Time and time again we've discussed here why the quarterback is the key to a great team and vital to winning the Super Bowl. It's an easy assumption to make because it looks so correct. So the NFL is a passing league, right? Over the last ten years, this has been established time and time again. Or has it?
I won't argue that the quarterback is the most important player on the field at a given time. Some contrarians would say it's the left tackle, but mostly that's just them being difficult. Nobody outweighs the QB in terms of on field impact. A way to sum up how I feel about the NFL today would be "To consistently compete for a Super Bowl, a franchise quarterback is probably the best way to go." Notice that I didn't say that it's the only way to compete for a Super Bowl, just the best and most widely accepted. There's a clear distinction there that needs to be made.
Over the last decade, seven teams have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. Let's look into how they did it and, maybe more importantly, who didn't do quite as well.
In 2002, the Tampa Bay Bucs found lightning in a bottle and rode it all the way to a Super Bowl to banish their demons and finally put to rest the negative stigma surrounding the team. They did this without an elite passing offense. Brad Johnson, the Bucs QB that year, led the fifteenth best passing attack in the league in 2002. However, Tampa cruised to a 12-4 record and easily clinched their division. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that they only allowed 196 points over a 16 game season. What's funny is that two teams who finished below them, New Orleans and Atlanta, outscored Tampa by a wide margin. Of the top five passing offenses in the league that year, three missed the playoffs, Indianapolis snuck in and were promptly stomped by the Jets in the first round. Chalk this one up as a win for the "defense wins championships" crowd. One more interesting fact to note, the Bucs faced the number one passing offense in the league, the Raiders, in the Super Bowl and absolutely demolished them in a laugher. That's what happens when you have a defense led by Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, and Ronde Barber.
2003 was the start of a dynasty. The Patriots began their magical run through the 2000's by capturing their second of three Super Bowl titles that would come in the decade. This one is tough because you look at the team, instantly think "Tom Brady" and chalk up that team's passing game as "elite". Well, if you consider ninth in the NFL "elite", then I guess you're right, but it's a tough call. The Pats would end up beating Carolina, the 18th ranked pass offense in the league, in Super Bowl XXXVIII. To get there, they beat Peyton Manning's Colts who had the best aerial attack in football, and of course our beloved Titans, who were also in the top five. Again, New England had a very strong defense that put the rest of their division to shame, allowing only 238 points all year. To avoid repeating myself, New England followed a very similar formula in the 2004 season, riding the eleventh ranked passing offense to another Super Bowl title over the seventh ranked Eagles. This was a funny year for the conference championship round as four of the five top passing teams didn't make it, yet the Falcons, ranked 30th and Steelers, ranked 28th did.
2005 was a fun Super Bowl to watch. There were neat trick plays, funny calls, and at the end of it all, a bunch of angry Washingtonians. I have no opinion on the state of Washington in general, but I assume most people there share a demeanor somewhere between Kurt Cobain and Johnny Rotten which makes their collective anger seem all that much more beautiful and terrifying. In any case, the Seahawks, boasting thirteenth best passing offense in football, led by our own Matt Hasselbeck, lost to Big Ben and the Steelers who came in at 24th. Of the final four teams remaining, Seattle was the best. No team with a passing game that came in above 13th made it to the conference championship.
2006 provides evidence for the "passing league only" guys, Indy ranked second overall. However, they beat what is considered to be one of the worst Super Bowl teams in awhile, the Bears, who had the 14th ranked aerial attack. Unimpressive victory, but it is a victory, so this is a team that I give lots of credit. They basically won the Super Bowl on the back of Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney, Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, and Bob Sanders (I hate injuries, but Titans fans, praise whatever god you pray to that this man wasn't consistently healthy). This was a team built to pass well and stop the pass by pressuring the QB into forcing the ball, good for them.
If 2006 is a great year for passing enthusiasts who insist that only good passing teams win it all, 2007 is the opposite of that. The 21st ranked Giants beat one of the greatest passing teams of all time. Arguably the best deep ball receiver of all time and a guy who may be deemed the best to ever play QB by the time he's finished both had career years. That wasn't even enough to beat the Giants, whose pass rush came up enormous when they needed it the most. Their defense helped KO the only team to make a bid for 19-0.
2008 and the Steelers are on top. This year was the worst thing ever. Again with a mediocre passing offense, this time they're seventeenth. Their defense was one of the best in the league, and it showed as they shut down the second ranked Cardinals passing O. To get to the Super Bowl, the Steelers beat the
Titans Ravens, who ranked 28th, but also had one of the best defenses in the league. No one can argue what these teams were built for.
2009 was a marquee year in "realizing" that the league was shifting to passing only. The fourth ranked Saints top the second ranked Colts in a shoot out. Even so, the Jets, ranked a robust 31st, make the AFC Championship Game. Mark Sanchez rocks, you guys.
2010 saw the revival of one of the NFL's great franchises and the Packers christened a new savior in Aaron Rodgers. Their passing offense was lethal, but their opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers, weren't, finishing at fourteenth. Only one of the top ten passing offenses made the championship round, the others were the Steelers, the Bears (28th), and the perpetually lucky Jets (22nd).
If 2009 was the unofficial "coming out" party for pass only enthusiasts, this year was the honeymoon. All five of the NFL's top passing offenses made the playoffs and two of those five played in the Super Bowl. The Giants of course came out on top in a rematch of 2007, boasting the fifth best passing offense in football. However, their opponent was even better, boasting the second best.
SO, what have we learned here? Perhaps, to be brief, the best way to say this is that teams with mediocre passing offenses are not mutually exclusive with mediocrity. This doesn't really seem to me like it means that running the football is the way to go, but defense sure as hell might be. Some teams are built to play great defense. Those teams compete for Super Bowls just as often as great passing offenses do, if not more often, and seem as though they often come out on top in a head-to-head matchup. I don't think that abandoning trying to become a great passing team is a good idea at all, but I would just like to say that there do appear to be other ways to win this thing. Keep that in mind this upcoming season.