Familiar Football Mantras Put to the Test

Grant Halverson

As a serial NFL-watcher for twenty-plus years I, like most of you have had certain vernacular etched into my psyche. Whether it be the familiar "He....Could...Go...ALL...THE....WAY", or more selectively-understood references to "hip-swivel" and "pad level", there are just some phrases that are so completely "football" that their mere utterance in social circumstances are enough to identify us to each other.

I could not tell you how many times I have been suffering through a stuffy wedding reception or business conference, only to have the winds mercifully carry to my ears a soft murmuring of "...go through his progressions," or "...look off the safety", at which point I turn into a bloodhound, desperately seeking the source of the phrase which signals a potential end to my boredom...

The scenario always plays out the same, and three hours later my fiancee or boss will inevitably find me huddled around a scavenged 10-inch TV with a new friend and a bartender, extolling the virtues of employing a full-time spy on a scrambling quarterback.(Word to the wise: bored bartenders in hotel conference halls ALWAYS have a line on a forgotten TV and a pair of rabbit-ears; don't ask me why, it is some irrefutable law of nature.)

Yes, we all know how to identify our fellows in a crowd, and this infallible radar of fandom derives its power from innumerable "football-isms" and mantras seemingly as old as time itself.

Today, we are going to discuss two of the most identifiable of these phrases; one which has been around as long as I can remember, and one that came about at some point between "The Greatest Show on Turf" and "The Brady and Manning Show". By using the much-maligned "small-sample size" doctrine of comparing two statistical eras, I seek to once and for all answer two questions which will directly affect the Carolina Panthers' fortunes during the 2013 season and in the foreseeable future. We are going to explore whether "defense wins Championships" and whether "this is a passing league".

For my analysis, I am comparing statistics from the past three years of "Shock and Awe" aerial superiority with the unquestionable height of the "Smashmouth" era, beginning with Eric Dickerson's record-setting 1983 season and ending with the "Superbowl Shuffle" in 1985. All of my statistics were sourced from

"Defense wins Championships"

Gun to my head, I couldn't even guess at how old I was the first time I heard this phrase. It has become so ingrained into my thinking that I sometimes just interject it into completely unrelated situations, and surprisingly, it always seems to work!

For instance: my fiancee will sometimes be forced give our demon-spawned toddler a swat on the backside. He'll inevitably move his hands to cover his posterior, and she will look at me with a pleading "What in God's name are we going to do with this kid?" look in her eyes, to which I will shrug and say "defense wins Championships". I mean, what else is there to say? But I digress...

My point is, this saying is so logical it must be true, right? Let's find out:

Playoffs Pass Off. Scoring Rush Off. Scoring Defense Scoring
2012 12.7 11.0 12.1 10.8 14.7 9.8
2011 12.6 11.4 13.7 10.8 15.6 12.4
2010 17.3 14 13.3 12.6 12.3 8.7
Avg 2010-2012 14.2 12.1 13.0 11.4 14.2 10.3
1985 13.2 13.1 9.4 10.7 9.3 6.3
1984 14.2 10.9 10.6 11.2 11.2 6.6
1983 14.6 11.7 11.1 8.6 12.7 10.6
Avg 1983-1985 14.0 11.9 10.4 10.2 11.1 7.8
Super Bowl Pass Off. Scoring Rush Off. Scoring Defense Scoring
2010-2012 10.7 11.8 17.0 8.7 14.2 9.7
1983-1985 9.2 8.2 6.5 5.8 8.8 6.5

So, what I did here is I took the playoff teams from both eras, averaged their league rankings in each of the above statistical categories, and compiled the numbers into an easy-to-read table. Now, in the earlier era there were only 28 teams in the league, and only 10 playoff teams, so for the 2010-2012 period I dropped the two lowest-seeded playoff teams out of consideration. I did not adjust for the four expansion teams in total rankings, because frankly it was a nightmare to do and I don't get paid enough (or at all, since you Scrooges refuse to pay your dues).

The results were honestly more mixed than I would have thought. While it is obvious that having a stout defense was the most sure-fire way to get into the postseason in years past, the need seems much less pronounced in the current NFL landscape. That being said, having a strong scoring defense is obviously still very important, as it was the only statistical area that averaged out higher than top-10 for playoff teams in both 2010 and 2012.

2011 was a bit of an outlier. I never realized before just how overpowering the offenses were that year. With five virtual locks for Canton being represented in the playoffs in Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, it would even be questionable whether the vaunted '85 Bears defense could have withstood the onslaught. Add in the Giants' miracle run through the postseason and the seemingly impossible scenario of a Super Bowl between two teams ranked 20th (NYG were 32nd) or lower in rushing yardage, yet 6th or higher in rushing TDs, and it was just an odd year all around.

After looking at the numbers, I was ready to write the results off as inconclusive and let it go at that, but then I realized how unraveling this mantra would completely rewrite my very understanding of reality. I knew I couldn't quit, so I dug deeper, and I chose to redefine "defense" not just to general statistical terms but to individual players. I believe it was Mark Twain who once said "there are liars, damned liars, and statisticians", and I firmly believe these stats are lying to me!

What we know so far is that the 2010 Super Bowl pitted the Packers (5th in total defense, 2nd in scoring defense) against the Steelers (2nd in total defense, 1st in scoring defense). No surprise there. In 2012 San Francisco fit the bill (3rd in total defense, 2nd in scoring defense), and Baltimore came into the game hot. True, statistically they ranked 17th in total defense and 13th in scoring defense for the regular season, but they also won the Toby Keith "I Ain't as Good as I Once Was, but I'm as Good Once as I Ever Was" Award for getting old-timers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs back at the right time, and them playing their hearts out for one huge game. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard, Danell Ellerbe: I think it is safe to say the Ravens fit the "defense wins Championships" mold...

Now to the one game that seems to break the argument all to pieces: the 2011 Super Bowl. We are not going to address the Patriots defense at all. They are the exception that proves the rule as far as I am concerned, and I think it is well documented fact that when Tommy Johnson sold his soul in "Oh Brother Where 'Art Thou", Bill Belichick somehow reaped the rewards.

The New York Giants, however, limped into the playoffs with a 9-7 record on the back of an historically epic offense and an equally impressive defensive front, but with a secondary that was pieced together like a 2nd grade science project. The key element here, which we will come back to later, is that pass-rush. JPP, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Chris Canty, and Linval Joseph provided a formidable front, and it showed in this game. Though they only notched a couple of sacks (both from Tuck) against Mr. Gisele Bundchen, his anemic 6.73 YPA are enough to tell you that he was not getting to sit comfortably in the pocket for any length of time.

Add in the fact that two of the more prolific offenses of all time were held to under 400 yards a piece and the final score was a paltry 21-17, and I think once again we must admit that defense most definitely played a prominent role in the outcome of a Championship game.

That's my reasoning, and I'm sticking to it. My preconceived notions can rest easy, as they shall remain unmolested for at least another day...

"This is a passing league."

On the surface, this one seems fairly obvious. It doesn't take more than an "eyeball test" to know that today's offenses pass more, run less, and generally do everything they can to ensure that "The Sweetness" can never find a moment's peace in his grave, knowing what his league has turned into. However, the questions remains whether a team must buy into this philosophy to succeed, or if it is just another assumption made due to the gaudy numbers thrown up by some of the aforementioned Canton-bound footballistas.

Drew Brees and T. Brady have both won Super Bowls, and both have broken Marino's single season yardage record. Peyton Manning and Brady (again) have won Super Bowls and broken Marino's touchdown record. Seemingly every year a major passing record falls, and because of this we all just know that passing is the new red, and if we don't get on board we just might never get that coveted #1 on ESPN's Power Ranking or a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. This is why we spend every offseason trying to figure out who the next Steve Smith is going to be or arguing over the merits of picking up TO or Randy Moss just to put us over the top.

Well, there is only one way to find out if this theory proves true, so join me if you will:

Avg Tm Pass Off. Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Y/C Y/G Rate Sk Yds NY/A Sk%
2012 338.5 555.9 60.9 3,700.6 23.7 4.3 14.6 2.6 7.1 11.6 231.3 83.8 36.5 235.4 6.3 6.2
2011 327.0 544.1 60.1 3,675.0 23.3 4.3 15.8 2.9 7.2 12.0 229.7 82.5 37.1 241.5 6.3 6.4
2010 327.8 539.7 60.8 3,545.3 23.5 4.3 16.0 3.0 7.0 11.5 221.6 82.2 35.3 234.8 6.2 6.1
Avg. 2010-2012 331.1 546.6 60.6 3,640.3 23.5 4.3 15.5 2.8 7.1 11.7 227.5 82.8 36.3 237.2 6.2 6.2
1985 282.5 515.1 54.8 3,272.2 21.4 4.1 21.5 4.2 7.0 12.8 204.5 70.7 46.6 353.4 5.8 8.3
1984 288.4 511.6 56.4 3,294.2 22.0 4.3 20.9 4.1 7.1 12.7 205.9 73.2 46.9 357.0 5.9 8.4
1983 285.5 501.7 56.9 3,274.0 22.3 4.4 22.1 4.4 7.2 12.6 204.6 73.1 43.4 330.3 6.0 8.0
Avg. 1983-1984 285.5 509.5 56.0 3,280.1 21.9 4.3 21.5 4.2 7.1 12.7 205.0 72.3 45.6 346.9 5.9 8.2
Difference (45.6) (37.1) (4.6) (360.2) (1.6) (0.0) 6.0 1.4 0.0 1.0 (22.5) (10.5) 9.3 109.7 (0.3) 2.0

What I have done in this scenario is compile and average passing statistics for the two 3-year periods in question. The results were very interesting, to say the least. While some things matched my assumptions (significant yardage increases, drops in interception and sack numbers, etc.), I was very surprised to see that TD percentages haven't changed, and the drastic nature of the drop in turnovers and negative plays caught me off guard.

Oddly enough, for as much as it seems like there has been exponential growth in the passing game over the last thirty years, the truth is that quarterbacks are only attempting on average 37 more passes per season. That comes out to a little over two attempts per game. How in the world can such a relatively small change in number of attempts be causing such a precipitous change in yardage, you ask? Look no further than the rule changes against defenses, says I.

Three categories really stand out to me. First, completion percentages rose by almost five percent between the two periods considered. Second, interception percentage was almost one and a half percent higher during the mid-eighties (for a number that hovers around three percent now, that is a fifty percent change; pretty significant). Third, the number of sacks per season has fallen off a cliff with almost ten less sacks per season, per team now than during the previous era.

All of these things can be easily attributed to rule changes as well as the rise of the West-Coast Offense. Average yards-per-catch have dropped by a percentage point, completions percentages have skyrocketed, yet touchdown percentages and yards-per-attempt haven't changed at all. Add in the fact that sack yardage is deducted from these passing numbers (take the additional 109 average sack yards away from today's passing yardage totals and the 360 yards-per-season growth drops to 251 yards, meaning we would only be seeing about a fifteen yard-per-game difference in passing totals), and we are seeing a definite trend.

Ultimately, I don't see that it really changes things. Yes, teams are moving the ball down the field more through the air now. But they aren't scoring more through the air. So with that being said, lets add the final piece to the puzzle:

Avg Tm Rush Off. Att Yds TD Lng Y/A Y/G Fmb
2012 435.2 1,854.7 12.5 59.0 4.3 115.9 21.2
2011 436.6 1,874.3 12.5 57.0 4.3 117.1 20.3
2010 435.0 1,831.5 12.5 58.0 4.2 114.5 22.8
Avg. 2010-2012 435.6 1,853.5 12.5 58.0 4.3 115.8 21.4
1985 487.0 1,998.9 15.8 54.0 4.1 124.9 31.9
1984 493.3 1,982.3 14.6 50.0 4.0 123.9 31.2
1983 507.5 2,075.8 15.6 55.0 4.1 129.7 34.2
Avg. 1983-1985 495.9 2,019.0 15.3 53.0 4.1 126.2 32.4
Difference 60.3 165.5 2.8 (5.0) (0.2) 10.3 11.0

Now we're cooking with grease. Based on this chart, we are seeing that the defensive woes due to rule changes are not limited to the passing game. Sure, the more run-oriented teams of yesteryear scored three more touchdowns per season. But they also averaged eleven more fumbles per season! Sure they averaged ten more rushing yards per game, but that was based on a fifth of a yard less per attempt, and the long runs have also gone up by an everage of five yards.

What does all of this mean? Basically, due to rule changes favoring the offense teams have gravitated toward passing more, so technically I would have to say that the mantra is correct. This IS a "passing league". However, that does not mean the Panthers have to try to fit that paradigm to win. One statistic I have not yet mentioned: if you look back up at the first table, you will see that Super Bowl teams between 2010 and 2012 only averaged seventeenth in the league in rushing yardage, but ninth in scoring. This was higher than the average of twelfth in scoring by pass.

Ultimately, I see no reason the Panthers can not build along their current strategy and be extremely successful not only this year, but moving forward. By turning the defensive front seven not only into a strength, but an overpowering strength, it is not unrealistic to expect them to accrue forty-five plus sacks per year. More pressure usually equals more interceptions, not necessarily due to the prowess of the secondary, but more due to the bad decision-making of the opposing quarterback due to increased pressure. Add to that a very strong stable of running-backs and an extremely talented running quarterback and all the coaches need to do is stop being "cute" inside the redzone and run the freaking rock! If we can pick up ten additional yards-per-game in the run game we can afford not to lean on the pass so much, and hopefully, just HOPEFULLY, we can ride this retro-styled wrecking ball to the Promised Land...

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