Do defenses really win championships?

Ever since the Seattle Seahawks dismantled the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 48 (side note… roman numerals are stupid… stop using them) the talking heads seem to have re-opened the age old debate:  Do defenses win championships?  We’ve all heard the old cliche “offense sells tickets but defense wins championships” and this mantra was never more true than in 2000 when the Ravens used their dominating defense and cap gun offense to roll the 5th best offense in football 35-7 holding Kerry Collins and company to zero offensive points.  Kerry Collins threw 4 interceptions and Sean Peyton’s high powered offense turned the ball over 6 times and had it not been for a 97 yard kick return by Ron Dixon the 2000 Giants may have been the only team ever shut out in a super bowl.

While much of the storyline in Super Bowl 48 focused on the Seahawks number 1 defense against the Broncos number 1 offense little attention was paid to the match up featuring the Seahawks number 8 offense against the Broncos porous number 22 defense.  The stellar defensive performance diverted our attention from the methodical and surgical dissection Russel Wilson performed on the Broncos defense.  While the stats were underwhelming (Mainly due to the early lead the defense built) we can wonder what the score would have been had the Seahawks remained in attack mode the entire game.  Did we give too much credit to the defense and forget about how the leagues 8th ranked offense continue to pile on the pressure scoring points at will?

So this leads me to the question of the day; in this day and age does defense really still hold the key to championship glory in the NFL?  In order to determine this I examined and dissected Super Bowl champions and the teams they defeated for each of the past 10 years.  Not only is 10 years a nice round number but historically significant as it was the 2004 season that kick started the current high flying offensive era of NFL football with the NFL’s decision to enforce the 5 yard illegal contact penalty.

In examining these teams I used rankings of offense and defense based on points scored and points allowed.  I like this statistic better than the standard yards allowed mainly because that number can be skewed by a “bend but don’t break” philosophy or a quick strike offense that just keeps putting the opposing team on the field.  The results are pretty interesting….

Taking a look at the past 10 Super Bowls gives us a total of 20 teams that have either won or lost the big game in the last decade.  Of the 20 teams 12 have had a statistically top 10 defense compared to 15 of the 20 with a top 10 offense.  This statistic skews even further when we take a peak at just the winners of the big game; 5 of 10 champions have had a top 10 defense compared to 7 of 10 with a top 10 offense.  So it may seem that just reaching the Super Bowl can be tough to do without a top 10 offense while half of Super Bowl champions in that time frame didn’t have a top 10 defense.  In 7 of the past 10 years a team with a top 10 defense has lost the Super Bowl to a team with a defense out of the top 10 while top 10 offense have not seen this same fate.  In the 8 games in which a top 10 offense has lost the super bowl 6 of the 8 have lost to teams also in the top 10 offensively with the 2008 Cardinals and the 2007 Patriots being the only teams to lose to opponents not boasting a top 10 offense.  In Super Bowl 42 the Giants were able to hold the Patriots record setting offense to 14 points but in this case it was not the leagues top defense suffocating it’s opponent.  In fact the Giants in 2007 were ranked 17th in scoring defense and had given up over 30 points 6 times in the regular season and over 40 points twice.  Their fate was slightly different for Arizona the next year when they went toe to toe with Pittsburgh’s number 1 defense in Super Bowl 43 but again was this necessarily an example of a suffocating and dominating defensive performance?  Kurt Warner completed 31 passes for 377 yards against that vaunted Steeler defense including a 64 yard TD to Larry Fitzgerald with 2:47 remaining in the game.  At this point it was not the Steelers number 1 defense but instead it was Ben Roethlesburger and the Steeler offense that went 78 yards in 1:48 to give the Steelers the lead and eventually the win.  While you may point out that we remember the miraculous 100 yard interception return just before the half by James Harrison but Harrison’s play would be completely meaningless had it not been for Big Ben and Santonio Holmes heroics in the final seconds of the game.

So we have seen how some of the top 10 defenses and top 10 offenses have fared in championship games but how about teams outside of the top 10?  Can a team get to the mountain top with a sub par offense if they have a great defense?  How about teams with a sub par defense and a great offense, can they be championship caliber?  Taking another look at Super Bowl champions I found that only 1 of the previous 10 Super Bowl’s was won by a team with a bottom half offense.  In comparison 4 of the previous 10 Super Bowl champions had a defense in the bottom half of the league; when we add in the Super Bowl loser we have 2 more teams with defenses in the bottom half of the league but no more bottom half offenses.  This gives us 6 of 20 teams with bottom half defenses making it to the big game but only 1 out of 20 (the 2008 Steelers) bottom half offenses even making the Super Bowl.  This numbers skews even more if we look at the bottom third of the league as Pittsburgh’s number 20 offense slightly misses the cut leaving us with no bottom third offenses reaching a Super Bowl in the previous 10 years.  In that same time frame 4 teams managed to make the big game with 2 winning despite having a defense ranked in the bottom third of the league.  The 2012 Broncos, 2011 Giants, 2008 Cardinals, and 2006 Colts. may not have followed the traditional mold but they were able to reach the biggest game of the year despite having defenses that ranked 22nd, 25th, 28th, and 23rd respectively.

Additionally the defensive performances of the past 10 years look even less impressive when considering a few more facts.  In our 10 years window we found 5 teams that won a Super Bowl with a top 10 defense and 7 teams that made it to the Super Bowl only to lose with a top 10 defense.  Looking specifically at these teams we can clearly see that 4 of the 5 Champions and 5 of the 7 losers with top 10 defenses also had a top 10 offense.  Meanwhile of the 7 Super Bowl champions with a top 10 offense only 3 also had a top 10 defense.

So perhaps we may have jumped the gun a little on this thought that the 2013 Seahawks have proven to us that even in this age of high flying offense that defense really is still the key to winning championships.  In fact the Seahawks performance in Super Bowl 48 was even more impressive considering the age in which it was accomplished.  League rules, offensive schemes, and even teams personnel decisions are built around creating a dynamic high powered, fast paced offense and more often than not it is this offensive fire power that will win regardless of the scale of the game.  We can look at the 2013 Seahawks and the 2008 Steelers as proof that defense is still alive in the NFL and that the true key to winning will always been defense but in order to do that we have to ignore the majority of the facts surrounding past Super Bowl champions.  In addition to just who won these games we also have to ignore the fact that the 2012 Ravens put up 34 points on the number 2 defense in the NFL in Super Bowl 47; the 2010 Packers scorched the leagues top defense for 31 points in Super Bowl 45; and the 2008 Cardinals piled up over 400 yards of offense against the suffocating Steelers defense in Super Bowl 43.  Continue to hold onto the past if you want and continue to believe the myth that defense wins championships but if you are a betting man (or woman) I would recommend putting your hard earned money on offense.

Oh fantasy sports… how do I loathe the….

So if you are like me your fantasy football seasons been over for a long time and you’ve had an opportunity to decompress and admit that drafting Doug Martin 8th overall (With Jammal Charles on the board) was a mistake.  You’re no longer blaming Bill Belichick for not playing Steven Ridley (Oh and you drafted him with Matt Forte still on the board too) and you’ve come to realize that you made some shitty picks in fantasy football this year.  My goal today is to keep you from making some of those same mistakes with your fantasy baseball team.  At this point I am not going to go into great detail about top sleepers and busts for the 2014 baseball season (I won’t do this any time before my fantasy baseball draft in late March) What I will do is  provide a little insight for the Baltimore homer.  The point of today’s post is to  break down which Orioles you should and shouldn’t draft along with what their draft value may be.  I’ve chosen the Orioles who are most likely to be drafted in 10-12 team leagues; I may come back to this later and add a few 16 team fringe players or sleepers who may go un-drafted but only time will tell……Enjoy!

Chris Davis:  We can go on all day talking about the positives of Chris Davis; how can you not love the left-handed thumper in the middle of the potent Orioles line up.  A lefty with a short right field but power to hit the ball out all over the ballpark.  The negatives on Chris, he doesn’t walk a lot, doesn’t steal bases, strikes out a bunch and defensively ranks behind a few guys who could go early in the first round.  But hey.. let’s not kid ourselves this guy is a stud and if he can come anywhere close to his 2013 production of 50+ home runs and 100+ Extra base hits he is a sure-fire first round pick in the middle of that round.  Don’t jump on him first overall and realistically he should probably be the 3rd first baseman off the board (remember I am not talking non-orioles until after my draft) but if you can get him anywhere from 5th to 8th overall you have a great player on your team.

Adam Jones:  Adam Jones is another fantastic player in the middle of that Baltimore line up; he’s a true 5 tool phenom who has proven to be a consistent performer over the past few years.  Despite his great speed Adam’s value in fantasy is hurt by the fact that he doesn’t steal a lot of bases (Hitting in the middle of the powerful line up don’t expect that to change) and the man refuses to take a walk.  His defense also hurts him, despite many experts opinions that Adam is a very good center fielder defensive, defensive metrics do not favor him.  Still his great power and base running instincts make him a solid fantasy player.  Expect Adam to be among the league leaders in home runs, doubles, RBI, and runs scored; having that kind of value in the early to mid second round would be fantastic.  My warning on Adam is to not jump too early; many O’s fans (myself included) love this guy and may be willing to consider him a late first round pick.  With the depth of outfielders in the league this may be too early to jump for AJ considering who else may still be on the board.

Manny Machado:  Coming off of a stellar sophomore campaign you could expect Manny Machado’s fantasy stock to soar in 2014….. nope…..not the case.  Off season knee surgery combined with a late season slump has ranked as MLB.com’s 14th best third baseman despite leading the league in doubles in 2013.  Questions for Manny going into 2014 include; when will he be back in the line up?  Will we get the Manny Machado that hit .310 the first half of the season or the Manny Machado that hit .240 the second half?  Coming off injury will Manny have the ability to build the muscle necessary to turn some of those doubles into home runs?  Will his range as shown in defensive metrics be the same after knee surgery?  These questions for me are enough to say avoid Manny in Baltimore homer leagues.  Some Orioles fans will draft him way too early and leave you with a more productive third baseman 3 rounds later.  If Manny falls to the 9th/10th round or later feel free to snag him and hope for the best.  I love Manny the player and the future of Manny Machado’s career… but I don’t love Manny Machado the 2014 fantasy baseball player.

J.J. Hardy:  It started in Baltimore; it might as well continue here.  In the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s short stops needed to be small, athletic, quick.  That athleticism was needed to cover the range, precision, and consistency that a team needed from a short stop.  Then came a man name Cal Ripken Jr. to revolutionize the position; Cal was tall, big, strong, and he could… GASP… hit home runs.  JJ Hardy comes from that same mold, one of only a handful of power hitting short stops in the majors and if you’re in a Fantasy league that isn’t full of Baltimore homers he might be your steal of the draft.  JJ doesn’t steal bases like many of his short stop counterparts but he sure can tear the cover off of the ball and he hits in a ballpark where power is most certainly encouraged.  Not to mention his defensive metrics are phenomenal and he will be hitting toward the bottom of a line up that consists of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and Manny Machado.  All of this bodes well for a guy who MLB.com has ranked as the 15th best fantasy short stop.  If you can get 25-30 home runs from your 14th-16th round utility player consider that is most certainly a steal.

Matt Wieters:  The Orioles are still trying to figure out what the value of Matt Wieters the baseball player is but I can tell you what the value of Matt Wieters the fantasy baseball player is…. and it’s not a lot.  Wieters biggest strengths don’t really play that well in fantasy baseball; he is a great defender behind the plate, works well with a young pitching staff, and throws out base stealers at a fantastic rate.  Even with this considered Matt’s defense does not make up for his .235/.287/.417 line in 2013.  Helpful hint for fantasy baseball novices out there… if you are picking up a guy for his power and ability to hit the long ball…. don’t take a guy whose OPS barely cracked .700.  Not to even mention his lack of speed, we hear a lot of guys turning singles to doubles and going first to third… Matt is one of those rare players who can turn a double into a single with his speed.  What concerns me the most about Wieters is the fact that he has regressed essentially every year since coming into the league and posting a .288/.340/.412 line in 2009.  Wieters does have some good qualities, his 20 plus home runs stick out, he played in 148 games last year, his RBI total in the line up should be good, and he did hit 12 sac flies last year (however, based on his 3 in 2012 and 1 in 2011 I wouldn’t expect that trend to continue).  If you are looking for a late round back up catcher in 12 or 14 team leagues there is some upside to Matt but otherwise I would stay away.

Chris Tillman:  Chris is a popular guy in Baltimore right now and her certainly deserves the recognition after a breakout 2013 campaign in which he posted 16 wins along with a strong 3.71 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.  Sabrematricians will point out the flaws in grading pitchers on stats like wins, ERA, and saves and in many cases they are right but looking over the whole body of work I like Chris Tillman in baseball; both fantasy and real.  Chris is a durable, tough, gritty ball player who can dominate when he has his best stuff but can also fight his way through a ball game when he does not.  This can help your fantasy team when Chris starts a game slow giving up a few runs early but is able to battle his way back to pitch 6-7 innings and record a few extra K’s.  He doesn’t get an astronomical amount of strike outs and he will give up some home runs but for a fly ball pitcher in the AL East pitching home games at Camden Yards a 3.71 ERA with that 1.22 WHIP is pretty strong.  I expect Chris to continue to improve on his 2013 numbers and while he is not an “Ace” or on the level of many of the number one pitchers in this league he is a solid mid to late round pick up who can provide your team a lot of value off the bench.

Tommy Hunter:  Tommy Hunter is an interesting fantasy case depending on how late in the off-season your league drafts.  If the Orioles sign a closer between now and your draft I think Hunter is un-draftable in 10-14 team leagues and maybe a fringe reliever in 16 team leagues.  Obviously a veteran closer in camp would take the opportunity for 35-45 saves away from Tommy and his metrics alone without the save opportunities are not enough to carry him on your team.  However, until we see Fernando Rodney wearing Black and Orange in Sarasota I say give him a late round shot.  The top closers will go long before Tommy comes off the board and this team still looks set up to play in a lot of close games with Hunter the favorite to win the closer role.  His strike out rates are solid but nothing special and he struggles with left-handed hitters but I think anyone who closes for this team will have some opportunity to stockpile some saves and will in-turn have some value as a late round stash.

That’s all for now; if I feel like it I might break down a few Orioles sleepers, guys who you can grab in the final round or some un-drafted Orioles with value.  Stay tuned!