Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's The Quarterback, Not The Defense

NOTE: Originally authored in April 2014, this piece has been updated in March 2015 and several times since:

As the NFL off-season drones on, there is a curious debate, and I've noticed in several forums it's taken a disturbing hold - that despite one of the all-time worst performances ever seen in a Superbowl - or any other playoff game for that matter - Peyton Manning is still somehow a superior quarterback to Russell Wilson, because "anyone can average fifteen points scored per game" (an ironic assertion given the 2015 Denver Broncos).   It ostensibly was the Seahawks defense that was the reason for the Superbowl success.

The critics of Wilson base this on the disparity of volume stats between the two quarterbacks, and the argument has been expanded to push the long-standing myth "defense wins championships."

By now people who watch football should know better.


The Seahawks defense was ostensibly bad in Pete Carroll's first year there, 2010.   25th in points allowed with nearly 6,000 yards allowed, the 2010 Seahawks won an anemic NFC West at 7-9, then in the playoffs did something crazy - they defeated the defending Superbowl champions (the Saints) 41-36 before falling to the far-inferior Bears 35-24.   For 2011 the Seahawks defense stormed to 7th in fewest points allowed - yet again managed just 7-9 and didn't make the playoffs.  

2012 is when Carroll's Seahawks storm really got going, and while people will point to the Seahawks storming to first in fewest points allowed for two straight seasons, the real key was the Seahawks changed quarterbacks - from the erratic Tavaris Jackson to the unsung rookie Russell Wilson - and in the process they dumped their big-name free agent signing, Matt Flynn.   Wilson hit a 100 passer rating for the season, threw 26 touchdowns and just ten INTs, and even rushed for 489 yards and four touchdowns.   He also erased a 27-7 gap at Atlanta in the playoffs. 

Saying Wilson's defense is what won for the Seahawks is mind-bogglingly stupid on its face, because Tavaris Jackson had basically that same defense, as did the free agent Flynn; the difference was Wilson made plays; Jackson didn't, and Flynn played his way out of Seattle.    It becomes even more idiotic considering Russell Wilson saw his defense blow a ten-point lead in the second half of Superbowl XLIX and he had to average a shocking TEN yards per pass to come to the doorstep of winning it.

A further irony - Matt Flynn in 2013 wound up back in Green Bay as Aaron Rodgers' backup, but had to start several games that year, saddled with a defense that finished 24th in points allowed.   He nonetheless erased a 23-7 gap to the Vikings for a 26-26 tie, got smashed 40-10 by the Lions, then erased a 21-10 gap to beat the Falcons 22-21 and then erased a 26-3 to beat the Cowboys 37-36.  

With a worthless defense.


And yet the myth of "defense wins championships" is a myth football people cling to with absurd tenacity. 

It's a myth pushed about such celebrated defenses as the 1985 Bears, the 2000 Ravens, and the 1970s Steelers - and yet each has a quarterback story that undermines the myth.

The 1985 Bears' genesis lay in the 1983 and 1984 seasons.   In Mike Ditka's second season as coach, with Buddy Ryan his defensive coordinator - and their now-famous internal feud - the 1983 Bears finished 8-8 and were 5th in points allowed.   Yet they dropped six of their first seven games before winning six of their last nine.   Second-year quarterback Jim McMahon started thirteen games with seven wins.   For 1984 the Bears stormed to 10-6 and allowed fewer than 3,900 yards of opposing offense; by any objective measure that was a better defense than the ensuing season's squad.   Yet they lost three of their last six games and used five different starting quarterbacks; Steve Fuller was made starter in the Bears' playoff run, defeating the defending NFC Champion Redskins before getting smoked 23-0 by Joe Montana's 49ers.

The 1985 Bears remain one of the most celebrated squads in football history, yet a fact gets overlooked about that 1985 team - the Bears offense exploded to 456 points scored, this after 1984's total of 325 and 1983's total of 311.   While turnovers by the defense had a role, the bottom line is scoring that many points can't be done without an offense that's working - and that can't be done without competent quarterbacking.   Yet the Bears offense is always overlooked because it was never as pretty as the defense.   McMahon was 11-0 as starter that year, while Steve Fuller started five games, winning four.


The 2000 Ravens defense likewise saw its genesis from the previous season; under former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick the unit reached sixth in points allowed in 1999.   Scott Mitchell had that defense and lost both his starts with the Ravens; Stoney Case won two straight, then lost two straight; after throwing three interceptions against Kansas City he was benched for Tony Banks.   In his first game Banks built a 10-3 lead against the Bills but couldn't hold it, despite the Ravens defense picking off Doug Flutie three times.   He then starting winning, crushing the Browns 41-9 and winning six of eight starts before falling in the season finale at New England.  

Banks started the first eight games of Baltimore's 2000 season - and was 5-3; the Ravens scored 16 points in their Week One win over the Steelers, but after putting up 39 over the Jaguars (the club's first ever victory in eleven tries - this dating to the Jaguars' debut 1995 season when the present-day Ravens were still the Cleveland Browns - over Jacksonville) and 37 on the Bengals, the Ravens offense under Banks broke six points scored only twice.

The Ravens then benched Banks and put in Trent Dilfer, considered a washout from erratic play with the Bucs.   After losing to the Steelers, Dilfer then did something overlooked in the romance about the Ravens defense - he started putting up points.   He won seven straight games and put up at least 24 in six of them.   He then put up 21 in Baltimore's first ever playoff win, 24 in the divisional round win over the hated Titans (the lone playoff game in Baltimore's run where they had to play from behind at any point), and sixteen in the AFC Championship Game over the Raiders,  and it wasn't about handing off to running back Jamal Lewis even though he had four rushing touchdowns that postseason - Dilfer delivered key touchdowns against the Broncos and the Raiders, allowing the Ravens defense to front-run.   

The Ravens defense were nothing but front-runners again after Dilfer delivered the opening touchdown against the overmatched New York Giants in Superbowl XXXV - where Dilfer played smart football in leading four scoring drives, Kerry Collins played Favreball, throwing four INTs - Duane Starks ran back one for a touchdown.

Dilfer was let go after that season and finished up in Seattle as Matt Hasselback's backup, while the famed Ravens defense went eight seasons with just one playoff win (over Miami in 2001) until Billick was fired and a quarterback who could sustain good play was drafted.   In the seven seasons following 2000 the Ravens went 60-49 with in essence the same defense that ostensibly was the reason for their 2000 success.   The difference between 2001-7 and 2000?   Trent Dilfer gave the Ravens competent quarterback play, especially in the postseason.   His successors (Chris Redman, Jeff Blake, Kyle Boller, Troy Smith) until Joe Flacco's arrival struggled to do so with his defense as his predecessors - Mitchell, Case, Jim Harbaugh, Vinny Testaverde - had struggled.

When the Ravens did get competent quarterbacking in that pre-Flacco period, they went to the playoffs.  While Elvis Grbac will not get benefit of the doubt in most analyses, the fact remains in his 2001 season with Baltimore he put up competent efforts for the Ravens to win, while Randall Cunningham closed out his career on a high note, winning both his starts in 2001 with the Ravens, beating Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.   The 2003 Ravens were 5-5 until Anthony Wright took over, authored the most famous comeback win in Ravens history, and won five of his six starts to win the AFC North title.    Steve McNair failed to finish his second season in Baltimore, but he won them 13 games in 2006 en route to another division title.

One further note should be made about the 2000 Ravens - though the statistics may say they were the best defense in the league, in reality they weren't - the defenses the football railbirds were talking about throughout that season was the Bucs and the Eagles, because they were taking on consistently better quarterbacks than what the Ravens faced and were "mauling" (Cris Collinsworth's description) their opponents.  


The 1970s Steelers are another celebrated defense that gets the credit over the offense or the quarterback.   The Steel Curtain became a virtual official branch of the Pro Football Hall Of Fame, yet when the Steelers needed a defensive stand in their 1972 playoff game against the Raiders, the defense failed - it took a desperation heave by Bradshaw and the most controversial bounce in football history to pull off the most celebrated 13-7 game ever seen. 

Yet in 1973 the Steelers started changing quarterbacks - Joe Gilliam started once and lost 21-16 to the Browns; Terry Hanratty started four games with a 2-2 split.   Bradshaw came back for the playoffs and threw three picks against the Raiders.    And in 1974 it got worse - Gilliam started six games, winning four, yet also famously seeing a 35-35 tie with the Broncos and throwing two INTs in a shutout loss at home to the Raiders.   Terry Hanratty started against the Browns and won, but could no longer throw the ball, and finally Chuck Noll settled on Bradshaw as his starter - this for an offense that, unnoticed then and later, was sixth in scoring in the league.

Once Noll settled on Bradshaw, the Steelers started winning with more consistency, and continued to do so with Bradshaw.   Though he put up very sluggish numbers in the Superbowl IX win, it should be noted he still outquarterbacked Fran Tarkenton, who threw three picks in that game.   Bradshaw proved decisive in Pittsburgh's next three Superbowls, throwing the game-winning bomb in Superbowl X, then storming the Steelers to five touchdowns in Superbowl XIII - enough cushion for the defense that got shredded for 31 points by Roger Staubach's Cowboys - and finally overcoming three INTs to deliver the game-winning touchdown in Superbowl XIV against the Rams.  


The Steelers went into a 1980s funk until Bill Cowher replaced Chuck Noll after 1991.   Under Cowher the Steel Curtain had a renaissance, and the Steelers became a playoff power again - yet despite appearing in Superbowl XXX they couldn't get over the hump.   Neil O'Donnell was signed by the Steelers in 1991, winning 39 of 61 starts but going 3-4 in the playoffs - his two ugly INTs to the inept Larry Brown in the Superbowl effectively ended his tenure there.

Yet the Steelers with Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart in the 1996-2001 period didn't get better - with "Slash" Stewart as 2001's full-time starter they went 13-3 and beat the Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs - then the 2001 New England Patriots embarrassed the Steelers despite having to use two quarterbacks - and Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe both outplayed Stewart.

Throughout this 1992-2003 period the Steelers defense was consistently top-ten in fewest points allowed, even when the Steelers failed to make the playoffs in the 1998-2000 period.   2002 was particularly instructive, for the Steelers defense was porous, allowing 21 points a game - Kordell Stewart finally flamed out and former Dan Reeves draft bust Tommy Maddox took over three games into the season, and the 0-2 Steelers promptly won five of their next seven games and authored a 34-34 tie with the Falcons for good measure; injury in a loss to the Titans sidelined Maddox for several games, but Maddox came back, finished up a 10-5-1 division title season, then stormed the Steelers to the stunning 36-33 comeback win over the upstart Cleveland Browns, before a bitter 34-31 overtime loss to the Titans followed.

For 2004 after a 6-10 season in 2003, the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger to be Maddox's backup.  That role lasted two games; Roethlisberger took over in Week Three and started winning - and kept winning.   By season's end - with the same defense that suddenly couldn't win under Maddox - Roethlisberger had authored one of the most amazing rookie seasons ever seen, a Steelers club-record 15-1 season.   Though 2005 was rougher at 10-6 (this despite the defense being third in fewest points allowed that year) with injury forcing Maddox to start for several games, the Steelers made the playoffs and exploded to four straight playoff wins and the famed fifth Superbowl title.

The bottom line - the Steelers couldn't win with Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty, Mark Malone, or Bubby Brister - they got enough good play out of Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, and Tommy Maddox to become a playoff contender again, but it was Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger who ultimately were the reason the Steelers became champions.


Perhaps the best illustration of the myth of defense winning championships remains the New England Patriots, whose defense under Bill Belichick has often been called among the greatest in history.    The reality, though, is opposite.   At the start of the 2001 season the defense was porous and had shown no ability to make clutch plays.   Then came the famous injury to Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady's ascension to starter.   With that same defense, same offense, same everything that was outscored 33-20 in the first two games - and which throughout the season struggled to make third-down stops - Brady directed scoring drives; he led the Patriots to a stunning overtime comeback win over the San Diego Chargers; he led an offense that finished sixth in scoring; he erased a 13-3 fourth-quarter gap to win the infamous "Tuck Rule" playoff game; injury at Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game forced Bledsoe back onto the field and Drew shot down the Steelers despite a third-quarter rally; Brady then took over in the Superbowl, gave his defense a 17-3 lead in the fourth quarter - and saw that defense collapse to the resurgent Rams offense; Brady's answer was to author the first walkoff scoring drive in Superbowl history.

That so-called "elite" defense was abysmal in 2002 as the Patriots went 9-7 while in effect installing a new offense.   2003 the Patriots dubbed their defense The Homeland Security defense as it held opponents to a club-low 238 points allowed and 68 points allowed in Foxboro - and overlooked was its struggle against Steve McNair's Titans twice - getting gashed for 30 points in October while barely escaping via a McNair bomb bouncing off Drew Bennett's fingers in the divisional playoffs - the Dolphins at Miami, the always-troublesome Broncos, Peyton Manning's Colts at the RCA Dome, and finally the Superbowl against a Carolina Panthers team that may be the best team that didn't win a Superbowl.   Jake Delhomme and company speared the Patriots' vaunted defense and put up four touchdowns in the wildest Superbowl ever seen - and it was won by another scoring drive led by Brady.

It was more of the same in 2004 as the Patriots shot to another 14-2 season, crushed Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, then nearly blew a 10-point lead late in the Superbowl to an Eagles team in over its head with Donovan McNabb literally throwing up on the field then throwing a late interception to end the game - no endorsement of the Patriots' overrated defense this.  

Brady's next three trips to the Superbowl continued the pattern of the vaunted Patriots defense failing and needing to be rescued by Brady - except this time the collapses happened too late in the game for Brady to win.  It nearly happened again in Superbowl XLIX as Brady's Patriots fell behind Russell Wilson's Seahawks 24-14; Brady then speared the vaunted Pete Carroll defense for two late touchdowns.   Wilson then whipped the Seahawks to the 1-yard line; only there did a defensive play win the game after the Patriots defense was rescued yet again by Brady.


Nowhere has Brady won via a defense worthy of being considered great.   And the quarterback he sought to emulate didn't win with a particularly great defense, either.   Joe Montana's 1981 breakthrough season with the 49ers was with a defense second in points allowed and plus-23 in turnover differential - yet he had to score 92 points - basically 31 a game - in the playoffs for the Niners to become champions.   His 1984 championship season was with the top defense in points allowed, though only plus-15 in turnover differential.  His 1988 championship was with a 10-6 team, a defense only eighth in points allowed and just plus-12 in turnover differential, and with the now-famous feud with Steve Young kicking into overdrive.  

Montana and Young's careers are defined not by their defenses, but by their performances, especially in clutch moments - the 1981 playoff win over the Cowboys, the bomb to Jerry Rice to beat the Giants in 1988, Young's touchdown run to beat the Vikings that same year, Montana's last-minute touchdown to win Superbowl XXIII, the comeback win at Philly in 1989, Montana's playoff comeback with Kansas City against the Oilers in 1993, Young's comeback at Detroit despite injury, the 1996 comeback win over the Bengals, the immortal touchdown to Terrell Owens to beat Green Bay in 1998.  


Basically it comes down to the following -

When did the Steelers win with Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty, Mark Malone, or Bubby Brister?

When did the Ravens win with Vinny Testaverde, Jim Harbaugh, Scott Mitchell, Stoney Case, Tony Banks, Chris Redman, Jeff Blake, or Kyle Boller?

When did the 49ers win with Matt Cavanaugh, Steve DeBerg, Steve Bono, Tim Rattay, or Glenn Dorsey?

When did the Patriots win with Jim Plunkett, Cavanaugh, Mike Taliaferro, Joe Kapp, Tommy Hodson, Hugh Millen, or the immortal Michael Bishop?   Or, for that matter, with Tim Tebow?

When did the Rams' Greatest Show On Turf do anything with Tony Banks or Trent Green or Jamie Martin? 

When did the Cowboys win with Brandon Laufenberg, Steve Pelluer, Kevin Sweeney, Chad Hutchinson, Quincy Carter.............or Tony Romo? 

It's a myth that persists, as Lindy's Sports Pro Football 2014 Preview revives the hoary old argument how the top-scoring offense lost four of five Superbowls pitted against the top-scoring defense, and even notes the losing quarterbacks - Peyton Manning, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and Roger Staubach - completely ignoring that Staubach played the Steelers supremely tough BOTH times and they needed Terry Bradshaw to step up his game to win those games, and also ignoring that Marino, Kelly, and Manning were notoriously bad playoff or Superbowl quarterbacks - Marino and Manning are the two worst playoff quarterbacks of their generations and Kelly was in over his head once he reached the Superbowl.


It's a hoary double assertion that defense wins championships and you have to establish the run, but by now knowledgeable football people should know better.   No defense ever won anything; no running game ever proved decisive - it's QUARTERBACKING that wins championships.

NOTE: further making this point is Kerry Byrne's dissection of the uselessness of ESPN's Quarter Back Rating statistic.

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