This season we have witnessed an explosion of scoring. The Chiefs, Saints and Rams can seemingly score at will, shootouts are a weekly occurrence, and records are being set almost every week. On the flipside, many football purists are bemoaning what they see as the death of complementary football and claiming the game resembles a videogame. Based on the spectacular success of innovators like Matt Nagy and Sean McVay, conventional wisdom holds that defensive minded coaches are going the way of the fullback and that a team looking to change its head coach would be best served by looking at young offensive minds. Offense is the byword in today’s NFL.
Look more closely however, and the picture is slightly different. Stats are unquestionably inflated, with the most egregious case being Derek Carr, the Raiders QB who is having a subpar year and yet is on pace to record the 4th highest pass completion percentage in NFL history. As a result, some of the traditional metrics used to measure defensive football are becoming meaningless. Chief among them is yards allowed. Even below average offenses can pile up yards and move the ball. However, once in the redzone the wheat is separated from the chaff. A defense that can hold teams to field goals rather than touchdowns provides an unquestionable boost to the teams winning chance. Furthermore, with offenses becoming more potent, offensive possessions have become more valuable and turnovers are more likely to lead to points. A defense that can create turnovers and provide extra possessions is a key ingredient of a winning formula. In fact, turnovers may be the key determinant of winning chance. Teams with a +1 edge in the turnover battle have historically won games 66% of the time, and when the edge is +2 or +3 the percentage rises into the 80s and 90s respectively.
So, in my opinion defense is very much alive and still critical to a team’s success. It’s specific defensive philosophies that no longer apply to today’s NFL, and as with many other innovations in the league’s history, the impact of the offensive explosion we’re witnessing will create the need of a counterpunch. Intelligence and creativity are not exclusive to offensive coaches, people like Bill Belichick have shown a penchant for outside the box thinking too, and it is a matter of time before they come up with ideas to help defenses dictate the outcomes of games like they used to. Although we have some inklings, we don’t have a full picture of what the “new” NFL defense will look like. The best defenses of this season, the Bears and Rams are full of ultra-aggressive players who will risk blowing an assignment to create a splash play, maybe that’s how everyone will be building their defense from now on. Or maybe some hotshot defensive coach will find a way to run an effective defense founded on traditional principles such as setting the edge, sound tackling and disciplined play.
As a fan and student of the game of football, one of my chief pleasures when watching the game at its highest level is seeing how coaches use a group of players that are at the very pinnacle of their profession to devise, orchestrate and execute innovative game plans. Far from killing football, as some so-called purists will have you believe, the recent offensive innovation has breathed life into the game and is virtually guaranteed to spark more evolution on both sides of the ball. So, going back to the original question, no, defense is not dead. It’s different. And that’s a great thing.