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Winning The Turnover Battle

It’s one of football’s oldest maxims: the key to winning the game is to win the turnover battle. This works better as an explanation for why a team won rather than as a cause of success — correlation doesn’t equal causation, of course — but that doesn’t mean the stat is useless.

We know that turnover rates have declined significantly over the last several decades. So here’s the question of the day: does winning the turnover battle matter more or less now than it used to?

As it turns out, the importance of winning the turnover battle has been remarkably static throughout NFL history. Last year, teams that won the turnover battle won 78% of their games. And from 2007 to 2016, teams that won the turnover battle won 78% of their games. In the decade of the ’70s, when turnover rates were much higher, teams that won the turnover battle won 78% of their games. From 1950 to 2016, the average winning percentage of teams that won the turnover battle was 78%, too. Take a look:

One thing that has changed a lot: the average amount of turnovers by which the team that wins the turnover battle actually wins that battle. It’s now consistently below 2.00:

What do you think?

  • James Allison

    That’s an interesting trend on turnovers. My guess is that despite throwing it more, passers have become more accurate (or as passers have become more accurate teams throw it more). I’d be curious to see the breakdown of fumbles and interceptions.

    • Check out the “declined significantly” hyperlink.

      • James Allison

        Ah interesting, thanks Chase.

  • So the interesting implication is that the importance of turnovers have gone up, right? Which makes sense, given the overall specialization of the game. A fumble is much more devastating now than it used to be.

    • … ‘importance of each *individual* turnover’, of course.

      • Adam

        Not necessarily. Without looking at the numbers, I’d wager that turnovers have sharply decreased during “normal” game situations, but have remained relatively static for desperate teams trailing in the fourth quarter. If this is true, then a higher percentage of turnovers in today’s NFL occur after the game is already decided, making them less meaningful overall.

  • Filmstudy

    Interesting that the trend of winning the turnover battle has been so flat.
    Do you have data that would produce the first chart by the 4th-quarter turnover battle or by interceptions versus fumbles exclusively?
    I expect both interceptions and Q4 turnovers to be far more extreme, but I wonder if it’s changed over time?

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