"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.
Last season, the Dallas Cowboys had 31 takeaways (18 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries). That was the second highest takeaway total in the league. Thanks in large part to an unusually high 14 fumbles lost and a fairly modest 11 interceptions thrown, the Cowboys had 24 giveaways last season. Rank in the NFL? 20th. Unusual for an offense that ranked fifth-overall in points scored.
Overall, the Cowboys finished the season with a +6 in the turnover department, which ranked the 12-4 Cowboys a joint 9th with the 7-9 Cleveland Browns. And while a positive turnover differential is a lot better than league-worst Oakland at -15, it is still a way off from the league-leading Packers with +14. But what matters more than just the raw stats is what a team does with the ball after the turnover.
According to Sportingcharts.com, the Cowboys scored a total of 86 points from their 31 takeaways and allowed 70 points following their 24 giveaways.
In 2014, teams scored an average of 3.1 points either directly off a takeaway or on the drive immediately following a takeaway. As we saw earlier, the Cowboys ranked second in the league with 31 total takeaways, but they only scored an average of 2.8 points after those takeaways, and average that ranks them just 20th in the league. If you get a takeaway only to go three-and-out on the ensuing drive, you probably wasted a scoring opportunity. Of course, you probably prevented a scoring opportunity as well, so there is great value in a takeaway, even if you don't score on the ensuing drive.
Nevertheless, ranking only 20th in average points per takeaway is not ideal. Consider that the Steelers rank first with 4.6 points per takeaway, closely followed by the Patriots (4.4), Packers (4.0), and Broncos (4.0). If the Cowboys had scored at the Steelers' 4.6-point pace after a takeaway instead of their 2.8, they potentially could have scored 56 more points from their 31 takeaways. Those 56 extra points would have made the Cowboys the number one scoring offense in the league last year, not that that means all that much to a team with a 12-4 record, but it shows the potential impact improved scoring after turnovers can bring.
Of course, a lot more goes into the ability to score after a turnover than just a few stats. Field position after turnovers, score differential, time remaining on the game clock and many other factors play a role in determining your chances of scoring after a takeaway.
Back to the Cowboys: In the four regular season games the Cowboys lost last year, they had three takeaways and 11 giveaways. The opponents scored a combined 31 points of those giveaways while the Dallas offense scored only ten points off the three takeaways.
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. 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 since 1980? The 1987 Redskins and the 1983 L.A. Raiders. That's it.
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. If the 2015 Cowboys are able to repeat their number of takeaways from 2014, they'd be in a pretty good place. If they were to increase the efficiency with which they turn those turnovers into points, they'd be in an even better place.