Monday, January 05, 2009

Why Take Care of the Ball?

I was spending plenty of time in deep thought this weekend pondering the playoffs – how certain teams made the playoffs (like Miami) and how certain teams managed to miss the playoffs despite having a better collection of talent than those that did (Dallas, anyone?).

I think the following to charts will dazzle you with the simplicity to explain much of it. Take any year that football has ever been played, and do the following experiment. Find the teams that have the 10 fewest giveaways, and chances are most if not all of those teams are in the playoffs. Find the teams with the 10 most giveaways on offense, and you will find that most if not all of the teams are not in the playoffs.

Let’s start with the teams that took care of the football this season. Here are the Top 10 (actually 11 with ties) who did not give the ball away much…Keep in mind that teams with a “*” after their name were in the 2008 playoffs:

1. Dolphins *13+17
1. Giants *13+9
3. Colts *17+9
3. Titans *17+14
5. Redskins180
6. Panthers *19+6
7. Chargers *20+4
8. Ravens *21+13
8. Patriots 21+1
8. Falcons *21-3
8. Packers21+7

Table Tutorial

So, of the top 11 teams in fewest giveaways, 8 made the playoffs. Of the other 3, the Redskins and Patriots had very few takeaways from their defense for even +/- ratios, and the anomaly was Green Bay, who somehow finished a +7 and still finished only 6-10 in a pretty lousy division.

Now, the worst 10 teams:

32. 49ers35-17
31. Cowboys33-11
30. Texans32-10
29. Rams 31-5
29. Vikings *31-6
29. Jets31-1
26. Bills30-8
26. Broncos30-17
26. Cardinals *300
23. Lions 29-9

Table Tutorial

So, of the worst 10 offenses for giveaways, 8 missed the playoffs. Of the other 2, the Cardinals had an equally huge number of takeaways (30) and finished even. Then the anomaly was the Vikings who gave the ball away 31 times, finished a -6, and still made the playoffs in that same lousy NFC North.

If you are interested, the league average for a team is about 24 or 25. So, 25 giveaways is about normal, and of course, 25 takeaways would be the same. So, the Cowboys were well above the giveaways with 33, and below in the takeaways with 22.

Now, as you know, I don't believe the object of the game of football is to Not turn the ball over. The object of the game is to score more points than your opponent, and thus win the game. But, there are certain things that can equalize a difference in talent or speed or even execution. And that is gifting the ball to the other team. And in 2008, the Cowboys were far too generous.

In 2007, the Cowboys gave the ball away 24 times (33 in 2008) and took the ball away 29 times (22 in 2008) for a +5 instead of a -11. There is the difference in your record. What is bizarre? The interceptions in 2007 were 19. In 2008, 20. That is right. Tony Romo (and the backups) had 1 more INT than last season. But the fumbles rose from 5 to 13. In fact, Romo and Barber, despite both playing far less than full-time, both saw a rise in fumbles. Romo went from 3 to 5, and Barber went from 3 fumbles in '07 to 7 fumbles in '08.

More interesting year to year numbers on the defense. Last year, the Cowboys recovered just 10 fumbles. This year, 14! But that must mean that Interceptions dropped dramatically. They did. Instead of 19 INTs, in 2008, they only picked off 8passes. After adding Pac Man, Mike Jenkins, and getting that Roy Williams off the field, they picked off only 8 passes all season. Ouch. In 2007, All 4 starting DB's had multiple INTs. In 2008, only Newman had more than 1 pick.

While we are talking turnovers, let's finish our tracking of game by game turnovers and the 100 yard rushers, and 300 yard passers.

Final Turnover Data

In weeks 16 and 17, the winner of the turnover battle was 23-2. That put the final numbers almost to where they are every year. Almost every year they have done this, the final numbers are between 80% and 85%. Well, in 2008, the final numbers were 159-44, for a final win percentage of 78.3%. Regardless of the teams or the home field advantage, if you win the turnover battle, you win 4 out of every 5 games.

Final 100 yard rusher Data

Weeks 16 and 17 saw the 100 yard rusher actually only go 15-6, with Steven Jackson bringing down the average as he ran for 100+ in both games for in a losing effort. But, the final season numbers for teams that had a runner get to 100 yards was a convincing 102-29, for a win percentage of 77.9%.

Final 300 yard passer Data

And, just to prove that throwing for 300 yards has almost no correlation to winning, we have tracked this again. The final two weeks, QB's with 300+ yards were 5-6. That put the season record at 46-27-1, for a win percentage of 63%.

Here are some final thoughts from TC the intern who compiled my data this year:

The thing about turnovers that stood out to me was that teams that win the turnover battle by two are equally as likely to win as teams that win it by three. That was not the case all season, but that's how it ended up. It seems clear that a two-turnover lead is a pretty commanding one that even great teams will usually not come back from. Another thing that stood out was that there were only seven weeks when Drew Brees didn't make the 300-yard passer list, and one of them was his bye week. I know he almost broke Marino's record, but looking at it this way put a new light on it for me. Especially because 100-yard rushers are more rare than 300-yard

Tell me this isn't comedy - Here is Rey Malaluga, top draft prospect and Erin Andrews...

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