The Green Bay Packers host the New Orleans Saints Thursday night in a star-studded NFL kickoff game that pits the last two Super Bowl champions.
From the point of the view of the
Vince Lombardi's 1960s Packers, for their part, offer the most durable and iconic images in pro football history. Guards Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer powering mighty Jim Taylor on an unstoppable romp around the edge of a helpless defense; big-game playmaker Paul Hornung swivel-hipping his way through the mud for yet another Green Bay scoring run; Bart Starr knifing through the Dallas defense for a title-winning touchdown run at frigid Lambeau Field.
The grainy gridiron imagery sets little football-loving hearts aflutter, nearly a half century later. If the Cold, Hard Football Facts suffered the weakness of human emotion, we might even love it, too.
But there's one little problem with all these romantic images: they propel a statistical lie.
The 1960s Packers did not win five championships because they dominated on the ground. The 1960s Packers won five championships for the same reason that the Packers won a championship last season. It's the same reason that the Saints won a championship in 2009.
All these teams are champs because they dominated the passing lanes on both sides of the ball -- regardless of how well or how poorly they ran the ball or stopped the run on defense.
Sometimes they ran well. Sometimes they did not. Sometimes they played great run defense. Sometimes they did not.
The one constant is that each of these teams -- not to mention almost every champion in history -- ruled the skies over NFL battlefields.
The 2010 Packers are a classic example of the importance of the passing game. They could barely run the ball last year, with an ineffective average of 3.81 yards per carry on the ground (25th of 32 teams). They were even worse on defense, gashed for an average of 4.64 yards (28th) on every rush attempt.
The 2009 Saints ran the ball quite a bit better, averaging a solid 4.53 YPA on the ground (7th); but they, too, were dreadful on run defense, allowing 4.52 yards per rush (27th). The ground game was largely a statistical wash for New Orleans during their championship run.
Both teams won championships because they dominated the skies. And in this respect, the modern Saints and Packers share everything in common with the dynastic Packers of the 1960s -- who also won because they dominated the skies, regardless of how well or how poorly they ran the ball.
And, as you'll see below, Lombardi's Packers were routinely out-gained on the ground, especially in the later years of the dynasty.
At Cold, Hard Football Facts.com, we measure each passing game by its Offensive Passer Rating; we rank each defense by its Defensive Passer Rating; and we rank each team by Passer Rating Differential. We use these indicators because history proves that each indicator has a direct correlation to winning football games.
The 2009 Saints and 2010 Packers each topped the NFL in Passer Rating Differential -- in other words, they dominated the skies better than any other team in football. But so, too, did the 1961 Packers, 1962 Packers, 1965 Packers, 1966 Packers and, three decades later, the 1996 Packers.
Here's a statistical look at each of these eight champions, seven from the Packers and the 2009 Saints. You might be surprised to see how poorly some of Lombardi's teams ran the football. You should not be surprised to see that each team dominated in the air. NFL champions have always won the air wars, dating all the way to the dawn of the T-formation in 1940.
The first column is average per rush attempt; second is average per rush attempt allowed on defense; OPR is Offensive Passer Rating; DPR is Defensive Passer Rating; PRD is Passer Rating Differential.
The numbers are pretty clear: fortunes on the ground varied year to year. The one constant was dominance of the passing game. In fact, two columns leap screaming off the chart: Defensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential.
• Six of these eight champions finished No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating
• Seven of these eight champions finished No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential
You know the 2010 Packers couldn't run the football; you probably didn't know that Lombardi's 1965 and 1966 Packers couldn't run the football, either. The 1965 Packers ranked 11th out of 14 teams in average per rush; the 1966 Packers ranked 13th out of 15 teams in average per rush.
And in 1967, only the expansion Saints fielded a run defense that was worse than Lombardi's championship-winning unit.
The 1965 to 1967 Packers are remembered as the only team to win three straight NFL championship games or Super Bowls. But they did not dominate in the trenches. In fact, each team was upside down on the ground -- surrendering more yards per rush on defense than they generated on offense.
That's right: Lombardi's Packers were outmuscled on the ground all three years during their historic championship run. But they dominated through the air. The 1966 Packers boast the greatest Passer Rating Differential (+56.0) of any team in the Super Bowl Era, thanks to Bart Starr's coldly efficient MVP performance and another year of shutdown pass defense by Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis & Friends.
These Hall of Fame defenders did not always stuff the run; but they always made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
The only team on our list that failed to top Passer Rating Differential was the 1967 Packers. But even that team is the exception that proves the rule. Anyone who read
The pass defense was still great, but Starr performed poorly, and even missed two games. As a result, the Packers tumbled to No. 3 in Passer Rating Differential and 9-4-1 in the standings, barely making the playoffs.
But Starr, perhaps the greatest big-game quarterback of all time, regained his form at just the right moment: he was majestic in three postseason contests that year, ending with an MVP performance in Super Bowl II. He posted a 102.7 passer rating in those three games, while the team crafted an incredible +42.8 postseason Passer Rating Differential.
In other words, the Packers captured a third straight championship because they ruled the air when it mattered most.
Fast forward to the NFL today. The Saints were champions in 2009 but failed to win a playoff game in 2010. What was the difference between the two teams? It's easy: simply look at the passing efficiency numbers. With rare exceptions, you will always find the answer to a team's successes and failures in these passing efficiency numbers.
• The 2009 Saints were No. 2 in Offensive Passer Rating, No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential -- all numbers consistent with an NFL champion.
• The 2010 Saints were No. 10 in Offensive Passer Rating, No. 15 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 10 in Passer Rating Differential -- all numbers consistent with a one-and-done playoff team.
The 1962 Packers are the only team on our list of champions that was dominant on the ground on both sides of the ball.
Keep in mind the 1962 Packers dominated everything. In fact, you could argue that they are the greatest team of all time. Green Bay went 13-1, led the NFL in scoring offense (415 points) and scoring defense (148) and utterly crushed their opponents on the ground: they led the NFL in rushing yards (2,460), rushing yards per attempt (4.74), and rushing touchdowns with 36, still the single-season team record.
Defensively, they allowed just four rushing touchdowns all year. Unbelievable: the 1962 Packers were +32 in rushing TDs in just 14 games!
But history tells us this dominance might have gone for naught had the 1962 Packers not also owned the skies.
Starr was one of the most effective passers in football that year while the defense led the NFL with an awesome 43.4 Defensive Passer Rating, allowed a league-low 10 TD passes and hauled in a league-high 31 interceptions. The 1962 Packers produced a +41.5 Passer Rating Differential, one of the best marks of the last half century.
It was the dominance of this 1962 team on the ground that created the Lombardi Image that we know so well today. It's an image that reinforces everything conventional wisdom tells us about football and everything that the pigskin-loving heart wants to believe about the old-school game.
But no matter how many times you watch Lombardi map out the Green Bay sweep on football's most famous chalkboard, the fact remains that his teams won because they dominated the skies, not because they dominated the ground.
Teams win championships when they control the passing lanes. It's how the 2009 Saints won a championship. It's how the 2010 Packers won a championship.
And you can all but guarantee that the team that takes home the Lombardi Trophy in February will have done it just like the award's namesake -- by owning the skies above NFL battlefields.