WHAT WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS?
Around Super Bowl time, some fogeys older than myself like to quote the old adage that says 'defense wins championships'. They also say you need an 'elite' quarterback or an 'elite' running back to win, and that's easily disproved. Although we think of teams with 'great' defenses, and remember the Super Bowls they have won, few Super Bowls match great offenses vs great defenses, and of the recent games where you might argue defense did win it, you could only say two or three of those teams had great defenses (2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, maybe 2005 Steelers). We look at the adage when we see great offenses getting stopped by less than immortal defenses: the Patriots beating the Rams, the Giants doing it twice to the Pats. And you can certainly argue that the Saints beat the Colts because they played better defense. Super Bowl winners generally don't establish any trend at all, though in any game you can always try to say the winning team played better defense. But did defense win the championship?
The guys who claim it does often quote the table of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history. They'll tell you that, in the Super Bowl era, there were 28 teams that averaged 30 points per game or more, and only five won the Super Bowl. Interestingly, in the pre-Super Bowl era the numbers were 7 of 23, including the highest-scoring team of all time, the 1950 Rams, who averaged 38.8 ppg, went 9-3, and lost the NFL title game. In the Super Bowl era, the highest scoring teams are the 2007 Pats (36.8), 2011 Packers (35.0), 2012 Pats (34.8) 1998 Vikes (34.75) and the 2011 Saints (34.2). None of them won the Super Bowl; in fact only the 2007 Pats even made it to the big game. Note that the 07 Pats and 98 Vikes had something in common, besides not winning the Super Bowl, namely Randy Moss, who happens to be playing for the 49ers this season.
Consider the 1948 Cardinals, who averaged 32.9 points per game, but lost the NFL championship to the Steve Van Buren Eagles 7-0. Did they lose because defense beat offense? Those Eagles averaged 31.2 points per game, themselves, and the one-touchdown game was due more to the awful weather conditions than anything else. Were these teams high-scoring because the AAFC was draining off a lot of the better players from the NFL (they would merge in 1950)? You always have to account for context; thus it's no coincidence four of the top five scoring teams of the Super Bowl era played in the past five seasons.
Context is even more important when you do what few pundits ever bother to do, and reverse the equation. If defense wins championships, how come the stingiest D of all time, the 1977 Atlanta Falcons, allowing only 9.2 ppg, went 7-7 and didn't even make the playoffs? The best of the Steel Curtain teams, the '76 Steelers, allowing only 9.9 ppg, shutting out five of their last eight opponents and holding two of the other three to a field goal, went 10-4 and lost the Conference championship 24-7 to the Raiders. It's context again; of the ten 'best' defenses of the Super Bowl era, in terms of points per game allowed, nine played between 1968 and 1977—after which point Bill Walsh and the competition committee relaxed the blocking rules, reduced contact on receivers, and made the West Coast offense possible. So those teams were losing to each other, or to teams that allowed 11 or 12 points per game, like the 66 Packers or the 72 and 73 Dolphins.
Indeed, of the 30 defenses, 12 either didn't make the playoffs at all or lost in the first round. So considering their era, the 2000 Ravens, tied for eighth best with the '68 Colts (who lost the Super Bowl to the Jets), have a great argument to be considered the best defense ever, especially when you realise their pathetic offense (which still averaged 20.8ppg) allowed two touchdowns, which means their D actually gave up only 9.2 ppg, same as the '77 Falcons, in a much more high-scoring league. A similar argument might be made for the '85 Bears, who allowed 12.4 ppg but averaged 28.5 and won the Super Bowl, or the 2002 Bucs, who allowed 12.3 and won the Super Bowl.
This suggests balance is important. But even when you look at the teams with the biggest scoring differentials, only one of the top five won a Super Bowl (the '99 Rams, averaging 32.9 ppg and allowing 15.1). The 2007 Pats were the best (36.8-17.1, 19.7 differential) followed by the '68 Colts, the '99 Rams, the '69 Vikes and the '68 Cowboys. The Rams were the only ones who won the big game. However five of the next six on the list were Lombardi Trophy winners. We are, however, entering an area where there is an element of the tautological—good teams win because they have big winning margins sounds like the kind of thing Bill Belichick says at post-game press conferences.
When Peyton Manning's Colts used to fail in the playoffs, fingers were pointed at their defense, but the reality was their losses came when their offense couldn't function normally; the same thing the Ravens did to the Pats Sunday (they lost this season to the Ravens twice, the Cards, the Seahawks, and the Niners, all physical defenses, and four of them birds). In Tom Brady's playoff wins, the Pats have averaged 27.5 points, in their losses only 18. For Manning the split is even higher, 31.4 in wins, 16.1 in losses. This year the Broncos allowed 19.2 ppg, the Pats 21.5, and both fell to the Ravens, who allowed Denver's offense only 21 points, and the Pats only 13.
The adage makes more sense the way Jim Criner once said it to me, 'offense wins games, defense wins championships', meaning (I think) that a good defense could always stop an offense, whereas a good offense might not always be able to top a defense. Think about it in the context of the Patriots-Ravens game Sunday. The Pats scored a lot of points this year, but their offense was largely horizontal, especially without Gronk. So a typical Patriots' drive contained a lot of plays, and required a good deal of precision. Watching them run hurry-up on teams like Houston was a thing of beauty. But if you have to be precise on six, or eight, or ten plays, it only requires the defense to upset that precision once, or twice, in order to stop your drive. The Ravens, by playing a lot of nickel, with Haloti Ngata at the nose, weren't as bothered by the hurry-up, and their physical dominance made them less vulnerable to the runs, and allowed them to disrupt enough plays to force the Pats out of their comfort zone. I'm convinced Wes Welker was concussed with the hit just before he made a crucial third-down drop; Welker also seemed to be favouring his ribs. Tom Brady was clearly thinking about hits when he collapsed after running into the umpire, when he slid rather than try to get out of bounds at the end of the first half, and when he threw a ball away on fourth down rather than try to evade Ngata. The Ravens took the Pats out of their timing, and the Pats made enough mistakes themselves to 'prove' yet again, as Peter King might say, I'm not saying defense does win championships, but defense won this one. Or maybe it was the Ravens' offense.
RAVENS-PATRIOTS: It took the Ravens a while to notice, but once Aqib Talib left the game the Pats' D was toast. New England clearly game-planned to take the deep ball away, and Baltimore killed them underneath, with Smith showing he can dig over the middle, Dennis Pitta having another good game, and Anquan Boldin being the offensive equivalent of Bernard Pollard. With Talib out, Kyle Arrington moved from slot to outside, and he can't run, and Marquise Cole became the slot corner, and he can't cover. Another injury that hurt was Kyle Love's: they got little penetration alongside Vince Wilfork, and without Chandler Jones, they weren't getting much outside either. This gave Joe Flacco time, and it was Flacco who looked more like Tom Brady than Brady did.
The biggest effect of Ray Lewis' return has been to make Dannell Ellerbee a better player, but with Ngata and Terrell Suggs both getting back to full mobility, that makes the Ravens a very dangerous group in the front seven. Similarly, with Bryant McKinnie in relatively good shape now, the rejigged O line is playing well. Oddly enough, I thought the refs let both the Ravens' O line and their secondary get away with a lot against Denver, but in New England, where they were if anything more dominant physically, I don't think they were doing much that needed to be flagged. In fact the big holding call came against Nate Solder; not a monster hold, but a hold none the less.
Yet again we discovered that Bill Belichick doesn't fully trust Stephen Gostkowski (though a 51 yarder in Foxborough was admittedly a bigger risk into the wind that a 48 yarder was in Phoenix). Even so, at some point he had to consider not putting the game into the hands of his defense, playing without their best corner. I also wonder why it took Stephen Ridley's concussion to bring Shane Vereen on for more than cameos; Danny Woodhead didn't have to take all his snaps. People will ask whether the Patriots' 'dynasty' can continue: basically it's up to Tom Brady and health. They've got younger, and improved their defense, but they were a different and better team after they traded for Talib, and they were a worse team without him. They need someone, besides Gronk, who can stretch defenses vertically, and they could use either a dynamic OLB pass rusher or a good up front guy. They will be back, and if Brady can remember how to scramble....
FMTE'S ALL PRO TEAM
WR: Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, AJ Green
TE: Tony Gonzalez
T: Ryan Clady, Duane Brown
G: Mike Iupati, Marshall Yanda
C: Mike Pouncey
QB: Aaron Rodgers
RB: Adrian Peterson
FB: Vonta Leach
DE: Justin Smith, JJ Watt
DT: Geno Atkins, Vince Wilfork
OLB: Clay Matthews, Von Miller
ILB: Navorro Bowman, Daryl Washington
CB: Richard Sherman, Charles Tillman, Champ Bailey
SS: Eric Weddle
FS: Earl Thomas
PK: Blair Walsh
P: Andy Lee
KR: Jacoby Jones
THE ROONEY RULE
There has been a lot of comment in the past week about the way the Rooney rule doesn't seem to have had much effect on minority hiring in the NFL. In fact, the rule has been renamed the Romney Rule, and teams are now required to hand each club president the names and pictures of appropriate minority candidates in binders. There are a couple of things going on here, which might mitigate against the accusations, depending on how much you believe in the power of herd mentality, and how much you feel CFL coaches constitute their own minority.
I was amazed Ray Horton wasn't considered more strongly, but then I was amazed that the same applied to Mike Zimmer. Defensive coordinators weren't hot items this year (even though everyone believes defense wins championships, right?). You might also argue that the automatic promotion of hot coordinators is just as risky as, say, elevating college coaches, because facility with the Xs and Os, or with motivation of part of a team, isn't the same as dealing with the pressures and responsibilities of a head coaching job. Indeed, hot coordinators fail just as often as hotshot college coaches, and if Chip Kelly was such a hot item, and Jim Harbaugh so successful this year, and Pep Hamilton brought into Indy to be Andrew Luck's designated offensive coordinator, I was sorely surprised no one was interested in Stanford's David Shaw.
Of the retreads, I could understand the lack of interest in Hue Jackson, whose 8-8 season in Oakland might look a little better in retrospect, though his trade for Carson Palmer doesn't, and in Jim Caldwell, who hadn't really shown much of an impact in Baltimore, and was perceived as a caretaker in Indy—a perception which scares teams off nowadays, call it the 'Seifert Factor'. But what really surprised me was the firing of Lovie Smith, after a 10 win season (which in itself is unusual). I think it has more to do with the GM, Phil Emery, preferring to go his own way with his own coach, and having just enough of an excuse to do that. But you could have argued that with a creative offensive coordinator he could work with, Lovie staying at Chicago would have been their best move. I suspect Lovie will be back as a head coach next season, at the top of many teams' lists. I hope so.
SAN FRANCISCO AT ATLANTA: Coincidence is not causation, but watching both west coast teams sleepwalk through the early stages of games in the Bubba Dome, you wonder if bio-rhythms ought to be added to the injury lists. Time is a factor in this game; you note that both Justin Smith and Ray Lewis are playing with braces for their biceps, much like the knee braces players wear after torn ligaments there. The Niners overcame the analysis that said they weren't built to come back from a big deficit, and the way they did it was fascinating, as they both took what they thought would be there (Vernon Davis's invisibility) and what they do best (power running). The Falcons had game-planned to deny Kaepernick the run, usually playing a 5 man front and cutting off the outside, so the Niners simply took the inside, which was easier for them than it had been for Seattle because a) Frank Gore was healthier than Marshawn Lynch and b) the Niners often use a tight end in motion to give them an extra blocker. The beauty of this strategy came on the LaMichael James touchdown. It was not a read-option play at all, but more like the old veer option, in that Kaepernick was headed inside, and Smith was the outside threat.
Atlanta's failure to adjust to this was probably down to their trying to adjust to Davis too ,but more puzzling was their failure to execute with their best weapons in the second half: the wideouts and Tony Gonzalez. Yes, the turnovers hurt, but Matt Ryan had to be able to get downfield at some point. In retrospect, the biggest play of the game was made by the 'forgotten' linebacker of the Niners, Ahmad Brooks, who tipped away a swing pass to Harry Douglas that might have given Atlanta a score at game's end, and given us an even better finish. Defense wins championships, right?
LAST WEEK: 1-1 PLAYOFFS: 7-3