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Dallas Cowboys & Turnovers: Wade Phillips Press Conference 7/27/10

In Tuesday's press conference, Coach Wade Phillips addressed the issue of turnovers for the Dallas Cowboys and touched on some of the themes and issues that we have discussed here extensively.

Coach Phillips talked about what he views as turnovers, how a low points allowed figure trumps turnovers, about making turnovers a point of emphasis this year and about how having a lead should help you create more turnovers.

The full press conference can be found at, but I thought it would be worth transcribing parts of what Coach Phillips said about turnovers, illustrating his points with a few choice stats and opening it up for discussion on this board.

(Disclaimer: This recap is a very close verbatim transcript of what Coach Phillips said, but isn't vetted for total accuracy. I have occasionally shortened parts and have not written down every single word, but I did try to get across the intended meaning of what he said. Occasionally, what I've typed may lose the context of something Coach Phillips said and may appear counter-intuitive. If you have questions about something from the press conference, feel free to ask in the comments or watch the presser yourself.)

Question: Wade, with the pressure that you do get on the other quarterback, why doesn't this defense get more turnovers?

Wade Phillips: I think it'll change from year to year as for the number of turnovers. You have to look at how many points they gave up - that's an important thing. You make them [opponents] punt more than anyone in the league. You stop them on fourth down; fourth downs don't count as a turnover. Every fourth down stop is a turnover, but it doesn't count in the turnover stats.

You know, our team had a lot of fourth downs last year and we stopped people, we got the ball back right there, it was just like you do with a turnover, but it doesn't count. Same thing with punts. You make them punt, it does change some field position, but ...

I expect them to do better this year as far as turnovers are concerned, but I still want them to give up the least points in the league and that would be the best thing that could happen for us.

You can agree or disagree with Wade's view about what constitutes a turnover, but he is right in pointing out that the Cowboys ranked pretty well in most stats that have to do with a change of possession:

Cowboys "Change of possession stats", 2009 regular season
Interceptions Opponent Punts Field Goal
%age allowed
3rd down
conversions allowed
4th down
conversions allowed
Forced Fumbles
Value 11 92 69.2% 35%
NFL Rank 26 3rd 1st 5th 14th 15th

And with a defense that gave up the second fewest points in the league, Wade is right to point out that at the end of the day, it's the points given up that count.

Question: The way you were playing defensively at the end of last year, are you convinced that that turnover number will go up?

Wade Phillips: If you can have two shutouts, whether they have turnovers in those games or not, those kind of games don't happen very often. In fact, it's never happened with the Dallas Cowboys before. If you can play at that level, the stats don't mean anything - except the final score.

Again, hard to argue the logic of that. But you're not going to shut out your opponents every game. And although the Cowboys recorded an interception in each of the last four games of the regular season against the Chargers, Saints, Redskins and Eagles, that would put them on a pace for 'only' 16 interceptions next year. That's about half the number of interceptions the Packers had this year (30) and would have ranked the Cowboys 15th in the league.

Question: When you guys evaluate and look at the defense, is there a formula, is there a pill you're looking for to try and help force those turnovers?

Wade Phillips: The first year here we had 23 interceptions or whatever it was [OCC: it was 19]. We had a lot of stats that way. Some of the turnovers happen when you're ahead. We were ahead in a lot of games but didn't get some turnovers at the end.

I just want them to play well and play their best. I think those things will happen. We're emphasizing them more and more though. I think we have some people with experience. Sensabaugh had a broken hand and couldn't catch the ball at all last year, so I expect him to have some more as far as interceptions and fumble recoveries and those kind of things. We do knock the ball out quite a bit and we're going to try to continue doing that.

Okay, that's an interesting thought about getting more interceptions when you're ahead. Brian Burke at had a story about this a little over two years ago and concluded:

"Interceptions are very random, and they are 'thrown' by an offense much more than they are 'taken' by a defense."

If this is true, then we should be seeing an increase in the interception rate (interceptions/pass attempt) when your lead increases, as the other team starts getting more desperate and starts taking riskier throws. In the table below I've broken down the entire 2009 season by interception rate and score differential at the time of the interception.

Game tied
INT rate >22 pts 21-15 pts 14-8 pts 7-1 pts 0 pts 1-7 pts 8-14 pts 15-21 pts >22 pts
NFL Avg.
1.6% 1.7% 2.2% 2.7% 2.8% 3.0% 3.8% 4.5% 4.6%
- - 0.0% 0.0% 3.6% 2.8% 1.4% 1.1% 1.1% 0.0%

I'll expand on this in a future post (I still need to clean up some of the numbers), but for now, it looks like Dallas is not getting the interceptions when they are literally 'there for the picking': The NFL average interception rate when ahead by eight or more points is 4.2%. Dallas is at 1.0%. In fact, the Cowboys have only two picks against 200 pass attempts they've defended when they were leading by eight or more points. This is the magic pill - get your INTs prescription filled when you're in the lead.

But it is also a choice. Are you going to be aggressive on defense when you're in the lead, and try to force those turnovers, or are you going to make sure you keep the play in front of you at all times, don't give up the big play, and make the opponent slowly dink and dunk their way up the field?

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