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Turnovers: Luck or Skill?

A team that generates 16 turnovers in one season gets six in the first game of the following season. Is this skill in implementing Monte Kiffin's new scheme? Is it regression to the mean after multiple seasons of being below average in this category? Or is it just plain old luck?

I believe that this is the wrong question. The turnovers happened for two reasons--scheme and effort. Let's look at each turnover individually:

First, Demarcus Ware's interception. Of all the turnovers, this is the one that comes closest to not fitting my reasons. Ware simply had superior recognition off the ball and broke from his assignment of rushing up the field to get into the passing lane and Eli inexplicably threw the ball right to him.

Second, George Selvie's fumble recovery. This is the only one of the three fumbles that I consider to be a deliberate strip, the kind that the Kiffin/Marinelli coaching team preaches and has been mastered by Chicago's Charles Tillman. Barry Church gets there first and, knowing his teammates can pick him up if he whiffs on the tackle, grabs the ball and spins Wilson around while yanking on the ball. The Cowboys swarm Wilson, but the ball scoots forward and there are at least five Giants close to the ball as it lies on the turf, yet Selvie out-hustled them all. Watch the replay. This was a run to the offensive left, and Selvie began the play as the defensive end on the offensive right. This isn't just the new defense installed by Kiffin, it is the mindset that has been consistently preached by Garrett. There is frankly no excuse for the Giants to lose that ball. Selvie was not in position to make the tackle or even assist on it, but he continued to hustle towards the action, and that left him in position to get the loose ball. In past years, that ball would have been recovered by the Giants, leaving Cowboys fans screaming about our bad luck in not being able to recover the loose ball and end the scoring threat.

Third, Will Allen's interception. This is all about scheme. The back seven play zone with the safeties deep, keeping everyone in front of them (in theory--the Giants' receivers found some holes there) and keeping one eye on the QB. When you do that, you are in position to take advantage of mistakes, especially overthrown balls.

Fourth, Church's fumble recovery. Again, Church recognizes that if you are among teammates, you should "scoop and score," knowing that if you whiff, your teammates are likely to back you up. Church didn't whiff and scored easily, mercifully ending David Wilson's horrific night.

Fifth, Holloman's fumble recovery. Obviously the fumble was a lucky bounce off one of the Giants' blockers. However, this is another effort play if we look at the replay. While Holloman has shown a nose for the ball throughout the preseason, I give credit to Dwayne Harris on this one. The ball was loose, but the Giants' punt returner was in position to make the recovery. Harris was the first Cowboy down the field and very alertly got his fist on the ball, keeping it alive for the rest of the coverage team.

Sixth, Carr's pick six. One way to look at this is another lucky bounce. But I chalk this interception up to the scheme as well. Our last two coordinators played a heavy dose of man-to-man with our corners, and there's no doubt that Carr would have been trailing a Giant WR up the field on this play, with a LB responsible for the screen pass. More than likely, that ball would have dropped to the turf after the misplay because no one would have been responsible for the flat. But Kiffin's scheme calls for our corners to play shallow, and Carr was ready and waiting for the mistake, just like Allen's interception earlier.

A few other plays highlight the effort we should now expect from the Cowboys under Garrett. Much has been said about Romo and Murray chasing down Mundy instead of just letting him score, saving the Cowboys four points. Not much has been said about another hustle play--Sean Lee's recovery of the onside kick. At first, this play looked like an easy catch for the Senator, but at the last moment, the Giants were able to knock him off the ball and once again, the pigskin lay on the turf, available to whoever wanted it most. Sean Lee peeled off a block to snag it and was immediately engulfed by at least three Giants.

My conclusion:

We should expect a few things from this Cowboys team that we haven't seen in recent years. One, we should expect more interceptions. We have a defense with very good hands, and the back seven will be facing the QB on most occasions, ready to break on the ball and/or take advantage of mistakes. Two, I will concede that most forced fumbles are luck rather than skill, although we will probably see more attempts at strips. Three, it feels like we have seen countless forced fumbles not recovered by the Cowboys defense in recent years. But the effort and hustle out of the defense and special teams hopefully means that more loose balls end up being recovered by the Cowboys.

For a long time, turnovers were thought to be a result of luck. Luck definitely plays a role, but in football (as in life), a superior effort often results in a little luck going your way. Put another way, we should expect a few bad bounces in every football game, but now this team is mentally prepared to take advantage of those miscues. In a game of inches, a few more "lucky" plays favoring the Cowboys could be the difference between 8-8 and winning the division.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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