clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What it takes to win a Super Bowl - Part 1: Coaches

What separates good coaches from playoff coaches, and further, what separates playoff coaches from Super Bowl coaches? Warning: Math Ahead.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

After Phil Emery fired Lovie Smith, in that lengthy press conference, he talked about his number one goal with the Bears:

"Our number one goal always has to be to win championships. And to win championships, we must be in contention on a consistent basis. And to be in contention, we have to be in the playoffs on a consistent basis."

I looked at Steve Ronkowski's data from a few weeks back, and his hypothesis was that winning Super Bowls, more often than not, in this age, has been done by offensive-minded head coaches. That intrigued me, and he continues to say that if Phil Emery wants to bring the Chicago Bears to the next level, a coach like Marc Trestman would be the best bet.

And while the evidence is correct that in the last 18 Super Bowls, 61% (11/18) have been won by offensive-minded head coaches, it doesn't really address the second portion of Emery's goal: To win championships, you have to be in the playoffs. So, if offensive-minded head coaches were the best in the playoffs at winning Super Bowl, what was the offensive-to-defensive head coaching ratio in the playoffs? Was it possible that over the past 18 years, there's an overwhelming amount of offensive-minded head coaches in the playoffs, and that would skew the data?

Lets take a look at the data.

OC = Offensive Coach
DC = Defensive Coach
SC = Special Coach (Not Specialized)

Year - SB Winner[Coach Type] (Number of OC's: Number of DC's:Other Coaches) - OC - OC Teams -- DC - DC Teams -- SC: Other

Special Cases: 1999, 1997 DET (Bobby Ross), 1996 BUF (Marv Levy), 
1995, BUF (Marv Levy), SD (Bobby Ross) 

Over the past 18 years, the coach composition in the playoffs has been 5.6 offensive coaches per playoff year (46%) vs 6.1 defensive coaches (51%) per playoff year. Close, but significantly different enough to imply that defensive coaches make up the majority of playoff caliber teams. When you get data like this, you tend to want to ask it some questions, like, why are defensive coaches a slight favourite to be better represented in the playoff over their offensive counterparts?

MORE: Lovie Smith's 81-63 coaching record statistically no better than 144 flips of a coin

Just look to the individual data sets to try to piece out the information at hand... Are there more defensive coaches in the NFL as a whole to imply that the playoffs are just being proportionally represented? Lets go back about 10 years worth of data, back to when the Texans became the 32nd NFL team.

Title: Number of Head Coaches by Type
            12  11  10  09  08  07  06  05  04  03  02
Offensive   15  16  15  14  15  17  13  15  15  15  15
Defensive   17  16  17  18  17  15  19  17  17  17  17

Over the past 11 years, the average is that 16.5 coaches (52%) in the league are defensive, and 15.5 (48%) are offensive. Again, just a slight majority more are defensive than offensive, and not enough to say that one or the other aren't be represented in the total pool of possible coaches to make the playoffs.

But, look at some of the outliers here, 2009 and 2006, and take a look at how there's a disconnect between representation of coaching focus in the playoffs and the pool of coaches. In 2009, there were 8 offensive coaches in the playoffs, out of 14 in the NFL. 57% of offensive coaches were in the postseason, but in 2006, there were only 37% of offensive coaches in the preseason. It's pretty safe to say that there's enough independence in the data to believe that there wasn't significant representation bias, and even when their was, it showed no correlation on the total playoff pool.

So, we've determined to get into the playoffs doesn't require you to have a particular coaching bias whatsoever. Offensive coaches and defensive coaches both seem to get in at similar rates. What do we look at next? Maybe instead of just looking at coaching focus, we look for the disconnect in teams, teams with great defenses, but an offensive coach, or great offenses, but a defensive coach.

There are a few issues with it, most notably, what makes a great defense? What makes a great offense? You have to make some judgment calls. I've gone through the past 11 years of data, only this time excluding non-playoff teams, and used a few metrics (objective and subjective) to rank teams in three particular manners in their season, against the type of head coach running the team:

1) Offense was better than defense (Tony Dungy's 2007 Colts)

2) Defense was better than offense (Mike Tomlin's 2007 Steelers)

3) Both were about the same (Tom Coughlin's 2007 Giants).

And then we'll be able to match up coaches with effectiveness to see if one particular type of coach does better in getting into the post season than the other, in regards to what their specialty is.

Title Number of Coaches in the playoffs who meet the Critera Below
1) Defensive Coach, Better Defense; 
2) Defensive Coach, Better Offense; 
3) Defensive Coach, about Equal between Offense and Defense; 
4) Offensive Coach, Better Defense; 
5) Offensive Coach, Better Offense; 
6) Offensive Coach, about Equal between Offense and Defense.

   12 11 10 09 08 07 06 05 04 03 02  Tot  Avg
1 - 2  3  4  3  4  2  3  3  3  2  2   31  2.8
2 - 3  2  1  0  1  1  3  2  2  2  2   19  1.7
3 - 3  2  2  2  2  3  1  2  1  1  1   20  1.8
4 - 1  2  1  0  0  1  1  1  0  2  2   11  1
5 - 2  3  2  6  2  1  3  2  4  4  1   30  2.7
6 - 1  0  2  1  3  4  1  2  2  1  4   21  1.9

Quick Takeaways

- Playoff teams most often reflect their coach's primary discipline.
- Teams with better offenses tend to make the playoffs more than any other group, 4.4 per year, versus 3.8 for defense, and 3.7 for balanced teams.
- Defensive coaches do marginally better at managing playoff offenses more so than offensive coaches do at managing playoff defenses.
- Offensive coaches rarely have better defenses than offenses in the playoffs.
- Coaches whose team represents their strength (offensive/defensive coaches with as good or better offenses/defenses respectively) make up 75% coaches in the playoffs.

When Ronkowski mentioned 'Defense still matters, but when it comes to the choice of a head coach, it's offense that wins Super Bowls', isn't without merit. It's true, a lot of Super Bowl teams are won by offense-first coaches. Ten of the last 18 coaches to win the Super Bowl were offensive coaches, but were these offensive coaches fielding better offensive teams? Or were the more often more balanced?

MORE: Do Defensive Coaches Win Super Bowls?

Look at the Ravens this past year, for as maligned as that defense was, it was still strong at times. The offense, while certainly looking strong in the Super Bowl, fluttered and faltered all year during the regular season, on a team with a coach with a defensive and special teams background. Prime example of a well-balanced team winning it all. But that's been the case multiple times. Lets take a look at a few snippets of teams broken down by points scored rank.

2012                              2011
Winner: BAL - O - 10 - D - 12     Winner: NYG - O - 9 - D - 25 
Loser:  SF  - O - 11 - D - 2      Loser:  NE  - O - 3 - D - 15

2010                              2009
Winner: GB  - O - 10 - D - 2      Winner: NO  - O - 1 - D - 20 
Loser:  PIT - O - 12 - D - 1      Loser:  IND - O - 7 - D - 8

2008                              2007
Winner: PIT - O - 20 - D - 1      Winner: NYG - O - 14 - D - 16
Loser:  ARI - O - 3  - D - 28     Loser:  NE  - O - 1  - D - 4

2006                              2005
Winner: IND - O - 2 - D - 23      Winner: PIT - O - 9 - D - 3
Loser:  CHI - O - 2 - D - 3       Loser:  SEA - O - 1 - D - 7
(note: both scored 427 points, 
   tiebreaker: IND, obviously)

2004                              2003
Winner: NE  - O - 4 - D - 2       Winner: NE  - O - 12 - D - 1
Loser:  PHI - O - 8 - D - 2       Loser:  CAR - O - 15 - D - 10
(note: both allowed 260 points,
   tiebreaker: NE)

2002                              2001
Winner: TB  - O - 18 - D - 1      Winner: NE  - O - 6 - D - 6
Loser:  OAK - O - 2  - D - 6      Loser:  STL - O - 1 - D - 7

2000                              1999
Winner: BAL - O - 14 - D - 1      Winner: STL - O - 1 - D - 4
Loser:  NYG - O - 15 - D - 5      Loser:  TEN - O - 7 - D - 15

1998                              1997
Winner: DEN - O - 2 - D - 8       Winner: DEN - O - 1 - D - 6
Loser:  ATL - O - 4 - D - 4       Loser:  TEN - O - 2 - D - 5

1996                              1995
Winner: GB - O - 1 - D - 1        Winner: DAL - O - 3 - D - 3
Loser:  NE - O - 2 - D - 14       Loser:  PIT - O - 5 - D - 9

And the spread for each team went like this:

YEAR +W  +L   W/L         YEAR
2012 -2  +8  DC/OC        2003 +12 +5  DC/DC  
2011 -16 -12 OC/DC        2002 +18 -4  OC/OC
2010 +8  +11 OC/DC        2001 +0  -6  DC/OC
2009 -19 -1  OC/OC        2000 +13 +10 OC/OC
2008 +19 -25 DC/OC        1999 -3  -8  OC/DC
2007 -2  -3  OC/DC        1998 -6  +0  OC/OC
2006 -21 -1  DC/DC        1997 -5  -3  OC/DC
2005 +6  -6  DC/OC        1996 +0  -12 OC/DC
2004 +2  +6  DC/OC        1995 +0  -4  DC/DC

The +/- indicates that + is where the defense is better than the offense and - is where the offense is better than the defense. Example: 2008, Pittsburgh (winner) was lead by a defensive coach, and their defense was ranked 19 spots higher than their offense. Now, it doesn't tell you WHAT the ranks, are, and frankly, I don't think it's really relevant. What this tells you is: what your team is good at, how much better, and does it relate to the coaches specialty.

For example, in in 2000, the defense was 15 ranks higher than the offense on Billick's 2000 Ravens squad. The Ravens defense that year was impossibly good, and the offense impossibly mediocre, at best. Was Brian Billick a poor offensive coach? Possibly, but it's also possible he was good at guiding the hand of his defense and making do with less talent on offense to win a Super Bowl.

Look at 2002 for that as well, where Gruden piloted a mediocre offensive team with the #1 defense into a Super Bowl championship. Or in 2009, when the Gregg Williams' sieve-like defense was at its worst, their offense was fantastic under Sean Payton. Or it can really tell you coaches that have had consistent teams regardless of specialty.

The mean spread of ranks for all Super Bowl coaches was +/- 7.7 ranks with a standard deviation (S.D.) of 6.7. And those that were +/- 3 or less, you can make the case for them being a truly balanced team. Like 2004's New England team, with the last of their championship defense AND Tom Brady coming into his prime, or in 1996 where Green Bay's Brett Farve-led offense and Reggie White-led defense dominated the league, or even in 2007, where a good enough defense and good enough offense won with Eli Manning and Michael Strahan. There was balance, and the balance was directed by coaching.

In the Super Bowl, the winner's mean spread in was +/- 8.5 ranks (S.D. 7.6), and the loser's was +/- 7 ranks (S.D. 5.8) (2008's Arizona Cardinals was a major outlier here, especially as it was ALSO an 8-8 team making it to the Super Bowl). The winning team was often significantly better at one phase, whether it was offense or defense, and the losers were more consistent with their balance.

How did teams do based on coaching focus? Nine of the last 18 Super Bowls were won by coaches whose teams were better at their focus (i.e. offensive coaches with better offenses, 6 were not. How much better? 9 ranks (S.D. 6.9), a pretty wide margin. Look no further than 2011's Giants or 2006's Colts. Losers were more likely to be worse at their coaches' focus (i.e. offensive coaches with better defenses), with 10 of the 18 Super Bowl losers being better at whatever their coach wasn't, 7 were not. How much worse were those who had a different strength than their coaches? 6.7 ranks worse (S.D. 3.9).

Six of the 19 (32%) offensive-minded coaches had better defenses coming into the Super Bowl, and 8 of the 17 (47%) defensive-minded had a better offense. Eight of 18 Super Bowls were won by teams with better offenses than defenses, 7 were won by teams with better defense than offenses, and there were 3 ties (and all 3 of those ties were 6th ranked or better). Super Bowl coaches are slightly better represented by offensive minded coaches than defensive, when you factor defensive minded head coaches make up a majority of all playoff coaches since 2002.


1) Getting to the playoffs doesn't require you to have a offensive-minded head coach. It doesn't mean you can't be successful with a good defense, and a good defensive-minded head coach. If playoffs are the answer, success is slightly favouring defensive coaches.
2) Defensive and offensives strength aren't strictly aligned with their coach's discipline. Often times you'll find coaches who can do more with less talent on the other side of the ball, and let the side they have less control over get better talent to compensate.
3) Winning the Super Bowl is more often than not, less about balance, and more about doing one thing really well without being incompetent at the other. The key is being good at what you do, knowing your identity, and having a coach that works with it, not against it.
4) Super Bowl losers seem to have an inbalance in either talent or coaching strength that works against them in the Super Bowl more often.

How does this relate to the Bears?

It's possible for Trestman to have success with the defense and reach the playoffs if he can raise the level of the offense significantly, but over all playoff coaches since 2002, offensive-minded coaches who reach the playoffs on the backs of their defenses are rare. 2010's Green Bay team was better defensively, but still a top-10 offense with Aaron Rodgers. Houston and San Francisco both have made the playoffs in the past two years with offensive-minded head coaches and strong defenses (and strong running games).

All those years with Jon Gruden and Brian Billick? Both of them had expert defensive coordinators working for them in Monte Kiffen and Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, and Rex Ryan respectively. Trestman has Mel Tucker, who's a fine DC in his own right, but on a defensive-first team this coming year, it's not a recipe for defensive success in the Super Bowl. I'm not saying 'playoffs' for next year, but, if the defense starts slipping, it becomes more and more critical that Trestman's offense takes shape, and fast.

Because history isn't on their side if they can't.

Since 1995, teams that have won a Super Bowl and were outside of the top-10 in offense all had fantastic defenses, with an average rank of 6 (S.D. 5.5). Four of the 6 teams that fit this criteria? Top-2 defenses in points allowed. It doesn't get much better on defense if the offense is in the outside of the top-5 (11 teams), where the average defense was ranked 6.2 (S.D. 8.0). But, if the offense is in the top-5? Those six winners had an average defense of 10th (S.D. 9.1). Defensively, teams that won the Super Bowl (5 teams) who were outside of the top-10 in defense usually had around a 7th ranked offense (SD 5.5). And those teams that were inside the top 5 of defense (9 teams) usually had around a 10th ranked offense (SD 6.6).

And that's the way the Bears have to look at it. Maintaining a top-5 defense is the only way for the Bears to reach Emery's stated goal of winning championships unless Trestman is able to wrestle a top-10 offense in two years or less and maintain a top-10 defense at the same time.

Is that something that Emery and Trestman have to figure out and buck the trend, or is there always a 'trend to be bucked'?