Football has changed considerably since legendary college coach Paul “Bear” Bryant provided the sport with one of its most oft-repeated cliches: “offense sells tickets, defense wins championships”. The rough and tumble game that Bryant’s teams dominated during his two and a half decade reign at the University of Alabama has given way to something more closely resembling basketball on grass.
This isn’t an accident, the NFL and college football have both spent the last forty years modifying the rules to favor offenses and promote scoring. First, the NFL allowed offensive linemen to extend their hands while blocking instead of requiring them to block with their arms tucked tight to their own chest in 1978, completely changing pass protection forever. In that same year, they also added the illegal contact rule to outlaw defenders from making contact with receivers more than five yards downfield.
More recently, rules have been added to protect quarterbacks from late hits, hits that are too high, hits that are too low, and hits where the defender lands on him too hard. Quarterbacks have been allowed to throw the ball away without penalty when outside the pocket. Receivers have also gotten further protection as the bone-crushing hits that the likes of Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater used to administer to pass catchers who dared go over the middle were outlawed.
All those changes have steered the way the game is played. Passing numbers are through the roof and scoring is up. That’s especially true in 2020, a season in which the league is set to smash its previous scoring record. Teams are averaging 24.7 points per game through 14 weeks, up almost ten percent compared to last season’s numbers and nearly five percent over the previous high.
As football has changed, so has the formula for success at the highest levels. While elite defenses still reigned supreme as recently as the early 2000s, things have begun to swing towards offense over the past decade.
To illustrate this, I’ll use Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. If you’re unfamiliar with DVOA, here is the short version of their methodology: DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.
(If you want the full explanation, you can read about it here.)
Below are the last 20 NFL champions along with their final rankings in Total DVOA, Offensive DVOA, and Defensive DVOA.
|Year||Super Bowl Winner||Total DVOA Rank||Off. DVOA Rank||Def. DVOA Rank|
The momentum shift from defense to offense appears to take place in 2009. In the nine seasons from 2000 to 2008, the average ranking for Super Bowl-winning offenses was 13.1 while defenses checked in at an average of 7.6. Since 2009, the average offense ranking is 7.5 with defenses dropping to an average of 11.1.
It’s obviously ideal to be good on both sides of the ball, but it’s far from a necessity as evidenced by 15 of the 20 Super Bowl champs ranking outside the top ten on at least one side of the ball. Having an actively bad unit is rarer, but that’s happened with some regularity too. The 2006 Colts and 2011 Giants both won Super Bowls despite defenses that ranked in the 20s in DVOA while the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, 2008 Steelers, and 2015 Broncos all had elite defenses that carried sub-par offenses.
That brings us to your 2020 Tennessee Titans.