Just in Time for the Super Bowl, Authors of ‘Scorecasting’ Ask if Defense Truly Wins Championships

In their “Freakonomics for sports” book, "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won," Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim challenge conventional wisdom, uncover the hidden influences in sports and use reams of data to investigate questions that tug at every fan. Are there really make-up calls in the NBA? Is there, in fact, a home field advantage? Is there really no ‘I’ in team?

In the following excerpt, the authors—one a University Chicago economist, the other a writer at Sports Illustrated—consider whether defense truly wins championships.

Scorecasting by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim
Source: Crown Publishing Group
Scorecasting by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim

Take a look at the NFL’s “total defense” metric, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a funhouse mirror. The team with the worst defense during the regular season was….the Green Bay Packers, who also happened to have the best record. Ranked 31st, the New England Patriots had the second-worst defense. The Patriots, of course, will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVI. Their opponents, the New York Giants, finished 27th in total defense. All three teams—the 15-1 Packers and the two Super Bowl participants—ranked lower than the Indianapolis Colts, the sad sack team that had the league’s worst record.

Come again?

Saving an indictment of the “total defense” statistic for another time, these rankings aren’t perhaps so incongruous after all. Defense wins championships. Coaches of all levels and sports have said so for years. This isn’t even a locker room cliché. It’s ossified into one of the seminal tenets of team sports.

Except that it isn’t necessarily so. What we found: when it comes to winning championships—or winning in general, for that matter—defense and offense carry uncannily similar weight. Among the 45 NFL Super Bowls, the better defensive team, measured by points allowed that season, has won 29 times. The better offensive team has won 25 times. It’s a slight edge to defense, but it’s a pretty close call, and not different from random chance. The Super Bowl champ has been a top-five defensive team during the regular season on 28 occasions. How many times was the Super Bowl champ ranked among the top five in offense? 28.

But we’re talking about only 45 games, so let’s broaden the sample size. There have been 407 NFL playoff games held over the last 44 seasons. The better defensive teams have won 58 percent of the time. The better offensive teams have won 62 percent of the time. Slight edge to the offense, but, again, pretty even. (Sometimes the winning team is better both offensively and defensively, which explains why the total exceeds 100 percent.)

Collectively, teams with a top-five defense have won 180 playoff games. Teams with a top-five offense have won 184 games. Accounting for almost 10,000 regular season games, the better defensive team has won 66.5 percent of the time compared to 67.4 percent of the time for the better offensive team. Again, a negligible difference.

Super Bowl, Super Sports, Super Bucks - A CNBC Special Report
Super Bowl, Super Sports, Super Bucks - A CNBC Special Report

What happens when the best offenses line up against the best defenses, when, say, if the 2006 Indianapolis Colts had had to face the 2000 Baltimore Ravens? It turns out that 27 Super Bowls have pitted a top-five offense against a top-five defense. The best offensive team won 13 and the best defensive team 14. Another virtual stalemate.

Same, incidentally, in other sports. Of the 65 NBA championships from 1947 to 2010, the league’s best defensive teams during the regular season have won nine titles, while the best offensive teams have won seven. In the playoffs, the better defensive teams win 54.4 percent of the time, while the better offensive teams win 54.7 percent of the time—almost dead even. And among 50,000 or so regular season games, the better defensive teams win no more often than the better offensive teams. We see the same results in the NHL. There’s no greater concentration of Stanley Cups, playoff wins, or regular season victories among the teams playing the best defense (or defence) than among those playing the best offense.

If defense is no more critical than offense is, why do all coaches worth their polyester shorts extol its singular importance? Well, no one needs to talk up the virtues of scoring. No one needs to create incentives for players to shoot more jump shots or score more touchdowns. There’s a reason why fans exhort “De-Fense, De-Fense!” not “Off-ense, Off-ense!” Offense is fun. Offense is glamorous. Defense? It’s often less fun and, certainly, less glamorous, less glorified. Who gets the endorsements, the scorers or the defensive stoppers? And it’s not just sports. Think about war movies. The heroes, inevitably, are conquerors of territory, not defenders of territory. Acquiring something is inherently sexier than simply maintaining it.

"We suspect that if sports were structured differently, defense might be perceived differently. Imagine if every game started not at 0-0 but with a score of, say, 25-25, and teams could have points deducted from that total." -Co-Authors, "Scorecasting", Tobias J. Moskowitz & L. Jon Wertheim

But we submit that there is something else at play. The fear of loss is a huge motivator, both in life and in sports. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are credited with recognizing this phenomenon, which they called “loss aversion.” Distilled to its essence: we often tend to prefer avoiding losses even at the expense of acquiring gains. For most of us, the pain of losing $1 is far more intense and powerful than the pleasure of winning $1.

In an oft-cited psychology experiment, subjects are offered two gambles with identical payoffs, but framed differently. In the first gamble, a coin is flipped and if it lands heads you get $100; if tails, you get nothing. In the second gamble you are given $100 first and then flip the coin; if the coin lands heads you owe nothing; if it’s tails, you pay back the $100. Subjects dislike the second experiment much more than the first even though the actual gains and losses are identical

What about football? On offense, athletes seek a gain. They’re looking to score, to augment a total, to change the numbers on the scoreboard. On defense, athletes are simply trying to prevent points, to preserve the score and keep it from changing. On defense, the strong motivating forces of loss aversion aren’t really being activated. Nothing is at risk of being taken away or reduced.

We suspect that if sports were structured differently, defense might be perceived differently. Imagine if every game started not at 0-0 but with a score of, say, 25-25, and teams could have points deducted from that total. It stands to reason that the principles of loss aversion might kick in and inspire better defense.

But until then, defense is no more important than offense. If you’re prognosticating the Super Bowl winner, there are certainly better metrics than simply siding with the better defensive team. It’s not defense that wins championships. In virtually every sport, you need either a stellar offense or a stellar defense. And having both is even better.

Tobias J. Moskowitz, University of Chicago financial economist is co-author along with L. Jon Wertheim of “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won.”

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