Before the start of the 2014 NFL season I wrote this preview
which highlighted the factors that are most strongly correlated with winning.
Turnover differential, the amount of times you take the ball away from your opponent, compared to how frequently you gift the ball to them by interception or fumble, is unsurprisingly strongly correlated with game result.
Possessions are roughly equal numerically during a game. So if you end an opponent’s drive by a turnover, you inevitably deprive them of potential points, while often increasing your own scoring potential from your subsequent drive because of good field position.
A side having a turnover differential of +2 in a match will see that team winning over 80% of such games. Any higher and the win percentage rises to 90%+.
Therefore, the importance of turnover differential is both huge and widely recognised. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick writing for NFL.com
uses turnover differential as a major component of a statistic he calls “toxic differential” which also charts big plays, in excess of 20 yards allowed and gained.
Billick describes this combined statistic as controllable, which implies that a team that has done well in such categories as turnover differential in the past will continue to do well in the future and in doing so will reap the expected positive results.
However, if we look at season to season correlation between turnover differential for teams, there appears to be virtually no persistence.
That is not to say that there is no talent associated with turnovers. For instance an experienced NFL quarterback may be consistently less prone to turning the ball over than a rookie and some side may encourage a gambling cornerback to go for interceptions. But there is also likely to be a large degree of luck and randomness involved in turnovers.
This is perhaps most visible when sides are attempting to recover or secure a fumble. The ball can pass through numerous hands before it is finally claimed.
In 2013, seven sides had a turnover margin of +10 or more averaging a turnover differential of +14 and their combined winning record was 0.65. This season, the same seven teams are on course to average a turnover differential of -1 over a 16 game regular season and their current combined win% has fallen to 0.53.
At the other end of the scale the five sides that had turnover differentials of -10 or worse have improved their average differential from -15 to a projected -5 and their winning % from 0.36 to a current 0.42.
So a big driver of game outcome, turnover differential is likely to be partly a product of luck, especially at the extremes and a side that has benefitted from extreme splits may not be as fortunate in the future.
The team with the best current record in the NFL is Arizona. Their 7-1 record in one of the NFC’s toughest divisions the NFC West has been achieved with a +9 turnover differential compared to their -1 in 2013.
The Cardinals may have worked to improve their turnover differential. The narrative from within the dressing room is understandable one of renewed confidence and positivity. And Billick, who has won more Super Bowl than most people on the planet, may be correct in that turnovers are largely controllable. But consistently, turnovers do appear to be at least partly due to luck for the majority of teams.
Arizona may not be quite as worthy of their current 7-1 record. Pythagorean estimates, which chart points scored and conceded and partly account for the perceived luck that exists where teams win lots of close matches, has the Cardinals as a 5-3 team.
The NFL season is of course geared towards the Super Bowl and Arizona are currently fifth favourites trailing behind division rivals Seattle, who currently trail the Cardinals by two games. So there is an acceptance, even within their own division that Arizona are perhaps not the 7-1 team that they appear, especially if their turnover differential returns to more normal levels.
However, this may not matter to Arizona, even in the post season against quality opponents. If they play 0.5 football for the remainder of the season, their 11-5 record should get them into the playoffs and if they play to their Pythagorean estimates, a 12-4 could land them a top two seeding.
The turnover record of seeded teams and the implication that turnover differential is a transient quality, appears to highlight the amount of influence random chance has on deciding the destination of the Super Bowl.
Over the last ten seasons, number one seeded sides had an average regular season turnover differential of +13.5, number two seeds, 11. The figure was 8 for number three seeds and around 5 for 4th, 5thand 6th seeds. Playoff teams need to be good, but top seeds need to be good and perhaps lucky.
So turnovers and possibly, by implication, luck played a role in gaining a team a high seeding. And that seeding comes with huge benefits. A top seeded team has two guaranteed home field games to reach the Super Bowl, while a 6th seed needs to negotiate three road games to reach the same destination.
If we assume (probably unrealistically) that the difference between 1st seed and 6th seed has come about purely by chance, the rewards of the playoff schedule will see the number one seed attempting to overcome odds of 5.0 compared to a road weary 25.0 for the similarly talented sixth seed.
So Arizona may have been fortunate so far. But they have already banked a 7-1 record and a tangible, if perhaps undeserved reward awaits their lucky run if they can use their present record to secure a top seed.
In the most popular sport in the country that widely acknowledged the influence of random chance on sporting events, ironically most rewards their luckiest teams.
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