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Could It Really Be That Easy?

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Could it really be that easy?

     Bill Parcells appears to think so. Parcells is the one who gave voice to the principle of the Magic-50. According to this principle, when a team's catches and its rushes total fifty, or more, the team is more likely to win.

     Could a game which requires eleven men to act in near perfect unison in any given situation to overcome the concerted effort of eleven other men acting against them, while trying to avoid the attention of seven non-participants, really be distilled down to the number fifty?

     On the surface, it makes a certain amount of sense. The average game in 2009 had between sixty and seventy plays for each team. The average completion rate in the NFL is around 60%. If a team runs the ball twenty-five times, then they would have to throw the ball forty times or so to complete the number needed to reach the Magic-50. Could it really be that simple? Throw high percentage passes and run the ball to complement the passing? Could the formula for winning be that simple?

Let's take a jump and find out.

     The principle of the Magic-50 states that when catches plus runs equal or exceed fifty, a team is more likely to win. John Bena pointed out -- around Week 4 -- that when the McDaniels-led Broncos have reached the Magic-50, they are 8-3, and when they haven't, they are 2-7. This means that during that span, Denver has a .727 winning percentage when they've reached the Magic-50, and a .222 winning percentage when they haven't. The question then becomes, does this hold true across the league? This article will take a look at the principle of the Magic-50 and attempt to answer the question: "Could It Really Be That Simple?" It will focus on how teams have fared in the first seven weeks of the 2010 season.

     Thus far in 2010, the NFL has played 104 games. Twenty-nine out of the NFL's thirty-two teams have reached the Magic-50 in at least one game. There have been eight games in which both teams achieved, or exceeded, the Magic-50. Obviously, since both teams reached the fifty mark, their record in those eight games is 8-8 (50%). This by itself would not support the assertion "Reach fifty and you are more likely to win." Perhaps the problem is that both teams exceeded the mark. The logical thought would be that the team that had the higher combined total of catches/runs would be more likely to win the game. Those eight games break down as follows:

Higher Total Wins Lower Total Wins Tied Total Wins
Home Team Wins 2 2 1
Visiting Team Wins 1 1 1


     What we see here is that combined total of catches/runs, when both teams meet or exceed the fifty is less important than whether or not the team was home or away. The home team won 62.5% of the games, whereas the team with the higher total only won 37.5%. This would suggest that when both teams meet the Magic-50, home field advantage is a stronger factor. Other factors might include such things as turnovers, penalties, injuries, even sheer luck.

     There have been twenty games in which neither team reached the Magic-50. In other words, 19.2% of the games thus far have not met the criteria. Another way to look at it is that one game out of every five has not measured up to the principle. Those twenty games break down this way:

Higher Total Wins Lower Total Wins Tied Total Wins
Home Team Wins 7 4 0
Visiting Team Wins 3 5 1


     In these games, the home team has enjoyed a slight advantage (11-9), while the combined total has been less important (10-9). This would suggest that we need to look deeper to find a reason that these teams won or lost. Tim Lynch, in a recent post, suggested that there is a correlation between winning the turnover battle and winning the game. When these twenty games are examined in terms of winning the turnover battle, it is found that seventeen out of the twenty winners also won the turnover battle (winners in bold):

Cle/TB +2 SF/Sea +1 +3 TB/Car Bal/Cin +4 Buf/GB +2 +6 Pit/Ten SF/KC Even
Pit/TB Even +1 Phi/Jax +1 NYJ/Mia GB/Chi +1 +2 TB/Cle +2 Atl/Cle GB/Was +1
NO/Ari +3 +4 Phi/SF Oak/SF +2 +3 Was/Chi +1 Pit/Mia StL/TB +1

     In two of the exceptions (SF/KC, Pit/Mia) the winning team won the battles for third down conversions and time of possession. In the other exception (Pit/TB), the winning team had a defensive score.

     There have been seventy-six games in which one team has achieved the Magic-50 while their opponent did not. The Magic-50 teams are a combined 53-23 (.697) in those games. While this does support Parcell's contention that reaching the Magic-50 increases the probability that a team will win, 69.7% is hardly an overwhelming mark. Perhaps a look at the twenty-three times a Magic-50 team lost might provide us with some deeper understanding of additional, or alternative factors, that play a role. The twenty-three games were (run+catch totals are in parentheses):

Cin (59) @ NE (48) Atl (52) @ Pit (49) Ari (42) @ StL (56) Dal (53) @ Was (38)
SD (51) @ KC (36) Chi (40) @ Dal (54) Phi (49) @ Det (51) Mia (38) @ Min (55)
Oak (50) @ Ari (38) Ind (49) @ Den (55) SD (50) @ Sea (40) Det (55) @ GB (33)
Was (43) @ Phi (52) StL (51) @ Det (48) Ten (39) @ Dal (54) SD (53) @ Oak (44)
KC (58) @ Hou (47) NYJ (47) @ Den (51) Dal (52) @ Min (42) Buf (54) @ Bal (45)
Cle (34) @ NO (56) Phi (50) @ Ten (43) Min (52) @ GB (44)


There are some interesting patterns in these games:

1)Fourteen of the twenty-three (61%) times the Magic-50 team lost, the Magic-50 team was the visiting team.
2)Dallas has four of the twenty-three losses (17%).
3)San Deigo has three of the losses (13%).
4)St. Louis, Detroit, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Denver each have two of the losses.

     This means that almost two-thirds of the time, if the Magic-50 team lost, it was the visiting team. Obviously, home field advantage seems to have played a role. Further, one team has 17% of the Magic-50 team losses. Two teams own responsibility for 30% of the losses by a Magic-50 team. In fact, just seven teams own 74% of the losses. In other words, just under one-fourth of the teams to reach the Magic-50 mark are responsible for nearly three-fourths of the times that a Magic-50 team has lost. A quick look at the Magic-50 by team shows us:

Team Times Met Magic-50 Magic-50 Record Overall Record Record without the Magic-50
NY Giants 6 5-1 5-2 0-1
San Diego 6 2-4 2-5 0-1
Atlanta 5 4-1 5-2 1-1
Baltimore 5 4-1 5-2 1-1
New Orleans 5 4-1 4-3 0-2
Indianapolis 5 3-2 4-2 1-0
St. Louis 5 3-2 3-4 0-2
Dallas 5 1-4 1-5 0-1
Jacksonville 4 3-1 3-4 0-3
Denver 4 2-2 2-5 0-3
NY Jets 3 3-0 5-1 2-1
New England 3 3-0 5-1 2-1
Tennessee 3 3-0 5-2 2-2
Houston 3 3-0 4-2 1-2
Kansas City 3 2-1 4-2 2-1
Miami 3 2-1 3-3 1-2
Oakland 3 2-1 3-4 1-3
Philadelphia 3 1-2 4-3 3-1
Cincinnati 3 1-2 2-4 1-2
Minnesota 3 1-2 2-4 1-2
Seattle 2 2-0 4-2 2-2
Chicago 2 2-0 4-3 2-3
Detroit 2 0-2 1-5 1-3
Pittsburgh 1 1-0 5-1 4-1
Green Bay 1 1-0 4-3 3-3
Cleveland 1 1-0 2-5 1-5
Washington 1 0-1 4-3 4-2
Carolina 1 0-1 1-5 1-4
Buffalo 1 0-1 0-6 0-5
Tampa Bay 0 0-0 4-2 4-2
Arizona 0 0-0 3-3 3-3
San Francisco 0 0-0 1-6 1-6


     The data from this look at the Magic-50 teams is inconclusive, at best. While some teams seem to win when they reach the Magic-50 and lose when they don't (see NY Giants 5-1 as a Magic-50 team, 0-1 when they didn't reach it). Others appear to do well without reaching the Magic-50 (see Tampa Bay 4-2 and has not reached the Magic-50).

     This would suggest that the success/failure of the Magic-50 principle may have as much to do with the individual team as it does with an overriding principle that applies across the NFL. Factors, such as the turnover correlation suggested by Tim Lynch, may play as big, or even a bigger, role in the winning/losing of games than simply the number of catches plus the number of runs. So while it is technically true that teams that reach the Magic-50 are more likely to win (.697 winning percentage), there appear to be factors -- such as home field, turnovers, etc. -- that can easily override the Magic-50 principle. Not to mention the fact that nearly a quarter of the games haven't even reached the Magic-50.

What does this mean for Denver? There are at least two implications:

1)Denver is 2-2 when the Broncos have reached the Magic-50, and 0-3 when they have not. Therefore, it is in the Broncos best interest to attempt to reach the Magic-50. This would increase the probability of finishing off drives with scores and controlling the clock.

2)As Tim Lynch so clearly pointed out in his post [repeat link], there is a very clear correlation between the Broncos winning the turnover battle and their winning the game (2-1 when they have won the battle, 0-4 when they haven't). The Broncos need to do a much better job of protecting the ball.

So, perhaps, it really isn't that easy.