It’s no secret that the NFL loves offense. It celebrates touchdowns and playmakers and has even tilted the rules to make scoring easier.
But, if the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady win their sixth title over the Los Angeles Rams a week from now in Super Bowl LIII, it will continue one of the oddest trends in the Super Bowl era.
The highest-scoring teams rarely win it all. The league’s history is littered with elite offensive teams that never even got a shot to win the Super Bowl.
“That’s amazing when you think about it, weird really,” said Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection at cornerback in his 15-year career. “Really, really weird. Like I’m not sure I would have won that bet if you asked me.”
In all, since Super Bowl I at the end of the 1966 NFL and AFL seasons, 22 teams have scored at least 500 points in the regular season. This season, three teams — the Rams (527 points), Kansas City Chiefs (565) and New Orleans Saints (504) — scored more than 500 points and, obviously, the Saints and Chiefs won’t be in Atlanta in a week.
Of the previous 19 500-point scorers, four have won the Super Bowl — the 1994 San Francisco 49ers, 1998 Denver Broncos, 1999 St. Louis Rams and 2009 Saints. That pales in comparison to the 14 times the team with the No. 1 scoring defense has won the Super Bowl.
By comparison of the top 24 scoring defenses in the Super Bowl era 10 have won the Super Bowl, but as the rules book continues to lean toward offenses the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the most recent entrees to that list.
So, good luck to Sean McVay, Jared Goff and the high-flying Rams.
But inside the numbers, there are reasons for the failures — and rare successes — of these teams.
Who made it work
No matter the end result, the 500-point season has always been considered rare air for league offenses.
Quarterback Peyton Manning, who orchestrated two 500-point teams, called it “kind of that combination of execution, preparation and the work you put in.”
Of the four 500-point teams that have won the Super Bowl, Mike Shanahan has called plays for two of them — the 1994 San Francisco 49ers (as offensive coordinator) and the 1998 Denver Broncos (head coach). He knows even the best offenses need to get off to a good start to help the quarterback.
“You need to do something, especially early in the game, to take the pressure off your quarterback,” Shanahan said. “Especially with a run game. That and having a defense that gets the turnover margin in your favor. The biggest difference between our 1997 team and 1998 team (in Denver) was our turnover margin and how we produced in the run game around when we passed the ball. Get your quarterback settled in — and we had (Hall of Famers) Steve (Young) and John (Elway) — but make a game plan to get them settled in so he can perform.”
The 1994 49ers rushed for 139 yards and a touchdown in their Super Bowl XXIX win, even as Young finished with 331 yards passing and six touchdowns.
“We threw early in that game (11 of the first 19 plays were pass plays, including three touchdowns by Young),” Shanahan said. “… We really emphasized tempo and how to keep it. Tempo, in that environment, the playoff environment, is important. And when you’re making your game plan, you’re always looking at matchups and the things you think are important, but tempo is key. You have tempo with the right matchups and you can kick their ass. And the playoffs, you win or that’s it, so you have to get it right.”
The 1998 Broncos, behind game MVP Terrell Davis, rushed for 121 yards with three touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXIII and Elway threw for 336 yards and a touchdown — “but we called more run plays than we passed, but when you have that mix and timing, you can really be efficient.”
Three scoring champions have won the Super Bowl and none since the 2009 Saints. And while the 1999 Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams’ 526 points is 10th on the all-time single-season scoring list, that team is the highest-scoring team to get fitted for a Super Bowl ring.
Timing is everything
“Offense, especially throwing the ball, is about timing, and when you’re playing offense at that level the timing is unbelievable, but at the same time it doesn’t take much to affect that timing,” Bailey said. “It’s such a fine line and it’s all on the quarterback. One game in one day for the whole thing if you get his timing, that’s it.”
Two Patriots teams, 2007 and 2012, each scored more than 550 points and were beaten in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants whose pass rush hurried Brady and disrupted New England’s offense, holding it under 17 points in both games.
The same can be seen with the 2013 Broncos and 2015 Carolina Panthers, who each had the league MVP at quarterback in those seasons.
That Broncos team, which scored the most points ever in a season and became the only team in league history to top 600 points, gave up a safety on the first play from scrimmage and the Seattle Seahawks’ defense forced Manning into two turnovers in the game.
Panthers QB Cam Newton suffered the same fate two seasons later with three turnovers as he was sacked six times.
Defense matters in multiple ways
Star quarterbacks like Newton, Manning, Brady, Drew Brees, premier offensive tackles and top-shelf receivers tend to milk a team’s salary cap. That can create high-powered offense but also leave a big discrepancy for the other side of the ball.
Those 2013 Broncos scored at least 30 points 13 times, 40 six times and 50 three times. Manning set single-season records for passing yards and touchdown. The featured two 1,000-yard receivers and five different players who scored 10 touchdowns.
But eight of the top 11 salary-cap figures for the team were also on offense, led by Manning and left tackle Ryan Clady. So when the injuries hit on defense before the playoffs began, including linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. — neither played in Super Bowl XLVIII — the Broncos’ defensive depth was severely tested in a 43-8 loss to Seattle.
The Broncos started several backups on defense in the title game, including the league’s last remaining XFL player — linebacker Paris Lenon — who started at middle linebacker. So, when the offense cratered — the first snap from scrimmage sailed over Manning’s head — the Broncos’ defense couldn’t help much.
“Quarterback will always be a big part of the cap if you’re looking as those established teams on offense,” said Elway, the Broncos president of football operations/general manager. “And that’s the challenge because you need all of it to compete for world championships, you need that guy at quarterback, you need a defense, you need depth because injuries are going to happen. And if you don’t have it all, there is a good chance you get exposed when you play the best teams. And if you’re in or playing to be in the Super Bowl, you’re playing the best teams and you only get that day to get it right.”
When the Broncos dominated the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, it was thanks to their defense.
“Maybe the playoffs are so emotional and defense is kind of more emotional,” Bailey said. “It’s hard to settle down on offense maybe, or you can’t keep the timing early because everybody is jacked up and you know if you lose, that’s it. Defense you can just keep flying to the ball. And if the team is built for offense and that’s it, you just can’t overcome a bad day on offense.”
Will defenses matter in Atlanta? Maybe, but both teams have defenses ranked in the lower third of scoring defense. But both the Rams and Patriots are in the top five in total offense.
The Rams, who scored 527 points this season, would be the highest-scoring team to win the Super Bowl. So one numerical anomaly could matter: the 64 points the Patriots didn’t score to reach 500.