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Your Annual Reminder That Turnovers Determine the Fates of Games and Seasons

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The Miami Dolphins will ride or die like other teams: taking care of the football and forcing turnovers.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins and our turnover rank during the last 11 years:

  • 2006: 13th
  • 2007: 23rd
  • 2008: 1st (Playoffs)
  • 2009: 26th
  • 2010: 29th
  • 2011: 24th
  • 2012: 24th
  • 2013: 18th
  • 2014: 14th
  • 2015: 18th
  • 2016: T-13th (Playoffs)

Insta-whiskey d**k every time I look at that.

Football is a matter of possessions, and there’s a reason a majority of Playoff-bound teams are in the upper echelon of the NFL in turnover margin.

7 of the 12 Playoff participants were in the top 11 in turnover margin last year; 5 NFL Playoff teams occupied the top 6 spots in turnover differential, and both participants in the Super Bowl were top 4.

I will only insult your intelligence for just a second while I tell you why every football coach in the world is accurate in harping on turnovers as the paradoxical savior/devil of games: from 2002-2013 in the NFL, 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%.

Much was made of Jay Ajayi’s emergence as the beacon of our turnaround in 2016, but one can rightfully point to the turnover margin as the crux of the reawakening: the Dolphins were -7 in the 1st 5 games of 2016, and +9 after that.

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.

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. That’s still a lot of luck.

Ahhhhhh, (gulp of beer), and here's what I've been waiting for. 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?

If the Miami Dolphins can creep into the top 10 in turnover margin, we’ll be sniffing the Playoffs again. Here’s looking at Jay Cutler’s ball security and the Dolphins defense...are they up to the task?