In 1981, the Chargers and Bengals met in the AFC Championship Game. That game isn’t the most memorable game played that day, in part because of the cold weather: nicknamed the Freezer Bowl, San Diego struggled on the road in a game played with a windchill of -32 degrees.
But the bad weather obscured the fact that Dan Fouts and Ken Anderson — by far the top two passers in the NFL that season — were facing off for the right to play in the Super Bowl. Over in the NFC, the 5th and 6th leading passers in ANY/A — Danny White and Joe Montana — were meeting in what would turn out to be one of the most memorable games in NFL history.
At the team level, the Chargers, Bengals, Cowboys, and 49ers were the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th-ranked teams in ANY/A that year.1 In other words, 1981 was a year where it would be really easy to argue that passing was more important than ever. After all, the final four teams in the playoffs were 4 of the top 5 passing teams in football.
However, this came just two years after the worst year one could make that argument: 1979. The Steelers won the Super Bowl and ranked 3rd in ANY/A, but the Bucs, Oilers, and Rams ranked 19th, 22nd, and 24th in ANY/A. It was a good year for pass defense: Tampa Bay, Houston, and Pittsburgh all ranked in the top 5 in pass defense, while the Rams ranked 8th.
On twitter, @smartfootball asked how Tuesday’s post would look if we expanded the list of teams from the Super Bowl champion to all four teams in the conference championship game. The graph below shows the average rank2 of the final four teams in the NFL playoffs in ANY/A for each season since 1966.
As you can see, having great quarterback play certainly isn’t more important than ever; if anything, it’s trending in the other direction (although the increase in league size from 26 to 32 teams mitigates some of the average gain). But the way our brain works, we are likely to overfit ideas that great quarterback play in necessary.
Look at 2008: the final four teams ranked 4th, 14th, 17th, and 19th in ANY/A. That would seem to be a good argument for the importance of a well-rounded team and not great quarterback play. It just so happens, though, that the final four featured four name quarterbacks: Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Kurt Warner. That year, McNabb ranked 13th, Flacco 23rd, and Roethlisberger 25th in ANY/A: only Warner was having a great year. But if your definition of a great QB includes mediocre QBs who have great years, and great QBs who have mediocre years, and maybe solid QBs who have pretty good years, you suddenly have a pretty broad definition of what’s a great quarterback. As for what really put Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Philadelphia in the final four? Those three teams ranked 1-2-3 in yards allowed, and in the top 4 in points allowed.
The other big outlier year in recent history was in 2010, when the Jets and Bears both made it to the championship game was bad passing games but strong defenses and special teams. If passing was really more important than ever, we wouldn’t see teams like the 2015 Broncos, 2010 Bears, and 2009 and 2010 Jets in the final four.