The NFL and Legendary Defenses
We asked Power Poll NFL.
With defense taking center stage in this week’s NFC championship game, we figured it would be a good time to find out which defense deserves center stage in Super Bowl history.
Philadelphia and San Francisco finished 1-2 in the NFL in defense this season and meet in the NFC title game Sunday. Several top-ranked defenses have gone on to capture Lombardi Trophies so defense was the subject of our two-pronged NFL Power Poll this week.
First, we asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters to identify the greatest Super Bowl defense of all-time. In our second question, we asked which defense had the best nickname.
Of the 225 panelists that cast ballots off a slate of eight defenses, 126 of them tabbed the 1985 Chicago Bears as the best, followed by the 2000 Baltimore Ravens with 38 votes and the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers with 34. The 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, 1977 Dallas Cowboys and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers all received seven votes apiece, followed by the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 2013 Seattle Seahawks with three each.
“Those Bears were the most vicious team that I faced in my time in the league (from 1978-93),” said Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton. “The 46 defense that Buddy Ryan fashioned was nearly impossible to block and had you reducing your playbook down to about a dozen plays to try and protect your quarterback at all cost.”
How dominant were the 1985 Bears? Well, let’s put out a comparison. The 2022 Eagles led the NFL in sacks with 70 and the 2022 Cowboys led the league in takeaways with 33. The 1985 Bears led the NFL in both sacks (64) and takeaways (54) and sent Richard Dent, Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Bears posted two shutouts in the NFC playoffs and then blasted the New England Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl.
“The 1985 Bears had teams beaten before kickoff,” said Barry Wilner, the long-time NFL writer for the Associated Press. “They were the most intimidating and physical of all these groups. That is not to downgrade any of them, but opponents feared taking on that defense more than any other.”
Added Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football: “I've been watching football since the 60's and can't remember a more punishing or destructive defense then the '85 Bears. They baffled some of the greatest offensive minds in NFL History and laughed in their face.”
The 2000 Ravens had their supporters. They would have posted the first shutout in Super Bowl history … except that the New York Giants returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a 34-7 defensive dismantling by the Ravens.
“Those Ravens went five straight games without scoring an offensive touchdown, started Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer at quarterback, and still became Super Bowl champions,” said Bob Socci, the radio voice of the New England Patriots. “Why? Their defense.”
The 2002 Buccaneers also had their supporters.
“I did not expect to vote this way upon opening the poll,” said Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “but after doing some research to put my predetermined biases in perspective and thinking about it a bit more, I went with the 2002 Bucs. They have both traditional stats and analytics to make their argument. The playoff run was dominant, too.
“I’m not sure any defense can match Pittsburgh's sustained run of success in the 70s. But this question is about a single-season effort, and I can't overlook what those Bucs did, especially in a more modern era of the NFL.” The defense that received surprisingly little support was the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, the only team of the Super Bowl era to lead the league across the board in defense – allowing the fewest yards, passing
yards, rushing yards and points on the way to the franchise’s first Super Bowl. That defense sent five players to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: tackles Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, middle linebacker Willie Lanier, cornerback Emmitt Thomas and safety Johnny Robinson.
The 1985 Bears did not fare as well in the vote on nicknames. The overwhelming winner was Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” with 95 votes, followed by the “Purple People Eaters” of the Minnesota Vikings with 74, Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” with 19, the Dallas “Doomsday” with 17, Chicago’s “Monsters of the Midway” with 15, Miami’s “No Names” with three and Pittsburgh’s “Bitzburgh” with two.
Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com voted for the Purple People Eaters.
“As a kid, the name alone made me a Vikings fan,” he said.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Drew Pearson had a more partisan vote.
“The Steel Curtain was best defense I played against,” he said, “but the best named D was `Doomsday.’”
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.