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The Value of Things: Overall Defense and Winning

Is defense more strongly correlated with winning than offense?

Houston Texans v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

We spent the last week and a half taking a look at different offensive statistics and their relationship with winning. We just finished with total yards and looking how much it was correlated with winning. The correlation was strong, but it begged the obvious question about whether it was better to focus on gaining yards or focus on stopping the other team from gaining yards.

It’s usually here when we have to acknowledge the obvious. If you prevent the other team from scoring points you win. If you score more points you usually win. Studying the obvious doesn’t really help us here. The question comes down to where a rebuilding team should allocate their resources. Is it better to build a strong defense or is it better to try to build a high octane offense?

To answer that question we will look at the same categories we looked at on the offensive end. In this case, we will look at the defensive player of the year and how often he was on a playoff team, the team that led the league in fewest yards allowed and how often they were in the playoffs, and the ranking for the final four teams between 2000 and 2021. Since we just did the offensive numbers, I’ll include a quick comparison.

Defensive Player of the Year

The DPOY could be labeled as the defensive MVP, but the press has handled that award differently than the MVP award. If you want a comparison, it is similar to the difference between the Cy Young Award and MVP award in baseball. When we talk MVP we start getting into esoteric questions about who meant more to his team and questions of leadership. With the Cy Young award and DPOY it is simply a question of who was the best defensive player.

DPOY— 5 Super Bowls, 1 conference loser, 5 divisional round losers, 6 wild card losers

MVP— 9 Super Bowls, 4 conference losers, 7 divisional round losers, 3 wild card losers

Obviously, the MVP award seems to be more closely in tuned with team success, but that would be a function of the award and not necessarily a commentary on offense versus defense. We are still talking 17 out of 22 award winners making the playoffs. That’s considerably stronger than the running backs and receivers we covered in the previous Value of Things.

We could label this as evidence for offense since the MVPs were 23 for 23, but I would just as soon keep going. Looking at the number one team in least yards allowed would probably be a better direct comparison with the leader in yards gained. Again, I will include both offense and defense so we can directly compare.

Least Yards Allowed

We acknowledge the obvious here. Football games are not won on yards gained and yards allowed. They are won on the scoreboard. Acknowledging that fact, we would still like to know whether it is better to focus on offensive production or defensive production. Maybe these numbers will tell us something.

Top Defensive Team— 5 Super Bowls, 4 conference losers, 6 divisional losers, 5 wild card losers

Top Offensive Team— 7 Super Bowls, 4 conference losers, 1 divisional loser, 3 wild card losers

As usual, these results are mixed, but it would appear as if the defense carries the day here. 20 of 22 teams advanced to the playoffs. Ironically, they each had about an equal chance at advancing to each round as the other. I’m not sure what is going on there, but it would appear that having the best offense makes you a slightly better chance of advancing to the Super Bowl. Still, the best offensive teams only advanced to the playoffs 15 times.

I’d imagine that this could be explained easily enough. Teams when they are behind start facing prevent defenses and those defenses don’t prevent yardage. So, it is relatively easy for a bad team to collect yards in bunches even though they aren’t seeing that success translate on the scoreboard. Of course, it could also be random.

The Final Four

Again, we will be comparing the final four teams in both offense and defense to provide a good comparison. If a correlation is strong then we will see the Super Bowl winning teams have more success in defending than the Super Bowl runner up and those that lost in the conference championship game. We haven’t always seen that. So, either those things were less important than we thought or success is more random than we thought.

Super Bowl Winning Defense: 4 top overall, 8 top five rankings, 13 top ten rankings, 14 top half rankings (composite: 10.8)

Super Bowl Winning Offense: 1 top overall, 4 top five rankings, 11 top ten rankings, 17 top half rankings (composite: 11.1)

We always get the mixed bag. More Super Bowl champions finished in the top half of the league in yards gained than yards allowed. Yet, more of those champions ranked in the top five and top ten (and number one overall). These numbers might only matter to gambling addicts, but the Super Bowl champion outranked the loser in runs allowed 12 out of 22 times. If you remember from the last article, the winner outgained the loser (during the season) only six times.

Super Bowl Losing Defense: 1 top overall, 8 top five rankings, 11 top ten rankings, 13 top half rankings (composite: 12.3)

Super Bowl Losing Offense: 5 top overall, 12 top five rankings, 14 top ten rankings, 22 top half rankings (composite: 6.5)

It would be easy to say that having a good offense is detrimental in the Super Bowl based on the numbers, but I think most would agree that’s a patently stupid statement. It would be more accurate to say that it just isn’t as strongly correlated with winning the big game as we may have thought. Defensive coordinators have two weeks to plan for the big game and we have seen too many examples of good defenses being able to smother great offenses in the big game.

Conference Loser Defense: 4 top overall, 15 top five rankings, 22 top ten rankings, 33 top half rankings (Composite: 11.2)

Conference Loser Offense: 4 top overall, 14 top five rankings, 26 top ten rankings, 32 top half rankings (Composite: 10.5)

It would appear that offense is a little more strongly correlated here, but that cuts in multiple directions. Maybe offense more likely gets you to the conference title game, but it would appear as if defense more likely gets you into the final game. Either way, the results are close enough where we really can’t make too many huge conclusions about the relationship between offense and defense.

The only thing left is the tally for the degenerate gamblers. The “better” defensive team won the AFC championship thirteen times in 22 tries (13-9) while the “better” defensive team in the NFC championship also won 13 times. So, if we combine those two, the better defensive team won the conference championship 26 times in 44 chance (26-18). I don’t know if that’s overwhelming but if you won 59 percent of your bets you’d be a little richer than you started.

Localize It

This was the first draft where we could see whether Nick Caserio would focus more on offense or defense. He ended up splitting the difference in terms of the number of picks. You could argue that he spent more in free agency on defense, but that could be explained without assuming he views as defense as more important than offense. It could mean the defense is ahead of the offense and based on the numbers above, maybe that’s a good thing.