Can the Super Bowl really be Super if nobody plays defense?

This is basically what pro football has become: One guy slinging the ball. (AP photo)

This is basically what pro football has become: One guy slinging the ball. (AP photo)

Always before, old-school football would rise up in the Super Bowl and save the day for us codgers. The 1983 Washington Redskins set an NFL record with 541 points in the regular season, but managed only nine against the Raiders of Lester Hayes and Michael Haynes. The first installment of Buffalo’s hurry-up offense was grounded by the New York Giants, after which Bill Parcells exulted, “Power football, baby!” The St. Louis Rams and their Greatest Show on Turf were undone by Bill Belichick’s Patriots.

And now you’re saying: “The Super Bowl is Sunday. It still could happen.”

And here’s where this old-schooler concedes defeat and says: It won’t.

This champion will have the lowest-rated defense of any Super Bowl winner ever. The New England Patriots, still Belichick’s team, ranked 31st in the 32-team NFL. And the Giants, who are seen as the more traditional of the teams still standings, ranked 27th. As for running the ball, always the twin pillar of power football? The Pats ranked 20th in yards rushing; the Giants ranked dead last.

When Dirk Koetter was hired as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, he extolled the time-honored virtues of balance, saying, “It’s easy to say it’s a passing league and that defense doesn’t matter and running doesn’t matter, but look what happened last weekend.” He meant the upsets of the sling-it-every-down Packers and Saints by the Giants and 49ers. But then we check the results of the conference championship games, and we see that …

Both times, the better defense lost. The 31st-ranked Patriots beat the third-ranked Ravens. The 27th-ranked Giants beat the fourth-ranked 49ers.

The NFL, I’m saddened to report, has become the Arena league. No longer does good pitching, or the football equivalent thereof, stop good hitting. Rarely does anybody stop anybody else. This week I asked Todd Grantham, the Georgia defensive coordinator who spent a decade in the NFL, for his Super Bowl pick, halfway figuring he’d go with the slightly-better-on-D Giants, and he did credit the Giants for playing well down the stretch. Then he said, “But if [Tom] Brady’s on, it doesn’t matter.”

And here we must note the great disconnect in football: The NFL, the highest level, is all offense, but SEC football, essentially the sport’s Class AAA, has been overrun by defense to the extent that the giants Alabama and LSU worked 115 minutes plus an untimed overtime against each other before either managed a touchdown.

The reason, Grantham suggested, is the quarterback. By definition, there are no 10th-year seniors in the SEC. By definition, a college quarterback has to go to class to study things other than football. The NFL has grown so data-driven that every quarterback has seen every defensive alignment a hundred times (via video) before he lines up against it.

Grantham: “The two toughest jobs in the NFL are the quarterback and the defensive coordinator. The quarterback because everything is programmed — ‘If you see this, you do this’ — and the defensive coordinator because he’s got to counter that somehow.”

NFL rules, as we know, don’t favor the poor defensive coordinator. Offensive holding, which could be called on every down, is called maybe once a half. It’s a penalty to breathe on a receiver, and if you hit a quarterback really hard that’s a penalty and probably a fine. As Mike Nolan, just hired as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, said (while surely gritting his teeth): “The NFL knows people like to see points scored.”

Some people, sure. But this person — who might not, let’s stipulate, be representative of the masses — prefers that points not come so cheap. When nobody stops anybody, all the offense has a dulling effect. (”Oh, look, there’s another touchdown. Big whoop.”) I’m not suggesting the NFL needs to return to the days when teams threw only on third down, but pro football usurped baseball’s claim as America’s Pastime because it fused power with precision. The power aspect, alas, has been lost.

And football, which is supposed to be the ultimate team game, has morphed into the NBA: Instead of LeBron versus Kobe, it’s Brady versus Manning, be it Eli or Peyton, or Brees versus Rodgers. At least in basketball there’s a chance LeBron and Kobe might guard one another; quarterbacks are never on the field at the same time.

But maybe they should be. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the NFL that a return to the one-platoon days wouldn’t cure. (Make pretty-boy Brady play free safety against the Giants and see how he likes it.)

Yeah, I’m kidding, but it’s a bad joke born of frustration. To borrow from Bobby Jones on Jack Nicklaus, NFL teams have come to play a game with which I’m not familiar. And I’m not sure that game is football at all.

By Mark Bradley

98 comments Add your comment

Michael

February 3rd, 2012
11:06 am

First! Thanks Twitter!

Delbert D.

February 3rd, 2012
11:09 am

The Giants have been pretty darn good on defense at times.

el logen boookser

February 3rd, 2012
11:12 am

GTBob

February 3rd, 2012
11:12 am

Another nail in the coffin of the false myth that defense wins championships.

Rickster

February 3rd, 2012
11:16 am

Dang… fifth.

CT Falcons Fan

February 3rd, 2012
11:16 am

Using the overall rankings is deceptive. What were the Pats and Giants ranked defensively over the last month or 6 games? That’s a better indicator, espeically in a league with so many injuries (remember the 2006 Colts, who couldn’t stop anyone, then suddenly got Freeney back and became stout vs. the run and won the Super Bowl). Also, the rankings don’t factor in turnovers. Ultimately, I think you have to be very careful with “statistics” in the NFL because it’s not baseball. For example, the Ravens and 49ers basically gave their games away with turnovers/missed FGs etc.

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Herschel Talker

February 3rd, 2012
11:18 am

MB:

It depends on the definition of the word “Super.” Just like Slick Willie said, it depends on the definition of the word “is.”

HT

T-Bone

February 3rd, 2012
11:20 am

MB, here’s a slight counter. Were it not for a missed chip shot of a field goal by the Ravens and brain lapses by that 49ers coverage guy, would we not be having two of the better defenses playing in a couple of days? I’m not sure the game is as different as you say. Both Rodgers and Brees did in fact lose.

Mark Bradley

February 3rd, 2012
11:29 am

Kudos, Michael.

PMC

February 3rd, 2012
11:41 am

yeah, actually it would be more entertaining and more people would watch. Sacks and Interceptions are the only 2 things people care about on defense.

PMC

February 3rd, 2012
11:47 am

Part of the problem in the SEC is dinosaur offensive scheming and lack of top shelf quarterbacking.

Steve Spurrier brought them the forward pass and crushed for a decade. Urban Meyer brought the spread, found out how to use it in the league and won two titles.

Nick Saban is so much better on defense (and recruiting) than anyone else he’s able to mostly run an ultra conservative rush based offense and still score enough to win.

Old Dawg

February 3rd, 2012
11:50 am

I’m with you, Mark. I don’t mind creative offensive schemes, but opening up the game to a series of fast breaks does make for real football.

As for Sunday night, I’m all over the commercials and good BBQ!

The game? Not so much!

Sam Robards, Dawg Fan

February 3rd, 2012
11:54 am

I don’t care about the NFL, outside of a few players that I sporadically keep up with, and I don’t watch the Super Bowl. So I don’t really have anything to say on the main topic.

I just hate it when people call football America’s Pastime. IT ISN’T.

The only reason people say that is because more people watch the Super Bowl than the World Series. And, let’s face it, the only reason about 60% of those viewers watch the Super Bowl is because of the commercials.

To me, baseball was (and always will be) America’s Pastime in large part because it’s the most ethnically diverse sport in the country: you have whites, blacks, latinos, asians. They all play ball. When was the last time you saw an Asian guy playing pro football that wasn’t Samoan (if that even counts as Asian)?

Also, people of all body types can play baseball. You’ve got skinny guys, thick guys, tall guys, short guys: anyone can play and excel. You don’t have to be 7′ tall like in basketball or weigh a ton like in football. Be honest, do you really think a guy like David Ortiz could play a professional sport outside of MLB?

I apologize for the tangential rant. I just felt the need to stick up for America’s Pastime. Who else is stoked for Spring Training?

Peace out!

James Stephenson

February 3rd, 2012
12:06 pm

PMC: Part of the problem in the SEC is dinosaur offensive scheming and lack of top shelf quarterbacking.

Please, 2 of the last 5 first round picks have been qbs from the SEC. And how do those crazy offense fair against SEC teams in the bowl games or OOC games. I mean Oregon really lit it up against Auburn and LSU, oh wait a minute no they didn’t. WV scored how much against LSU?

Please take the dinosaur comment and lets do away with it. Now if College allowed guys to run free all day like they do in the NFL, maybe it might go away, but Defense matters in College.

George Stein

February 3rd, 2012
12:19 pm

Didn’t the Giants shut down Green Bay and Atlanta?

Ben

February 3rd, 2012
12:22 pm

The problem with this article is that the two defense may be statistically ranked 27th and 31st, but they’re not even close to the 5th and 2nd worst overall defense in the NFL. I can find way more than 5 defenses worse than these two.

This statistic is only referring to Yards Against, but there are WAY more measures to use than just yards against. That’s a misleading statistic in this age of football because so many offenses are stretching the field sideline to sideline and opening up more space. Quality defense is no longer defined by getting off the field after three plays and forcing a punt. So assessing a defense solely on yards against is unfair. The name of the game on defense is to force the offense into mistakes. Bring constant pressure on the QB to force hurried throws, disrupt a WR’s routes, throw off the timing of the play, and create turnovers off of broken plays. These two defenses do that very well.

Mark Bradley

February 3rd, 2012
12:26 pm

I’m not sure the Giants shut down the Falcons. I think the Falcons shut themselves down.

PMC

February 3rd, 2012
12:35 pm

James, The #1 pick that came out of Georgia largely underachieved as a college QB. He had the size and the skill set to become a very good NFL QB and that’s why he was picked #1 overall.

Cam Newton was/is athletically superior to everyone else in the league and the country essentially.

You really want to sell the world on the two National Championship game QB’s?

PMC

February 3rd, 2012
12:36 pm

The defenses in the SEC are better than any other conference in the country, but the offenses are not special. Not in the least.

George Stein

February 3rd, 2012
12:39 pm

Auburn didn’t exactly light it up against Oregon, either, James.

Ernest T. Bass

February 3rd, 2012
12:50 pm

but the offenses are not special. Not in the least.

Your not watching the same games I am.

Big Lou

February 3rd, 2012
12:55 pm

Mark,

The 49ers should have beat the Giants. The reason they lost was due to special teams, who gaffed in regulation and in overtime. COME ON MAN!

Tyrone

February 3rd, 2012
12:58 pm

Mark Bradley is writing this article based on season long statistics- but the truth is that both of these team’s defenses played championship football (getting sacks and turnovers) in the Playoffs- where it TRULY counts most. And on Sunday- because the Giants have a functioning running game and pass rushers that will pressure Tom Brady everytime he drops back- they will win the SB. The saying remains true; Offense sells tickets (and boosts ratings)- Defense wins championships (because a beaten down, turnover prone QB is an ineffective one)

david

February 3rd, 2012
1:04 pm

if the falcons made the super bowl this year, you’d see an offense get dominated for sure… No matter who the opposing defense was.

C from Marietta

February 3rd, 2012
1:14 pm

Ravens pretty much shutdown the Pats and had a chance to tie the game. Talk about lazy analysis. Just look up the defensive yards given up and write a bunch of bs. Come on man. Pats and Giants have been playing some defense in the playoffs. Giants have been lights out on defense the last 10 games or so.

Bobo is Not the Problem

February 3rd, 2012
1:17 pm

Michael, get a life. Kudos on showing everybody you have nothing to do but wait for the next blog so you can be “first.”

jarvis

February 3rd, 2012
1:18 pm

I agree with the safety measures in terms of hitting with the crown of the helmet, but it needs to be offset somewhere. Personally I believe allowing the WR jams to go past 5 yards would be a nice concession back to good defense.

Maybe extend it to 10 yards or even go back to the rule of contact can take place until the ball is released.

Capt Bob

February 3rd, 2012
1:24 pm

Great Article. Anyone over 50 misses the games where it wasn’t “basketball on grass”…I think the fans will ultimately tire of this arena football that the NFl is morphing into. What made football so great was the team aspect, where everone offense and defense contributed to the teams win/loss…today it’s so onesided, with so many diva’s it’s no longer a team game…at least college football still plays team football!

Jeff B

February 3rd, 2012
1:25 pm

I think the defenses are struggling this year mainly because of all the new rules around protecting receivers and quarterbacks. Look, player safety is important and those rules are there for a reason. They’re a point of emphasis right now, so maybe they’re being a tad too vigorously called. I hope that once everyone gets more comfortable with the new rules, we see fewer spurious calls and defenses will have half a chance again.

I agree with some of the fans above though, had the 49ers and Ravens squeeked by, your tune would be completely different… and the difference in those games was special teams.

jarvis

February 3rd, 2012
1:42 pm

@Bobo is Not the Problem, thanks for that enourmous contribution.
(yes I see the irony in my compaining about your complaint)

Ed

February 3rd, 2012
1:49 pm

Bobby Jones was reported to be able to consistently drive the ball over 280 yards – with 1920s and 30s equipment. He was being too hard on himself in his old age.

Innocent Bystander

February 3rd, 2012
1:54 pm

Buffalo’s loss to the Giants that resulted in Parcells exulting “Power Football Baby!” was about the Giants use of a power running game that Buffalo couldn’t stop, effectively keeping Kelly and Co. on the sidelines where they couldn’t score points. So it was about defense, bad defense by Buffalo, not good defense by NY.

Nativebird

February 3rd, 2012
2:31 pm

Agreed whole heartedley. This commissioner has made it even worse with these wimpy rules where a safety can’t unload on a “defenseless” player. B.s. then DON’T PLAY. No ones got a gun to these guys heads. Opt out if you ain’t man enough. Can’t touch Brady or Brees. ALL offensive records including the ridiculous 5000 yard plus Bree’s passing record should be astericked. This is the worst era of football ever played. The “whimpification of football” will kill this sport. Believe it.

Verne Lundquist

February 3rd, 2012
3:19 pm

I don’t get why people are acting like these teams don’t have a defense. The reason they’re both in the Super Bowl is because of their defense. The Giants only put up 20 points on the 49ers and the Patriots put 23 on the Ravens. It’s not like they had to score 35 to win the game. Both of these defenses have stepped it up and if this game has to be won on defense alone I’m going with the Giants because of Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi. Giants win by 10.

Hillbilly D

February 3rd, 2012
3:56 pm

Odds are the team that wins the line of scrimmage will still win the game. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.

Yunel Asscobar

February 3rd, 2012
4:18 pm

This piece is a weird spin for Super Bowl week. This yea, we’ve had some of the best and closest playoff games ever, Denver v NE excepted. These two teams have earned their way into the game of the year and have beaten the “stud defenses” when it counted. What more do you want from them? They did what the Falcons and the teams with top-rated defenses could not do – WIN!

Agent009

February 3rd, 2012
4:21 pm

Have “pretty boy” Brady play free safety… Very clever :)

Najeh Davenpoop

February 3rd, 2012
4:36 pm

Defense still matters in the NFL. The change isn’t that it’s an all-offense league like Arena football; it’s that it’s an all-passing league now, and the rules regarding coverage are so restrictive that the only way to stop a good passing attack is to get a consistent pass rush. So it’s not yards that matter on D anymore as much as quarterback pressures and turnovers forced. The Giants are top 10 in sacks and picks, and the Patriots are top 10 in picks. That’s why they are in the Super Bowl.

King Saban

February 3rd, 2012
4:57 pm

If ya’ll want to see some defense I’ld be happy to lend the giants or the pats the 2011 Alabama defense for the Super Bowl. Just about everyone on the Bama D is going to be playing pro ball anyway. And yes GTBob defense does still win championships as our 2009 and 2011 national championships will attest to.

King Saban

February 3rd, 2012
5:19 pm

“Part of the problem in the SEC is dinosaur offensive scheming and lack of top shelf quarterbacking”

Not sure what planet this guy lives on. When Bama and LSU played the first time they were both averaging right at 39-40 pts a game. LSU had put up 40 and 48 against Oregon and west virginia. Alabama scored in the 40s and 50s numerous times this season as did LSU. People mistakenly believed that neither had great offenses which wasn’t the case at all. What happened is both of their offenses just ran into the 2 best defenses in college football when they played.

Paul in NH

February 3rd, 2012
5:23 pm

Mark – it’s not great offenses that win Super Bowls – it’s great QB’s (which leads to great O – duh).
Look at the last 8 years (in reverse order)
Rodgers, Brees, Big Ben, Eli, Peyton, Big Ben, Brady, Brady
All 6 of those guys are going to be in Canton.

DP

February 3rd, 2012
5:33 pm

This is the same Mark Bradley who thought Oklahoma State, which wasn’t in the top 100 in defense (of 119 major college teams), should have been in the BCS championship game instead of Alabama, which led college football in all 4 major defensive categories. Then after Alabama played one of the greatest defensive games in college football bowl history, shutting LSU out and holding them under 100 total yards of offense, Bradley wrote………..nothing. He couldn’t even bring himself to comment.

And now he’s lamenting the lack of defense in the NFL, because Bradley really loves defense in football. At least unless it’s Alabama playing it.

Hillbilly D

February 3rd, 2012
5:33 pm

Bradshaw is already in the Hall and the Steelers won on defense, as much as anything.

1eyedJack

February 3rd, 2012
6:05 pm

The Gents played pretty good defense against the Falcons. Alas.

eastbound and down

February 3rd, 2012
6:19 pm

MB,
i am sure the NFL wouldn’t miss you if you quit watching and whining, just as the AJC readers wouldn’t miss you if stopped writing and whining

DP

February 3rd, 2012
6:20 pm

Mark Bradley, yesterday on the so-called UGA “Dream Team” recruiting class of 2011:

“mood altering”
“dazzling”
“the absolute right group at the moment of greatest need”

One day later, 3 of them were kicked off the team. The Bradley jinx strikes again. Of course, nobody who is knowledgeable and even remotely objective would write such gushing prose about a recruiting class one year in when many of them have yet to play a down.

dan

February 3rd, 2012
7:51 pm

That’s not entirely true Mark:

The Packers fell in the playoffs. The Saints got exposed too.

I think what matters in today’s game are turnovers and sacks. The Pats have been able to do the former and the Giants have been able to do both.

The QB position is important though. That’s why the San Fran’s will only go so far because as good of a season as Alex Smith has had, he’s not going to have successive great games in the playoffs, while Eli and Brady have proven that they can. I think physicality still matters too. Teams that exhibit grit later in the year tend to go far. That’s why I like the Giants on Sunday.

Matt "CHOKE" Ryan

February 3rd, 2012
7:59 pm

Still no new contract for the BUST…..

Flacco getting a new one.

HA HA HA :)

Van Brocklin

February 3rd, 2012
9:56 pm

Did not the Atlanta Falcons have the highest scoring Defense

in the 2011 NFL playoffs ?