The phrase "defense wins championships" used to be a common phrase in the closing weeks of an NFL season. At those times, there would often be a high-powered offense cruising into the postseason, and that team's detractors would pull out that one stock quote to discredit any Super Bowl hopes. Then, the Rams won a Super Bowl, the Patriots won Super Bowls, the Colts won one, and the Saints won their own as well.
In today's NFL, it's no longer enough to simply eat the clock with a bulldozing running game and a tough defense. Now, you have to be able to put up plenty of points, even with a strong defense.
Case in point, the big game just a few months ago between the 49ers and Ravens. Both teams fielded exceptional defenses and bruising running games, yet the final score was a healthy 34-31 in favor of the Ravens. It's no accident that both teams put up plenty of points.
Rule changes have led to greater offensive production over the past couple of decades. We all know that, but offensive creativity has also led to great innovation on the offensive side of the ball. Conventional wisdom likely slowed that progress, but conventional wisdom has shifted. It's no longer a run-the-ball-and-stop-the-run league. Now it's a pass-and-stop-the-pass centric league, and that's given some teams a huge edge over others.
Even the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the most hard-nosed teams in the league have adopted an air-it-out image. Ben Roethlisberger has emerged in his career as a big-armed gunslinger, and the Steelers truly shed their running mantra when Jerome Bettis hung it up after winning the Super Bowl in his final game.
That's not to say that there is no place in the NFL for a running game. In fact, it's still a very important aspect of the game, as is stopping the run on defense. Running the ball still opens up the passing game, and passing the ball still opens up running lanes. That is the same now, and it will likely be just as true another decade from now. Two-dimensional offenses will always prove to be more consistent than one-dimensional units.
So what's my point? The NFL is an evolving game. Unlike some sports, nothing stays the same for long in professional football. Their are trends, fads and true innovation. We often can't differentiate between the three until it's a well established truth in the NFL. The 3-4 defense, for instance, has allowed defensive coordinators more flexibility and speed, helping to defend passes and confusing quarterbacks. It's the natural reaction to a pass-centric league.
There's more than one way to win in the NFL. Right now, the easiest way to win is by fielding the best quarterback in any given game, and letting him pick apart the defense. If that's not possible, it will often fall to the old form of winning a game. Drain the clock, play defense and hope to win a close game at the end.
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