We’ve all heard the old saying in the title.  “Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”   Sounds good.  In fact, it has become so universally accepted to the point it has become a truism, too obvious even to mention.  But we don’t blindly accept truisms here at the MMB.  We check the facts, and that means checking the stats, and that means taking a virtual road trip over to the be-all end-all site for football stats: pfref.com.

The methodology in this study was to look at *all* the Superbowl champions, all 50 of them going all the way back to SBI, which the Packers took in 1967.  I looked at 4 rankings for each of the 50 champs, to wit: OFF PF (points scored), OFF YDS (yards gained), DEF PF (points allowed),  and DEF YDS (yardage allowed).  Here is the table I came up with:

Year Champion OFF PF OFF YDS DEF PF DEF YDS NET OFF
2016 NE 3 4 1 8 2
2015 DEN 19 16 4 1 -30
2014 NE 4 11 8 13 6
2013 SEA 8 17 1 1 -23
2012 BAL 10 16 12 17 3
2011 NYG 9 8 25 27 35
2010 GB 10 9 2 5 -12
2009 NO 1 1 20 25 43
2008 PIT 20 22 1 1 -40
2007 NYG 14 16 7 7 -16
2006 IND 2 3 23 21 39
2005 PIT 9 15 3 4 -17
2004 NE 4 7 2 9 0
2003 NE 12 17 1 7 -21
2002 TB 18 24 1 1 -40
2001 NE 6 19 6 24 5
2000 BAL 14 16 1 2 -27
1999 RAMS 1 1 4 6 8
1998 DEN 2 3 8 11 14
1997 DEN 1 1 6 5 9
1996 GB 1 5 1 1 -4
1995 DAL 3 5 3 9 4
1994 SF 1 2 6 8 11
1993 DAL 2 4 2 10 6
1992 DAL 2 4 5 1 0
1991 WAS 1 4 2 3 0
1990 NYG 15 17 1 2 -29
1989 SF 1 1 3 4 5
1988 SF 7 2 8 3 2
1987 WAS 4 3 6 18 17
1986 NYG 8 10 2 2 -14
1985 CHI 2 7 1 1 -7
1984 SF 2 2 1 10 7
1983 OAK 3 7 13 4 7
1982 WAS 12 7 1 4 -14
1981 SF 7 13 2 2 -16
1980 OAK 7 16 10 11 -2
1979 PIT 1 1 5 2 5
1978 PIT 5 8 1 3 -9
1977 DAL 2 1 8 1 6
1976 OAK 4 2 12 18 24
1975 PIT 5 7 2 4 -6
1974 PIT 6 8 2 1 -11
1973 MIA 5 9 1 3 -10
1972 MIA 1 1 1 1 0
1971 DAL 1 1 7 3 8
1970 BAL COLTS 6 8 7 9 2
1969 KC 2 3 1 1 -3
1968 NYJ 2 3 4 1 0
1967 GB 9 9 3 1 -14

The average offensive ranking was 6.9 and the average defensive ranking was 5.93.  Yes, folks, defense *has* been the more important ranking when it comes to winning championships.  This isn’t to say it’s universally true that you can’t win it with offense.

The NET OFF column is something I came up with to gauge where this was an offensive team or a defensive team.  Basically, I just add up the 2 defensive rankings, and then subtract from that the sum of the 2 offensive rankings.  A negative score means that was a defensive team, whereas a positive score means it was an offensive team.  Take, for example, the 2009 Saints who had a NET OFF score of +43.  They were #1 in offense in both stats: yards gained and points scored, but were 20th and 25th in defense.  20+25-1-1= 43.  The Saints, in fact, were the most offensively-oriented SB champ in history.  The most defensive-oriented (at least by this method of reckoning) were the 1982 Bucs and 2008 Steelers.  There was only one team in history with #1 rankings in all 4 of these stats, which is also the only undefeated champion in history: the 1972 Miami Dolphins.  Their NET OFF score was 0 because they were #1 in all 4 categories.  The higher NET OFF doesn’t mean you had a better offense, it just means your offense was that much better than your defense (or vice versa for the more negative scores).

If we just add up all the NET OFF scores (subtracting the negative values) we get a sum of -97.  Again, the defenses have it.  The average NET OFF score among these 50 champions was -1.94.  More support for the notion defense wins championships.

If we just go through and add up all the #1 rankings we get 18 #1 offensive rankings and 28 #1 defensive rankings.  Once again, defense wins championships.  If we add up the offensive rankings (points + yards) for each team and count all those that score 6 or less (meaning they had offensive rankings of #3 or better for each category or some combination of #1 and #5 or whatever it takes to get to a total of 6 or less) we find there were 19 teams with the high offensive rankings.  If we do the same with the defense we find there were 21 teams with the high defensive rankings.  Defense wins again.

In summary, yes, defense does win championships.  It is evidently the more important part of the game when it comes to winning the Superbowl, but the numbers are still fairly close.  The average champ was only on average 1 ranking better on each of the categories (points and yards) on defense than it was on offense.  And there were only 2 more champions (21 versus 19) that had the high defensive rankings than that had the high offensive rankings.   This is a different result from the one I had expected.  My expectation was the offensive and defensive rankings would be more or less the same.  And it could be these numbers are not statistically significant given the sample size of only 50 champions.  In time these numbers might “regress to the mean” so to speak.  Time will tell, but until then, hold off on making that “OFF” + PIECE OF A PICKET FENCE sign for now.

And now for the obligatory chart:

NFL net offensive rankings for sb champs

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