Turnovers Matter (And So Does Luck). Just Ask the Playoffs.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I love you guys and don't mean to be rude, but I refuse to waste even a second telling you about the thousands of bajillions of quotes of NFL coaches commenting on the importance of the turnover battle. I will only insult your intelligence for just a second while I tell you why they're right: from 2002-2013 if a team had even +1 in the turnover margin, they were 69.6% likely to win the game. +2? 83.9%. +3? 90.7%. Again, going forward is only a waste of time.

What's even crazier is how much the turnover margin means more over the course of the season. When you delve deep into the analytics, a team's turnover margin accounts for 41.9% of a team's win variance. In other words, that's not including points scored, points against, strength of schedule and everything else that affects winning percentage. This is what you call a statistical gold mine. Your wins and losses hedge 41.9% of the time on how you fare in the turnover margin. If I were a coach, I'd be preaching this day 1, day 2, and everyday I had the opportunity to coach until I was no more.

But here's why that would be kind of masochistic. (Unless you like that sort of thing. You know, hearing yourself say things that are only half-true.) Let's at least be sadistic, and welcome another question in this line of thought: how do turnovers depend on the talent of your team?

Turnovers depend on talent, to some degree, don't they? Blake Bortles is expected to throw more interceptions than Aaron Rodgers. Not every turnover is equal. Some running backs are more likely to fumble than others. Speaking of fumbles, some turnovers are luck, too, aren't they? The fumble that bounces perfectly into the grasp of an opposing defender. And the ironic thing is that even Aaron Rodgers can get unlucky, even the running backs with the best ball security can have an unlucky break when it comes to a turnover (e.g. a fumbled exchange, or a quick hot route that goes off a shoulder pad to the awaiting nickel back). Let's disentangle all these variables, shall we?

Follow a thought process here: a team's turnover differential is the product of the turnover margin based on talent and the turnover margin based on luck. In other words, turnover differential (observed +/-) = +/- due to talent + +/- due to luck. Based on the "small ball" work of Tom Tango, a baseball analytics guy, this is the formula we should follow. Applying this theory (which does include some subjective "judgment calls" ), from 2002-2013, in the NFL, a team's seasonal turnover differential was 54.7% attributed to luck. 45.3% was due to talent. Let's say for argument's sake that, in their evaluation of the turnovers and how it was adjusted to talent or luck, that they got 1 in 9 plays wrong. That would reverse the numbers, making a team's seasonal turnover differential as being 45.3% attributed to luck. Isn't that still a ton of luck?!?!

Ahhhhhh, (sip of beer), and here's what I've been waiting for. This will be brutal for a second, but I'm sure you'll see the oh-so-cozy-silver-lining-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow. In a nutshell, about half of turnovers are due to luck, and a team's win percentage is explained 41.9% of the time by turnover margin. Long story short, remember that thing called the law of averages? I'm bringing this up because here's how the Dolphins have figured in turnover margin since 2006:

  • 2006: 13th

  • 2007: 23rd

  • 2008: 1st (Playoffs)

  • 2009: 26th

  • 2010: 29th

  • 2011: 24th

  • 2012: 24th

  • 2013: 18th

  • 2014: 14th

We have been in the bottom half of the league 6 of 9 years (and 5 of the past 6, if anyone's counting at home), and nearly 50% of NFL turnovers occur due to luck. 41.9% of a team's wins and losses depends on the coin flip of whether a turnover is lucky or not. In my opinion, that's a big reason why teams can jump from worst to first, and from average to Playoffs. And from Playoffs to forgotten. It's how we know talent doesn't win every game. It's how we know to tune in every Sunday, and that no game can be taken for granted. We see this in the NFL each and every year, at least in some shape or form. Imagine if the law of averages plays out this year for the Dolphins and we actually kick ass in the turnover margin. Playoffs bound!!! Fins up!!!

(Analytics research is courtesy of Advanced Football Analytic's, and written in 2014. I'll be happy to share links with you. It's a good read if you're the math-geek-kind-of-guy like me.)

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Phinsider's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of The Phinsider writers or editors.