Legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant famously said, “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.”
Since Bryant’s retirement in 1982, his adage has been perpetuated widely in sports media, applied to other sports and debated vehemently.
The thinking goes that while offense may be flashy and exciting, solid defensive play – less noticeable, but more steady and predictable – forms the foundation of successful teams. So as we look ahead to the Super Bowl, would it be wise to bet on the underdog Eagles and their fourth-ranked defense over the New England Patriots and their 29th-ranked defense? After all, though the Patriots have had an unprecedented run of playoff success, during their two most recent Super Bowl losses – both to the New York Giants – their dominant offense was smothered by a disruptive Giants defensive line
In my sport psychology lab at California State University, Northridge, graduate student Travis Miller and I decided to test Bryant’s adage, running our own statistical analyses to see if defense does, in fact, win championships.
A good defense helps, but there’s a catch
In our study, we looked at football and basketball, taking different approaches for each sport.
To represent a team’s offensive ability, we used regular season yards gained per game; for defensive ability, we used the statistic of yards allowed per game.
What did the numbers say? After running some regression analyses, we found that defense, indeed, does win championships. The fewer regular season yards a team allowed in the regular season, the more playoff wins they tended to have.
But as ESPN’s Lee Corso would say – not so fast, my friend.
The same analysis revealed that yards gained offensively during the season correlated similarly – nearly identically, in fact – with subsequent playoff success. It turns out we should probably amend the adage to say: “Really good defense wins championships. And really good offense also wins championships.”
This doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but it seems to be more reflective of the data.
Playoff pressure doesn’t discriminate
So what might explain why our findings suggest otherwise?
all, most burly defensive linemen aren’t just blindly crashing into the line; rather, they’re moving with the precision of a ballet dancer.
This implied that “clutch hitting wins championships.”Maybe “offensive line play wins championships,” or “quarterbacking wins championships.