June 30, 2023 12:00pm

Does Defense Still Win Championships?

The NFL game today revolves around the quarterback position. The mere presence of a Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen or Jalen Hurts in the huddle automatically makes their teams Super Bowl contenders.

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent

The NFL game today revolves around the quarterback position. The mere presence of a Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen or Jalen Hurts in the huddle automatically makes their teams Super Bowl contenders.

But there remains a strong belief that defense still wins championships. In our recent NFL Power Poll, we asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters what they would prefer to take into the 2023 season, great offense or defense? We gave our panelists a choice of two teams with two great elements, the 1985 Chicago Bears defense or the 1999 St. Louis Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” offense. Defense won out – narrowly – with the Bears receiving 85 of 163 votes cast. The Rams received 78.

“Defense is less susceptible to having an off day,” said Bud Geracie, the sports editor of the Bay Area News Group.

Chicago allowed the fewest yards and points in the NFL in 1985 on the way to a 15-1 record and Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. The Bears led the league in run defense and also collected the most sacks (64) and takeaways (54) that season.

“Defense still matters in winning championships as the Bucs proved against the Chiefs for the 2020 title,” said Hall of Fame voter and long-time Associated Press sports editor Barry Wilner. “Nearly all contenders have upgraded their offenses. If a team has the balance of a staunch defense, it usually will be a tough out. Granted, however, it is becoming more difficult to build outstanding defenses because of the way the college game is played these days.”

The Rams led the NFL in yards, passing yards and points in 1999 on the way to a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans. Quarterback Kurt Warner passed for 4,353 yards and a league-leading 41 touchdowns on the way to NFL MVP honors. Warner was a two-time NFL passing champion, two-time league MVP and took the Rams to two Super Bowls.

“Defense still really matters.” Said Matt Verderame of Sports Illustrated. “But the rules have slanted so far in favor of the offense. If you have a great offense, that tends to stand the test of time now more so than a terrific defense. Quarterbacks are king.”

Mike Klis of Denver’s 9News also preferred the quarterback-driven teams.

“Rule changes that continuously benefit the passing game have flipped the game to where the quarterback is superior to defense,” he said. “See the recent Super Bowl where Patrick Mahomes had his way against the Eagles' No. 2 defense.

We stayed with defense in our second question and asked if you could build the ideal pass rush for today’s NFL, which type of pass rusher would be your first choice. We gave our panel three options – a strongside pass rusher like Reggie White, a weakside rusher like Lawrence Taylor or

an interior rusher like Aaron Donald? Taylor prevailed with 90 votes, followed by Donald with 39 and White with 24.

“There is no weakside rusher `like Lawrence Taylor,’” said Dave Blezoe, the sports editor of the New York Post.

“Lawrence Taylor was the most disruptive defensive player in history,’ added Charean Williams of NBCSports.com

Taylor collected 142 career sacks, went to 10 Pro Bowls and was the NFL MVP in 1986 when he collected a career-high 20 ½ of his sacks. He was named to the NFL’s Centennial Team as one of the 100 greatest players in history. So was White, who collected 198 sacks, went to 13 Pro Bowls and was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

The meter is still running on Donald’s career. Only 32, Donald already has 103 sacks and is a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He has been to nine Pro Bowls and, like Taylor and White, wears a Super Bowl ring. He had 20 ½ sacks in 2018. He had his supporters in this poll.

“The shortest path to the quarterback is over center -- making strong interior rushers more important than ever because they get rid of the ball so quickly now,” said Cory Curtis, the sports director at WKRN in Nashville.

“Picking Aaron Donald wasn't something I expected to do,” said Bruce Castleberry, the sports editor of the Boston Herald, “but there are so few guys who can disrupt from the inside like he does.”

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

More on This Poll

More Polls

More on This Poll