Defense wins championships, or so goes the old cliché.
But does that trusty crutch of gridiron analysis pass the statistical sniff test?
Not exactly. Only one of the 11 stingiest defenses in NFL history won a championship. That was way back in 1942. And it took a Hall of Fame quarterback, an epic goal-line stand and one of the great upsets in history to make it happen.
Never foget that team-wide balance, not dominance in one area, is the coin of the championship realm in professional football.
We’ve done some pretty comprehensive studies of the greatest offenses of all time, and how they historically fail miserably in the postseason.
In fact, we re-published one article, "The Big Tease," last month in the wake of another colossal offensive meltdown by the high-powered New England Patriots.
Naturally, we wanted to see how the great defenses fared, too. We put the cut-off at those defenses that surrendered 14.0 PPG or less.
It’s a nice round number in football terms: you’re pretty damn good in any era if you hold opponents to just two touchdowns per game or less over the course of an entire season.
It also gave us a perfectly round set of results: exactly 100 teams since 1940 surrendered 14.0 PPG or less. The most recent: the 2008 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who surrendered 13.93 PPG.
Note, we didn’t title this story the “greatest” defenses in NFL history. That judgment is a little more subjective and will also involve adjusting for various eras. These are the 100 “stingiest” defenses of all time: a 100 -percent objective proposition.
Clearly, giving up 14.0 PPG does not mean the same thing in all eras. Scoring was quite low right through the World War II years (the mid 1940s) before sky-rocketing in the late 1940s. Defenses came to rule again in the late 1960s through 1977 – the period which we call the Dead Ball Era. In a future study, we’ll adjust for the scoring in each individual season.
However, other than those exceptions, scoring in the NFL has been fairly consistent since the post-World War II scoring boom of the late 1940s. In fact, the greatest period of scoring in NFL history is not today. It was the late 1940s and early 1950s. The 1948 season and 1950 season, for example, rank No. 1 and No. 3 all time in average score per team. The 1965 season is No. 2 for scoring, at the height of the AFL-NFL wars.
Our list of 100 stingiest defenses in history reflects those historical truths: there are a cluster of defenses from the World War II era and again from the Dead Ball Era. Otherwise, the stingiest defenses in history are largely scattered throughout time (our list includes NFL, AFL and AAFC teams).
Sure, we’ve gone four straight seasons without a Top 100 defense. But that’s not unusual just yet. The longest spell without a Top 100 defense came in the seven-season span from 1955 through 1961.
WAR FOOTING: 1944 GIANTS STINGIEST DEFENSE in NFL HISTORY
The 1944 Giants fielded the NFL's stingiest defense, surrendering a total of 75 points in the 10-game season, the last season to be played during World War II (the war had ended by the time the 1945 season got underway, but millions of men, including hundreds of football players, were still in uniform).
The manpower shortage on NFL fields created a variety of statistical anomalies on both sides of the field, and the 1944 Giants are no exception. But even then, the 1944 Giants were a truly awesome unit: the average team scored 18.0 PPG in 1944, well above the 7.5 PPG average surrendered by the Giants.
But even the best defenses can’t get it done alone: Giants quarterback Arnie Herber threw four interceptions in New York's 14-7 NFL title game loss to Herber's former team, the Packers. The 1944 Giants were a mere No. 5 in scoring offense in the 10-team NFL.
DEAD BALL ICON: 1977 FALCONS STINGIEST DEFENSE in SUPER BOWL ERA
The 1977 Falcons fielded the stingiest defense of the Super Bowl Era. In fact, it was the stingiest defense since World War II. Atlanta surrendered just 9.2 PPG, or a total of 129 points in the 14-game season.
For a little perspective: the 2012 Bills gave up 131 points in their first four games.
But with no offense, the 1977 Falcons went just 7-7, three games out of first place in the NFC West.
Balance, not defense, wins championships, despite what the cliche tells us.
That unit was truly a no-name defense at its finest: despite its status as the stingiest defense since World War II, the 1977 Falcons sent only two defenders to the Pro Bowl: cornerback Rolland Lawrence and defensive end Claude Humphrey.
It was truly a one-hit wonder of a unit: the 1976 Falcons possessed one of the worst defenses in the league (22.3 PPG); and it largely fell apart in 1978 (18.1 PPG).
The most famous personality on the 1977 Falcons was not a player but defensive assistant Jerry Glanville, who installed in a swarming style of play in Atlanta remembered (by very few) as the "Grits Blitz" defense.
Is it any coincidence that Glanville helped build one of the great defenses in history in the immediate aftermath of the death of his hero Elvis Presley in August 1977? Perhaps divine intervention was working in Atlanta's favor.
But so was the weight of NFL history: Nine of the 100 stingest defenses played in 1976 and 1977, which marked the depths of the Dead Ball Era. It was so hard to score across the league in 1977 that the NFL was forced to make radical changes to the game before the 1978 season, marking the dawn of what we now call the Live Ball Era.
LIVE BALL LEGENDS: 2000 RAVENS STINGIEST DEFENSE since 1978
Ray Lewis and the famed 2000 Ravens produced the best defense of the Live Ball Era, surrendering just 10.3 PPG – good enough for No. 14 in NFL history.
Baltimore rode that unit all the way to a dominating defensive-field victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, with Lewis the game’s MVP.
The 2000 Ravens were about as close as you'll get to a team that won by defense alone: they surrendered just one offensive touchdown and posted a Defensive Passer Rating of 34.5 in four playoff games.
We’ll be providing analysis of this list in Forearm Shiver and elsewhere here during the offseason, including OUR list of the 10 greatest defenses of all time. But here are some of the stat highlights of the 100 stingiest.
The bottom line is that fielding a great defenseis NO guarantee of postseason success.
19 of the stingiest defenses failed to even make the postseason. Keep in mind, however, that the NFL did not adopt a playoff format until 1967. Before then the top team in each conference squared off in the NFL championship game, except in the rare instance of a two-way top atop the conference leader board.
25 of the stingiest defenses won championships. However, three of those defenses belonged to the Cleveland Browns in the old AAFC, a league which they utterly dominated all four years before moving to the NFL and instantly winning a championship there, too, in 1950.
25 of the stingiest defenses have come here in the Live Ball Era (1978-present). But those 35 seasons represent nearly half of all the years on our list (1940-present).
26 NFL current and former franchises are represented on the list, led by the Chicago Bears, who have produced 10 of the 100 stingiest defenses in NFL hisotry, from the 1940 NFL champs (No. 92 at 13.8 PPG) to the the 2005 Bears (No. 48 at 12.6 PPG).
We'll have much more to follow. For now, here is the list.
THE 100 STINGIEST DEFENSES IN NFL HISTORY
|Rk ||Tm ||Year ||W ||PA || PPG||Result|
|1||New York Giants||1944||8-1-1||75||7.50||lost NFL title|
|2||Chicago Bears||1942||11-0||84||7.64||lost NFL title|
|3||Atlanta Falcons||1977||7-7||129||9.21||missed playoffs|
|4||Washington Redskins||1942||10-1||102||9.27||won NFL title|
|5||Minnesota Vikings||1969||12-2||133||9.50||lost SB|
|6||L.A. Rams||1975||12-2||135||9.64||lost NFC title|
|7||Cleveland Browns||1946||12-2||137||9.79||won AAFC title|
|8||Pittsburgh Steelers||1976||10-4||138||9.86||lost AFC title|
|9||Minnesota Vikings||1971||11-3||139||9.93||lost div. playoffs|
|10||Baltimore Colts||1971||10-4||140||10.0||lost AFC title|
|11||Minnesota Vikings||1970||12-2||143||10.21||lost div. playoffs|
|12||Chicago Bears||1963||11-1-2||144||10.29||won NFL title|
|13||Baltimore Colts||1968||13-1||144||10.29||lost SB|
|14||Baltimore Ravens||2000||12-4||165||10.31||won SB|
|15||New York Giants||1941||8-3||114||10.36||lost NFL title|
|16||L.A. Rams||1977||10-4||146||10.43||lost div. playoffs|
|17t||Green Bay Packers||1962||13-1||148||10.57||won NFL title|
|17t||Denver Broncos||1977||12-2||148||10.57||lost SB|
|19||Pittsburgh Steelers||1946||5-5-1||117||10.64||missed playoffs|
|20||Miami Dolphins||1973||12-2||150||10.71||won SB|
|21||Pittsburgh Steelers||1942||7-4||119||10.82||missed playoffs|
|22t||Brooklyn Dodgers||1940||8-3||120||10.91||missed playoffs|
|22t||Green Bay Packers||1941||10-1||120||10.91||lost div.|
|24||Philadelphia Eagles||1949||11-1||134||11.17||won NFL title|
|25||Brooklyn Dodgers||1941||7-4||127||11.55||missed playoffs|
|26||Pittsburgh Steelers||1975||12-2||162||11.57||won SB|
|27||Green Bay Packers||1966||12-2||163||11.64||won SB|
|28||Chicago Bears||1986||14-2||187||11.69||lost div. playoffs|
|29||Philadelphia Eagles||1950||6-6||141||11.75||missed playoffs|
|30||Tennessee Titans||2000||13-3||191||11.94||lost div. playoffs|
|31t||Cleveland Browns||1950||10-2||144||12.0||won NFL title|
|31t||Minnesota Vikings||1973||12-2||168||12.0||lost SB|
|33||New York Giants||1940||6-4-1||133||12.09||missed playoffs|
|34||Washington Redskins||1945||8-2||121||12.10||lost NFL title|
|35||Kansas City Chiefs||1968||12-2||170||12.14||lost div. playoffs|
|36||Pittsburgh Steelers||1978||14-2||195||12.19||won SB|
|37||Miami Dolphins||1972||14-0||171||12.21||won SB|
|38||TB Buccaneers||2002||12-4||196||12.25||won SB|
|39t||Denver Broncos||1978||10-6||198||12.38||lost div. playoffs|
|39t||Chicago Bears||1985||15-1||198||12.38||won SB|
|41||Miami Dolphins||1971||10-3-1||174||12.43||lost SB|
|42t||New York Giants||1950||10-2||150||12.5||lost div. playoff|
|42t||Pittsburgh Steelers||1972||11-3||175||12.5||lost AFC title|
|42t||Oakland Raiders||1973||9-4-1||175||12.5||lost AFC title|
|45||Baltimore Ravens||2006||13-3||201||12.56||lost div. playoffs|
|46||Minnesota Vikings||1976||11-2-1||176||12.57||lost SB|
|47||Chicago Bears||1948||10-2||151||12.58||missed playoffs|
|48t||New Orleans Saints||1992||12-4||202||12.63||lost div. playoffs|
|48t||Chicago Bears||2005||11-5||202||12.63||lost div. playoffs|
|50||New York Giants||1942||5-5-1||139||12.64||missed playoffs|
|51t||Detroit Lions||1962||11-3||177||12.64||missed playoffs|
|51t||Kansas City Chiefs||1969||11-3||177||12.64||won SB|
|53||Cleveland Browns||1951||11-1||152||12.67||lost NFL title|
|54||Chicago Bears||2001||13-3||203||12.69||lost div. playoffs|
|55||L.A. Rams||1973||12-2||178||12.71||lost div. playoffs|
|56||Cleveland Browns||1994||11-5||204||12.75||lost div. playoffs|
|57||New York Giants||1993||11-5||205||12.81|
lost div. playoffs
|58||Minnesota Vikings||1975||12-2||180||12.86||lost div. playoffs|
|59||Washington Redskins||1940||9-2||142||12.91||lost NFL title|
|60||L.A. Rams||1974||10-4||181||12.93||lost NFC title|
|61t||Philadelphia Eagles||1948||9-2-1||156||13.0||won NFL title|
|61t||Dallas Cowboys||1978||12-4||208||13.0||lost SB|
|61t||Philadelphia Eagles||2001||11-5||208||13.0||lost NFC title|
|64||Philadelphia Eagles||1944||7-1-2||131||13.10||missed playoffs|
|65||Green Bay Packers||1996||13-3||210||13.12||won SB|
|66||New York Giants||1990||13-3||211||13.19||won SB|
|67||New Orleans Saints||1991||11-5||211||13.19||lost div. playoffs|
|68||Cleveland Browns||1947||12-1-1||185||13.21||won AAFC title|
|69||Pittsburgh Steelers||2001||13-3||212||13.25||lost AFC title|
|70||Dallas Cowboys||1968||12-2||186||13.29||lost div. playoffs|
|71||Philadelphia Eagles||1945||7-3||133||13.30||missed playoffs|
|72||Chicago Bears||1941||10-1||147||13.36||won NFL title|
|73||New York Giants||1951||9-2-1||161||13.42||missed playoffs|
|74||Detroit Lions||1969||9-4-1||188||13.43||missed playoffs|
|75||Chicago Bears||1988||12-4||215||13.44||lost NFC title|
|76t||San Francisco 49ers||1946||9-5||189||13.50||missed playoffs|
|76t||Cleveland Browns||1953||11-1||162||13.50||lost NFL title|
|76t||Cleveland Browns||1954||9-3||162||13.50||won NFL title|
|76t||Pittsburgh Steelers||1974||10-3-1||189||13.50||won SB|
|80||Washington Redskins||1977||9-5||189||13.50||missed playoffs|
|81||Jacksonville Jaguars||1999||14-2||217||13.56||lost AFC title|
|82t||Cleveland Browns||1948||14-0||190||13.57||won AAFC title|
|82t||Washington Redskins||1971||9-4-1||190||13.57||lost div. playoffs|
|82t||L.A. Rams||1976||10-3-1||190||13.57||lost NFC title|
|82t||San Francisco 49ers||1976||8-6||190||13.57||missed playoffs|
|86||Cleveland Rams||1945||9-1||136||13.60||won NFL title|
|87||Carolina Panthers||1996||12-4||218||13.63||lost NFC title|
|88||Washington Redskins||1943||6-3-1||137||13.70||lost NFL title|
|89t||New York Yanks||1946||10-3-1||192||13.71||Lost AAFC title|
|89t||Kansas City Chiefs||1973||7-5-2||192||13.71||missed playoffs|
|91||Philadelphia Eagles||1981||10-6||221||13.81||lost wildcard|
|92||Chicago Bears||1940||8-3||152||13.82||won NFL title|
|93||Dallas Cowboys||1976||11-3||194||13.86||lost div. playoffs|
|94||Philadelphia Eagles||1980||12-4||222||13.88||lost SB|
|95||Detroit Lions||1940||5-5-1||153||13.91||missed playoffs|
|96||Minnesota Vikings||1974||10-4||195||13.93||lost SB|
|97||Pittsburgh Steelers||2008||12-4||223||13.94||won SB|
|98t||L.A. Rams||1967||11-1-2||196||14.0||lost div. playoffs|
|98t||Washington Redskins||1974||10-4||196||14.0||lost div. playoffs|
|98t||Washington Redskins||1991||14-2||224||14.0||won SB|