2010 Dallas Cowboys To-Do List: Turnover Efficiency

"Whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game." How many times have you heard someone - a player, a coach, a broadcaster or a fellow blogger - say that? There's no denying that protecting the ball is vital to a team's success.

In fact, last season the NFL team that won the turnover battle won 78% of the time (164 wins out of 211 games), and the bigger the difference in turnovers the higher the likelihood of winning the game. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not rocket science.

NFL win record by Turnover Ratio, 2009 regular season
TO Ratio +1 +2 +3 >3
Win %-age 67% 78% 93% 100%

 

Last season, the Dallas Cowboys turned over the ball 19 times (9 interceptions, 10 fumbles lost). That was the fourth lowest giveaway total in the league. On defense, the situation was less rosy. Over the regular season, the Cowboys recorded only 21 takeaways (11 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries). Rank in the NFL? Tied for 27th. Unusual for a defense that ranked 2nd in points allowed in the league.

Overall, the Cowboys finished the season slightly above break-even with a +2 in the turnover department and ranked a joint 13th in the league with that TO ratio. While breaking even is a lot better than league worst Detroit at -18, it's also nowhere near league leading Green Bay at +24. But what matters more than just the raw stats is what a team does with the ball after the turnover. 

The Cowboys scored a total of 50 points from their 21 takeaways, but allowed 61 points following their 19 giveaways. While the Turnover Ratio (TO) is marginally positive at +2, the TO Points Differential is -11 points. NFL rank: 19th.

The average points scored on the drive immediately following a takeaway in the NFL in 2009 was 2.8. In the rare event that the Cowboys managed a takeaway, they recorded a lowly 2.4 points on average on the ensuing drive. When the Cowboys gave away the ball, their opponents scored an average of 3.2 points on the ensuing drive.

This average points differential of -0.8 ranks the Cowboys 27th in the NFL behind such 'powerhouses' as the 49ers, Jaguars, Browns, Rams and Raiders. The Ravens have the best average points differential with +2.4, followed by the Patriots (+1.6), Vikings (+1.3) and Chargers (+1.2).

But why look at average TO points differential at all? Because it is a good indicator of turnover efficiency, or how well teams convert turnovers into points and how well they prevent giveaways from turning into points scored by the opponents.

The TO ratio is the prevalent stat for measuring how well a team is performing in terms of turnovers. But while it is easy to understand and easy to calculate, what it doesn't do is reflect the impact of a turnover. In that sense it would be comparable to evaluating a RB by the number of carries, not by his yards per carries. Let's look at some examples:

  • The 49ers had a TO ratio of +9, 5th best in the league last year. And while they scored 78 points on the drives immediately following their takeaways, they gave up 92 points on the drives immediately following a giveaway. The TO Points Differential of -14 ranks them 20th in the league. The 49ers were highly inefficient in the turnover game, and looking only at the TO ratio would give you a very distorted picture of what actually went on on the field.
  • Similarly, the Eagles had the 2nd best TO Ratio last year with +15, but their TO Points Differential of 38 ranks them a slightly disappointing 8th in the league.
  • At the other end of the scale, the Ravens had 'only' the 4th best TO ratio with +10, yet recorded a league leading 89 TO Points Differential. The Ravens were by far the most efficient team in the turnover game last year.

Back to the Cowboys: In the five regular season games the Cowboys lost last year, they had four takeaways and ten giveaways. The opponents scored a combined 45 points of those giveaways while the Dallas offense scored only seven points off the four takeaways. We've all lamented the low number of takeaways the team generated last year. Hopefully Wade Phillips has long realized that something needs to be done about this. Why? See below.

Turnover Ratio by season, 2000-2009


2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Cowboys -14 -9 -4 -4 -15 -5 +1 +5 -5 +2
Eagles +2 +9 +14 +4 +6 -7 +5 -8 +3 +12

Note on the background colors: The casual reader might assume that I've chosen the green background color to simply highlight the best TO ratios. Not so, dear reader, not so at all.

The trained observer immediately recognizes that the green color background highlights the years in which the Cowboys or the Eagles made the playoffs - any correlation with the TO ratio is pure coincidence. After all, the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2007 with a -9 regular season TO ratio. The other teams to win a Super Bowl with a negative regular season TO ratio in the last 30 years? The 1987 Redskins and the 1983 L.A. Raiders. That's it.

You don't need an advanced degree in statistics to intuitively understand that teams that are able to gain a turnover advantage are more likely to win games. Giveaways and takeaways are often the fine line between winning and losing, but what teams do after a turnover ultimately is more important than the simple fact of having created a turnover.

Of course, in the overall scheme of things, when, where, why and how turnovers are created may be even more important than any stat.

Takeaways and Giveaways by NFL team, 2009 (click column header to sort)

Team Takeaways
Takeaway Points Pts/TA Giveaways Giveaway Points Pts/GA
TO Points Differential
Ravens 32 115 3.6 22 26 1.2 89
Packers 40 139 3.5 16 69 4.3 70
Saints 39 134 3.4 28 71 2.5 63
Patriots 28 98 3.5 22 42 1.9 56
Chargers 25 97 3.9 17 46 2.7 51
Vikings 24 105 4.4 18 55 3.1 50
Broncos 30 102 3.4 23 61 2.7 41
Eagles 38 112 2.9 23 73 3.2 39
Jets 31 98 3.2 30 73 2.4 25
Bengals 25 73 2.9 25 52 2.1 21
Bills 33 89 2.7 30 70 2.3 19
Colts 26 66 2.5 24 57 2.4 9
Steelers 22 52 2.4 25 43 1.7 9
Texans 27 66 2.4 28 61 2.2 5
Falcons 28 74 2.6 25 71 2.8 3
Giants 24 99 4.1 31 97 3.1 2
Chiefs 28 76 2.7 27 83 3.1 -7
Panthers 37 86 2.3 31 95 3.1 -9
Cowboys 21 50 2.4 19 61 3.2 -11
49ers 33 78 2.4 24 92 3.8 -14
Titans 27 83 3.1 31 100 3.2 -17
Cardinals 29 79 2.7 36 99 2.8 -20
Seahawks 23 63 2.7 31 94 3.0 -31
Jaguars 25 33 1.3 23 65 2.8 -32
Dolphins 21 55 2.6 29 88 3.0 -33
Redskins 17 37 2.2 28 70 2.5 -33
Bears 28 75 2.7 34 111 3.3 -36
Buccaneers 29 66 2.3 34 102 3.0 -36
Lions 23 60 2.6 41 98 2.4 -38
Browns 19 29 1.5 31 101 3.3 -72
Rams 20 36 1.8 33 117 3.5 -81
Raiders 20 29 1.5 33 111 3.4 -82
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