Offense Wins Championships: Why a below-average defense doesn’t disqualify Titans as contenders

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.

YearSuper Bowl WinnerTotal DVOA RankOff. DVOA RankDef. DVOA Rank
2000Ravens3222
2001Patriots111113
2002Buccaneers1201
2003Patriots4142
2004Patriots236
2005Steelers483
2006Colts7126
2007Giants151814
2008Steelers4211
2009Saints6212
2010Packers372
2011Giants12721
2012Ravens101319
2013Seahawks171
2014Patriots5612
2015Broncos8241
2016Patriots1216
2017Eagles575
2018Patriots7519
2019Chiefs4314

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.

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Comments

  1. This was a great read. I especially like the details you shared about how our defense is trending, the insights about the Clowney/Long transitions, and your prognosis regarding the missing piece of the puzzle that is strong press-man coverage, which will hopefully arrive at some point. Thanks.

  2. This makes me a little worried about the future. We have a defensive head coach. What happens when Arthur Smith leaves or we can’t re-sign Corey Davis? If Vrabel can’t put together a descent defense, and we lose key offensive pieces, we will obviously have some low win years. We know our GM can draft and bring in quality offensive free agents like lineman, tight ends, and receivers, but he can’t find pass rushers. I think they will need to be honest about what they are good at and spend money on offense. If we could turn back time and not spend 20 million on Clowney and Beasley, we could have rolled over that money to next year to pay Corey Davis and an elite tight end.

    1. They definitely need to find some guys who can rush the passer. That’s got to be priority number one this offseason (behind keeping the offense intact). If they had a true difference maker in the pass rush I think that would make a world of difference for them overall defensively.

      As for the offense, I’m a little less concerned about the future there. Arthur Smith has been great, but he essentially picked up the offense that LaFleur left behind and continued to evolve it. I’d imagine that they’ll do something similar if/when he leaves. We also know from Dean Pees that Vrabel was very involved in the offense last year and with the core of that group still there I’d fully expect them to keep the same system. Maybe Todd Downing or Keith Carter is the guy calling plays but the system itself and how they teach it should remain consistent.

      They do need to find a way to keep Davis though.

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