The ’85 Bears Defense Was Great; The ’02 Bucs Defense Was A Little Better
The 1985 Chicago Bears’ 46 defense under Buddy Ryan is legendary. They terrorized the league, clearing the way for Da Bears to go 15-1. The reincarnated “Monsters Of The Midway” then delivered 3 soul crushing performances in the playoffs routing the Giants (21-0), Rams ( 24-0), and Patriots ( 46-10).
As good as the ’85 Bears defense was; however, Monte Kiffin’s 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense was a little bit better. Allow me to explain why.
In order to compare two defenses of different eras, it is essential to normalize the comparison. In plain speak, one must create an apples-to-apples comparison. So, how did I do this for defenses that were 17 years apart?
Well, I analyzed how the Bears’ and Bucs’ defenses fared in each game, and compared those performances to that of all other teams who faced the same offenses that year. In particular, I focused on 2 key statistics:
- Points: This is shorthand for the number of touchdowns and field goals the defense yielded to their opponent’s offense. (This purposely excludes points scored by the opponent’s special teams or defense.)
- Yards: This represents the number of yards-per-play given up by the defense. Plays are defined as the sum of passes attempted + runs + sacks.
The first statistic is crucial because the object of the game is to outscore your opponent. The defense’s primary job is to keep the other team from scoring. It’s as simple as that.
The second statistic is important because football is a game of field position. Giving up too many yards-per-play, results in a higher likelihood that the opponent can sustain a drive to gain the upper hand in real estate captured.
Here’s an example putting everything together:
In Week 4, the ’85 Bears beat the Washington Redskins 45-10. In that game, the Bears defense gave up one touchdown and one field goal (totaling 10 points) and 4.8 yards per play. Let’s compare that to the other 15 regular season games the Redskins played in the ’85 season. In those 15 games, the Skins’ offense averaged 2.1 touchdowns and 1.4 field goals (totaling 18.9 offensive points per game). In those games, Washington’s offense averaged 4.7 yards-per-play. Therefore, relative to the other defenses which played the ’85 Redskins, the Bears did 2% worse with respect to yards per play yielded [= (4.7 – 4.8) / 4.7] but 47% better with respect to points yielded [= (18.9 – 10) / 18.9]
I did the same analysis for the all of the Bucs and Bears 16 regular season games (hollow circles) and their the 3 playoff games (solid circles). Here’s what it looks like:
Once again, a point greater than 0% means that the Bucs’ or Bears’ defense performed better than the average of the rest of the league against the common opponent. A percentage below 0% signifies that the Bucs or Bears did worse than the common opponents did on average. 100% on the Points axis means that the Bears’ or Bucs’s pitched a shutout.
In simple terms: the higher and further to the right a point is, the better the defense performed.
As you can see, the ’02 Bucs had two bad defensive games in which they gave up more points and/or more yards to the Lions and Vikings than did the average of the rest of the league’s defenses. By comparison, the ’85 Bears defense had five bad games against Detroit, the Bucs (twice), Minnesota, and that famous Monday Night Football loss to Miami.
The ’02 Bucs had 2 bad defensive games; the ’85 Bears had 5.
Over the entire regular season, the ’02 Bucs’s defense did better than the 85′ Bears’ with respect to both points yielded (48% vs. 42%) and yards per play yielded (14% vs. 7%).
In the playoffs; however, the results were reversed. The Bears bested the Bucs in terms of fewer points and yards yielded.
One other variable that I wanted to study was turnovers, because in a sport where the winning margin is typically less than one score, turnovers play a huge role. Therefore, I calculated the Bears’ & Bucs’ propensity to intercept a pass or to turn the offense over via a fumble recovery by dividing the number of interceptions by passes attempted and the total number of fumbles recovered by the runs attempted.
As it turns out, the numbers are pretty close to a draw.
The Bucs picked off more passes while the Bears recovered more fumbles. (There was one astounding Bears statistic– 13.9% of the runs they defended in the playoffs resulted in a fumble recovery!)
As I’ve shown above, the Bucs’ D was much more consistent in the regular season, while the Bears’ defense was best in the playoffs. Or was it?
I need to bring up one last point, which in my mind, gives a slight overall edge to the Bucs– its Super Bowl performance. Yes, the Bears’ defense outperformed the Bucs’ in terms of points and yards-per-play yielded, but Monte Kiffin’s defense did something that the Bears couldn’t touch:
In Super Bowl XXXVII, the Bucs’ defense outscored the Raiders’ offense 18 to 15!
The Bucs had three pick sixes, while the Raiders offense only managed one field goal and two touchdowns. (The Bucs successfully defended both the 2-point conversion attempts.)
So there you have it. The 1985 Bears Defense was great and worthy of its legendary status. That said, the 2002 Bucs defense clearly had a better regular season and, arguably, a more meaningful Super Bowl performance. Because of this, the 2002 Buccaneers’ Defense edges out the 1985 Bears’.
Why, then, is the 1985 Bears defense mythologized while the 2002 Bucs are mostly forgotten? Well, to some extent, it is due to the teams’ heritages. Even by 1985, Chicago had enjoyed a long and storied NFL history…and this sentiment was gaining momentum as they shuffled their way to Super Bowl XX. The Bucs, on the other hand, were the Bucs- the epitome of bad for decades.
To a greater extent though, the Bears 46 D mythology was solidified by its spectacular Divisional playoff and Conference championship games. Never before (or since) has an NFL defense posted back-to-back playoff shutouts. By the time that the Bears defense completely suffocated the Patriots in the Super Bowl (giving up only 7 yards rushing in 11 attempts!), the dye was cast. Richard Dent took home MVP honors, and the Bears’ Defensive team’s place in history was secured.
For all of these reasons, its easy to see why one’s heart sides with the Bears. But if you conduct a disspationate review of the teams’ year-long performance, then the Buccaneers come out on top.
The Bucs vs. the Bears in Points & yards-per-play yielded for all 19 games.
The next 3 charts plot how frequently the Bears’ and Bucs’ defense intercepted passes and recovered fumbles. The “Passes” axis is # of interceptions divided by passes attempt. The “Runs” axis is # of fumbles recovered divided by runs attempted.
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