These days even at the Super Bowl, offense is overrated

Janet Jackson will be there. So will Beyoncé and Aerosmith, not to mention an assortment of defensive linemen who could seem to crush rocks with their bare hands.

But amid the fireworks and flybys that will greet viewers of Super Bowl XXXVIII, one thing might seem conspicuously absent: offense.

The Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots have earned their way to football's greatest game, no question. But the mere mention of Deion Branch and Jake Delhomme is unlikely to send the Doritos legion into delirium.

Deion who? Exactly.

While the Roman numerals suggest that Sunday's game will be the 38th year of the Super Bowl, it is in fact something else entirely. It is the dawning of a new Super Bowl era. If archaeologists were football analysts, they might give it a name like "Salary Cap Epoch," and radiocarbon-date its beginnings to a largely unremarkable Super Bowl three years ago.

Since then, the tale of each champion - and of both teams in this year's game - has revealed one unmistakable lesson: To win the Super Bowl today, offense is overrated.

The star of New England's no-name attack is Tom Brady, a quarterback who was chosen 199th (of 254) in the 2000 draft. Carolina's offensive strategy makes "three yards and a cloud of dust" seem like the height of innovation. In fact, none of the past three Super Bowl Champions has had an offense ranked higher than 16th in the 32-team league - and the same is true of this year's Patriots and Panthers.

It's a trend that spreads beyond the gridiron onto the rink and the basketball court. Reasons differ for each league - from skill-killing tactics in hockey to more unseasoned teens flooding basketball.

But for the NFL, the decline of championship-caliber offenses is a prospect that could take some of the Super out of Super Bowl Sundays. Indeed, in a time when the NFL's strict salary cap has spread the top talent among more teams, those who have managed the greatest success are those who have sacrificed Jerry Rice excitement for stability and defensive strength.

"It seems like there is a trend," says Paul Attner of The Sporting News.

In some respects, this is merely the amplification of one of the oldest sports adages: Defense wins championships. Ever since pro football emerged from the grit of the working-class Midwest in the 1920s, the game has celebrated the gladiatorial destruction of its defenses. The Monsters of the Midway, the Doomsday Defense, and the Steel Curtain all gained mythical status - and championship titles.

But up until the NFL's salary cap began to take effect in the late 1990s, many of these teams had offenses to match, as they bought the best talent in New York Yankee-like fashion. The great images of Super Bowls past include the inch-perfect passes of Joe Montana, the sure hands of Lynn Swann snatching Hail Marys out of the California night, and the broad-shouldered bull rushes of Emmitt Smith.

Now, teams have to pick and choose, and so far, teams that have tilted toward offense have yet to win a title. Not that they haven't gotten close. St. Louis's "Greatest Show on Turf" lost to the Patriots on a field goal in the 2002 Super Bowl. Last year, the Oakland Raiders' No. 1-ranked offense made it to the Super Bowl - only to be shelled by Tampa Bay (ranked No. 1 on defense).

Since the Baltimore Ravens set the Super Bowl on its new path in 2001 - winning the championship with an offense that went a month without scoring a touchdown - defense has proved the surer route to the championship. Both the Patriots and Panthers have followed that model.

"You can't put all your finances on one side of the ball," says Joe Horrigan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "That is a huge part of the reality of today."

Baseball seems to be the only sport heading in the opposite direction, as hitters bulk up and owners continue to have the freedom to spend as they wish, building great teams at bat and on the mound. In basketball and hockey, by contrast, it hasn't much mattered where owners put their money. The games are on a downward offensive spiral and appear unable to right themselves.

The influx of young players often more interested in highlight-reel dunks than team play has slowed basketball to a crawl and sent shooting percentages plummeting. In the six games of the 2003 finals, the 100-point barrier was broken in only one game, which finished 101-89. In the six games of the 1985 finals, both teams scored more than 100 points in every game - and twice scored more than 135 points.

The advent of the neutral-zone trap in hockey, meanwhile, has suffocated the sport's speed and creativity. Scoring is at its lowest level since the 1950s. "There is almost universal agreement that the excitement level is suffering," says Jason Kay of The Hockey News. "And I don't think this is a natural cyclical thing."

Most football analysts won't go that far. At some point, they suggest, an offensive team will break through. But for at least one more season, the NFL champion will again be a relative offensive lightweight.

Says Mr. Horrigan: "We're in a cycle of dominant defensive players."

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