Teams know they can't win with just defense
While defense is needed to win a championship, in today's NFL you need an offense that can score points, too, writes John Clayton.
The Colts might have opened a new era by winning the Super Bowl this year.
They are the first Super Bowl winner since the 1983 Raiders to not finish in the top 10 in scoring defense. In a league that usually evolves into defense-dominated games in the playoffs, offense carries more importance than teams want to admit.
As the cliché goes, defense wins championships. While defense is obviously still an important part of the equation, a defense not accompanied by a top-level offense isn't going to get it done. And having a top-level offense starts with the quarterback position. To win a Super Bowl in the 2000s, you need a quarterback who can beat Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
The days of building a defense alone to win a Super Bowl ended at the turn of the century when Brady started winning Super Bowls and continued last season with Manning. Their presence ended a brief dark ages at the quarterback position that plagued the late 1990s.
It sounds simple, but the stat to watch is points scored. If an offense can't score at least 21 points a game, forget about winning a Super Bowl.
In the past four years, five teams averaged less than 20 points per game and still made the playoffs. Four of those teams were eliminated in the first round; the fifth, the 2004 Rams, got past the first round as an 8-8 wild-card team by beating a 9-7 Seahawks team in Seattle. The next week the Rams were blown out by the Falcons 47-17.
The NFL competition committee gets worried when team scoring drops to an average of around 20 points per game. When that happens -- and it often does -- the league considers rule changes to add more offense. The most recent example is when the NFL tightened up the interference and illegal-contact rules against defensive backs. Throwing more flags for tight coverage provided a brief offensive spike.
General managers countered by drafting more speed on defense, and to a certain degree the strategy is working. Teams that use the Cover 2 defense (such as the Bears) have acquired lighter and faster athletes who can cover more ground. The good 3-4 defenses also are finding quicker players in an effort to create a few more big plays.
Perhaps the biggest reason the AFC has held an edge over the NFC in interconference play and the Super Bowl is because it has quarterbacks such as Manning and Brady who can produce points. It's hard to rank Ben Roethlisberger in the hierarchy of great quarterbacks after just three seasons, but he has led an offense that has averaged 22 points or better when he starts.
Despite a motorcycle accident and an appendectomy, Roethlisberger ran an offense that averaged 22.1 points last season. His offenses put up 23.3 and 24.3 points per game in his other years as a starter. With Roethlisberger taking more control of the passing offense this year, it's not surprising that the Steelers are talking about getting back to the playoffs.
Last season, 16 teams averaged 20 or more points. Eleven of those teams made the playoffs. Ten of the 20-point teams were in the AFC. Before last season, the Bears focused on being able to score the 21 points they tallied in their 2005 playoff loss to Carolina. If they could do that, they'd win. The Bears jumped from 16.3 to 26.7 points per game, finished 13-3 and reached the Super Bowl. Sure, Devin Hester's returns and defensive touchdowns contributed to that, but the bottom line is that they scored more points, and that made them a Super Bowl contender.
It was also easy to figure out the Ravens and Chargers were going to be playoff teams last year because of the improvement of their offenses. Coach Brian Billick and the Ravens added QB Steve McNair, and the Ravens' scoring average went from 16.6 to 22.1 points per game. QB Philip Rivers boosted the Chargers' scoring average from 26.1 to 30.8.
QB Drew Brees had an even bigger impact in New Orleans, helping boost the Saints' scoring average by more than 11 points (14.7 to 25.8 points per game) and leading them to the NFC title game.
The teams to watch in 2007 that scored less than 20 points per game last season (and missed the playoffs) are the 49ers, Cardinals, Broncos and Redskins. They all averaged in the 18- or 19-point area and should be better on offense. If they can get three or four points better, they will be right in the playoff hunt.
The Buffalo Bills are another team that could take a big step forward on offense. QB J.P. Losman looked great running a version of the Rams' offense last week in minicamp. With the talent on hand and improvement by Losman, the Bills could easily jump from 18.8 points per game into the 20s. But that improvement on offense might not be enough for a Buffalo team that lost three key defensive starters.
Say what you want about defenses winning championships; the top teams in the league are getting better on offense. The Patriots have added receivers Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker to give Brady more targets. Manning and the Colts could score even more points if first-round draft pick Anthony Gonzalez works out as a slot receiver. Meanwhile, the Chargers added a deep scoring threat for Rivers by grabbing wide receiver Craig Davis in the first round.
While I'm not predicting a year in which scoring will improve leaguewide, improving on offense will be key for a number of teams looking to move forward. A good defense alone isn't enough to get through the playoffs and win a ring.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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