Published January 22, 2013
Making a case for the defenseJeff Saukaitis, Sports Network
For decades, the mantra "defense wins championships" was frequently uttered during the NFL postseason.No one seems to say it anymore.Years of rules changes have benefited offenses. The increase of three- and four-wide receiver sets has led to more big plays. The recent influx of talented, dual-threat quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick has contributed to a change in the NFL's style of play.In current times, the general feeling is that it's in fact offense that wins championships. Wide-open, predominantly passing attacks have rendered the old three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach virtually obsolete.Having a quarterback throw for over 4,000 yards in a season used to be a rarity. This season, the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees compiled 5,177 passing yards. Ten other quarterbacks surpassed 4,000 yards, and a whopping 22 signal- callers threw for at least 3,200 yards, or 200 per game.Points are being scored at an astronomical rate in the NFL. To illustrate, the 1966 Green Bay Packers, the first Super Bowl champions, had a roster that read like a Pro Football Hall of Fame roll call. That supremely talented team averaged 23.9 points per game in compiling a 12-2 regular-season record.In 2012, there were 13 teams - better than 40 percent of the league - that averaged more regular-season points per game than the 1966 Packers.Look at this year's divisional-round playoff scores: Baltimore upset Denver, 38-35 in overtime; New England outscored Houston, 41-28; Atlanta edged Seattle, 30-28; and San Francisco crushed Green Bay, 45-31. There was little defense to be found in any of those games.NFL owners and general managers certainly took notice. There were eight head coaching openings this offseason, and seven of them went to offensive-minded candidates (the Kansas City Chiefs' Andy Reid, the Chicago Bears' Marc Trestman, the Cleveland Browns' Rob Chudzinski, the Arizona Cardinals' Bruce Arians, the Buffalo Bills' Doug Marrone, the San Diego Chargers' Mike McCoy and the Philadelphia Eagles' Chip Kelly).The lone defensive coach who was selected for a head coaching job was Gus Bradley, who will be taking over the Jacksonville Jaguars.The eight new head coaches were hired over a two-week period, and the whole process wasn't too kind to defensive-minded coaches.Lovie Smith got a raw deal when he was fired in Chicago, despite leading the Bears to an 81-63 regular-season record, a 3-3 postseason mark and a Super Bowl appearance in nine years at the helm. He had several interviews for head coaching jobs with other teams, but he was not hired by any of them. He could sit out the 2013 campaign and lament how injuries to a few star players prevented Chicago from reaching the playoffs each of the past two seasons.Highly regarded Ray Horton interviewed for a couple of head coaching openings and was hoping for a promotion with Arizona. It didn't happen; the Cardinals instead hired Arians to try to focus on fixing their anemic offense. Horton moved on to Cleveland to become its offensive coordinator.Defensive coordinators Mike Nolan of the Atlanta Falcons, Mike Zimmer of the Cincinnati Bengals and Mel Tucker of the Jacksonville Jaguars were not hired for head coaching jobs despite each interviewing for at least one of the openings.The emphasis on hiring offensive-minded coaches shows that NFL teams believe that's the most successful path to a Super Bowl championship.The problem is that some trends seem to contradict the notion.While offense ruled the day more often than not during the 2012 NFL season, the fact is that eight of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs had head coaches who had been predominantly defensive coaches. At least that's if you count the Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh, who was the Eagles' special teams coordinator for years, but took over as defensive backs coach the season prior to being hired to his current position.The other defensive-minded head coaches who reached the playoffs were the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick, the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll, the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis, the Indianapolis Colts' Chuck Pagano, the Denver Broncos' John Fox, the Minnesota Vikings' Leslie Frazier and the Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith. That should be evidence that a defensive emphasis can still win in the NFL, even though that belief no longer seems to be shared by the majority.For those who think offense rules the roost in recent years, look at these numbers: In the past seven Super Bowls, only two teams scored 30 points or more, and six teams scored 17 or fewer.Perhaps it's true that offense is the most instrumental factor in getting teams into the postseason. When teams get to the title game, though, more often than not, a strong defensive performance is what separates champions from runners- up.How far do you want to go back? Seven of the last nine Super Bowls were won by defensive-minded head coaches, as were eight of the last 11. The Patriots' Belichick won three of those, and the other five were won by Tom Coughlin (twice), Mike Tomlin, Tony Dungy and Bill Cowher.The only offensive-minded head coaches to win a Super Bowl in the past 11 seasons are Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton and Jon Gruden.Additionally, think about it in terms of college football. At Oregon this past year, Chip Kelly coached a dominating offense with a unique scheme. The Ducks averaged 49.6 points per game, but they ended up 12-1, and a 17-14 regular- season loss to a team that ranked in the top 20 in the nation in total defense - Stanford - cost them a chance to compete for a national title.Who won the NCAA championship? It was Alabama, with defensive-minded coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide posted four shutouts and yielded an average of just 10.9 points per game.Offense is sexy, and it's probably more dominant than ever in pro football. Still, don't discount the importance of defense in this year's Super Bowl, and don't think that teams with defensive-minded head coaches won't compete for future league titles.Look at the teams in this year's Super Bowl: San Francisco is generally regarded as one of the league's top defensive teams and, although Baltimore's defense is not as strong as it used to be, it was excellent in shutting out high-powered New England in the second half of the AFC Championship Game.Innovative types of offenses get most of the attention, but there's usually a life span. As Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the read option attack last week: "But this, too, I think, will pass."Time will tell. Rodgers could be right and he could be wrong, but history is on his side. Many an offensive system has thrived in the NFL over the short term, but defenses have usually caught up and regained the upper hand.Most likely, defenses will again find a way to win NFL championships. That's been the case for years. It's even been the case recently, even though perceptions are the opposite.If the past - even the recent past - is an indicator, the better defensive team will most likely win the Super Bowl next weekend.Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.