Giants win like 510 times and Patriots 490. I would argue the mythic drama of sports is precisely because it only gets played once. It is anti-statistical in this sense. It is performance, not expected value. Then we can have soooooo much fun interpreting, telling the story of that one instance. No one player, no one half of a team, no one coach actually is that essential- they are all high quality. What we spectate in a game is one simulation of a dynamic system. And then we try to sense make after the fact that any of it was determined by single factor. No, it is not. But we still like the illusion that something, someone was decisive. Because it is great story-telling, engrossing drama.

    Posted by Jordi | February 8, 2012, 12:09 am

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