Cowboys Hurt By Turnover Differential, Other Teams Benefit: Will Trend Reverse?

In early August this year Jason Garrett was asked what stats on offense he pays most attention to. His answer: turnover differential and winning the fourth quarter, because they are the two stats most significantly correlated with winning in the NFL in his opinion.

It is quite ironic that those are the two areas the Cowboys have struggled with the most so far this season. Through four weeks the Cowboys are -4 in turnover ratio, tied for 25th in the league. But not all turnovers are created equal. A pick six for example is much more damaging than a turnover that's followed by a three-and-out by the opposing team.

So today I'd like to take a closer look at turnovers, but instead of focusing on who was at fault for a given turnover, I'd like to look at the consequences of a turnover, specifically the points scored off takeaways and turnovers. And before we look at the Cowboys, I'd like to look at four other teams and how their points scored off turnovers have helped them dominate the early part of the 2011 season: The Lions, Bills, Ravens and Packers.

The Lions and Packers are undefeated, the Ravens and Bills are both 3-1. All four teams sit atop the table of scoring differential off turnovers.

Take the Lions. Over four games, they have scored a league-leading 60 points off takeaways. That's almost half of their 135 total points scored. By contrast, the Lions' opponents only scored 13 points off Lions turnovers. That's a scoring differential of +47 points off takeaways/turnovers. Now consider that the Lions' total points differential is 59 points. Excluding points scored off takeaways/turnovers, their points differential is a much more pedestrian 12 points, which is something you're much more likely to see from a 2-2 team.

If you subscribe to the theory - like I do - that interceptions contain a large element of randomness and that fumble recoveries are almost entirely random,  you'll understand that the Lions are unlikely to be able to sustain this pace for the entire season, and are likely to come back down to Earth pretty soon as the randomness comes down in favor of their opponents.

Moving on, the 3-1 Bills are almost a carbon copy of the Lions, also scoring 60 points off takeaways, and allowing only 14 points off turnovers. Their turnover scoring differential of 46 points is second in the league behind the Lions. Without these points, the Bills would have a negative points differential of -9 instead of the +37 they currently have.

And just to put the Bills' and Lions' and takeaway points into perspective: Last season the Patriots led the league with 139 takeaway points, the Packers led the league by the same number in 2009 and in 2008 the Packers and Ravens tied for the league lead with 117. In a quarter of the season, the Lions and Bills have already reached about half the takeaway points the league leaders achieved in a full season the previous three years. They are highly unlikely to continue at the current pace.

Number three on the list of teams by turnover scoring differential are the Ravens. 51 takeaway points versus only 12 turnover points for a turnover scoring differential of +39 points. The Ravens are followed by the Packers, who have 36 takeaway points and have only given up 10 points off turnovers. And even for the mighty Packers, those 26 turnover points are still half of their total 51 points differential.

All four teams have been as dominant as they have been through four games in large part because they have scored a lot more points off takeaways than they have allowed off turnovers. And it's only a question of time until that changes for these teams. I'm watching for this on Sunday and Monday, and have picked against the Lions, Bills, and Packers (the Ravens have a bye). We'll see how that goes.

One of the interesting aspects of looking at points scored off takeaways/turnovers is that it puts the more widely quoted turnover ratio in perspective. Take the 49ers for example: they currently lead the league in turnover differential with +8. Yet they haven't really benefited from that stat. They've scored only a miserly 15 points off takeaways and allowed 17 points off their turnovers.

For the Cowboys, the turnovers they've surrendered have somewhat obscured the takeaways they've made. The Cowboys have scored 24 points off their own takeaways, tied for 10th best in the league. Unfortunately, they've also given up 39 points on the turnovers they've made, tied for 28th in the NFL. Over four games, the Cowboys have allowed 15 more points off turnovers than they've made off their own takeaways, 27th in the league.

Just like I believe some of the teams at the top of the table like the Lions and Bills will come back down to more normal levels, I also believe the Cowboys will find a few more balls bouncing their way than they have in the past four games. Here's the full table for how teams rank in terms of takeaway and turnover points:

Points scored off takeaways/turnovers, week 4, 2011

Team Takeaway Points Turnover Points Differential
Detroit Lions 60 13 47
Buffalo Bills 60 14 46
Baltimore Ravens 51 12 39
Green Bay Packers 36 10 26
Arizona Cardinals 24 0 24
Houston Texans 31 15 16
Oakland Raiders 27 13 14
Chicago Bears 26 13 13
Tennessee Titans 12 0 12
Washington Redskins 23 13 10
New York Giants 27 19 8
Miami Dolphins 14 7 7
Atlanta Falcons 27 23 4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9 7 2
San Francisco 49ers 15 17 -2
New Orleans Saints 18 20 -2
San Diego Chargers 7 11 -4
Indianapolis Colts 22 26 -4
Philadelphia Eagles 20 28 -8
Cincinnati Bengals 9 18 -9
New England Patriots 21 30 -9
Minnesota Vikings 0 10 -10
Seattle Seahawks 0 10 -10
Cleveland Browns 6 16 -10
Jacksonville Jaguars 3 16 -13
New York Jets 22 35 -13
Dallas Cowboys 24 39 -15
Carolina Panthers 3 22 -19
Pittsburgh Steelers 6 33 -27
St. Louis Rams 6 35 -29
Denver Broncos 3 39 -36
Kansas City Chiefs 3 51 -48
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