Battle Royale

01.31.14

Peyton Manning Vs. Richard Sherman

Denver’s All-American offensive juggernaut collides with Seattle’s blunt defensive machine in Super Bowl XLVIII. So what matters more, offense or defense?

When asked which he thought was more important in baseball, pitching or hitting, Alabama left-hander Bob Veale replied, “Good pitching stops good hitting every time. And vice versa.” He was talking about baseball, but the saying holds true for football, too.

The media has built up Super Bowl XLVIII as the ultimate clash between offense and defense, the old “immovable object meets irresistible force” debate. For once, they’ve got it right.

The faces attached to this debate are Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. The game is almost certain to hinge on how well Manning and his receivers fare against Sherman and company. Peyton and Richard definitely deserve their status as the most famous football players in the country.

Manning, of course, has practically been “the man” since he graduated from Tennessee, where he earned a degree in speech communication in just three years. The son of the legendary Archie Manning, Peyton is football royalty. He grew up in New Orleans, and was a star at a prep school, Isidore Newman, where he led his team to 34-5 record. He became the number one pick in the 1998 NFL draft. You know him from commercials, hawking cars, pizza, and, alongside his brother Eli, cookies. From All-America to All-Pro, he’s been this nation’s ideal image of a football player.

For Sherman the path to being a household name has been much more haphazard. Growing up amidst the gang violence in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, California, an even better student than Manning, he starred in football, track and field at Dominquez High School. A scholar-athlete, he was salutatorian in his graduating class. Like Manning, he graduated from college in three years with a degree in communication. Sherman’s degree was from one of America’s foremost colleges, Stanford, where he posted a 3.9 GPA. He played wide receiver on the Cardinal football team for two years, and then, due to team need, he obliged his coach in 2008 and switched to defensive back.

Unlike Manning, hardly anyone in the NFL knew his name at draft time. He sat in his living room with his family as 153 names were called ahead of his. He was “livid” because “I was better than most of the guys they were picking.” That sounds arrogant, but in fact Sherman was being modest. He was perhaps the best all-around player in the draft that year.

Though he’s regularly touted—by himself and others—as the best defensive back in the league and led the NFL with 8 interceptions this season, Sherman wouldn’t have become an instant media celebrity if he hadn’t blown up after the Seahawks victory over San Francisco in the Championship Series. After knocking the ball away from San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree to seal the win, Sherman shouted at the camera, “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get.”

‘I'm the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get.’

The next night, every talk show from Jon Stewart to David Letterman featured a Richard Sherman joke. He apologized, but his outburst touched off a blizzard of tweets proclaiming him a “thug” and “ghetto boy.” When he calmed down, he eloquently told reporters, “Things like that happen and you deal with the consequences, you deal with people’s opinions. I have come from a place where it’s all adversity, so what’s a little bit more? What’s a little bit more of people telling what you can’t do? … It’s all fine with me.”

Actually, Sherman was well known to NFL fans before the NFC championship game, with his Number 10 jersey among the top ten sellers last year according to ESPN. (Manning, of course, was number one.) Now he’s made himself known to football fans everywhere, and if he wins the Super Bowl MVP award, he would only be the second defensive back to do so since the Cowboys’ Larry Brown in 1996. 

So who’ll win? Manning and the Broncos? Or Sherman and the Seahawks? There are many ways of measuring offense and defense, but points and yards gained and given up will do for most of us. This year the Denver Broncos set NFL records for most yards averaged per game, 457.3, and most average points per game , 37.9 (unless you want to go back to the L.A. Rams in 1950, pro football’s equivalent of baseball’s “dead ball” era). And the Seattle Seahawks led the league in fewest yards allowed per game, 273.6, and average points given up per game, 14.4.

Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, there have been many Super Bowl matchups of great offenses and defense, but this is the first time that the leader in both points scored and yards gained on offense and the leader in both points and yards allowed have met in the most important game of the year.

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What does happen when the irresistible force meets the immovable object? The closest thing we’ve had is after the 1990 season, when the New York Giants, who had the best defense by most yardsticks, played the Buffalo Bills, the team that led in most offensive categories. The Giants won 20-19 as the Bills missed a 48-yard field goal as the clock ran out. Since the Super Bowl can’t end in a tie, that’s about as close as the game can get.

The reality, though, is that no force is irresistible and no object is immovable. Since Denver and Seattle won their conferences and started packing for New Jersey two weeks ago, there’s been a swarm of articles proclaiming that football’s old adage, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships” is true, and the numbers would seem to support this in history.

Let’s boil these articles down to a few facts. Since 1970, the team that scored the most points has played in the Super Bowl 18 times. In that same span the team that allowed the fewest points in the league has made to the big game 15 times and won 12. Edge to defense.

There are two problems with that conclusion. The first is that no matter how you measure offense or defense, a subjective element creeps in to the analysis. For instance, I think Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback in pro football history and so do most football writers I know, and neither of his best team—the 1984 and 1989 49ers—led in either points scored or yards gained. Consequently, they don’t show up in most studies flying around the Internet, even though those Montana teams won two Super Bowls by a total of 67 points.

The other problem with arguing offense vs. defense in football is that every team must play on both sides of the ball, and the performance of the offensive team affects their defense—and vice versa. To hear most of the sports media, you’d think this was a head-to-head battle between the Manning, the best QB in the game today, and the Seattle Seahawks Legion of Boom defensive backs lead by Sherman, probably the best defensive player in the league.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Seattle has a terrific quarterback, too, in Russell Wilson, and though you haven’t heard all that much about him, he was, though not as prolific as Manning, very nearly as effective in his second season. Peyton had many more yards passing, 5477 to 3357, but that’s because he threw much more often. In the most important of passing stats, yards per throw, he barely edged Wilson out, 8.31 to 8.25 yards/pass.

If I were a Seattle fan, though, I’d be a little worried about a few passing stats. Wilson was sacked 44 times in just 458 attempts, or once in about every 10 drop backs. Manning, though he’s not nearly so elusive as Wilson, was dumped just 18 times in 677 attempts, just 2.7 percent. (Peyton’s quick release makes it difficult for pass rushers to get to him before he lets loose; he releases most of his passes inside 1.8 seconds after snap.)

I’d worry, too that Denver has figured out that pass protection may be Seattle’s Achilles heel. Over their first 12 games, they averaged 28.3 points, but over the last six—including their two playoff victories over New Orleans and San Francisco—they averaged just 20.5. That’s an eye-opening drop off.

As you would expect when the two top-seeded teams in the game play each other, the so-called experts are divided on who will win. Most power rating systems—such as the reliable Jeff Sagarin at USA Today—give the Seahawks an edge of 2- 2 ½ points (Sagarin makes it 2.4 favor Seattle) while Denver is a 2—2 1/2 point favorite on the betting line.

Analysts make projections based on purely objective data, while the betting odds can often be shaped by bettors who rely on intuition. Which one is usually more correct? Everyone knows that analysis beats intuition. And vice versa.