There are tenets of sports that are repeated so often they become impossible to challenge. The name on the front of the jersey is more important than the one on the back. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And the mother of all cliches: offense wins games, defense wins championships.
The NFL was defined by defense for more than 50 years. From the time of sloppy fields, wooden bleachers, and teams traveling by train, until the end of the ’70s, the better defense almost always prevailed. So much so that a rule of thumb was, “Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.” No one ever said, “Three things can happen when you run the football and two are bad.” Fumbles are a problem, but getting stopped for a loss was apparently fine.
The ’80s brought us high-flying aerial circuses and the 49ers dynasty, which was the first time a team whose strength was obviously the offense won consistently (and the San Fran D was no slouch in that decade, with Hall of Famers Fred Dean, Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley). By the rules changes of the new millennium, and the dominance of prolific quarterbacks, the mantra had finally changed. Now you needed an elite quarterback to win a Super Bowl, or have a historically great defense to cover up the other limitations.
Three of this year’s final four teams are challenging that notion. While the Vikings, Eagles and Jaguars defenses are great, they are not all-time units. No one is putting these D’s with the ’85 Bears, ’00 Ravens or ’13 Seahawks. Perhaps with historic performances en route to a Super Bowl that would change. If Minnesota pitches a pair of shutouts, or the Jaguars ground Tom Brady and win a title, these units might vault into that conversation. But for now, they’re very good defenses carrying their teams, complemented by solid-not-spectacular quarterbacking.
And that’s important, because so much capital is spent every year by franchises looking to build a winner via the quarterback, this year might rewrite how teams are built. The QB usually absorbs at least $20M of cap space for a contender every year. Which means teams like Seattle have to watch great defensive players walk away. But if the Vikings or Jaguars win the Super Bowl, could we return to a time where the quarterback is not as essential as the other side of the ball?
The Eagles are in a different boat. If Philly somehow pulls this off, St. Nicholas will be a civic hero for eternity, but no one will say Foles was the reason for the win. Carson Wentz, one of the best young QBs in the league, steered them to the bye and homefield advantage which set it all up.
If Case Keenum or Blake Bortles wins a championship as the full-time signal-caller, organizations might emphasize defense once again. Yes, Bortles was the third-overall pick, but he plays more like a third-round selection. It would restore some of the balance to the NFL that has been lacking for more than a decade. When Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert and Brandon Weeden are being taken in the first round, GMs are really reaching to find their QB of the future. Here’s hoping this postseason changes the conventional wisdom of the NFL. Maybe defense can win games and championships.
D.A. hosts 9am-12 pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.