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The Value of Things: Turnover Margins

How much control do teams have over the turnover differential?

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

One of the more difficult concepts in statistical analysis is the difference between importance and value.

Statistics can be very relevant when it comes to predicting success or failure in any one game or any one season. Yet, while those statistics are relevant, they may not be reliable. Reliability refers to how often those results can be replicated or in the case of sports how much control any individual or team has over creating the desired result.

In plain English, we know a few things about turnovers. We know that the team that commits the most turnovers in any one game is likely to lose that game. We know that if a team can consistently force the other team to turn it over then the team is likely to be more successful. If you read my last piece, you realize that this is not 100 percent, but nothing in life ever is.

So, the question left to be answered is how much control teams can have over the turnover margin. We know David Culley emphasized the football last season. We know Lovie Smith consistently preaches taking the ball away. Yet, if you listen to any coach speak long enough they will talk about protecting the football on offense and taking it away on defense. So, if everyone emphasizes it then does anyone really emphasize it?

Studying this over the long haul can produce one of four results. Teams can control how often they give it away, how often they take it away, both, or neither. If one of those is overwhelmingly true then teams can recalibrate and focus their energies where teams can exert a little more control.

As much as I would love to study all 32 teams, I decided to study just the AFC South since the Texans joined in 2002. We ended up looking at the number of wins each team had over the course of 20 seasons and then compared that to the number of turnovers they had on offense and the number of turnovers they were able to generate. Ideally, the results will line up with the best team also generating the most turnovers and making the fewest number of mistakes.

The Results

Indianapolis Colts: 201 wins, +75 turnover ratio, 439 turnovers, 514 forced turnovers

Tennessee Titans: 163 wins, 0 turnover ratio, 489 turnovers, 489 forced turnovers

Houston Texans: 139 wins, -39 turnover ratio, 486 turnovers, 447 forced turnovers

Jacksonville Jaguars: 118 wins, -52 turnover ratio, 494 turnovers, 442 forced turnovers

Commentary

The results shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Over a long enough timeline, the survival rate drops to zero. Teams that win consistently look better doing it. The Colts have been the most consistent team in the division and they have consistently generated more turnovers than they’ve committed. The Titans have been an average team and they have a perfectly average turnover ratio. The Texans and Jaguars have struggled more than they’ve succeeded and the same is true in terms of turnovers.

So again, we get the same question we opened up with. Turnovers are certainly relevant and they have a heavy correlation with winning and losing. That’s not really the question. The question is how reliable they are. Can a team control how many times they turn it over or how many times they get the other team to turn it over?

Often times when we present the data in a different way it begins to make more sense. So, below are the same numbers simply expressed on a per season basis. I think the answer to our question is going to become more clear when we look at the data that way. So, essentially we are dividing every number by 20. We will simply round up to one decimal spot for simplicity sake.

Indianapolis Colts: 10-6, +3.7, 22.0 turnovers, 25.7 forced turnovers

Tennessee Titans: 8-8, +0.0. 24.5 turnovers, 24.5 forced turnovers

Houston Texans: 7-9, -2.0, 24.3 turnovers, 22.3 forced turnovers

Jacksonville Jaguars: 6-10, -2.6, 24.7 turnovers, 22.1 forced turnovers

So, when you break things down into a person season format you can see how the margins between the four teams are relatively small. The last three teams pretty much have the same number of turnovers per season. That would seem to indicate that none of the three had a particularly large amount of control over how many times they turned the ball over. The Colts had a Hall of Famer for nearly half of those 20 seasons and a number one overall pick at quarterback for several more. Philip Rivers will be in the Hall of Fame as well some day.

They also managed to generate one more turnover per season than the Titans and three more than the Texans and Jaguars. That’s the cumulative effect of numbers over time. They often look more significant when added together. The Texans and Jaguars were really not all that much different even though the Texans have averaged one more win a season.

Localizing It

It’s hard to deny that there is something there. However, without studying every team for the past 20 years it is impossible to know exactly what’s there. Even then it can be hard to differentiate between what is skill and what is luck. This point is critically important because if the Texans are to improve they have to identify areas that are both meaningful and replicable.

Talking about generating turnovers and avoiding turnovers is nice, but maybe the Texans can add even 0.5 more yards per carry this year. Maybe they can get two or three more first downs per game this season. Maybe they can avoid leading the universe in three and outs. Maybe they can create more three and outs on the defensive end. Those are things that they ultimately can control. Those are things that can lead to more success. There is no doubt that games are won and lost through turnovers. There is doubt as to how much control teams have over that from game to game and season to season.