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History Lesson

By Tom Scocca | Posted 1/3/2001

Caring about the difference between legend and hype, at this moment in sports history, is probably the hallmark of a crank. What is legend, after all, but hype grown old and respectable? So Tiger Woods, who dominates one nonstrenuous game, wears Jim Thorpe's mantle as the Greatest Athlete in the World. So Alex Rodriguez signs a $252 million contract on the premise that, at age 25, he has Hank Aaron's all-time home-run record within his grasp.

So call me a crank. Mike Tyson is not Joe Louis. Michael Johnson is not Jesse Owens. The 1998 Yankees were not the 1927 Yankees. And the 2000 Baltimore Ravens' defense is not one of the greatest defenses in NFL history.

As I write this, thanks to early holiday deadlines, I don't know how the Ravens' wild-card game with the Denver Broncos will come out. It doesn't matter. The Ravens staked their claim to immortality in the regular season. By holding the New York Jets to 20 points on Christmas Eve, they closed out the schedule having allowed 165 points to the opposition. The previous record-holder, the 1986 Chicago Bears, allowed 187. Thus the Ravens were 22 points better than the best defense on the books. Except the 1986 Chicago Bears didn't even have the best defense in their own slice of history. They were in the shadow of the 1986 champion New York Giants--who were overshadowed, in turn, by the memory of the 1985 Bears.

I'm not old enough to testify to the greatness of Pittsburgh's mid-'70s Steel Curtain, but I can bear witness to those Bears. I first noticed them in the 1984 playoffs, when they were losing to the 49ers--losing, but savagely, hurling themselves at the 'Niners with feral, implacable fury. They hit when they tackled, and kept hitting and hitting, like ball bearings fired from a Wrist Rocket, even as the game slipped away.

That was the warmup. What came after, of course, was the legend: the Super Bowl Shuffle, William Perry in the backfield, the giddy march to a championship. But the facts behind it get blurry over time, till it eventually seems plausible that the 2000 Ravens, in their tenacious, plodding way, may be comparable to the '85 Bears. The Bears outscored their opponents by a margin of 2.3 to 1; these Ravens did so by 2.0 to 1. The Bears gave up 12.3 points per game; the Raven gave up 10.3. The Bears logged two regular-season shutouts; the Ravens got four.

The quickest argument against this line of reasoning is that the '85 Bears went 15-1 and won their division, while the '00 Ravens only went 12-4 and settled for a wild card. The point of playing defense, after all, is to keep the other team from outscoring you. But that's too glib. The Bears got help from an offense led by the immortal Walter Payton and the resourceful Jim McMahon. The Ravens' D had to weather a five-game touchdown drought, waiting for Tony Banks or Trent Dilfer to figure out how to move the ball at all.

Even taking that into account, the facts of history knock the carrion birds off their perch. The Bears were 65 points stingier than their nearest rival, while the Ravens' defense was only 26 points better than the Tennessee Titans'. The Titans, not the Ravens, ended up allowing the fewest yards in the league. And it's no accident that the two toughest defenses in the NFL this season were both in the AFC Central: While the Ravens and Titans were allowing 10.3 and 11.9 points per game respectively, their division rivals in Cleveland and Cincinnati were producing 10.1 and 11.6. The truly stingiest defense in the league, it turns out, belonged to whoever was lucky enough to be playing the Browns--and the Ravens, like the Titans, played them twice. The worst offense the '85 Bears faced belonged to the Atlanta Falcons, who scored 17.7 points a game--better than the average of the Ravens' 16 foes (17.4).

And the specifics are more impressive than the averages. This is who those Bears beat: the defending Super Bowl-champion 49ers, on the road, 26-10; the Washington [racial slur], who went 10-6 and just missed the playoffs, 45-10; the AFC wild-card teams, the 11-5 Patriots and 11-5 Jets, by nicely matched scores of 20-7 and 19-6; and the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys, in Texas Stadium, 44-0. Forty-four to nothing.

The Ravens' defense, meanwhile, tallied its shutouts against the Bengals, the Browns, the carcass of the Cowboys, and a Pittsburgh team that was starting Kent Graham at quarterback. They held the 3-13 Cardinals to a field goal and the 1-15 Chargers to one touchdown.

There are other important differences--the Bears scored five defensive touchdowns and a safety, compared to one and one for the Ravens' unit. But basically, it comes down to this: The Bears played their best defense against good teams (save for a 38-24 shootout loss at Miami); the Ravens played their best defense against bad ones (save for a 39-36 shootout win against mediocre Jacksonville). Through the regular season and the playoffs in 1985, the Bears faced all four other NFC playoff teams and went 4-0, by a combined score of 115-10. That is, they allowed 2.5 points per game. In their three games with playoff teams (pending the Broncos game), the Ravens were 1-2 and gave up 56 points. To rank with the '85 Bears, in other words, all the Ravens have to do is make it to the Super Bowl while surrendering . . . ah . . . minus 14 points per game along the way.

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