Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Where Is The Defense?

This weekend was the NFL at its best: Colliding stars and storylines, competitive, high-stakes drama, and points, points, points. The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos threw up 73 points in an enthralling game at Mile High. There were 86 points in the Green Bay Packers - San Francisco 49ers clash of NFC titans. The Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons combined for 58 points, while the New England Patriots and Houston Texans combined for 68. This is the playoffs, a time where points are supposed to be at a premium - each inch fought and scrapped for, down after down, series after series. But it wasn't like that at all. So I've got a frank question to ask: Where is the defense?

It's not just the NFL - the NBA, the English Premier League, the MLB - they've all seen a high rise in offense - points, runs, goals scored in the last decade. Locally, the Oregon Ducks have created a college football dynasty through a rampaging offense; Oregon has a defense that while good, is nowhere near dynasty level. In fact in college football - another sport afflicted by acute loss of defense - this year, Alabama, a team renowned for their defense, won a national championship through big offense and clutch touchdowns, not terrorizing defense. Sports have changed and defense has suffered. Why?

Each sport has their answer for rising offense: For the NFL, people point to stricter rules on defenders. It's been well documented that the NFL, with its impending concussion conundrum and increasing violence in the game, has cracked down on hits to the head, hits on defenseless players, and the general bone-crunching that went unpenalized 20 years ago.

The NFL has also taken strides to protect its most prized assets, quarterbacks, putting them in a cocoon of protection that has made it easier for the league to transition to a passing bonanza. But it's not just rules that are crippling defenses - offense has gotten much, much better. Innovative coaches all over the world of football have come up with new schemes, wrinkles, and angles - it's no longer three yards and a cloud of dust. Instead, it's clicked in that there is a lot more that you can do on offense then run the ball straight into the line from the same formation time after time after time. This is especially true in college, the epicenter of attacking invention. It's just harder for defenses in football, and that's why points are going up.

There was something magical about Chelsea's run to Champions League glory in Munich last year - not just
because Chelsea were (finally) lovable underdogs battling through impossible situations towards a trophy that had given the club so much misery in the last decade. It was fantastic because Chelsea won with a resilient and proud defense. For the last three games of the competition, the Blues just put up a wall, and it would not, could not, be broken down. It was the first time in a long time we'd seen that in top-level soccer. But despite that, we are headed for another record-breaking season of goals in the Premier League, the top teams scoring at will, and even the bottom teams giving two, three goal fights. You could make the argument that rules in soccer also favor attackers - MLS embarrassingly decreed to referees last year that in any case of doubt over a challenge in the box, the attacking team should be given a penalty - but rules in soccer haven't changed much in the last 50 years.

Actually, it just seems that there are more talented attacking players than defending players. There is a wealth of top wingers and forwards, but a surprising shortage of top-notch center and fullbacks. In today’s highlight reel day in age, and this goes for all sports, it's less appealing and glamorous to be a defender.

That mantra applies best to the NBA, the highlight reel league to end all highlight reel leagues. While there has been no huge spike in points in the NBA - there have always been a lot scored - players obviously don't play defense as hard as offense in the regular season. Why play hard defense when you can conserve your energy and play offense? It makes sense - offense is, for most, more fun to play than defense. When Terry Porter took over for Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix four years ago, Porter tried to make the famously cavalier, run and gun Suns play good defense. He felt that was the only way Phoenix could take the next step and win a championship. He was right. But his players, who hadn't had to play defense under their previous regime, hated it. The Suns didn't play for Porter, who was fired after half a season, and Alvin Gentry took over, playing the same system as D'Antoni had before. Although the Suns have taken quite the nosedive in recent times, Gentry is still the team's coach today.

I think we can all agree that the majority of people watching sports like great offense over great defense. I much rather watch a 50-45 football game than a 14-10 one. Offense is exciting, intriguing, grand, defense, not as much. Baseball's popularity was at its high in the post-lockout era when steroids were at their peak - more home runs, more runs, more big offensive stats, more fun. Baseball has cleaned up its act, at least for the most part in recent years, but the popularity of the sport has continued declining. We like offense. That's why the NFL, NBA, college football, and the Premier League are more popular than ever. Some of us like UFC, an all-offense sport. Golf, baseball, even hockey and tennis, they can't keep up.

For the individual teams, it's not a question of ratings or popularity - it's a question of winning games. And the consensus drawn by most managers, coaches, and GMs throughout their respective sports is that great offense, except for very rare occasions, beats great defense. It's easier to play great offense than great defense, and it wins invaluable style points with fans, owners, and administrations. I expect we'll see many more NFL playoff games like the ones last weekend. But I've also begun to value great defense, for its will, fortitude, effort, grit, determination, and lack of flash. It's tough, and it's imminently respectable to play great defense. In a way, sports are losing sight of that fact. And that’s too bad.

Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports
Be sure to check out other great articles at Oregon Sports News.
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