Yeah, defense does win (Super Bowl) championships.
Broncos Country (hopefully) has learned as much over the last three seasons when it has had front-row seats to two of the most illustrative examples in league history: The defensive-dominated Seahawks obliteration of the Broncos’ record-smashing offense in Super Bowl XLVIII and Von Miller and Co’s dismantling of Cam Newton and the high-powered Panthers only four months ago in SB 50.
So impressive and dominating was the latter contest, that it immediately injected the 2015 Broncos’ D into the best-of-recent-NFL-times discussions alongside the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens and ’02 Buccaneers.
But what about the ’86 Bears, ’01 Ravens and ’03 Bucs? Still decent defenses all, and two of the three made it back to the postseason.
But there were no Super Bowl repeats – none of the three teams really even close – and this is where we cut to the chase regarding the challenge facing Miller, Wade Phillips and the 2016 Broncos: Can a dominant defense win multiple championships?
History remains one of our best teachers, so let’s examine the three just-mentioned defensive dominated champs and see how they fared in their quests to recapture the Lombardi Trophy in the seasons following their championship runs.
Buddy Ryan’s crew allowed the fewest points, rushing yards and total yards that memorable 15-1 regular season while forcing a league-high 54 turnovers. And they did so with a starting unit led by LB Mike Singletary and DE Richard Dent which featured five Pro-Bowlers and three first-team All-Pro selections.
Despite losing the beloved Ryan, who left to take over as head coach of the Eagles, the ’86 Bears brought back 10 of 11 starters and again led the league in the fewest points and yards allowed en route to a 14-2 regular season. But the late-season-injury loss of quarterback Jim McMahon proved even too much for this mighty D to overcome, and the Bears were upended by the visiting Redskins in the divisional round.
Chicago again boasted top-10 defenses in three of the ensuing four seasons – making the playoffs all three campaigns – but was only able to make it as far as the NFC Championship Game (’88). In the meantime, the ’85 title only has taken on further legendary status over the years as it still stands as the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance.
The 2000 Ravens surrendered only 165 points – still easily a 16-game regular-season record – while giving up a league-low 970 rushing yards and forcing an NFL-most 49 turnovers. LB Ray Lewis, S Rod Woodson and DT Sam Adams were the defense’s headliners as the unit’s three Pro-Bowlers.
The following season, Baltimore gained a new QB in free-agent Elvis Grbac while returning 10 of 11 defensive starters and coordinator Marvin Lewis and finishing in the top four in the fewest points and yards allowed. But the Ravens gave up 100 more points and forced 21 fewer turnovers than the previous year en route to a 10-6 season. The team notched a wild-card win in Miami, but the repeat chances came to a halt with a divisional-round loss in Pittsburgh.
In the seasons that followed (2002-05), the Ravens rolled out top-10 scoring and total defenses in three of the four campaigns but posted only one double-digit win season and lost their only playoff game in that stretch – an ’03 defeat in the wild-card round – while failing to find an stable solution at quarterback until Steve McNair’s arrival in 2006.
The ’02 Bucs allowed the fewest points, total yards and passing yards in the league courtesy of a unit which featured five Pro Bowl and a trio of first-team All-Pro selections, including LB Derrick Brooks, DT Warren Sapp and S John Lynch.
The ’03 Tampa D brought back eight of the 11 starters, including all of the headliners and coordinator Monte Kiffin, and again finished as a top-five scoring and overall defense but the team sagged to 7-9 overall and missed the playoffs.
And while the defense remained a top-10 unit in three of the four ensuing seasons, the Bucs made the playoffs only twice – losing in the wild-card round both times – while sifting through a litany of has-been and never-quite-were QBs, including Brian Griese, Chris Simms and Jeff Garcia. The ’02 Super Bowl remains the franchise’s only Big Game appearance.
As you can see, if the Broncos are to repeat as Super Bowl champions, they'll have to defy history to do so.