Does defense actually win championships?

Legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant famously said, “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.”

Since Bryant’s retirement in 1982, his adage has been perpetuated widely in sports media, applied to other sports and debated vehemently.

The thinking goes that while offense may be flashy and exciting, solid defensive play – less noticeable, but more steady and predictable – forms the foundation of successful teams.

So is there any truth to the adage?

In my sport psychology lab at California State University, Northridge, graduate student Travis Miller and I ran our own statistical analyses to see if defense does, in fact, win championships.

Reaffirmation – with a twist

In our study, we looked at football and basketball, taking different approaches for each sport. For football, we limited our sample size to teams that had made the NFL playoffs during the Super Bowl era, which gave us 515 playoff teams to analyze.

To represent a team’s offensive ability, we used regular season yards gained per game; for defensive ability, we used the statistic of yards allowed per game. If defense wins championships, the teams that tend to allow the fewest yards over the course of a season should have the most playoff success.

What did the numbers say? After running some regression analyses, we found that defense, indeed, does win championships. The fewer regular season yards a team allowed in the regular season, the more playoff wins they tended to have.

So there you have it: Coach Bryant is a genius, and we should all head to Las Vegas to bet on the teams with the best defenses.

But as ESPN’s Lee Corso would say – not so fast, my friend.

The same analysis revealed that yards gained offensively during the season correlated similarly – nearly identically, in fact – with subsequent playoff success. It turns out we should probably amend the adage to say: “Really good defense wins championships. And really good offense also wins championships.”