Why you should care
The best offense is a good defense.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stunned defenses in 2015. He threw 35 touchdown passes and banked a career-high QB rating of 99.2. And yet his team lost when they went up against the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Next time, don’t be surprised. Why? The Broncos had the best pass defense in the NFL last year — and pass defense seems to make all the difference. In fact, by DVOA, a metric created by FootballOutsiders.com that measures value per play,
four of the last eight teams to win the Super Bowl had the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense.
Four teams— the 2015 Broncos, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers — all had elite talent in the secondary, according to Danny Kelly of The Ringer, and the numbers confirm they were the best at pass defense. Though media focus tends to be on offense, other stats are surprisingly less predictive of Super Bowl success. The NFL’s No. 1 passing offense hasn’t won the Super Bowl since the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. The top rushing offense hasn’t touched the trophy since the 2009 New Orleans Saints. The top rushing defense hasn’t been crowned as champs since the 2005 Steelers. The old adage of “defense wins championships” looks tried and true.
A team without a pass defense has few, well, defenses. That’s why Kelly would rather have an elite pass defense with an average QB. “There are things you can do to mitigate having an average quarterback — put stud offensive weapons around him, have offensive balance, etc. — but it’s pretty damn hard to consistently win high-scoring barn-burner-type games when your pass defense is constantly giving up big plays and touchdowns,” he says.
But not everyone agrees that pass defense is the be all, end all. And that includes the founder of FootballOutsiders and the inventor of DVOA, Aaron Schatz. Schatz says that a good offense is more consistent than a good defense, and the quarterback position is still more important than any one defensive position. Plus, great offenses are better at scoring points than great defenses are at preventing them. “Last year,” he says, “was a rare exception.”
Even so, if history is right, this stat could help predict who will be crowned the next Super Bowl champ. Maybe it’ll be the Arizona Cardinals this season as a healthy Tyrann Matthieu returns. Or perhaps the Broncos will win again with Von Miller back. The Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Washington Redskins also look like they will improve their pass defense solidly and could be Super Bowl sleeper picks.
No matter which quarterbacks are playing in Super Bowl 51, it won’t be about what they can do. The opposing pass defenses will start dictating what they can’t do. Place your bets.