The table below shows each Super Bowl champion since 1970 and its rank in various categories. At the top, I’ve included an average of the ranks of the teams over the last 10 years and since 1970, and each team is hyperlinked to its Pro-Football-Reference team page. The categories in this first table are record, points for, points allowed, Pythagenpat record, offensive yards, defensive yards, yards differential, offensive pass yards, offensive rushing yards, defensive passing yards (i.e., passing yards allowed), and defensive rushing yards.
- The 2002 Bucs and 2003 Patriots had the best record in the NFL. Since then, no team with the best record has won the Super Bowl. And while the average Super Bowl champ ranked in the top 3 in record, the average Super Bowl champ has not had a stellar record over the last 10 years, and in the last 3 years in particular. That’s why people like Neil have written that the playoffs have become more random (at least, prior to 2013).
- The “defense wins championships” motto doesn’t seem to hold up, to no surprise; the average Super Bowl champ has ranked outside of the top five in points allowed, and outside the top ten over the last decade. But it’s not as though “offense wins championships” works, either. The average Super Bowl champ (since 1970) has had the same rank in both points scored and points allowed, but unsurprisingly fares a little better in Pythagenpat record.1 On the points scored side, the 2009 Saints are the only team since 2000 to lead the league in points and win the Super Bowl.
- As you might suspect, yards and yards allowed don’t necessarily mean much, and the trend has been even more true in recent years. From 1991 to 1999, every Super Bowl winner ranked in the top five in yards, but just two of the last 13 Super Bowl champions have finished in the top five. Yards allowed has been odd — four teams since 2000 have ranked outside of the top 20 in yards allowed (although the ’01 Patriots were 6th in points allowed) — but eight of them ranked in the top ten. From 2000 to 2011, every Super Bowl champ either ranked in the top 10 or outside the top 20 in that metric, until the Ravens broke that “streak” last year. Yards differential, not surprisingly, does seem to correlate better with success.
- As I’ve noted before, no quarterback has ever led the league in passing yards and won the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner was second in passing yards in 1999, but those Rams did lead the league in passing yards. Still, they’re the only team to ever do so and win the championship.
- On the other hand, only two teams since 1970 — the 1972 Dolphins and 1985 Bears — led the league in rushing yards and won the Super Bowl. The 1969 Chiefs also led the AFL in rushing yards.
- I don’ tthink there’s much insight to be gained from passing yards allowed or rushing yards allowed. The average Super Bowl champion, especially recently, does not stand out as special in either category. And while the average is higher in rushing yards allowed, that’s because these are generally teams that played with the lead. But even in recent years, that idea hasn’t held up, and five champions since 2006 ranked in the bottom half of the league in that category.
The next table looks at offensive Net Yards per Attempt, offensive Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, defensive Net Yards per Attempt (i.e., NY/A allowed), defensive Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, Net Yards per Attempt differential, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt differential, Offensive Yards per Carry, Defensive Yards per Carry, Takeaways, Giveaways, and Turnover Margin.
- Not surprisingly, NY/A and ANY/A correlate better with Super Bowl success than passing yards. Six top-ranked teams in NY/A and nine in ANY/A have gone on to win the Super Bowl. On the defensive side, this result is even more stark. Of the four categories, Super Bowl champs had the best rank in defensive ANY/A both over the last ten years and since 1970.
- NY/A differential and ANY/A differential combine both offensive and defensive passing metrics, so you would expect them to fare well. And they do. Thirteen of the 43 SB champs since 1970 led the league in ANY/A differential. In recent years, four teams finished outside the top 10 in this metric: two of them were very surprising champions, the ’01 and ’07 Patriots, while neither Ravens team was very effective passing during the regular season, at least.
- Yards per carry and yards per carry allowed don’t appear very correlated with success, which isn’t very surprising. Only one team, the 1979 Steelers (more on them in a minute) led the league in yards per carry and won the Super Bowl. Several recent teams have made a mockery of yards per carry — the 2011 Giants finished last in yards per carry, the 2010 Packers finished in the bottom quarter of the league in both YPC and YPC allowed, the ’09 Saints were 26th in yards per carry allowed, the ’08 Steelers were 29th in yards per carry, and the ’06 Colts were last in yards per carry allowed. Yards per Carry differential (not listed in the chart) wasn’t much better: five teams (’00 Ravens, ’99 Rams, ’88 49ers, ’79 Steelers, ’71 Cowboys) finished first in that metric, the average team had a rank of 10.2, and the average team over the last ten years was at 16.5.
- Turnovers, the first word every coach learns, don’t fare all that favorably here. The Steelers had the most most giveaways in the league the year they won their fourth Super Bowl. Five teams were first in takeaways and four teams were first in giveaways, but the average ranks for both categories are not impressive. Perhaps more interesting: only four teams since 1970 were first in points allowed, yards allowed, and turnover margin – the ’85 Bears, ’02 Bucs, ’06 Ravens, ’13 Seahawks. But in general, Super Bowl champs were not stellar in turnover margin, either, with the ’07 Giants making a particular mockery of that statistic.
- The average rank in Pythagenpat record is slightly below that of regular record, but presumably that’s due to the self-fulfilling prophecy effect of having a good record record, which leads to home games and (in theory) an easier road to the Super Bowl. [↩]