Lakshman: I guess defense can win championships?

Feb. 9, 2016, 1:46 a.m.

Centuries from now, when the academic discipline of football history creeps its way into the ivory tower, scholars of the game will undoubtedly look back on Sept. 7, 2008 as a watershed moment — the NFL’s version of Lexington and Concord. In the span of about three seconds, Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard delivered the hit heard round the world, lunging at the knees of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, tearing the reigning MVP’s ACL and leaving one Matt Cassel behind the wheel of of arguably the most talented team ever assembled in NFL history, which proceeded to miss the playoffs.

During the following offseason, the League instituted what has come to be known as “The Brady Rule,” stipulating that defenders could not tackle quarterbacks below the knees. In subsequent years, we saw the NFL crack down on blows to the head, limiting the strike zone of tacklers further. In an effort to promote more of the high-octane, pass-happy, points bonanza that we all crave, the NFL also cracked down on illegal contact more than five yards downfield and pass interference penalties skyrocketed. 

However, I am not writing this column to bemoan these rule changes. In fact, I quite like most of them. I don’t want to expend all of that effort sitting in front of the couch for seven hours every Sunday to watch Cassel, Jon Kitna, Brandon Weeden and the like run around out there. Moreover, I like watching touchdowns. Sue me.

Instead, the larger point I want to make is that — despite the deck becoming increasingly stacked in favor of offenses — the league’s top defenses have more often than not had the last laugh over the last decade. At no point was this trend more prominently on display than last night in the Super Bowl, when a suffocating Denver defense, led by a truly transcendent player in Von Miller, eviscerated the Carolina offensive line, held its own in coverage and threw the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Cam Newton around like a rag doll. As they had done in the AFC Championship two weeks prior, Miller and his counterpart, DeMarcus Ware, asserted themselves as the best players in the stadium and simply could not be blocked one-on-one by anyone on planet Earth.

Throughout the entire season, the Broncos established themselves as one of the elite defensive teams in NFL history, right up there with the ‘85 Bears, the ‘02 Buccaneers and the Steel Curtain. And, maybe more impressively, they did it at a time when dominant defenses were supposed to be rendered nonexistent.

As I mentioned, Denver is also not alone in this regard. Looking back over regular-season team statistics onward from the 2007 season (the year before Pollard’s fateful collision with Brady), we find that the league’s top defense has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy three times: the 2008 Steelers, the 2013 Seahawks and the aforementioned Broncos. In addition, another top-five regular season defense, the 2010 Packers, also won it all.

Interestingly, we don’t see a similar sort of trend when we flip to the other side of the ball. Since the 2007 season, only one top-ranked offense collected rings, the 2009 Saints, while only two top-five units won it all: New Orleans in ‘09 and those 2010 Packers.

Obviously, the sample size here is extremely small (and only laziness prevented me from going further back in time). Nevertheless, I think the results are still illustrative. When the NFL unabashedly began changing the rules to favor offenses, one might have expected a shift in front-office strategy towards acquiring more offensive weapons at the expense of defensive stalwarts. After all, if every defensive player is going to get flagged, might as well have it come at a cheap price. We might have also expected, as a byproduct of the previous consequence, a shift at the player-development level where talented high school and college athletes would increasingly choose playing receiver over corner or tight end over linebacker since that would be the more lucrative path.

Maybe this offensive arms race is still happening and we just haven’t seen the visible effects yet. There’s no question, however, that Von Miller and the Broncos, Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom and the other great defenses and their standout players have shown that they still hold the key to postseason glory. Defense, as they say, still wins championships. Maybe now more than ever.

And for those of you who found Super Bowl 50 boring or unwatchable because of the sputtering offenses and lack of points, I would just advise you to take the time to treasure what we just witnessed, which was one of the best defenses of all time absolutely kicking butt. Who knows how much longer we will get that chance?


If you or your loved one is in academia and has recently had a stroke at the thought of a class dedicated to football history, you too could be eligible for compensation. To shake down his wallet, contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at'

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