The Dude Abides...Turnover Margin and Winning Percentage (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Mike Nolan)

Al Davis once said, "Don't worry about mistakes.  Just win."



The problem with this statement is, that in the NFL, when you make a mistake, you rarely win.



In fact, you lose.  A lot.



And the more mistakes you make, the more likely it is that you are going to receive a first-class, gold-plated, butt whoopin' of the sort that is reserved for pickpockets and teams quarterbacked by JaMarcus Russell.   


In football, the biggest mistakes are not holding calls or missed assignments, although they loom large indeed. No, the biggest mistakes are turnovers.  Give the ball up, you lose.  Get your opponent to give the ball up, you win. In the age of QB ratings and BCS rankings, it's still amazing how turnovers are simply the most important single statistic that determines who stays and who goes.



Last week, I posted about how winning percentages correlate with the raw number of turnovers a team has in a game.  That post is here.   It essentially makes the case for 2 turnovers being the magic number for winning and losing.  Give the ball up twice, your winning percentage drops below 50%.   And in my weekly post on the Stats That Don't Lie, I regularly make the outrageous claim that if you win the turnover battle, you will win 80% of your games.



Several MHR members have wondered about Turnover Margin.   In short, what is a team's winning percentage if they win/lose the turnover margin by a certain number?  Is your winning percentage that much higher if you are even in the turnover battle than if you lose the turnover battle by one turnover?   What if you win the turnover battle by two?  Or three?  Or more?


I think we can help answer these questions.  For background, I once again looked at every game from the 2008 and 2009 seasons (right up until last week).  This essentially represents a sample of 358 games.  Not a bad sample size.  When I have more time, I plan on getting 10 seasons worth of data.  But unless you are sitting in the unemployment line known as the Black Hole, you simply don't have the time during the season to grab this amount of data, so the 358 games will have to suffice.



In summary, these are the results:




This chart illustrates the winning percentages of teams for each of the following turnover margins during this period:



  • -4 or less turnover margin: 0%
  • -3 turnover margin: 17.44%
  • -2 turnover margin: 21.95%
  • -1 turnover margin: 28.36%
  • Even Turnover margin: 50% (of course)
  • +1 turnover margin: 71.64%
  • +2 turnover margin: 78.05%
  • +3 turnover margin: 82.56%
  • +4 or more turnover margin: 100%

A few things stand out when looking at this data.  First, the teams that won the turnover margin by 4 or more had a great day.  On the flip side, those that lost by 4 or more experienced a nightmare (see Bears, Chicago, 2009).  It did not matter if the turnover margin was greater than 4, the results were the same.  Second, winning the turnover margin by even 1 was extremely profitable, driving winning percentage to over 70%.  Third, the winning percentage of teams with turnover margins of  +1, +2, and +3 were not that different, ranging from 72% to 82%.  Certainly while it's better to win the turnover margin by 3 rather than 1, it's not as big a difference maker as one would expect. Still, I'd rather win 8 out of 10 than 7 out of 10.      




The last point deserves more attention, to be sure.  Essentially, what matters more than the size of turnover margin is just making sure to win the battle in the first place.  As we can see from the data, a tie in turnover margin was the equivalent of flipping a coin.  But winning the battle improved winning percentage significantly.



Perhaps this explains why we've seen so many Super Bowl winners with attacking and ferocious defenses and offenses that focused on efficiency, field position, and taking care of the ball.  +1 works.  The formula works.



Which brings me to my main point:  Mike Nolan is a genius.



He's a genius not because he adjusts well at halftime.  He's not a genius because he knew Ron Fields was the 2nd coming of the Rock of Gibraltar.  He's a genius because he let's loose the hounds.  He attacks and attacks and doesn't stop until the final gun sounds.



The San Diego game was a perfect example.  Despite the fact that Chargers played very well in the 1st Quarter, Nolan must have blitzed nearly 10 times.  He blitzed from the corner, from the slot, up the middle, and off the edge.  All in the 1st Quarter.  And he didn't stop there.  In the 2nd half, he blitzed some more.  He blitzed from his base formation and he blitzed from both his "big" and small "nickel" packages.   He blitzed from London.  He blitzed from France.  He even blitzed between Phillip's whining rants.



Why?  Why does Mike Nolan blitz as often as drunk virgin Raider fans?   He wants to win.  While I'm sure he's never looked at stats like the ones above, he doesn't need to.  His experience tells him that winning the turnover battle--even by one turnover--means the difference between winning and losing.  



So he's not going out like a punk.  If he's going out, he's going out like a rabid dog.  He's going out trying to do everything in his power to get one...more...turnover.



Certainly, you remember the Broncos of the last three seasons?  Remember the lack of blitzing?  Remember rushing 3 and dropping 8?  Remember being picked apart game after game after game?  Remember the lack of turnovers?  Remember the .500 record?  



Of course you do. 



Well those days are over, my friends.  The Broncos are not going to simply rely on luck to generate turnovers anymore.  Luck gets you nothing more than a coin flip's chance.  No, Mike Nolan isn't just trying to stop you on 3rd down.  



He wants the ball.



Go Broncos!!

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