Let’s talk football for a little bit.
I know, I know, this blog is supposed to be about politics and policy and all that wonkish hogwash. But really, what’s going on in politics right now? SOPA and PIPA? You can read about that on literally every other blog on the planet right now. The Republican Primaries? In the immortal words of my forefathers, “Who fuckin’ cares?” No, today is for discussing the event closest to the hearts and minds of all decent Americans, the NFL Playoffs.
For the entire season – up until this past weekend – discussion of the NFL has revolved around the sudden explosion of passing offense we’ve been treated to this year: Drew Brees and Tom Brady annihilating Dan Marino’s twenty year-old passing yards record; Cam Newton doing similar violence to Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record; Aaron Rodgers leading the Packers to a 15-1 record on the strength of an absurd 45:6 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio; Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and a host of über-tight ends redefining the position; Megatron separating himself as the clear best wide receiver in the league and helping Matthew Stafford throw for over 5,000 yards in his first full season.
We have never seen a season like this for passing in the NFL. For some perspective: in his record-setting 2007 season, Tom Brady threw for 4,806 passing yards, nearly 400 yards ahead of any other passer in the league, and more yards than anyone had thrown for since Kurt Warner’s 2001 “Greatest Show on Turf” campaign. This year, four different quarterbacks passed that mark.
But what made this season truly remarkable was how little defense seemed to matter when it came to winning games. “Defense wins championships” is a cliché, but until this year it also seemed to be true: Dan Marino famously never won a Super Bowl; Kurt Warner’s aforementioned “Greatest Show” was cut down by the brilliant defensive mind of Bill Belichick and his scrappy Patriots; and of course we know what became of the 2007 Patriots’ pursuit of a perfect season.
This year however, none of that seemed to matter. Home-field advantage was held in Green Bay and New England, both home to transcendent quarterbacks and historically awful defenses. The other Super Bowl favorite, 12-4 New Orleans, was in the same boat with a top-rated passing attack and a bottom-third defense. Sure there were teams whose powerful defenses led them into the playoffs, but no one gave them a chance. This year, it seemed that offense would finally triumph.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked by the Packers’ defeat. Their starters hadn’t played since Week 16, they had proven themselves capable of putting up a stinker, and they were against a streaking Giants team that suddenly seems like one of the most complete in all of football with its electric receiving corps, devastating pass rush, and the new-and-improved Eli Manning at the helm, a 4,900-yard passer himself.
But the Saints? Their bout with San Francisco was supposed to be the climax of this offensive ascendancy, the moment when the torch was passed from dominant defense to dominant offense for good. The 49ers are the ultimate “old-school” team, winning with stellar defense and a powerful running game. It was said that the 49ers could never win it all in this New League Order, not with a receiving corps of Vernon Davis and the Dwarves, and certainly not with Alex Smith throwing to them. How could they score with the Saints and Packers of the world? Winning a war of attrition while eating the clock with sustained drives sounded good in theory, but how could the 49ers recover if they ever fell behind?
None of these arguments panned out and the 49ers scored a thrilling come-from-behind victory, capped by Vernon Davis’ game-winning touchdown catch with ten seconds left on the clock. And so, along with the Giants’ dismantling of the Packers, we must ask if it’s actually true that defense no longer matters.
In one very important regard, an attempt to answer this question is premature: Tom Brady and the Patriots – they of the 32nd-ranked defense – once again humiliated the Denver Broncos last Saturday. How that team fares will be vital in proving or disproving the season’s narrative. Should the Patriots fall to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday or in the Super Bowl, we would probably be forced to conclude that we’ve had it wrong all year; that a one-dimensional offensive machine simply can’t go all the way.
However I don’t think that’s the case, not anymore. The era of defense is over. In the previous regime, great defense just stifled great offense. The Patriots beat the Rams by holding their incredible offense to just 17 points. The 2007 Giants did better, holding the high-flying Patriots to just 14 points. The ultimate example of a defensive champion, the 2000 Ravens, allowed just 10.3 points per game and held the Giants – who won the NFC Championship game 41-0 – to just 7 points. This sort of domination over great offenses just does not occur anymore. Indeed, with the new rules protecting quarterbacks and receivers from the sort of abuse they suffered in the old days, it may not even be possible to fully stop a great passing offense. The best defenses can hope for now is containment, and because of this having a great or even good defense is no longer necessary to win championships.
The proof is in the numbers. In 51 regular- and post-season games this year, only twice were one of the Packers, Saints, and Patriots held to under 20 points; this never happened to the Saints. The quarterbacks of these teams were held under 250 yards passing only five times, but they still managed to toss 10 touchdowns among those five contests. And consider that even in being eliminated from the playoffs, neither Rodgers nor Brees was truly stopped. Despite looking worse than he had all year and suffering several drops, Rodgers had a very respectable game at 264 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception. Brees meanwhile went berserk, attempting 63 passes and completing 63.5 percent of them for 462 yards, 4 scores, and a pair of interceptions.
Indeed, the tale of San Francisco’s victory over the Saints was not so much one of the old-school, tough, running-and-defense style crushing the uppity Saints and their finesse offense, but one of the 49ers unexpectedly coming through with a little passing magic of their own. The 49ers – despite ranking 4th in total defense and 2nd in scoring defense – were utterly helpless in stopping the Saints from moving the ball, succeeding only by creating takeaways. But when the turnovers stopped coming (the Saints never turned the ball in the second half) the 49ers won by, well, playing like the Saints. They aired it out with Alex Smith, who turned in the game of his career with 299 yards, 3 passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown, and no picks. Truly, both the final score (36-32) and the manner in which the game was won (San Francisco won by virtue of having the ball for the last score) evoked the Packers’ season-opening triumph over the Saints much more than, say, Super Bowl XLII.
Obviously, some will disagree with me. Surely there are people who will point out that the Saints would have won but for the 4 turnovers San Francisco’s defense caused, particularly the goal-line fumble caused when Donte Whitner hit Pierre Thomas so hard the running back was knocked out of the game. They would also point out that if the Saints had a better defense, they might have prevented any of Alex Smith’s late scoring drives and won the game; that if Green Bay had a better defense, it could survive a “poor” game from Aaron Rodgers and win on just 20 points of scoring. These teams fell short of their championship potential precisely because they did not have championship-caliber defenses. The same fate will befall the Patriots eventually, the argument goes, because an offense inevitably will falter in the face of playoff-level defenses, because that is just the natural order of things. Oceans rise, cities fall, defense remains.
Not so. With the new rule changes protecting quarterbacks and receivers, not only are passing-game players free from direct effects of defense (passes dropped thanks to jarring mid-air hits, timing routes disrupted by powerful jams and jostling) but they are also not subject to the same level of chronic buildup of aches, small injuries, and lost-effectiveness that doomed the prolific offenses of the past. The new rules also open up whole new plays to the middle of the field that past offenses could never attempt but extremely sparingly for fear of opening receivers up to really serious injuries. To my mind, as described above, this represents a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the NFL. Thus, while it will always be better for teams to have a defense that can play, this is no longer necessary for a championship team. An elite passing attack can win a Super Bowl all by itself.
 Actually, I do. Look for more on that race in a later post.
 And I hope they fare very well, I’m a Patriots fan.
 Again, this never happened to the Saints…Brees had a really incredible year. Strangely, three of the five sub-250-yard games belonged to Brady, who surpassed Rodgers’ overall passing total by 600 yards.