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Turnovers Can Turn the Tide
by Jim Feist - 10/16/2010
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Last week the Dolphins led the Patriots 7-6 at the half on Monday Night and ended up with an edge in yards 400-265. Final score: Patriots 41, Dolphins 14. Say what? The special teams play of the Patriots got all the coverage, but the difference in the game came down to turnovers, with Miami losing that battle 4-0.
"We had a tidal wave hit us," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said of the 3 interceptions and two blocked kicks. "It was a mess." Turnovers are one of the most basic fundamentals of winning football, both straight up and against the number when analyzing football picks.
Defensive coaches have been preaching more aggressive, attacking stop units over the last 15 years. Coach Steve Spurrier has spent three decades coaching college and pro football, at Duke, Florida, South Carolina and the Washington Redskins. When asked about what the biggest change he had noticed in the college game, Spurrier spoke not about the wide-open passing attack that he helped popularize, but about defenses. He said that when he first took over at Duke in the 1980s, defenses were basic and reacted to what the offense would try and do.
However, since that time, defenses have become far more aggressive, trying to attack the offense rather than sit back and react. The Chicago Bears famed 46 defense caused havoc around the league during a 1985 Super Bowl season. The Bears that year were 18-1 straight up and 15-3-1 against the spread, led by a devastating, attacking defense. They pitched four shutouts and held 14 of 19 opponents to 10 points or less.
Defensive coaches in both the pro and college ranks have been teaching players to not only tackle properly, but to aggressively strip the ball from opposing players. Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick, Rex Ryan and Lovie Smith have used their teaching talents to upgrade defenses. A key component of aggressive defenses is to force more turnovers. They are a huge part of any contest. During the 2008 season, the Miami Dolphins came out of nowhere to win the AFC East in a stunning one-year turnaround. It's no coincidence that Dolphins led the NFL (+17 in turnover margin) that season, then were minus-8 in TOs last year going 7-9. Take a closer look at the bottom teams in turnover margin from that season:
2008 Worst TO Margin ATS record
Broncos (-17) 4-11-1 ATS
49ers (-17) 7-8-1 ATS
Cowboys (-11) 7-9 ATS
Texans (-10) 9-7 ATS
Lions (-9) 7-9 ATS
Bills (-8) 7-9 ATS
Some of the teams on that list probably surprise you. Denver? A team that had a high flying offense and should have won the AFC West? Well they didn't, going 0-4 SU, 1-3 ATS in the final four games, blowing the division title. Dallas? The Cowboys had a chance to make the playoffs on the final day, but failed to show up in an embarrassing 44-6 loss at Philadelphia. Now you know an even deeper reason those teams were in such a precarious situation -- turnovers.
So none of the teams on the high turnover list made the postseason. Those teams were also a combined 41-53-2 against the spread, a factor to keep in mind when assessing weekly football picks. A quarterback who throws too many picks can kill the momentum of his offense, and his confidence can get worn down. It can even spill over onto the sidelines.
A few years ago in a playoff game, QB Marc Bulger threw 3 interceptions against the Panthers and while the Rams had a chance to win the game late in the fourth quarter, coach Mike Martz decided to play it safe and settled for a game-tying field goal. He was widely criticized for this after the Rams lost in overtime and it's clear in the back of his mind he was thinking, "I don't want Bulger to throw another interception. I'd better play it safe."
That same 2008 season, the top five teams with the best turnover differential -- Miami, Tennessee, Baltimore, the Giants and Indianapolis -- all made the playoffs with at least 11 wins and combined for a 59-21 record. The Dolphins and Giants each had 13 turnovers, tied for the fewest ever in a 16-game season.
2008 Top TO Margin ATS record
Dolphins (+17) 8-9 ATS
Titans (+14) 12-5 ATS
Ravens (+13) 14-5 ATS
Giants (+9) 12-5 ATS
Colt (+9) 7-9-1 ATS
It's not hard to notice how essential turnovers are. All the top teams in turnover margin made the playoffs in 2008, and two were the top seeds in their conference. They were a combined 53-33-1 ATS. The Titans had a 13-3 regular season, but notice this year they are minus in turnovers, a huge factor in their disappointing start.
Going back a step further, the cumulative spread record of the 2005 NFL top turnover teams: 70-47-5 against the number, and that doesn’t even include the 2008 champion Steelers, who had a 13-7 spread record. The Steelers were not far off the list, either, ranking 10th in TO margin at +7. Teams good at forcing turnovers not only win on the field but there is an ATS correlation.
Be careful backing teams that are sloppy at taking care of the football when analyzing football picks. Chances are they don’t win or cover the number as regularly as those that play smart, mistake-free ball.
10/16 12:30 PM CF (201) MID TENNESSEE STATE VS (202) GEORGIA TECH
Take: over the total.
Reason: Middle Tennessee (2-3 SU/1-3 ATS) has star QB Dwight Dasher (0 TDs, 1 INT) back after being suspended the first 4 games for accepting a $1,500 loan in violation of NCAA amateurism legislation. He’s the best player in the Sun Belt. The defense, though, is a problem, as we saw last week giving up 42 points to Troy. The defense was blistered for 238 rush yards by Troy – bad news when matching up with G-Tech. Georgia Tech (4-2 SU, 2-3 ATS) is loaded with speed behind senior QB Josh Nesbitt (5 TDs, 2 INTs). Georgia Tech posted its best rushing total in an Atlantic Coast Conference game to beat Virginia 33-21 on Saturday with a dazzling 477 yards on the ground. Look for an offensive show in this non-conference tilt.
Play Georgia Tech/Middle Tennessee State Over the total!