CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., January 23, 2014 — As the National Football League prepares for Super Bowl XLVIII, the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks offer contrasting styles. The Broncos have the league’s top offense, led by passing machine Peyton Manning. The Seahawks bring the number one defense, led by the loquacious Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom.
While Manning is a first ballot Hall of Famer, many analysts are picking Seattle to win the Super Bowl because defense wins championships.
This maxim has been repeated over the decades. Offense is entertainment, but defense wins championships.
The 1985 Bears are remembered for their defense. So were the Steel Curtain Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens had a defense for the ages and one of the worst offenses to ever reach the playoffs. They were the closest thing to half a team. Many people would be fine with Trent Dilfer giving his Super Bowl ring to Ray Lewis.
On the flip side, the Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers of the 1990s had some of the greatest offenses of all time, but never won a Super Bowl. The Oilers did not even win a playoff game during their seven-year offensive stretch.
The 1998 Minnesota Vikings, 2007 New England Patriots and 1983 Redskins all would have been among the greatest teams in NFL history had their defenses kept up with their offenses. Don “Air” Coryell would probably be in the Hall of Fame now had the San Diego Chargers given Dan Fouts any help on defense. Dan Marino only got the Miami Dolphins to one Super Bowl, a loss, despite shattering NFL records.
The 2002 season saw the top offense of the Oakland Raiders get throttled by the top defense of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. The Bucs had five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns.
However, does this tell the entire story? In that one game, Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden was coaching the Raiders a year earlier. He knew Oakland’s playbook. Tampa Bay players publicly said during the game that they had seen Oakland’s plays in practice.
There is plenty of data to dispel the notion that defense wins championships.
The 1999 St. Louis Rams were the Greatest Show on Turf. Kurt Warner lit up the league by throwing to Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl. Marshall Faulk ran wild. Who played defense for that Super Bowl winning team? Most people have no idea. They remember mad scientist Mike Martz dialing up offensive wizardry. They defeated the Tennessee Titans, led by defensive genius Buddy Ryan disciple Jeff Fisher. In the NFC Title Game that year, the Rams defeated the Buccaneers.
The 2006 Indianapolis Colts finally got Peyton Manning his ring. Outside of bone-crunching safety Bob Sanders, does anyone remember that defense? Sanders missed a ton of games by hitting so hard that he knocked himself and his opponents out of games. This team won because of their offense. They defeated the Chicago Bears, led by defensive standout coach Lovie Smith and future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher.
The 2012 San Francisco 49ers had a ferocious defense. While the 2012 Ravens that beat them did have Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, they also had a prolific offense led by Joe Flacco. Flacco’s touchdown bomb against Denver in the playoffs was the miracle that propelled Baltimore to the championship.
The only unbeaten team was the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Don Shula’s squad is known for the power running trio of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris.
Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the 1960s had Ray Nitschke and plenty of other defensive heroes, but they are known for the power sweep. “A seal here, a seal here, and run it right in the alley,” is what Lombardi preached and what the Packers were about. It was offense that won the Ice Bowl, with Jerry Kramer delivering the key block that allowed Bart Starr to sneak across the goal line.
The 1980 Oakland Raiders had a solid defense, but the emergence of Jim Plunkett throwing bombs to Cliff Branch propelled that team to a Super Bowl Title.
Bill Walsh created a dynasty with the 49ers in the 1980s by revolutionizing the way offensive football is played. After five Super Bowl victories in 15 years, the defenses finally began to catch up.
After three Super Bowl losses in the 1980s, John Elway finally earned two Super Bowl rings in the 1990s for the Denver Broncos with help from a power running game featuring Terrell Davis. Their offense was spectacular in both championship wins. Their defense did enough to supplement the offense.
After all is said and done, the evidence is not conclusive either way. Defense wins championships, except when it does not. Offense is merely entertainment, except when it is the difference between winning and losing.