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NFL Turnovers Are On Their Way
by Scott Spreitzer - 10/27/2008
I was looking over the team stats at the NFL's website the other day. I was a little surprised to see so many teams with relatively few interceptions.
Through their first seven games, the Washington Redskins hadn't thrown a single interception! Oakland had thrown just two in its first six games. It's not like Jason Campbell and Jamarcus Russell are known for pinpoint precision. Five other teams had thrown just three picks in their first six games.
What's going on here? Why are interceptions down across the league?
*First, we've had great weather in the first half of the season. There was a bad wind game when Pittsburgh visited Cleveland. Maybe a few drops of drizzle here and there. Temperatures have been comfortable. For the most part, conditions have been ideal for avoiding mistakes.
*Secondly, teams have learned to be very conservative with young quarterbacks. They're kept on a tight leash, and strongly discouraged from throwing into traffic. Teams would rather punt than throw an interception. Young quarterbacks are asked to manage games and avoid mistakes. In the past, they'd be thrown into the deep end and told to fire away. This would create yardage but a lot of turnovers. It used to be the hallmark of ALL young quarterbacks that they would throw a lot of interceptions as they were learning the game. Now the focus is on field position and running the clock.
*Thirdly, some of the most turnover prone guys from the past have been injured or benched. Just taking Rex Grossman out of the lineup reduces interceptions across the league! Detroit became more conservative when Jon Kitna got hurt. Same with Cincinnati and Carson Palmer. Several name guys have been banged up.
*Finally, we're still at a point in the season where teams aren't going to risk their spot in the standings. Once you're out of the playoff race, it's okay to go for broke and see what happens. If you're starting to drift out of the race, you have to play more aggressively to keep from getting squeezed out. Most of the races are tight enough right now that coaches don't want to risk a disaster. They'll keep playing it safe while hoping for the best. That's a luxury in October that disappears in the final third of the season.
What this all means for handicappers is that we're probably about to see a noticeable increase in turnovers. All of those factors are about to turn from conditions that create low turnover games to those that create interceptions!
*The weather is due to get worse. In some places, a lot worse.
*Young quarterbacks are gaining experience, which will loosen the leashes.
*Some injured QB's will get healthy and return to the lineup.
*Many teams will have to open things up because losing close games doesn't work!
If you're a stat handicapper, the stats you use to make projections won't be describing the new style of games that are about to take place. If you're a power ratings guy, teams who looked "mediocre" or better while staying conservative are about to look bad because they can't play well when they HAVE to open things up. If you're a systems and angles guy, some of those great underdog situations you find may get trumped by bad turnover games from your quarterbacks.
Mark my words. This is going to be one of the most important handicapping dynamics of the second half of the NFL season. It will be particularly important amidst the race for playoff spots as conservative teams deal with the challenge of opening things up when they have no other choice.
How do you handicap in this new environment?
*Look at career histories for the veteran quarterbacks. Those who have a track record of success, or a track record of trouble, are going to play to those tendencies.
*Assume young quarterbacks are going to have interception troubles once they start throwing downfield. That's how the learning curve works. One or two might not. Most will. You can swallow a few losers if you're winning more than you lose!
*The younger the quarterback, the more trouble he's going to have. I find it helpful to write the number of "career starts" for the quarterback by each team's name in the schedule. That forces me to note how experienced each signal caller is and to think about how that could influence the game.
*Read the weather reports! It's easy to get lazy about that when the weather's been great every week. It's going to start mattering soon in the Northeast and Midwest. It's likely to matter a lot in December pretty much everywhere but Florida, Texas, and California, of course. We need to evaluate every week how the weather conditions will influence what each offense is trying to do.
We're basically sitting in the calm before the storm. Stats, power ratings, and trends will still be useful. They'll be even more useful if you properly adjust for context because of the clouds on the horizon.