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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Defense Wins, Dummy!

Even the most casual sports fan has heard it said: Defense wins championships. But is it true? For some reason the higher minds of sports have never been able to agree. However, the heads of Boston’s big four franchises seem to believe in the truth of this proverb. As the Celtics are discovering this season, recent history has proven them right.

First look at the modal dynasty in professional sports: the Patriots. The Patriot’s dynastic run, for all the love New England fans give Tom Brady, has been rooted by the defense, starting in 2001 with the Pats’ first title, which was a historic upset over the greatest show on turf.

New England’s biggest rival and chief competition during their reign has been the offensive machine of the Indianapolis Colts. Yet Peyton Manning’s record-breaking offense was derailed time and again by the Patriots’ defense. In the 2004 AFC championship game, the Pats’ defense beat on Peyton’s receivers, while Brady lead a small-name offense featuring Deion Branch to beat the Colts 24-14. Again in 2005, the vaunted Indianapolis offense was shutdown.

The Pats’ defense held Manning’s offense to just three points and zero touchdowns during the AFC Divisional round in a season that saw Peyton break Dan Marino’s single-season touchdown record. In 2007, the Colts did finally break through, winning Super Bowl XLI, but only after adding a vastly improved defense.

The Patriots’ 2008 campaign has become perhaps the best illustration of a defense’s importance. The Patriots, for the first time in recent memory, made big splash on offense, bringing in names like Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Coming into Super Bowl XLII, they touted the greatest offense in NFL history. The Moss, Brady and Welker party lit the league up, setting multiple scoring and touchdown records. Undefeated heading into the big game with the Giants, the Pats’ offense was supposed to be attending their coronation. Well, we all know how that turned out. In the end it was the Giants’ defensive line, and not the flashy offense, that won the game. Proving that not even the perfect Patriots organization can disprove the wisdom of that great man who first acknowledged defense as the key to winning titles.

The Red Sox were the first to mimic the Pats’ success. After an 86-year drought, the Sox have brought home two World Series titles in four years. The right formula turned out to be a solid bullpen, strong rotation and a big-time closer. The pair of Pedro Martinez and Curt Shilling proved too much for both the Yankees and The Curse in 2004. But the biggest key for the band known as The Idiots might have been closer Keith Foulke. Often overlooked, Foulke’s shutdown performances were a critical part of the Red Sox success.

The Sox also made a notable change before the postseason. They dumped the franchise face, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. The Red Sox parted with their darling offensive shortstop for defense in the form of Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz. At the time, many fans were upset and sad to see Garciaparra go. How did that work out? Nomar who?

The 2007 championship team was strikingly similar in form, this time anchored by starters Josh Beckett and Curt Shilling and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon matched Foulke’s dominant performance in 2007, helping earn the Sox another set of rings. Despite the fans’ love affair with the homerun in Major League Baseball, starting pitching and bullpens have continued to win.

The NBA is no different. Over the past decade, both conferences have been led by defensive teams in the Spurs and Pistons. The most dominant team of the current era, whom some have called the New England Patriots of the NBA, are the San Antonio Spurs. Winners of four championships since 1999, the Spurs are often seen as boring by fans. And can you blame them? Their superstar, Tim Duncan, is nicknamed the big fundamental. But ask a Spurs fan if they think their team is boring, and all you’ll hear about is the four titles.

The newcomers to the defensive philosophy this decade are the Celtics. The blockbuster trade for Kevin Garnett this past off-season brought more than a 10-time all-star to Boston. Garnett is an 8-time, all-defensive nod and has brought with him a defensive mindset that Doc Rivers has been trying to instill in his team since coming to Boston. Garnett and Rivers have combined to develop a Celtics team that focuses on defense. Not just in spots, but every game. It’s no coincidence that the Celtics have the best record in the league this season, and they also rank near the top in every defensive category. It’s that defensive dominance that has the Celtics thinking championship for the first time in years.

Over the past subpar seasons, the Celtics have had all-star offensive players like Paul Pierce, but not one all-defensive player. In fact, the last Celtic to make the all-defensive team was Kevin McHale in the ’89-90 season. Offensive players can have bad games. They can also be contained, especially when they are the only option. It’s team defense that has transformed the Green into serious contenders again.

Defense keeps you in games. Defense doesn’t rely on hot streaks; it’s just hustle and guts. Whenever a team wins with defense, they are branded as a team-first organization. (See the ’01 and ’03 Patriots, ’04 Red Sox.) Superstars are exciting on an individual level and attract fans to fill seats, but superstars, like any athlete, can fall victim to injury, or worse (see Michael Vick), and then your franchise is in trouble.

Organizations in all professional sports are realizing competitive teams that win draw fans on a more consistent level than superstars. Defensive highlights are less exciting and harder to see. And yeah, defense is boring, but championships never are.

Remember: offense sells tickets, but it’s ‘D’ that’s the key