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RIP, NFL defenses: A new era of offense has changed the game we knew

Scoring is up. Defense is down. What the hell is going on?

Los Angeles Rams QB Jared Goff throws a pass against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4, Sep. 27, 2018.

Remember the old adage “defense wins championships?” There was a time when a team could field a QB like Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson alongside a stifling defense and win ugly en route to a Lombardi Trophy. Even the ’85 Bears, arguably the greatest single season defense in NFL history, had a QB in Jim McMahon that was more linebacker than gunslinger.

Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Super Bowl QBs with dominant defenses

Team Player Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD INT
Team Player Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD INT
1985 Bears Jim McMahon 178 313 56.9 2392 15 11
1985 Bears Steve Fuller 53 107 49.5 777 1 5
2000 Ravens Tony Banks 150 274 54.7 1578 8 8
2000 Ravens Trent Dilfer 134 226 59.3 1502 12 11
2002 Buccaneers Brad Johnson 281 451 62.3 3049 22 6
2002 Buccaneers Rob Johnson 57 88 64.8 536 1 2

1985 Chicago Bears

Between Jim McMahon and backup Will Fuller, the ‘85 Bears passed for 3,169 yards, 16 TDs and 16 INTs. Yeah, they had a guy named Walter Payton running the ball, but McMahon was like Case Keenum in cement shoes — a game manager with the ability to make a gritty play when his life depended on it.

Chicago Bears v Los Angeles Rams

The defense? Probably the greatest of all time. Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, William Perry, Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton headlined a unit that allowed just 12.4 points per game. The Bears would go 15-1, record two consecutive playoff shutouts, and win Super Bowl XX, crushing the Patriots by a then-record 36 points.

2000 Baltimore Ravens

The 2000 Ravens entered the season with the fearsome tandem of (former Ram) Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer at QB. The two combined for 3,080 yards passing, 20 TDs, and 19 INTs. Remarkably similar QB stats, 15 years after the Bears defensive-oriented run. Banks, as we know, couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn unless it was streaking 60 yards downfield, and Dilfer literally defined the term “game manager.” Rookie RB Jamal Lewis gained 1364 yards, and some guy named Priest Holmes chipped in 588.

The defense, led by Ray Lewis, DE Rob Burnett’s 10.5 sacks, and CB tandem Chris Mcallister and Duane Starks, allowed a staggering 10.3 points per game and surrendered only 5 rushing TDs and 970 yards rushing the entire season. On 2.7 yards per carry. Simply filthy.

Baltimore would go on to destroy the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, 34-7, forcing 5 turnovers. New York’s only TD came on a kickoff return.

Wild Card Playoffs - Indianapolis Colts v Baltimore Ravens

2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Under Tony Dungy, the Bucs had been knocking on the door for years, and their calling card was defense (you might remember they held the ‘99 GSOT Rams to 11 points in the NFC Championship game). In truth, it wasn’t until Jon Gruden’s arrival from Oakland that they became a Super Bowl caliber team, and much of the improvement came on the offensive side of the ball.

Still, did journeyman QB Brad Johnson read “Super Bowl QB” to anyone heading into 2002? Statistically, Johnson’s numbers are a little more akin to what solid early 2000s QBs were producing, as he put up 3049 yards and 22 TDs against just 6 picks. Alas, this wasn’t a guy winning games for Tampa Bay — he did just enough to keep them hanging around.

People tend to remember this defense for DT Warren Sapp, DE Simeon Rice and MLB Derrick Brooks, but it was the secondary that was special. Led by Ronde Barber and John Lynch, the unit picked off 31 passes and another 9 in the playoffs. During the regular season, they held opposing to QBs to a ridiculously low 48.1 passer rating. They would go on to punish the Raiders 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII, making Gruden the youngest head coach in history to win a championship (hello: McBae).

John Lynch

What’s your point, Wags?

Ok, stay with me. Now we’ve got evidence that, yes, definitely, defense WON championships.

Enter: 2018. Quarterbacks are ringing up fantasy stats like multiball on a pinball machine. Guys named Mahomes and Trubisky have thrown for 6 TDs in a game, Goff and Ryan for 5, with Dalton, Luck, Fitzpatrick, Cousins, Bortles and Carr each chucking 4 in a contest. We’ve had 12 400-yard passers through 4 weeks (with 3 from FitzMagic!). Through week 4 last year? There was only ONE 400-yard game in the NFL courtesy of Mr. Tom Brady.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos

Speaking of Blake Bortles, he’s thrown for 1095 yards on the season, with games of 388 yards and 376 yards, all while throwing to receivers who were last seen on milk cartons. He eclipsed 300 yards just 4 times in 16 games last year, and is on pace for career highs in everything — yet we all still think, no, we know that Bortles is a bottom-third QB in the league. Sure, it’s becoming a passing league, but this is like watching your little brother play the CPU on rookie level on Madden.

Per Adam Schefter, the trends are undeniable:

Is Defense Dead?

I first conceived of this article when Jared Goff went berserk on the Vikings, who were ranked 9th against the pass heading into Week 4. Don’t get me wrong — he was magnificent in a truly stunning performance — but Cousins also had a huge game. And then the following Sunday, Mitchell f’ing Trubisky threw for 6 TDs and Andrew Luck went for 464/4. And Carson Wentz? Carson Wentz went for 348/2 in his second game back and it was like he’d been lapped at the go-cart track, a forgotten man. Who lapped him? 9 other QBs threw for more yards than Wentz in week 4. Since when is 348/2 a pedestrian line?!

Of course, rules changes have been a contributing factor. You can’t breathe on a QB without getting a personal foul call, and God forbid you don’t lay them down like a newborn in a crib. Teams are wary of helmet to helmet contact and hitting defenseless receivers more than ever, and maybe the schemes are adjusting more for risk management than making plays.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins

Conspiracy theorists might (somewhat correctly) suggest that “this is what the NFL wants.” Scoring! Shootouts! Fireworks! Less images of concussed WRs, with the inevitable echoes of CTE haunting blue tents. No more gruesome slo-mo Joe Theismann / Navorro Bowman broken legs, and of course eradicate that kneeling during the anthem nonsense.

Maybe they’re calling less offensive holding, and more defensive holding,” I thought. I mean, you can call offensive holding on every play, so why not tell the referees to look the other way a little bit? And defensive holding? Tighten it up. Let ‘em run. Unnecessary roughness? Zero tolerance policy. PI? Sure, enforce it to the full extent of the rulebook. That’ll increase the scoring output, right?


Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots

2017 Penalties vs. 2018 Penalties

Infraction Per Week Avg. 2017 Per Week Avg. 2018 Per Week Avg. YPG 2017 Per Week Avg. YPG 2018
Infraction Per Week Avg. 2017 Per Week Avg. 2018 Per Week Avg. YPG 2017 Per Week Avg. YPG 2018
Offensive Holding 42.5 47 402 455
Defensive Holding 15.5 15 74.5 69
Unnecessary Roughness 13 11 178 148.5
Defensive Pass Interference 17 16 306 268

Let’s see. More offensive holding calls. Less defensive holding calls. Less unnecessary roughness penalties, and less defensive PI calls for less yardage. Sure, it’s only 4 weeks, but even if we see the trends shift, there’s evidence enough to suggest this isn’t some zebra/Goodell engineered conspiracy to light up the scoreboard.

These guys are good

Yeah, we’ve eliminated some of the intimidation factor. You won’t see a player emulating the Deacon Jones headslap or another heat-seeking missile like Ronnie Lott. In a way, that’s sad. Still, on the whole a less violent game is a better, more sustainable product, even if offenses are running free like stampeding cattle on Heisenberg blue.

Is it possible that offense has just surpassed defense? Bigger, faster, stronger? Is offensive innovation advancing at a faster rate than defenses can adapt? Who’s the equivalent of Sean McVay on the defensive side of the ball? Exactly.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams

Sure, we have the Khalil Mack / Aaron Donald / Jalen Ramseys of the world, but for every stud defensive player, there are 6 more on offense just waiting to put up 150 yards rushing/receiving, throw for 400+ or set some new record (Goff’s perfect game, Mahomes’s TDs).

Maybe this is what the NFL wanted, but is this what we, as fans, wanted? Can somebody get off the field on third and long, please?

If you like defense, I’d suggest you get out and buy a Jacksonville Jaguars jersey pronto, because they’re as close to a dominant unit as we’ve got in this league. Hell, they’ve even got a game manager at QB — who just so happened to throw for — cough cough — 376 yards against a Bill Belichick Patriots team. If the Jags win it all, maybe they’ll belong with the ‘86 Bears, the ‘00 Ravens or the ‘02 Bucs. But don’t hold your breath.

In 2018, and from here on out, offense wins championships.

Go Rams!