The New England Patriots are trying to do something that, best I can tell, has never been done in NFL history. They are trying to become the first outdoor team to win a Super Bowl with a great offense and a lousy defense, at least by the statistics. I have no idea if they can pull it off.
In looking back through the Super Bowl years, it seems that only two teams — the 2009 Saints and the 2006 Colts — have won a Super Bowl with a statistically great offense and a statistically lousy defense. I’ll use points scored and points allowed as a simple barometer for offense and defense*.
*Though, those stats obviously are about MORE than offense and defense.
— The Saints scored the most points in the NFL in 2009 and gave up the 20th most.
— The Colts scored the second-most in 2006, and gave up the 23rd most.
No other Super Bowl winner has a disparity quite like that. Heck, only three Super Bowl losers — Arizona in 2008 (third in points, 28th in points allowed), the 1991 Bills (second in points, 19th allowed) and the 1988 Bengals (first in points, 16th in points allowed) — have such a jolting imbalance.
Many singularly great offensive teams, through the years, have seen their seasons ruined by terrible defense. I wrote an awful lot about the Kansas City Chiefs from 2002 to 2004 when I was columnist at The Kansas City Star. Even now, I’m not sure people realize just how singular those Chiefs teams were:
2002 Chiefs: 1st in points, 28th in PA (finished 8-8)
2003 Chiefs: 1st in points, 19th in PA (made playoffs at 13-3, lost first playoff game)
2004 Chiefs: 2nd in points, 29th in PA (went 7-9)
Those offenses — led mostly by an amazing football player named Priest Holmes — were among the best in NFL history. But those defenses were bad. Staggeringly bad.
You would think that watching a team with a great offense and a lousy defense week after week would be entertaining — and, yes, those Chiefs could be wildly entertaining to watch. But the show got old pretty fast. After a while, you just wanted someone to stop someone and bring a little order to the game. The one playoff game the Chiefs reached those three years they lost to Indianapolis. They did not force a punt.
A few others Good Offenses, Not So Good Defenses through the years:
2000 Rams: 1st in points, 31st in PA (10-6, lost in first round)
2000 Broncos: 2nd in points, 23rd in PA (11-5, lost in first round)
1999 Redskins: 2nd in points, 24th in PA (10-6, lost in 2nd round)
1988 Oilers: 2nd in points, 22nd in PA (10-6, lost in 2nd round)
1986 Dolphins: 1st in points, 26th in PA (8-8)
1985 Chargers: 1st in points, 25th in PA (8-8)
1981 Chargers: 1st in points, 26th in PA (10-6, Lost Conference Championship)
As you can see, scoring a lot and giving up a lot isn’t usually an effective Super Bowl strategy — or, anyway, it wasn’t a Super Bowl strategy in years past. But 2011 was a crazy year. It felt like something fundamental changed. You undoubtedly know this, but it doesn’t make the numbers any less amazing.
Coming into this year, only five quarterbacks in NFL history had thrown for 4,800 yards — that’s 300 passing yards per game over a whole season. One of those quarterbacks was Dan Fouts of the aforementioned 1981 Chargers — he was actually the first to do it. Here are the five quarterbacks in chronological order:
— Dan Fouts, 1981, 4,802
— Dan Marino, 1984, 5,084
— Kurt Warner, 2001, 4,830
— Tom Brady, 2007, 4,806
— Drew Brees, 2008, 5069
That’s it. That’s the whole list. Peyton Manning, for all his record-breaking, has never done it. Brett Favre had never done it. Joe Montana … Steve Young … Jim Kelly … Warren Moon … John Elway … Bernie Kosar … Brian Sipe … Mike Phipps* … none of them had thrown for 4,800 yards.
*Paul McDonald … Frank Ryan … we have now mentioned pretty much all the Browns quarterbacks of my childhood.
This year, four quarterbacks threw for more than 4,800 yards. FOUR.
— Drew Brees, 5,476
— Tom Brady, 5,235
— Matthew Stafford, 5,038
— Eli Manning, 4,933
That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? You would have to say that 2011 was to passing yards was 1998 was to home runs. Two players broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old record and Matthew Stafford was just a few yards short. In addition to those four, Aaron Rodgers would have thrown for 4,800 yards but he didn’t play in the last game. Phillip Rivers threw for 4,600 yards. Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton all threw for 4,000 yards — and Newton was just a rookie. It was insane.
Why did it happen? Well, you know the theories. The rules — particularly in the way they limit defensive backs — favor offense. I’ve heard from some people around the league that the games were called a bit differently this year, that officials did not clamp down on picks and holding penalties. Also, there’s the back-shoulder pass, which I think has become much more prominent than before; when done right it’s like Miyagi’s Crane Technique and the Marino slant pass in the old Tecmo Bowl game — it cannot be defensed.
But the point here is not to determine why this happened so much as it is to figure out: Did the game itself change in 2011? Can a team win Offense First now?
Well, early signs are: No.
Three of those Offense First teams have already lost in the playoffs:
— The Green Bay Packers were No. 1 in points, 19th in PA. They got shellacked at home by the Giants.
— The New Orleans Saints were No. 2 in points, 13th in PA, a more reasonable combination, and they lost a heartbreaker in San Francisco.
— The Detroit Lions were No. 4 in points, 23 in PA, and they were steamrolled by the Saints.
For Championship Weekend, that leaves two great defensive teams — San Francisco and Baltimore — one strangely inconsistent team (Giants) and, yes, the Patriots who are the last Offense First team left standing.
Can the Patriots win the Super Bowl this way? Well, sure, of course, they CAN. But will they?
I don’t know. Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown always used to say that he had no use for domes in football because, sooner or later, a football team should have to come outside and play. Brown is famously old school, but I’ve always thought that he had a point there. You know, until 1999 no Dome Team had ever won a Super Bowl. Heck until 1998 no Dome Team had ever even REACHED a Super Bowl.
Then, in 1999, Dick Vermeil’s Rams broke through. Those Rams were actually pretty good defensively (they finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed) but everyone knows that they were offense first, and Dome Football was a big part of their style.* And they never did have to come outside and play. Both their playoff wins were at home in the Dome — including a brutal 11-6 win over Tampa Bay — and then they beat the Titans in the Super Bowl at the Georgia Dome.
*They were sometimes called the Fastest Team on Turf.
Two years later, those Rams — again with a pretty good defense — stayed indoors the whole postseason. They won their two home playoff games. Then, in the Super Bowl in the Super Dome, they lost to New England on that last second field goal.
But I would say the Rams showed a new way to win. If you were a Dome team with a great offense, you could win even if you had a suspect defense. The 2006 Colts were the second Dome Team to win the Super Bowl — they are mentioned above. Lots of offense. Shaky defense. They played two of their three playoff games at home in the Dome (but they did win at Baltimore in a savage 15-6 game that showed their worth).
The third Dome Team to win the Super Bowl? Right — the 2009 Saints mentioned above. Lots of offense. Shaky defense. They played both their playoff games at home, and then beat the Domed Colts outside at Dolphin Stadium.
It makes perfect sense, if you think about it. Teams with high-flying offenses and dubious defenses are perfectly suited for domes — especially at home. Domes allow the offenses to play with precision and, at home, in relative silence — like playing football in a laboratory. And the defenses can be helped by crowd noise and the pressure the other team feels just to keep up.
But can that formula be replicated outdoors — with weather and wind and all that? I don’t know. Sunday, the weather wasn’t too bad in Green Bay, certainly not bad for Green Bay in January, but it was cold, and there was some wind, and the Packers offense was off all day long. Aaron Rodgers missed throws. Packers receivers dropped passes. Everything seemed a tick off. Would that have happened in a Dome? Maybe. But maybe not. Meanwhile the Packers defense, which was so good in 2010, struggled much of the year and they were overwhelmed by Eli Manning and the Giants.
The Saints had a similar situation in San Francisco — good weather, fast field, and yes, they scored a bunch of points. But the Saints were obviously way off. They turned the ball over five times. And the defense couldn’t stop San Francisco in the final seconds. Would that have happened in the Super Dome?
I just think that outdoor football adds elements of uncertainty, and I would guess that most of the time elements of uncertainty help the defense. It will be fascinating to see what happens when the Patriots face the Ravens at home Sunday. The Patriots are a touchdown favorite based on early lines I’ve seen, and I think the Patriots will win. But when it comes to football I usually think offense will carry the day — that’s how my mind thins. In January, in the great outdoors, I’m often wrong.