In the late ’80s, The Hidden Game of Football determined that an interception was worth -45 yards and a lost fumble was worth -50 yards. Why was a fumble five yards worse than a pick? That’s because Carroll, Thorn, and Palmer found that, on average, the team gained possession via the turnover was five yards closer to their opponent’s end zone when that turnover was a fumble.
Makes sense, but is that still true? Courtesy of Mike Kania of Pro-Football-Reference, here are some data on turnovers since 1999:
- Ignoring interceptions returned for touchdowns, the team recording the interception loses about 4.41 yards of field position, on average, on each interception. So let’s assume the Patriots are playing the Jets, the Patriots have the ball at their own 40, and New England throws an interception. On average, the Jets will (ignoring pick sixes) have 1st and 10 at the Patriots 44.4-yard line on the next play.
- If, instead, the Jets gained possession via a fumble, New York would, on average, start on the Patriots 39.2-yard line. That’s because following a fumble by an offense that is not returned for a touchdown, the line of scrimmage moves about 0.8 yards closer to the offense’s end zone.
- In other words, teams gain about 5.2 yards of field position when recovering a fumble rather than an interception. That’s kind of remarkable, considering it matches the results found from researchers in the ’80s. However…
- We still have to consider turnovers that are returned for touchdowns. Roughly 10.7% of interceptions were returned for touchdowns during this period, compared to only 7.9% of recovered fumbles. Remember, interceptions are now much more likely to be returned for touchdowns than they were in the mid-’80s.
- Last year, the pick-six rate was 12.9%, after a record-setting 15.2% in 2012.
Thirty years ago, the penalty was 45 yards for an interception and 50 yards for a lost fumble. We haven’t shown today whether those numbers in the abstract were correct, but the five yard relative difference still seems supported by current data, with one notable exception. But as more interceptions are returned for touchdowns1, interceptions are becoming about as bad for offenses as lost fumbles.
- I’ll note that fumbles are also being returned for touchdowns at higher rates — that’s probably worth its own post — but it is not increasing at the same rate. [↩]