Published January 16, 2012 - 12:43pm
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It’s been an interesting few weeks in the world of football. We had a defensive-dominant BCS National Championship – admittedly a game which fell flat due to LSU forgetting to show up – and incredible offensive performances in the NFL playoffs. It’s a bizarre adjustment to go from watching Alabama’s defense, maybe the best we’ve seen in years, dominate the LSU Tigers on Monday night, then watch Tom Brady throw five touchdowns in the first half against the Denver Broncos’ defense. Both equally impressive, but the difference caused me to consider why defense reigns supreme in college football and offense dominates the NFL these days.
Let’s start with the college game. Taking a look at the recent BCS Champions indicates a clear trend where the last six BCS Champions (all SEC teams) have had either good or very good defenses. Five of the last six BCS Champions all had a defense ranked in the top 25. The two Florida teams and the two Alabama teams were all in the top ten. The anomaly was the 2010 Auburn Champs which were well outside the top 25. Even the Auburn team, however, had huge playmakers on the defensive front – namely Nick Fairley – who dominated all year and especially against the Oregon Ducks in the BCS Championship.
It is that defensive front which tends to be the noticeable difference from the strong defensive teams to the not-so strong defensive teams in college. Of course the 300 pound, 4.5 running defensive linemen is the well-known bread and butter of the SEC and is probably more than anything else, the main factor of SEC dominance in recent years. Remember, Chip Kelly, fresh off two straight losses to top SEC teams said himself that the caliber of athlete is “different” in the SEC.
Now, as we compare college to the pro game, is it really that defense dominates in college or is more driven by the fact that certain teams have more overall talent? With well over 100 teams in D-1 football, it’s not hard to see the difference in talent across various teams. Consider Alabama Crimson Tide vs Central Florida. Or even within individual conferences, Alabama vs Kentucky. Or, Ohio State vs Indiana. Contrast this with the NFL, where each team has essentially equal levels of talent. Yes, some teams have better players than others, but overall, there is a large degree of parity. This is definitely not the case in college football.
You could argue that the top defensive teams in the country simply have the more talent than the other teams. Some teams with a few high-flying offensive stars have awful defense because they have a concentration of talent on offense. The teams like Alabama, LSU, and Florida that have had recruiting classes year in and year out in the top 10 or 15 spots are able to have big time talent on both the offensive side of the ball and defensive side of the ball.
I believe that it is more accurate to say that defensive teams don’t dominate college football. Rather, the most talented teams dominate college football, and the most talented teams tend to have talent on both offense and defense.
In the NFL, there is no big difference in level of talent across various teams. The NFL Draft as a player acquisition mechanism (rather than recruiting) is to thank for that. Sure some teams have stronger defenses than others, but there is no difference in the class of athlete from one team to the next. So, what is the difference between teams? Thanks to the rise in sophisticated offenses, rules and penalties which favor the passing game and a general increase in overall athleticism and speed in football means that it’s very tough to win in the NFL without an elite quarterback.
I’ve long had the opinion that the toughest skill in sports is to hit a baseball, but the toughest position in professional sports by far is the NFL quarterback. The position requires a combination of dealing with huge amounts of pressure, having to be very smart and able to read sophisticated defensive schemes and having the athleticism to throw a 40-yard out while 300-pound defensive linemen breath down your neck. While much of the Tim Tebow mania has gone beyond ridiculous this football season, it has served a reminder of just how tough it is to play this position in the NFL. If the Patriots-Broncos game proved anything, it demonstrated the difference between having an elite quarterback and a so-so NFL quarterback.
All one has to do is look at the playoff teams in the NFL to see how important the quarterback position is. In the NFC, you had the Saints (Drew Brees), the Packers (Aaron Rodgers), the Giants (Eli Manning), the Falcons (Matt Ryan), the Lions (Matt Stafford) and the 49ers (Alex Smith). Other than Alex Smith, all are top quarterbacks – Brees, Rodgers and maybe Manning are elite quarterbacks. The exception might be Alex Smith, but even he had a great year, was a former first-pick overall and has been at the mercy of 7 offensive coordinators over 7 NFL seasons.
In the AFC, you’ve got the Bengals (Andy Dalton), the Texans (Schaub/Yates), the Patriots (Brady), the Steelers (Roethlisberger), the Ravens (Flacco) and the Broncos (Tebow). The exceptions here being Dalton (an up and coming rookie, but promising), the Texans duo and Tebow. The Bengals were the beneficiary of easy scheduling (they essentially lost every game against winning teams). The Texans have a good QB in Matt Schaub and also benefited from a very ugly AFC South division this year in the Colts, Jags and Texans. Most everyone knows about the Broncos’ season. A terrible division and several last minute / overtime comebacks allowed the Tebow-led Broncos to get into the playoffs with an 8-8 record. You could argue that the Ravens are an exception in that they have been primarily a defensive team for years led by Ray Lewis. In a league starving of quarterbacks, however, the Ravens could do much worse than Joe Flacco.
It’s important to note the rules in the NFL as well when discussing the offense vs defense argument. Rules have tightened up against unnecessary hits on quarterbacks and receivers. More importantly, you can’t touch receivers once they are past five yards of the line of scrimmage. In college, you can continue to hit the receiver past five yards as long as they are in front of you.
It’s important to remember that the people who run the NFL are businessmen. Their goal is to get more people to watch their product which will make them more money. The implementation of rules which help the offense is absolutely a business decision. There are two factors to this.
First, the NFL absolutely wants to protect quarterbacks. People who criticize this type of protection are incredibly naive. Consider the many Colts vs Patriots games over the years (before 2011). Rather I should say the many Manning vs Brady games over the years. It’s been a great rivalry mainly between the game’s two best quarterbacks. Now consider if both quarterbacks were out with injuries. The ratings are probably cut in half. Do you want to watch the Miami Heat when both Lebron James and Dwayne Wade are not in the line up? Of course not. And you don’t want to watch the Patriots when they’re playing a backup quarterback. The Colts’ 2011 season was a great example. How many of you watched a Colts game this year without Peyton Manning? Exactly.
The other factor is that the league wants higher scoring games. It doesn’t matter if you’re a football purist that loves the 9-6 Alabama/LSU game on November 5th, you can’t deny that the masses want touchdowns. And the masses drive ratings and revenues. As such, the league protects QBs & receivers resulting in the game which emphasizes a strong passing game.
The fact that Brady, Brees, Manning and Rodgers are all in the hunt each year in the playoffs is exactly what the NFL execs want. And you can’t blame them; the NFL playoffs are outstanding right now. Did you freaking see the end of the Saints / 49ers game? There were 4 touchdowns and 4 lead changes in the last few minutes! And this isn’t crappy TCU vs Baylor where I could line up at defensive back. These are amazing offenses beating very good defenses. The talent level is extraordinary.
Where this all leads to is how important it is to find a franchise quarterback. This also proves that the Colts would be insane not to draft Andrew Luck in the upcoming draft regardless of how healthy Peyton Manning is or isn’t. If you can take what most consider to be the most “sure thing” QB in years – even though there still remains an element of risk that Luck turns out to be a bust – you have to take him. You have to give your franchise the opportunity to be “set” at quarterback for the next decade. Or you risk being the Miami Dolphins who have lined up 250 individuals at quarterback since Dan Marino. The only way you make your franchise a team that can compete every year is if you have a top quarterback.
There’s the main difference between pro and college football. Nick Saban just needs someone who can manage the game at quarterback. The rest of his game planning and the rest of the talent at every other position will ensure he can compete each year for an SEC and National Championship. This wouldn’t work in the NFL. Perhaps, this is a reason why the best college coaches often fail to do well in the NFL? It’s a different game and a different system with different rules. Different strategies are required to win.