Does Defense Really Win Championships?

I see & hear the old cliche; "Defense Wins Championships", being tossed around in many threads on this and other forums. It's thrown out there as an actual axiom like; "Everybody knows that Defense wins championships!" But does it really?

I encourage everyone to pick up the book "Scorecasting; The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played & Games Are Won." (Heck, we'll all have additional time for things like reading if the TiCats don't make the playoffs!)

It debunks lots of widely held myths in sports - one of which is the old; "Defense Wins Championships". Here's the chapter summary along with links. Enjoy everyone.

Does Defense Really Win Championships?
By Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim

[i]It’s at this point in the NFL postseason when every NFL analyst, pundit, and blogger will inevitably proclaim “defense wins championships.? With the NFL conference championships upon us this weekend, this phrase will be uttered more times than “yo? in a typical Jersey Shore episode. And why not?

Last weekend we saw two of the NFL’s top offenses – Green Bay and New Orleans — lose to better defenses. Moreover, as Chris Berman himself pointed out on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, 38 (out of 45) Super Bowls have been won by a top 10 defense and 22 have been won by a top three defense. The sentiment has hardened from cliché into an article of sports law. But is it actually true? Does defense really win championships?

In a word: no.

We found that when it comes to winning a title, or winning in sports in general for that matter, offense and defense carry nearly identical weight. For example, here’s what Berman didn’t tell you: the number of Super Bowl champs with a top 10 offense? Thirty-eight. And a top 3 offense? Twenty. In other words, offense wins championships, too.

We further found that among the 45 NFL Super Bowls, the better defensive team — measured by points allowed that season— has won 29 times. The better offensive team won 25 times. (Note that adds up to 53, which means that some teams are the better offensive and defensive team in the Super Bowl. Nineteen Super Bowls have featured a team superior on both sides of the ball. Those teams have won 14 of those games.) It’s a slight edge for defense, but it’s a pretty close call and not different from random chance. The favorite statistic of the “defense wins championships? proponents is that the top-ranked defense during the regular season has won 15 Super Bowls, whereas the top-ranked offense has won only 8. Although this would seem to confer an advantage to defense, these two numbers are not statistically different. And, remember, since the top-three defenses have won no more than the top-three offensive teams, it also means that offensive teams ranked 2 and 3 have won more Super Bowls than the second- and third-best defensive teams, though again, these differences are not statistically significant.

But we’re only talking about 45 games, so let’s broaden the sample size. There have been 427 NFL playoff games over the last 45 seasons. The better defensive teams have won 58 percent of them. The better offensive teams have won 62 percent of the time. (Again, the winning team is sometimes better both offensively and defensively, which explains why the total exceeds 100 percent.) That’s a slight edge to the offense, but again, pretty even.

In almost 10,000 regular season games, the better defensive team has won 66.5 percent of the time compared with 67.4 percent of the time for the better offensive team. That’s a slight nod to the offense but a negligible difference.

But maybe the phrase “defense wins championships? is supposed to mean is that defense is somehow more necessary than offense. Maybe a team can prevail with a middling offense, but not with a middling defense. As it turns out, that doesn’t hold up, either. Three times the Super Bowl champion ranked in the bottom half of the league in defense; only twice did it rank in the bottom half in offense. The lowest-ranked defensive team to win a Super Bowl was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, rated nineteenth that year. (They offset that by ranking third in offense.) The lowest-ranked offensive team to win the Lombardi Trophy? The 2000 Baltimore Ravens, ranked nineteenth in offense but first in defense.

What about when a great offense faces a great defense? Twenty-seven Super Bowls have pitted a top 5 offense against a top 5 defense. The best offensive team won 13, and the best defensive team won 14. Another stalemate.

In the NFL it seems, you need either exceptional defense or exceptional offense to win a championship. But neither one is more important than the other.

Okay, but does defense give an underdog more of a chance? Are upsets more likely to be sprung by defensive-minded teams?

Sifting through the numbers, we found that the answer is again no. In the regular season, playoffs, and championships, underdog teams are no more likely to win if they are good defenders than if they are good scorers.

If defense is no more critical to winning than offense is, why does everyone from Little League coaches to ESPN analysts extoll its importance? Well, no one needs to talk up the virtues of scoring. No one needs to create incentives for players to score more touchdowns. There’s a reason why fans exhort “De-fense, De-fense!? not “O-ffense, O-ffense!? Offense is fun. Offense is glamorous. Who gets the Nike shoe contracts and the other endorsements — the players who score or the defensive stoppers?

Quick, which of the following set of names is more recognizable? The top five touchdown leaders in NFL history: Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, La-Dainian Tomlinson, Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens? Or the top five interception leaders: Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell, Rod Woodson, Dick Lane, and Ken Riley?

Bottom line: Defense is no more important than offense. It’s not defense that wins championships. In virtually every sport, you need either a stellar offense or a stellar defense, and having both is even better.[/i]

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I say yes, defense wins championships in the context that if the opponent can't score, you can't lose.

Offense can win championships providing the defense can prevent the opponent from scoring more points.

But in the final analysis, I also think it has to be a combination of both sides doing their jobs, with a slight edge to the defense.

Yet reality says otherwise.

I don't know, when our defense is not playing well, and we are losing regularly, if they should happen to have a "good"
game, we tend to win. Go figure. As long as the defense continually allows the opponent to match points scored, we go nowhere.

More from Advanced Football Stats;

This means that great offenses tend to be "better" than great defenses, and terrible offenses tend to be "worse" than terrible defenses. If my offense is 2 standard deviations (SD) above the mean and your defense is 2 SD above the mean, my offense would tend to prevail because a great offense tends to gain more yards above the NFL average than an equally great defense allows below the NFL average.

So if a great offense usually trumps a great defense, where does the perception that "defense wins championships" come from? Truly dominant defenses such as the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers, or 1985 Bears are relatively rare, and are therefore more memorable. Also, defense has traditionally been overlooked, at least by the mainstream hype-laden media. Even football insiders seem to focus on offense, demonstrated by who is inducted in the Hall of Fame, or who the MVPs tend to be. So the phrase "defense wins championships" may really mean "defense helps win championships more than most people think they do."

One thing that this analysis does not do is focus on the specific case of great offensive vs. great defense. It considers team efficiencies as a whole. While this analysis indicates the likely outcomes of strong offenses vs. strong defenses, it is an indirect inference. A case by case study could look at playoff-type match-ups of good teams only, and tell us more.

Admittedly, there are some special qualities about the playoffs. The outdoor weather in northern cities can be extreme, and the home team is more often the better team. Weather may indeed affect the balance of offense and defense, but it likely affects the balance between running and passing games more. And weather affects both opponents in a game, so it's not clear if it really matters. Playoff weather could also be analyzed in further research.

So when looking at the NFL as a whole, offense and defense balances symmetrically. But when focusing on the right tails of performance, where playoff teams come from, we see that great offenses out-pace equally great defenses.

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I agree with you whole-heartedly on that point LTF. Was not being specific to Hamilton & this particular season. Just correcting the myth that people generally quote that Defence Wins Championships when clearly the numbers & reality show otherwise.

Not in Hamilton :thdn: :thdn:

I agree , In hamiltons history we have won grey cups on average offence and great defence for decades.

Got that right! :thup:

Easy to agree that both offense and defense are important. Champions often have superior offense and/or defense. Rare for champions to have average offense and defense but it has happened before.

Maybe defence doesn't win championships, but not having one guarantees not winning any.

The thing is, we have a pretty good defence.

  • Defensive line: Bruce Davis, Torrey Davis, Eddie Steele
  • Linebackers: Markieth Knowlton, Jamal Johnson, Ike Brown, with backups Jonathan Hood, Byron Bullock, Alex Joseph
  • Defensive backs: Bo Smith, Carlos Thomas, Nick Graham

Wait. Those guys aren't available right now. Instead of firing our defensive coordinator, can we fire our trainers? Aren't they the ones for making sure our players are physically game ready?

Conversely, if YOU can't score, you can't win.

What Makes Teams Win? (From Advanced NFL Stats)

Below is a table that lists the relevant statistics and their correlations with winning. Ie; Which stats/events have the most significant impact upon winning. The table is sorted in order of absolute strength of correlation.

Stat Win Correlation
Off Pass Yds/Att 0.61
Def Pass Yds/Att 0.47
Off Fumble Rate 0.46
Off Int Rate 0.45
Def FFumble Rate 0.41
Def Int Rate 0.39
Off Pen Rate. 0.37
Off Run Yds/Att 0.18
Def Run Yds/Att 0.04

The relative importance of each aspect of the game begins to come into focus. Passing is most important, followed by turnovers, then penalties and running. For every aspect, the correlation on the offensive side of the ball is stronger than on the defensive side.

A good passing game is far more important than a good running game in the NFL. It’s at least twice as important, and probably even more so. If we include interceptions as part of the passing game, passing efficiency and interception rates dwarf the importance of running efficiency by a factor of 4 to 1.

An alternate way of looking at interceptions is that they are a threat to the passing game, so their importance should be subtracted, not added, to passing efficiency to properly compare running and passing. Although it's a valid consideration, you cannot win without passing, and so the risk of interception is not optional. The bottom line is that if a team would rather be good at passing or good at running, it should choose passing.

Part of the conventional wisdom about the running game in the NFL is that it “sets up? the passing game. It keeps the defense off balance and unable to focus exclusively on defending against the pass. This may be true up to a point, but it appears that the balance between defending against the run and the pass is far out of equilibrium.

If a good running game gives a team an advantage in passing then we would see a positive and significant correlation between offensive running and passing efficiency. In fact, the correlation is 0.13, which is very weak and not statistically significant. Running well does not prevent interceptions either. The correlation between running efficiency and interception rates is 0.12. Further, including an interaction variable (running * passing) in the regression model results in an insignificant coefficient and a marginally weaker model. We have to conclude that running and passing are fundamentally independent of one another.

It appears that offensive passing is more important than defensive passing, and that offensive running is more important than defensive running. We might conclude that offense is more important than defense, but it may not be that simple. For starters, that violates the symmetry of the sport. Points allowed are equally as important as points scored.

One explanation becomes clear when you add the coefficients of offensive passing and offensive interceptions (1.14 + 0.45 = 1.59). Compare that with the sum of defensive passing and defensive interceptions (0.92 + 0.76 = 1.68). We see that the balance between offensive passing and defensive passing starts to equalize.

Comparing the sum of all offensive weights with the sum of all defensive weights yields a very balanced result. Offensive variables add up to a total weight of 2.38 vs. a total weight of defensive variables of 2.34. Although the defensive variables appear slightly stronger, the relative sums of the weights are within 1.7%--remarkably balanced.

Passing is indeed far more important than running, and although offense appears more important than defense, they're equally important.

In summary ... Like Clinton advisor James Carville said; "It's the economy stupid!" ... In football, "It's the quarterback ... !"

Offense is more important to winning than Defense.
Passing is more important than running the ball.

So, as it will be no surprise to anyone, the main factors to success/winning lay in the hands of the quarterback!

Hope we see Good Henry the last three remaining games.

P.S. Apologies for the deluge of statistics & information. Just wanted to cite original sources and dispel many of the fallacies that exist in analyzing & talking about football.

Nick Graham was defiantly a weak spot in Sask’s D, and in the one Hamilton game I watched after you guys picked him up, he looked to get picked on a lot as well. I would not say he would part of making a D better.

Agreed. I forgot to add the "with backup" before his name like I did for the linebackers. I probably should have done that with Eddie Steele as well, although he's not that much of a a step down from a starter. The point I was making was that our defence has been decimated by injuries, with at least six starters missing, so blaming the coach for the defence's lack of stops isn't really fair.

then kindly explain why our defence sucked at the beginning of the year before injuries hit, when one of your injured stalwarts was made a healthy scratch by Creehan. I am sure the injuries did not help but we were in trouble from the outset with Creehan (I think he lost the confidence of the players in training camp with his antics), but a decent coach would have made adjustments to the schemes to take into account the skill set of the replacement players.

It would be a crutch for Creehan to say that injuries are the reason for the poor defence this year. Other teams have had injuries also and have not been as putrid as our defence.

Sorry, though we may or may not lack the talent on defence, it is all on Creehan,

I stand by my post during the bye week, that the time for a new defensive coordinator was then when Creehan had shown that he was over his headm but we have essentially wasted the last 2/3rds of the season mired with the poor defensive coaching that was clearly evident in the first third of the season

Our d-line was definitely weak at the beginning of the year, especially after our drafted player (can’t remember his name) decided to go back to school; the team was hoping to have him back up Steele, but that plan fell through. Hinds was also injured at the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly. All of that forced them into a ratio shuffle, which I agree they messed up when they benched Knowlton and started Eiben. Also, remember that Peach was injured the first few weeks of the season, which was another important piece of the puzzle. It took them a while, but eventually they signed the two Davises, at which time the d-line started to get some pressure. Unfortunately, both of them ended up injured shortly after that.

The lack of pressure by the line had a direct impact on the secondary, as I don’t think any set of DBs can cover as long as our guys needed to. And it wasn’t long before Smith, arguably one of our best shut-down guys, and Collins ended up on the IR, forcing even more shuffling.

8) Are you referring to DB Milt Collins, along with Bo Smith ???
  I'm sure you are mixing him up with someone else, because Collins was released by the Cats during training camp !!

You're right. It was Carlos Thomas I was thinking of, who I thought was pretty good at safety last year. He was added to the IR just before our first game, along with Hinds.

I also forgot about Maurice Forbes (DL NI) retiring and Fortin (DL NI) going on IR, which probably had more to do with Steele not playing than our draft choice not showing up.