Mad Chemist: The more things change . . .

Updated: November 8, 2013

Editor’s note: This week, Robert J. Russ shares an excerpt from his upcoming book, which currently has the working title Winning Ways.

Conventional wisdom would hold that the NFL has become a passing league and that defense is no longer as important as it once was. But do the numbers really support that claim?

We hear it all the time. We’ve heard it for years.

Defense no longer wins championships. It’s a passing league now.

We are told that rules changes have hamstrung defenses and coddled quarterbacks. We see highlights of Tom Brady to Randy Moss, Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham, Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson, Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne, Peyton Manning to Pierre Garcon, Peyton Manning to Julius Thomas, Peyton Manning to Wes Welker, Peyton Manning to . . .

You get the idea.

We old-school diehards are mocked for still extolling the virtues of defense and controlling the ground game.

“Hey, gramps, it’s not 1985 anymore. Look at your winners these days. Indianapolis, New Orleans, Green Bay — heck, even Baltimore won the Super Bowl last year with offense! Teams are rewriting the offensive record book. It’s a quarterback’s league now.”

Cold numbers

Anecdotal evidence, largely influenced by marketing and the “girls love the long ball” phenomenon, is no way to prove that there is a new paradigm to reach and succeed in the playoffs.

Instead, let’s look at the results since 2002 on numerous fronts: offensive passing yards, offensive completion percentage, offensive rushing yards, passing defense, defensive completion percentage, rushing defense, and scoring defense.

Passing Offense Rushing Offense Defense
Rank Yd Comp% Yd Pass Yd
Rush Yd
1 to 8 38.63% 40.15% 38.63% 30.3% 42.42% 37.12% 50.0%
9 to 16 22.73% 29.55% 27.27% 28.03% 28.79% 26.52% 27.27%
17 to 24 21.97% 22.73% 18.94% 25.75% 21.97% 25.0% 18.94%
25 to 32 16.67% 7.58% 15.15% 15.91% 6.82% 11.36% 3.79%

What we can glean from this is that nothing is close to the importance of a great scoring defense!

Completion percentage is a good predictor, but that has always been true. Great quarterbacks touching the ball on every offensive play can elevate their teams. It is no shock that the Peyton Mannings, Tom Bradys and Aaron Rodgers of the league will make it there. Dan Marino, Joe Montana, and Troy Aikman managed to lift their teams way back in the “good old days.”

If we remove just Brady and Peyton Manning from the equation it reduces the QB completion percentage win ratio to a tie for worst at 30.3%. That is nearly a 25% reduction in value.

These two future Hall of Famers have an average rank of 5.0 in passer completion percentage in the entire league since 2002, in playoff years (see next graph’s “Average Rank” to realize how phenomenal that is) and account for 20 of the 132 playoff spots in that time.

Furthermore, the three least important of the “important” are passing statistics; passing yards, passing yards defense and passing completion percentage defense.

Skipping ahead, we know that occasionally less-deserving teams make the playoffs based on winning weak divisions or devouring weak schedules.

Between 2002 and 2012, 22 teams made it to the Super Bowl. How do these elite of the elite, the ones who have successfully run the gauntlet, stack up?

Avg Rank Ranked in top 25% Ranked in bottom 25%
Pass yards/game 10.4 10 1
Comp% 9.8 10 1
Rush yards/game 16.5 7 5
Pass yards/game allowed 13.9 6 3
Rush yards/game allowed 11.5 11 1
Comp% allowed 12.6 9 2
Points allowed 8.9 14 2

It again points to scoring and rushing defense as the strongest factors for success.

The least important factor appears to be the strength of a running offense. The numbers are nearly equal throughout, telling us that teams can use either the passing game or strong defense to mask a less-than-stellar running game.

Things have changed since 2002

A valid argument could be made that the numbers above fail to show how the league has changed in the past decade, how much more dynamic and impactful the passing game is these days.

It seems as though 2009 was the year offenses took control over the playoffs. Whereas in 2008 it had been the Arizona Cardinals against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, in 2009 it was Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints versus Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts. The next year Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers won it all, followed by the No. 2 passing offense versus the No. 5 passing offense in Patriots v. Giants: Take 2.

High-profile quarterbacks and high-scoring offenses dominated the storylines.

Let’s break this period into segments.

2002-04 2005-08 2009-12
Pass Yd/Game 12.75 14.38 13.42
Comp% 11.61 13.10 11.08
Rush Yd/Game 12.31 12.17 14.5
Pass Yd
15.03 13.10 15.81
Rush Yd
12.94 11.58 11.63
13.69 12.06 13.42
Points Allowed 10.75 9.13 10.33

As you can see, even  in the “passing offense is king” period, the same three factors dominate: scoring defense, completion percentage, and rushing defense, in that order.

It may simply be that the public and media have short memories.

The recent statistics shown here are amazingly similar to the period when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Brad Johnson, won it all on No. 1 defense in 2002, or the strong defense of Jake Delhomme’s Carolina Panthers took on Tom Brady and the Patriots’ top scoring defense in 2003, or the No. 2 scoring defense of New England beat the No. 3 scoring defense of Philadelphia in 2004.

Defenses were so dominant during this period that as offenses returned to their norm (possibly assisted by rule changes), it seemed as though the offense was getting the upper hand.

So what?

What drives me to waste countless hours on this is to more accurately perceive and predict the future outcomes. It seems the strongest indicator of making the playoffs is scoring defense, completion percentage, and running defense. So let’s look key playoff hopefuls at the halfway point.

  1. Chicago is 29th in scoring defense, 29th in run defense, and 11th in completion percentage.
  2. Washington is 31st in scoring defense, 22nd in run defense, and 17th in completion percentage.
  3. New England is eighth in scoring defense, 30th in run defense, and 26th in completion percentage.
  4. Indianapolis is seventh in scoring defense, 27th in run defense, and 24th in completion percentage.

If you are targeting the teams likely to falter, these are your odds-on favorites.

By contrast, the top eight teams in terms of scoring defense are the Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, and New England Patriots.

Four times in the last 11 years all eight of the top eight scoring defenses made the playoffs. Once, seven of eight did so. Never have fewer than five made it to the postseason in that period.

Daaaaaa bets!

By the way, grill class would be awesome!

I hold a perilous one-game lead over . As the season goes on and brutalizes us both, Deep Cool has fewer and fewer picks that meet the 70-percent confidence criteria for this bet. Thus this week we only have two qualifiers.

Pick Line Opponent
Deep Cool Disagrees
Robert's Pick Line Deep Cool's Pick
Cincinnati Bengals -1.5 @ Baltimore Ravens
Miami Dolphins -3 @ Tampa Buccaneers

So I can extend my lead or lose it. Based on six weeks of results, the best bet is we split at 1-1.

Slightly less reliable are my picks that are not part of the bet. They have now gone 25-10-1 (70.8 percent) since Week 4 (and shown me a nice profit). Here are those:

  • Seattle Seahawks -6 @ Atlanta Falcons
  • Detroit Lions -2.5 @ Chicago Bears
  • Buffalo Bills +3.5 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Houston Texas +3 @ Arizona Cardinals
  • Denver Broncos -7 @ San Diego Chargres
  • Washington Redskins -2.5 @ Minnesota Vikings
  • Philadelphia Eagles +2 @ Green Bay Packers
  • St. Louis Cardinals +10 @ Indianapolis Colts
  • Tennessee Titans -13 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

Good luck!

About the author(s)

A self-described NFL addict and "stats geek," Robert J. Russ loves to demolish conventional wisdom with cold, hard numbers. When reputation doesn't jive with reality, he plows tirelessly through play-by-play charts and statistical tables to separate fact from fiction. A military brat who was born in California, raised in North Carolina, and bounced between the two states through college, Russ has lived in Coastal Carolina since 1990. He owns a small pest-control business and a free fantasy football and NFL betting line website. Feel free to contact him at with questions, comments, or ideas for future articles.

LaCW: Real Man
LaCW: Real Man

If LSU upsets Bama, who will be top 2 ranked teams?

Agent Reggie
Agent Reggie moderator

Someone said Hoke needs fired. lol. No.

natesweet moderator

Great video if a 12 year old schooling the governor of North Carolina because of the changes that have been made to voting laws in the state. Specifically eliminating the right of 16 and 17year olds the right to pre register to vote. One sharp kid.

LaCW: Real Man
LaCW: Real Man

Thors plot seemed as ridiculous as Ghost Sharks and what I assume Sharknados. 

Cam Of Steel
Cam Of Steel

Is it Sunday yet? Saw the score what a shitty day of football.

Spurs in 5.
Spurs in 5. moderator

The Rubix cube has 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible configurations.

natesweet moderator

Look at the Hurricanes getting beat 21-7 by lowly VT.

natesweet moderator

This sentence. Bravo.

Maized and Confused
Maized and Confused

It's about an Alien Norse God who lives in another galaxy and wields a magic hammer.

How logical were you expecting it to be?

Maized and Confused
Maized and Confused

That's what you get for rooting for such a shitty university.


natesweet moderator

And the record for solving one is something ludicrous like 6.7 seconds.

LaCW: Real Man
LaCW: Real Man

 Special teams have f'ed them over. 2 turnovers and a low snap leading to a kneel

natesweet moderator

  She just hasn't aged in the last  10 years. Interesting theory.

Maized and Confused
Maized and Confused

I would if the stupid post office didn't have these ridiculous "laws" about sending alcoholic beverages through the mail.

LaCW: Real Man
LaCW: Real Man

 And partners. See gets around. Like all around. Like even in a galaxy far far away around. 

Spurs in 5.
Spurs in 5. moderator

Shes spritely for an older broad.