Hot Take Tuesday: Does Defense Still Win Championships?

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Texas high school football coaches are among my favorite people, but they tend to be repetitive.

Part of that is a requirement for the job — they are, after all, instructing teenagers, and as a former teenager, I can report confidently that telling me something one time simply wasn't going to cut it. The other part of that is personality driven — coaches tend to lean on the same adages, mottos and turns of phrase because they're effective ways of conveying an important message to their team. Some may call it "coachspeak"; I prefer "instructive repetition."

One of those things you hear over and over from coaches (and commentators, can't leave them out) is the importance of a strong defense — "Defense Wins Championships." And I think that's rooted in a truth, which is that teams with poor defenses rarely ascend to the highest level of their league.

Take a look at the following chart, lising the 30 most recent UIL 11-man state champions, where their scoring defense ranks in their respective classifications, and what percentile that represents.

Year/Class Champion Scoring Defense Rank Percentile
2020 6A (DI) Austin Westlake 1 0.4%
2020 6A (DII) Katy 5 2.1%
2020 5A DI Denton Ryan 9 7.0%
2020 5A DII Aledo 38 31.4%
2020 4A DI Argyle 12 12.6%
2020 4A DII Carthage 2 2.2%
2020 3A DI Jim Ned 9 8.6%
2020 3A DII Canadian 7 6.7%
2020 2A DI Shiner 7 7.2%
2020 2A DII Windthorst 3 3.2%
2019 6A (DI) Galena Park North Shore 27 10.7%
2019 6A (DII) Austin Westlake 2 0.8%
2019 5A DI Alvin Shadow Creek 2 1.6%
2019 5A DII Aledo 21 16.8%
2019 4A DI Carthage 2 2.2%
2019 4A DII Pleasant Grove 7 7.8%
2019 3A DI Grandview 15 14.2%
2019 3A DII Gunter 5 4.8%
2019 2A DI Refugio 8 8.5%
2019 2A DII Mart 2 2.3%
2018 6A (DI) Galena Park North Shore 6 2.4%
2018 6A (DII) Longview 39 15.5%
2018 5A DI Highland Park 4 3.1%
2018 5A DII Aledo 4 3.2%
2018 4A DI Waco La Vega 3 3.3%
2018 4A DII Cuero 8 8.9%
2018 3A DI Grandview 15 14.2%
2018 3A DII Newton 3 2.9%
2018 2A DI Mason 1 1.1%
2018 2A DII Mart 4 4.6%

That seems to track with the adage, doesn't it? Of the 30 state champions since 2018, 23 of them ranked in the top 10 percent of their classification in scoring defense...and only one of them — this year's 5A Division II state champion Aledo — fall outside the top 17% of their respective leagues. So that's settled then: much more likely than not, if you don't have an elite (or, at least, very good) defense, you're not winning a championship. Good take, Tepper!

Wait, what's this? Another chart?

Here's the same 30 champions, and their scoring offense ranks.

Year/Class Champion Scoring Offense Rank Percentile
2020 6A (DI) Austin Westlake 1 0.4%
2020 6A (DII) Katy 15 6.2%
2020 5A DI Denton Ryan 10 7.8%
2020 5A DII Aledo 6 5.0%
2020 4A DI Argyle 3 3.2%
2020 4A DII Carthage 4 4.3%
2020 3A DI Jim Ned 31 29.5%
2020 3A DII Canadian 2 1.9%
2020 2A DI Shiner 4 4.1%
2020 2A DII Windthorst 16 17.2%
2019 6A (DI) Galena Park North Shore 4 1.6%
2019 6A (DII) Austin Westlake 6 2.4%
2019 5A DI Alvin Shadow Creek 8 6.3%
2019 5A DII Aledo 2 1.6%
2019 4A DI Carthage 10 10.9%
2019 4A DII Pleasant Grove 5 5.6%
2019 3A DI Grandview 12 11.3%
2019 3A DII Gunter 14 13.3%
2019 2A DI Refugio 5 5.3%
2019 2A DII Mart 3 3.4%
2018 6A (DI) Galena Park North Shore 1 0.4%
2018 6A (DII) Longview 5 2.0%
2018 5A DI Highland Park 14 11.0%
2018 5A DII Aledo 2 1.6%
2018 4A DI Waco La Vega 4 4.3%
2018 4A DII Cuero 2 2.2%
2018 3A DI Grandview 8 7.5%
2018 3A DII Newton 1 1.0%
2018 2A DI Mason 9 9.6%
2018 2A DII Mart 1 1.1%

Well...this is awkward. It appears that of the 30 state champions since 2018, 24 of them registered in the top 10 percent of their classification in scoring offense — one more than with scoring defense. In fact, as a matter of average percentile rank, the champs have a higher scoring offense rank than a scoring defense rank (6.1% for offense, 7% for defense). So what's all this then?

Let's first start with this: I am not suggesting that defense is unimportant. On the contrary, the numbers bear out that having a very good defense is essentially a prerequisite for winning a state championship. What I am suggesting is that saying "defense wins championships" understates the importance of an elite offense, which is arguably more essential to winning a title. The days of capturing a crown with an elite defense and an OK offense are fundamentally over; it takes, at least, a very good offense to reach the highest heights.

Of course, "you need at least one elite unit, and the other one has to be very good as well" isn't as catchy as "defense wins championships", so I don't anticipate that coaches will change their lingo. But when considering contenders, know this: while having a great defense is imperative, it is no longer enough to win a Texas high school football state championship.

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