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Turnovers Can Turn The Tide
by Jim Feist - 10/19/2016
Last month the Patriots and Dolphins an AFC East rivalry game. The Dolphins finished with 447 total yards, as QB Ryan Tannehill had 387 passing and was not sacked once. Miami even knocked Pats' QB Jimmy Garappolo out of the game with an injury. So, a big Miami road win? A point spread cover? Actually, neither. The Dolphins never led, down 31-3 on the way to their eighth straight loss in Foxboro.
So what was the difference? It was simple: Miami lost the turnover battle 4-1. Another division clash one year ago at this time was when the 49ers and Seahawks dueled. But it wasn’t close as Seattle rolled, 29-3, winning the turnover battle, 5-1. That was similar to another showdown on national TV between the Ravens and Jets, as the Baltimore offense had just 267 total yards and was a measly 6 of 18 on third down. In addition, they averaged 2.8 yards per rush. What a terrible offensive performance! Oh, and by the way the Ravens won the game without breaking a sweat, 34-17.
The difference again was turnovers, with the Jets coughing it up 4 times (3 fumbles, 1 pick). 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. Former Coach Steve Spurrier 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 (Exhibit A: the Seattle Seahawks). 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. John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, and Bud Foster have used their teaching talents to upgrade defenses, while former defensive coordinators in Seattle have gotten head coaching jobs with teams that needed defensive help.
A key component of aggressive defenses is to force more turnovers. They are a huge part of any contest. The last team to win the AFC East other than the Patriots was the surprising Miami Dolphins, who came out of nowhere 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 the next year going 7-9. In one recent season the Patriots set a record for positive turnover margin -- while going 14-2 SU, 10-5-1 ATS.
Take a close look at the bottom teams in turnover margin from last season:
2015 Worst TO Margin ATS record
Cowboys (-22) 4-11-1 ATS
Ravens (-14) 5-9-2 ATS
Titans (-14) 5-11 ATS
Jaguars (-10) 7-9 ATS
Browns (-9) 5-10-1 ATS
Falcons (-7) 6-10 ATS
How many of those teams came close to making the playoffs? None. How many were busts? Three, with the Ravens expected to make a run at the AFC title game while Atlanta disintegrated after a 6-1 start. And Dallas was a train wreck after losing its starting QB.
The previous season the Jets were in that bottom 5 mix -- and it got Coach Rex Ryan axed. The above teams were a combined 32-60-4 against the spread. two years ago the worst turnover teams were a combined 36-60 ATS; three years ago that group was a combined 42-52-2 ATS; four years ago it was 34-61-1 ATS and five years ago it was 55-75 ATS. Losers both straight up and against the Vegas line cough it up a lot. 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. Let's turn it around and at the positive turnover margins:
2015 Top TO Margin ATS record
Panthers (+20) 13-6 ATS
Chiefs (+14) 9-9 ATS
Bengals (+11) 13-3-1 ATS
Cardinals (+9) 9-9 ATS
Patriots (+6) 8-8-2 ATS
The tops teams last season in turnover margin all made the playoffs and went 52-35 ATS. Carolina had a monster season, winning the NFC, while the Chiefs won 10 in a row after a poor start. Two years ago the positive TO teams were a combined 60-44-1 ATS; three years it was 80-59-2 ATS; in 2012 it was87-67-4 ATS and in 2011 it was 91-63-6 ATS. You get the idea...
So be careful backing teams that are sloppy at taking care of the football when analyzing football selections. They may not win or cover the number as regularly as those that play smart, mistake-free ball.