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Today’s Note: Football, Offense, Defense, Championships and Damn Lies

January 26, 2012

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

– This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain*.

This quote is a favorite of mine, in part, because it conjures a sense of misinformation often peddled in the guise of truisms. Nowhere is this penchant more common than in sports. And among sports adages, one of the most popular in recent decades is the saying (or variations of it) “Defense wins championships.” Sometimes you see that phrase delivered as “Offense sells tickets, Defense wins games,” (or “championships”) but the “Defense wins championships” version is more common and more often applied to non-football sports.

The real question is: is it true? Does defense win championships? More so than offense, or special teams, as in another variation of the quote? Those questions are at the heart of the blog post “Does Defense Really Win Championships?by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim (guest bloggers) on Freakonomics.com. As the Superbowl in Indianapolis approaches, I thought this topic was a timely and fun subject for Today’s Note to discuss.  The presence of this analysis on Freakonomics – one of my favorite web sites – was simply too good to pass up.

The authors take on this question, framing their inquiry this way

Last weekend we saw two of the NFL’s top offenses – Green Bay and New Orleans — lose to better defenses.  Moreover, as Chris Berman himself pointed out on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, 38 (out of 45) Super Bowls have been won by a top 10 defense and 22 have been won by a top three defense. The sentiment has hardened from cliché into an article of sports law. But is it actually true? Does defense really win championships?

In a word: no.

[all italics, unless otherwise noted, are added by me, and denote a quote from the article]

They go on to tell us “We found that when it comes to winning a title, or winning in sports in general for that matter, offense and defense carry nearly identical weight. For example, here’s what Berman didn’t tell you: the number of Super Bowl champs with a top 10 offense? Thirty-eight. And a top 3 offense? Twenty.  In other words, offense wins championships, too.

There is so much good information in this post that it is a challenge not to turn this discussion into a rampant quote-fest. However, some highlights merit citing. Among these:

We further found that among the 45 NFL Super Bowls, the better defensive team — measured by points allowed that season— has won 29 times.  The better offensive team won 25 times. (Note that adds up to 53, which means that some teams are the better offensive and defensive team in the Super Bowl. Nineteen Super Bowls have featured a team superior on both sides of the ball. Those teams have won 14 of those games.)  It’s a slight edge for defense, but it’s a pretty close call and not different from random chance. 

They go on to analyze some other interesting questions about the relative values of offense and defense, including

There have been 427 NFL playoff games over the last 45 seasons. The better defensive teams have won 58 percent of them. The better offensive teams have won 62 percent of the time.

and

In almost 10,000 regular season games, the better defensive team has won 66.5 percent of the time compared with 67.4 percent of the time for the better offensive team. That’s a slight nod to the offense but a negligible difference.

As interesting as the analysis is, there is at least one place where the authors’ position didn’t serve them well. They made this observation about the conference championship games:

It’s a clear offensive vs. defensive matchup in both conference championships.  If you believe the hype, it’ll be a matchup of the defensive-minded Harbaugh brothers in the Super Bowl.  If you follow the numbers, it’ll likely be only one Harbaugh who makes it, but we couldn’t tell you which.

This is an incredibly fun, well-written and informative article. Just go read it. Now. Don’t wait.

I have preserved the following biographical note about the authors in its entirety (including italics and links) from the post:

The following is a guest post by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheimauthors of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, now out in paperback.Moskowitz is a University of Chicago financial economist, and Wertheim is senior writer at Sports Illustrated. You may remember Steve Levitt mentioning the book, or the Q&A with the authors on the blog. They are also regular contributors to the “Football Freakonomics” project

* Twain himself attributed this quote to Benjamin Disraeli, although there is no evidence he ever used it.
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