Sunday, February 1, 2004

Question: What wins NFL titles?


The defense rests its case in great Super Bowl debate

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HOUSTON - When Marv Levy surveys the landscape of Super Bowl history, the former Buffalo coach sees great defenses where most people might only see star quarterbacks.

"(Joe) Montana, Jerry Rice, those 49ers teams had great defense," Levy said. "The Steelers, with (Terry) Bradshaw and (Lynn) Swann, they had a great defense. Defense has always been important.

"I think you're finding now that if you have a great defense and a no-mistakes offense, there don't have to be necessarily a lot of explosions going on."

The adage that defense wins championships appears to be more applicable than ever in the NFL.

Super Bowl XXXVIII, pitting New England against Carolina tonight, has the potential to be one of the lowest scoring in game history. New England is first in scoring defense and seventh in total yards allowed. Carolina is 10th in points against and eighth in total yards allowed.

For the first time since Super Bowl VII - Miami 14, Washington 7 - both teams are dominated by their defenses and led by coaches who have defensive backgrounds.

"New England's defense - they just do a masterful job - it reminds me a lot of our perfect-season defense," said former Dolphins coach Don Shula, who out-coached George Allen in the seventh Super Bowl. "Not making errors, not giving up the cheap touchdown."

Miami's "No-Name Defense" gave up just one offensive touchdown in two consecutive Super Bowl victories - VII and VIII over Minnesota 30 years ago here in Houston at Rice Stadium.

Super Bowl VII was the lowest-scoring in league history, with just 21 points. Washington's only touchdown came on a special teams gaffe by Miami.

Last year's Super Bowl made clear the importance of defense. Tampa Bay's first-ranked defense won the showdown with Oakland's top-ranked offense, intercepting five Raiders passes and returning three for touchdowns. The Buccaneer defense scored more points, 21, than the 14 scored by the Oakland offense.

Coordinator Marvin Lewis' defense turned in one of the greatest performances in Super Bowl history. His 2000 Ravens held the Giants without an offensive touchdown in XXXV, a 34-7 victory in which Baltimore limited New York to 152 total yards.

"If you give up big plays, if you give up first downs, if you don't win on third down, you expose yourself to bad stuff," Lewis, now the Bengals coach, said.

"Conversely, with the Patriots and Panthers, what they have done is make first downs. Then they have the opportunity to make big plays. That's what our offense did in Baltimore, (it) made first downs, and sooner or later, we were able to score or hit a big play."

Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, who will broadcast his fifth consecutive Super Bowl today, was the Bengals' starter in Super Bowl XXIII. San Francisco won 20-16 - a game dominated by defense - though both teams were better known for offense.

"I think, when you look at the Bucs, look at the Ravens, what the Patriots did to the Rams (in Super Bowl XXXVII), both teams this year, they both have stout defenses," Esiason said.

"Ultimately, that's what you have to have. Your offense isn't always going have to its best game. You can always rely on your defense to be passionate and play hard. You can't count on your offense to always be on top of its game."

A frequently asked question during the most recent Super Bowl Weeks has been this: What is more important to winning the NFL title, a great defense or a star QB?

Quarterbacks, by the way, have won 19 Super Bowl MVP awards. But that's misleading, said Carolina defensive end Michael Rucker.

"Only because he touches the ball on every play. Defense wins, especially if you can force the offense to kick field goals."

Neither of this year's starting quarterbacks is a star, though New England's Tom Brady - a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 - could win his second Super Bowl today in three years. Carolina's Jake Delhomme was undrafted.

Shula and Levy opt for a combination of tough defense and a strong quarterback.

"If I were starting a franchise," Levy said, "I would start with (Peyton) Manning and four defensive linemen."

Manning entered the AFC Championship as hot as any quarterback in postseason play but was intercepted and harassed by New England.

John Elway, voted Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, didn't win a Super Bowl until the Broncos put a great team around him. Dallas' Troy Aikman benefited from a great defense and running back Emmitt Smith. Without strong defenses, Miami's Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl. The Patriots shut down Rams QB Kurt Warner two years ago. Then there was Gannon's nightmare.

But there is an invisible participant in the great quarterback vs. great defense Super Bowl debate. Economics affect how teams approach their rosters.

"Nowadays, with the salary cap, it's harder to have a franchise quarterback all the way through and build a team around him," Lewis said. "A franchise quarterback, you've got to have 27, 28, 30 other players with him."

Pittsburgh rode its "Steel Curtain" defense to four Super Bowl victories in six seasons, allowing just 18 points a game.

"Everybody says you look pretty with offense but win big games with defense," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said, "and I think that remains true."

Five for the ages

Defense has dominated some of the 37 Super Bowls. Our five best defensive performances in the history of the Roman numeral game:

1. The 1985 Bears in Super Bowl XX: Chicago won 46-10 by limiting New England to a record-low 7 rushing yards and collecting a Super Bowl-tying record seven sacks. The Bears' defense scored nine points, and defensive end Richard Dent was voted Most Valuable Player.

2. The 2000 Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV: Coordinator Marvin Lewis' Baltimore defense pitched a shutout, with the Giants' only points coming on Ron Dixon's kickoff return in the 34-7 game. The Ravens "D" forced five turnovers, had four sacks and scored on cornerback Duane Starks' 49-yard interception return of a Kerry Collins pass. Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis was MVP.

3. The 1972 Dolphins in Super Bowl VII: In collecting its 17th victory in a perfect season, Miami's defense shut out the Redskins en route to the 14-7 decision. The only Washington points came on the infamous botched fumble-pass by Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian that was returned 49 yards by Mike Bass. Miami safety Jake Scott was MVP with two interceptions.

4. The 1974 Steelers in Super Bowl IX: Pittsburgh limited Minnesota to 119 total yards - 17 rushing. The Vikings' only points came on a blocked punt that was recovered in the end zone. The Steel Curtain defense scored on Dwight White's sack of Fran Tarkenton.

5. The 2002 Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII: Tampa Bay intercepted a Super Bowl-record five passes, returning three for touchdowns, and had five sacks of league MVP Rich Gannon in the Bucs' 48-21 victory. Gannon had thrown for a league-record 4,689 yards. One of the Raiders' three touchdowns came on a return of a blocked Tampa Bay punt. Free safety Dexter Jackson, who had two interceptions, was voted game MVP.

Almost pointless

The game today between New England and Carolina could be one of the lowest-scoring in Super Bowl history.

The five lowest-scoring Super Bowls:

Game Date Score Points Winner Loser
VII Jan. 14, 1973 14-7 21 Miami Washington
IX Jan. 12, 1975 16-6 22 Pittsburgh Minnesota
III Jan. 12, 1969 16-7 23 New York Jets Baltimore Colts
VI Jan. 16, 1972 24-3 27 Dallas Miami
V Jan. 17, 1971 16-13 29 Baltimore Colts Dallas

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E-mail mcurnutte@enquirer.com




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