Do the 2015 Denver Broncos boast the greatest defense in NFL history? Outside of every meandering discussion surrounding Cam Newton's abrupt ending to his press conference and Peyton Manning's future (which may or may not involve Budweiser), it seems to be the biggest question that emerged from Super Bowl 50.
So, is the Broncos' defense -- which held Carolina to 10 points, which scored a touchdown and set up the Broncos offense inside the 5-yard line for a game-sealing touchdown, which hit and harassed Newton to the tune of seven sacks -- better than the 1985 Bears' defense?
In case you missed Sunday's game, here's a quick montage. If you're a Panthers fan, now is the time to look away.
The interception from Cam Newton's view pic.twitter.com/grY71edSwq— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) February 8, 2016
Von Miller causes Cam Newton to fumble pic.twitter.com/t6I1FA4rj0— arcusD (@_MarcusD_) February 8, 2016
They certainly look the part. And, unsurprisingly, the Broncos think they're greatest of all time.
At least, linebacker Brandon Marshall does ...
"In my opinion, we're the greatest defense to ever play the game. Ever," Marshall said, per The Denver Post. "It's a bold statement, but top to bottom we have the greatest talent -- from rushers to safeties to linebackers. Better than anybody's ever done it."
So does defensive lineman Derek Wolfe ...
"We proved we're the No. 1 defense," Wolfe said, per The Denver Post. "If you ask me, or anybody on this defense, we're the best to ever do it."
And here's linebacker Danny Trevathan also -- shockingly -- agreeing ...
"You're going to ask me? No. 1. No. 1 in my opinion, over '85 Bears," Trevathan said, via NFL.com. "If not No. 1, No. 2. I feel like we did a good job playing our games. It wasn't ever pretty, but when you put it in our defense's hand we always come up with that win."
Heck, even President Barack Obama, a Bears fan, made the comparison, telling Broncos coach Gary Kubiak that Denver's defense is "about as good a defense as I've seen since the '85 Bears."
So, are they? Or is this only a case of extreme flattery from the president and bias from the members of the Broncos' defense?
Let's eliminate that bias and take a look at what the numbers say -- just the statistics -- to figure out how the Broncos stack up to the Monsters of the Midway.
(Hint: Obama, if he's reading this, will be happy at the end).
|Total defense (yards allowed)|
|Team||Total yards allowed||Yards allowed per game||League ranking|
Now, with that being said, the Broncos' defense pulled off a feat that eluded the Bears. As Chase Stuart wrote in The Washington Post, Denver's defense led the league in net yards per pass attempt and yards per rushing attempt, becoming the fourth team since 1970 to have done so. The 1985 Bears weren't one of those teams.
And, the Broncos only allowed 4.4 yards per play in 2015 -- the same total as the Bears in 1985.
Additionally, it's important to recognize the differences in the 1985 version of football and the 2015 edition. In 2015, offenses averaged 352.7 yards per game. In 1985, that figure drops to 329.4. Thus begins the problem when weighing statistics from 30 years apart. Offenses are better now. The rules have changed. The game is different. There's no way around that.
Let's do our best, though. In 2015, the Broncos gave up 4,530 yards. The average team surrendered 5,642.7 yards, meaning the Broncos gave up roughly 20 percent fewer yards than the average team this past season
In 1985, the Bears gave up 4,135 yards. The average team surrendered 5271.1 yards, meaning the Bears gave up roughly 22 percent fewer yards than the average team.
|Scoring defense (points allowed)|
|Team||Total points allowed||Points allowed per game||League ranking|
So, the 1985 Bears led the league in scoring defense, allowing just 198 points over the course of the regular season. On the other hand, the Broncos didn't lead the league, surrendering 296 points in the regular season and finishing in fourth.
But again, Chase Stuart, in that same Washington Post article, makes a good point. Here's what he wrote about the misleading nature of the Broncos defense's scoring stats:
"Peyton Manning threw three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, which increases the number of points allowed by the team even though the defense wasn't on the field. And the defense had four pick-sixes of its own, along with a game-winning fumble return for a touchdown against the Chiefs. Thought of another way, the Broncos allowed 32 touchdowns this year, which means the defense allowed only 29; give the defense credit for the touchdowns it produced, and the defense allowed only 24 'net' touchdowns."
To compare, the '85 Bears allowed 22 defensive touchdowns. They scored five (four pick-sixes and one fumble return) of their own, meaning they allowed just 17 "net" touchdowns. The advantage remains in favor of the Bears.
But, again, let's look at the differences in eras.
In 2015, the average team gave up 365 points. The Broncos surrendered 296, meaning they allowed 19 percent fewer points.
In 1985, the average team gave up 344.5. The Bears surrendered 198, meaning they allowed 43 percent fewer points.
Sacks and turnovers
|Sacks and Turnovers|
Clearly the advantage goes to the Bears. But again, check out the differences by year.
In 1985, the average team landed 38.2 turnovers. In 2015, that sunk to 23.3. Put another way, the average team in 1985 would've finished with the second most turnovers in the league this past year, just behind Carolina's 39 takeaways. Had a team in 1985 finished the year with 39 takeaways, it would've ranked 13th. Different times.
Anyway, the Bears generated 41 percent more turnovers than the average team in 1985. The Broncos generated 16 percent more turnovers than the average team this past season.
|2015 Broncos in the playoffs vs. 1985 Bears in the playoffs|
|Team||Yards allowed per game||Points allowed per game||Sacks||Takeaways|
Again, advantage goes to the Bears, who didn't give up any points in their championship run until the first quarter of the Super Bowl and kept their opponents out of the end zone until the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. At that point in the game, they held a 41-point lead.
But, let's give the Broncos credit. They became the fourth team in the last 20 years to defeat (in the playoffs) three teams ranked in the top-five in regular-season scoring, per STATS. They held the Patriots and Steelers, who collectively averaged 27.8 points per game, to 17 points per game. The Panthers entered the Super Bowl averaging 40 points per game in the playoffs. They scored 10 on the Broncos.
That defensive effort allowed the Broncos to win despite only accumulating 194 yards on offense.
The Broncos’ 194 yards of offense Sunday were the fewest by a Super Bowl winner – by 20 percent! (Ravens, 244 yards, SB XXXV)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 9, 2016
Still, the stats just don't compare. For as dominant as the Broncos defense was, the Bears defense was even better statistically speaking.
The 2015 Broncos have earned a spot at the table, but they didn't unseat the '85 Bears, at least from a statistical perspective.
Unfortunately, we'll never know if the '85 Bears would've fared worse in today's climate. Just like we'll never know if the 2015 Broncos would've thrived back in the 1980s. It's all hypotheticals at this point and I already promised to keep bias out of this article, so I won't venture down any of those paths.
And that should make President Obama happy. His '85 Bears are still No. 1.
Wink of the CBS eye to Pro Football Reference for the statistics.