In the aftermath of the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 win, the question that some may debate is where the Broncos defense stands among the greatest defenses of all time.
Some will point to the 1985 Chicago Bears, who dominated their opposition in the playoffs, including two shutouts in the NFC divisional round and championship. Others will tout the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who had mediocre-at-best quarterback play from not one, but two QBs. There will be those who put the 2013 Seattle Seahawks up there, given how they held the Denver Broncos to eight points in the Super Bowl. And some will talk up the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose defense arguably set the tone for that Super Bowl win.
In examining which defense really stood out as the best, many will roll out, for example, how many sacks that defense racked up during the season. But that’s not really the best measure because it doesn’t paint the entire picture. Let’s look at some of the stats that get tossed out.
Points given up: This holds some meaning, but it depends on where you got it from. Some of the lists that mention points given up account for all points scored, meaning that pick sixes and punts and kicks returns for touchdowns are assessed against the defense. Any points resulting from defensive scores are hard to hold against the other defense because that defense was not on the field. Punt and kick returns for scores are ones most would not want to hold against the defense, either. Furthermore, there’s an important factor to remember that applies to the next stat.
Yards given up: The problem with rolling this out is that it doesn’t provide proper context. If an offense gets the ball at the opponent’s 30-yard line and scores a touchdown, the opponent’s defense has given up 30 yards. But if that same offense gets the ball at its own 15-yard line and reaches the 45 before being forced to punt, that defense has given up 30 yards, too. So what’s the difference? Answer: Field position. A defense that gives up 20 to 30 yards on a drive but forces a punt is doing its job well, but that doesn’t mean the defense that gave up 20 to 30 yards on a scoring drive did its job poorly, because it’s tough for even the best defenses to defend against great field position for the opposing offense.
Sacks: A minor problem with this stat is the NFL did not start keeping track of who got credit for a sack until 1982, and the NFL wasn’t even keeping track of how many times a quarterback lost yards when attempting a pass until 1961. So if you want to talk about the Super Bowl era, listing sack totals is difficult to do for every Super Bowl team. Furthermore, it’s only more recently that some who cover football are keeping track of how many times a quarterback is hit, hurried or pressured. As the NFL game has evolved, those covering it have found more details to examine regarding what defenses do to disrupt opposing offenses, making it more difficult to compare teams simply by looking at whatever stats were kept in past seasons.
So this brings us to what some people are examining to determine how good certain defenses really were, and that’s advanced metrics. But as I will note, advanced metrics are still gathering information on every team and every season, so they aren’t complete when it comes to comparing everyone. I’m using Football Outsiders here, because they go in depth into what happens on each play, taking into account every detail about the play and the situation.
Football Outsiders, which measures units and players with statistics such as DVOA and DYAR, has only compiled research back to 1989, so it may be some time before they put together that information for the 1985 season. Hence, when discussing all these teams, the Bears won’t be included, but I will bring them up at the end of this article and examine a few things to keep in mind about the era they played and questions to consider that would determine how good they were.
What DVOA and DYAR say about recent Super Bowl defenses
First, for those unfamiliar with DVOA and DYAR, you can check Football Outsiders for an explanation. To sum up, FO measures offense and defenses based on what happens on each play, based on factors ranging from the situation the offense or defense faced, to the quality of the opponent it was facing. You can get more information about those stats here.
Those of you who have followed my writings know that I have discussed Football Outsiders rankings several times. I will again refer back to the list Football Outsiders rolled out in its 2015 final DVOA rankings, which showed the best and worst defenses of all time for the years the site has compiled DVOA.
You can scroll down on the link above to find the rankings, which have the 2015 Denver Broncos defense at -25.8% (keep in mind, a negative DVOA is better for a defense, while a positive DVOA is better for offense and special teams). That puts the Broncos eighth in defensive DVOA, ahead of the 2000 Ravens (who don’t even rank in the top 12 in defensive DVOA), just behind the 2013 Seahawks (seventh), and well behind two other Super Bowl defenses, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (second) and the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers (third).
It’s worth noting, though, that none of these defenses even compare to the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles, who had a -42.4% DVOA, making them one of the best defenses in NFL history. Of course, nobody talks about that defense because the Eagles didn’t even make the playoffs that year. Additionally, the Ravens had better defenses in 2008 (-27.8%) and 2003 (-25.0%) but did not reach the Super Bowl either year (and in 2008, they faced that 2008 Steelers team in the AFC title game). So there are seasons in which dominant defenses never made a Super Bowl appearance, but certainly have to enter the conversation about “best defenses ever.”
But suppose we want to focus our conversations on those defenses that reached the Super Bowl. Here are those five defenses and their DVOA.
2002 Tampa Bay -31.8%
2008 Pittsburgh -29.0%
2013 Seattle -25.9%
2015 Denver -25.8%
2000 Baltimore -23.8%
The difference between the 2015 Broncos and 2013 Seahawks really isn’t significant, but the difference between those two defenses and the top two is considerable. If we only used the DVOA above as the measure of who had the best defense, it’s the 2002 Bucs and neither the Seahawks nor Broncos defenses enter the conversation.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. There will be Seahawks fans who will argue that their 2013 team topped the best offense in the NFL that featured the league MVP, while Broncos fans may argue that their 2015 team beat two teams with future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and topped it off by beating the team with the league MVP.
This is where we need to look at other factors that Football Outsiders considers to give more perspective, such as weighted DVOA (designed to reflect how well the team played at the end of the season), variance (consistency throughout the season) and strength of schedule. Here are those numbers and, for variance and schedule, how they ranked for that season.
2000 Baltimore: -24.0 weighted DVOA, 3.6 variance (second), -7.7 schedule (31st)
2002 Tampa Bay: -28.7 weighted DVOA, 5.3 variance (16th), -6.6 schedule (32nd)
2008 Pittsburgh: -30.7 weighted DVOA, 4.9 variance (14th), 1.1 schedule (9th)
2013 Seattle: -30.0 weighted DVOA, 8.3 variance (28th), -3.7 schedule (31st)
2015 Denver: -22.1 weighted DVOA, 4.4 variance (14th), 3.2 schedule (4th)
The 2000 Ravens, 2008 Steelers and 2013 Seahawks each played better in the latter half of the season, and in the case of the Seahawks, they were much better down the stretch. The 2000 Ravens showed the most consistency from week to week. Only two defenses faced a top-10 schedule: The 2008 Steelers and the 2015 Broncos, with the Broncos facing the toughest schedule of all. So the 2002 Bucs don’t have as strong of a case to be the best defense ever among defenses measured by FO. The picture gets a little more complicated.
Now let’s throw in one other factor, and that’s who these teams had to face in the playoffs. We hear the talk that the most recent top defenses to get to the Super Bowl faced Hall of Fame quarterbacks and league MVPs, but what’s more meaningful to examine is the quality of the offenses the teams faced in the playoffs and how well those team’s top offensive players fared. Remember, just because a particular player is not worthy of being named to the Hall of Fame, doesn’t mean that player never had a great season at some point. Hall of Famers had great overall careers, but many, many players have had at least one great season.
(Note: In the following examples, I list “top receiving target” which refers to either the top wide receiver or tight end as measured by DYAR. In most cases, a WR had the highest DYAR, but in a couple of cases, it was a TE. Only the player with the highest DYAR is listed.)
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens were a wild card team when the NFL still had three divisions per conference. They beat the Denver Broncos in the wild card round, and the Broncos had the third-best offense in DVOA, with their offensive playmakers ranked thusly: QB Brian Griese (5th, 1,062 DYAR), RB Mike Anderson (4th, 283) and top receiving target Ed McCaffrey (5th WR, 377). They beat the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, and the Titans were ranked 16th in offense DVOA with QB Steve McNair (14th, 469), RB Eddie George (13th, 124) and top target Derrick Mason (1th WR, 288). They beat the Oakland Raiders in the AFC title game, and the Raiders were ranked sixth in offense DVOA with QB Rich Gannon (6th, 1,052), RB Tyrone Wheatley (17th, 97) and top target Tim Brown (12th WR, 299). And they beat the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, with the Giants ranked eighth in offense DVOA and QB Kerry Collins (8th, 838), RB Tiki Barber (23rd, 26) and top target Amani Toomer (7th WR, 361).
The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the first of these teams to play in the current four-divisions-per-conference setup. They had a first-round bye and beat San Francisco in the divisional round, with the Niners ranked third in offense DVOA with QB Jeff Garcia (7th, 936), RB Garrison Hearst (6th, 157) and top target Terrell Owens (14th WR, 255). The Bucs beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game, with the Eagles ranked 10th in offense DVOA with QB Donovan McNabb (24th, 267), RB Duce Staley (28th, 40) and top target Antonio Freeman (39th WR, 107). And they beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl, who had the second-best offense in DVOA with QB Rich Gannon (1st, 1,470), RB Charlie Garner (3rd. 239) and top target Jerry Porter (8th WR, 305).
The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, after a first-round bye, beat the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round, with the Chargers ranked third in offense DVOA with QB Phillip Rivers (3rd, 1,347), RB LaDainian Tomlinson (22nd, 56) and top target Vincent Jackson (5th WR, 378). They beat the Ravens in the AFC title game, and the Ravens ranked 19th in offense DVOA with QB Joe Flacco (19th, 232), RB Le’Ron McClain (10th, 137) and top target Derrick Mason (11th WR, 261). In the Super Bowl, they beat the Arizona Cardinals, and the Cardinals were 15th in offense DVOA with QB Kurt Warner (5th, 1,160), RB Edgerrin James (26th, 34) and top target Larry Fitzgerald (3rd WR, 407).
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks had a first-round bye, beat the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round, and the Saints were fifth in offense DVOA with QB Drew Brees (3rd, 1,701), RB Pierre Thomas (30th, 6) and top target Marques Colton (12th WR, 276). In the NFC title game, they beat the Niners, who were eighth in offense DVOA with QB Colin Kaepernick (8th, 791), RB Frank Gore (20th, 91) and top target Anquan Boldin (3rd WR, 386). And in the Super Bowl, they beat the Broncos, who were first in offense DVOA with QB Peyton Manning (1st, 2,475), RB Knowshon Moreno (6th, 171) and top target Demaryius Thomas (1st WR, 430).
The 2015 Denver Broncos had a first-round bye, beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round, and the Steelers were third in offense DVOA with QB Ben Roethlisberger (5th, 1,115), RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (unranked, not enough rushes to qualify) and top target Markus Wheaton (27th WR, 159). They beat the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, and the Patriots were fifth in offense DVOA with QB Tom Brady (2nd, 1,311) RB James White (unranked, not enough rushes to qualify) and top target Rob Gronkowski (2nd TE, 235). They beat the Panthers in the Super Bowl, with the Panthers ranked eighth in offense DVOA with QB Cam Newton (11th, 621), RB Jonathan Stewart (33rd, 23) and top target Greg Olsen (6th TE, 132).
The Seahawks and Buccaneers faced overall offenses that were slightly better than the Broncos, but the Broncos faced better offenses than the Ravens, while the Steelers faced the weakest overall crop. In terms of offensive playmakers who dominated in that season, the 2000 Ravens faced two quarterbacks who were better than you might have thought they were that year (Griese and Gannon were among the best in 2000). Gannon really stands out in 2002, and Garner ranked high at his position, and the Bucs faced both in the Super Bowl. The 2008 Steelers had to deal with Rivers and Jackson when they were top five at their positions, then drew Warner and Fitzgerald in the Super Bowl when they were playing at a high level. The Seahawks, of course, got Manning and Thomas at a high level, but also had to face Brees and Boldin when they were top five at their positions. And this year’s Broncos team may not have faced Antonio Brown, the top WR in DYAR, in the playoffs, but Brady, Roethlisberger and Gronkowski all ranked top five at their positions and Olsen was just outside the top five. In terms of playmakers, the Seahawks might hold the edge, but the Broncos are in the conversation and the Steelers look better than on first appearance.
The bigger picture demonstrates that, while the Broncos 2015 defense was impressive, it’s not a “case closed” argument that they had the best defense in the Super Bowl era when considering the teams FO has rated. If I had to rank them, it would probably be this order: 2002 Bucs by a slim margin, 2015 Broncos and 2013 Seahawks (as in, they are tied, but I wouldn’t argue if somebody put one ahead of the other), 2008 Steelers and 2000 Ravens (although it’s close between them).
What about the 1985 Chicago Bears?
So this brings us back to the defense that hasn’t been discussed because FO’s DVOA hasn’t examined any team before the 1989 season. As FO explains, the staff is working to get those seasons added to its archives, although it will take time because the staff needs to locate resources to compile its data. But before we get to anything pertaining to FO, let’s consider a few points some may bring up.
It’s true that, in 1985, the passing game wasn’t emphasized as much as it is now, though the passing game’s increased importance was starting to emerge in the 1980s. Also, the NFL rules have changed so that more is done to protect the quarterback, penalties are assessed for hits that weren’t penalized in 1985 (defenseless receiver rule, come on down!), and the concussion protocol means you don’t see players keep on playing through those injuries all the time. A minor point is the salary cap in place now, but who can say for certain which players the Bears would have prioritized retaining at the time if they had to work under a salary cap.
But the point to really keep in mind is that FO does not consider how much the run game versus the pass game meant in a particular decade or how the rules have changed, but to examine what happens on each play, from what the situation is (quarter, time left, score, down and yards to go) to what develops during the play. As an example: If a team faces third-and-1 at its own 40-yard line in the first quarter when the score is 0-0, the team is more likely to run the football than it is if the team faces third-and-1 at its own 40-yard line in the fourth quarter when the team is trailing 21-7 at the two-minute warning. But if the offense does what is not more likely, the defense might still come through with a stop. FO takes this into account when measuring a play and its result.
So if/when FO does get to the 1985 season and examines the Chicago Bears, the site is not just going to examine scores and statistics. It will examine what happened on each play and the situation the Bears defense faced each time. And this is something that requires either game film or a written play-by-play breakdown to know what the situation was. Game film is the most helpful, but the further back you go into NFL films, the more likely film quality won’t be as good, so some plays may be more difficult to decipher. And when it comes to the full play-by-play write-ups, those are sometimes tougher to come by. Pro Football Reference, for example, does not have the play-by-play logs listed for all of the Bears’ 1985 games. For example, it has the PBP log for the Super Bowl from that year, but not for the NFC title game).
So while there will be some points raised about the 1985 Bears defense and the era in which it played, we must remember that there’s more to the argument than that. Situational football is the biggest of them all and, while the nature of the game and the rules may have changed, what hasn’t changed is teams are far more likely to throw in given situations than they are in others.
I imagine we’d all agree that the 1985 Bears belong in the discussion of best defenses in the Super Bowl era. But the interesting question will be what happens if/when deeper examinations of that defense take place. It will likely be some time before Football Outsiders gets to that season, but until then, we should keep in mind that how a defense plays in a given situation and factors ranging from consistency to strength of schedule matter just as much as the statistics that usually get trotted out.