One of the reasons we felt tabulating this new “True Turnovers” statistic we developed each week this season was that there appeared to be a direct correlation when we ran last year numbers to wins and losses.
We define “True Turnovers,” which is a more accurate representation of net possessions gained or lost, as the difference between the number of times a team gets the ball back not via a punt or after a score (the sum of fumble recoveries, interceptions gained, opponents missed field-goal attempts and fourth-down stops) and the number of times its own offense gives the ball away in those ways.
The 2017 True Turnover numbers were stark: The top 12 teams in our rankings (Ravens, Patriots, Chiefs, Eagles, Chargers, Rams, Saints, Steelers, Jaguars, Vikings, Panthers and Lions — all of whom were plus-10 or better) had a combined record last season of 132-60 (.688 win percentage). All 12 of those teams finished 9-7 or better.
The bottom 12 teams in True Turnover differential last season (Buccaneers, Falcons, 49ers, Titans, Bears, Cardinals, Packers, Texans, Dolphins, Broncos, Raiders and Browns) were a combined 71-121 (.370 win percentage). Of this group, only the Falcons and Titans finished better than .500, and they were on the more respectable end of the True Turnover margin at minus-3 and minus-6, respectively.
Although we are less than a third of the way through the 2018 season, similar trends are starting to bear out. Through five weeks worth of games, the top 12 teams in our True Turnover differential have a combined win percentage of .612, and that’s with one clear outlier in the 1-4 Arizona Cardinals, plus two 2-3 teams (Seahawks and Jets).
The bottom 12 True Turnover teams collectively have a mark of .425, with the obvious exception here being the 5-0 Rams belying their minus-3 mark with the luxury of perhaps the NFL’s most explosive offense and some talent on defense. Take away the Cardinals from the top group and the Rams from the bottom group, and those two sets of win percentages are even more striking: .651 and .373, almost directly in line with our full-season top-12 and bottom-12 win percentages from a year ago.
Here are the full True Turnovers numbers for all 32 teams as we head into Week 6:
Observations through five weeks of the season:
• As we noted above, the Cardinals are a surprise entrant into the top of the league here with a very strong mark of plus-5 that tied for the fourth best in the NFL. Forcing two interceptions of 49ers QB C.J. Beathard, a missed field goal from Robbie Gould and a fourth-down stop helped bump them up Arizona’s numbers following their first victory of the season. They’re skewed a bit with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan attempting a 4th-and-19 from his own 27-yard line with his team down two scores with under four minutes remaining, but it still shows that this Cardinals team — limited as it might be in other ways — is nonetheless doing a good job giving the ball back to the offense. Arizona’s 17 True Turnovers forced are second only to Cleveland’s impressive 21. We’ve been hard at times on head coach Steve Wilks in his first season, but in this regard his team is showing some positive results.
• Back to that Browns TT number. Their 21 True Turnovers forced is astonishing in a few ways. First, the Browns forced only 22 all of last season, which has been a welcome development. Already through five games the Browns have forced more interceptions, fumbles and field-goal misses than they had all of last season. Second, the highest-ranked team from a year ago, the Philadelphia Eagles, took in 51 — an average of 3.2 per game. The Browns currently are outpacing the 2017 Eagles defense at a whopping 4.2 per game. Cleveland’s offensive execution clearly needs a little fine-tuning (14 True Turnovers, tied for fourth-most in the NFL), but that’s not shocking considering the team has had to change kickers and quarterbacks so early in the season. But overall, there’s a good reason why the Browns are at the .500 mark after having not reached that at any point since the 2014 season.
• Speaking of the Eagles, the team that ranked tied for third in True Turnover differential a year ago (plus-17) is now 25th at minus-4 this season. A few big things stand out: Seven of their 13 offensive turnovers have come by fumble, and defensively they’re way off the pace in terms of interceptions, fumbles recovered and fourth-down stops. They’ve actually put the ball on the ground a stunning 13 times in five games, recovering six of those, with the quarterbacks, Nick Foles (two) and Carson Wentz (three), averaging one loose ball per game. All of last season, the Eagles fumbled a total of 25 times, with 11 of those ending up in opponents; hands. Wentz and Foles were guilty of 15 of those combined fumbles, so that’s right about the same pace as last year. But luck hasn’t shone on Philadelphia so far through a 2-3 start. Last week’s scoop-and-score by the Vikings after Wentz was strip-sacked clearly was a big turning point in the home loss to Minnesota, as was Jay Ajayi's lost fumble at the Minnesota 6-yard line.
Defensively, the Eagles ranked tied for fourth in INTs (19), tied for fourth in fumbles recovered (12) and tied for first in opponents’ fourth-down failures (14) a year ago. This season? They’re tied for the fifth-fewest INTs (three), the fifth-fewest fumbles recovered (two) and have stopped opponents only twice in six fourth-down tries. That’s one way how you get from one of the most efficient possession-controlling teams to one that’s on the other end of the spectrum through a slow start in 2018.
• Can we talk about the Raiders a bit? They come in dead last through five weeks in the NFL at minus-8. How you get there is by ranking tied for the second-most True Turnovers with 15 on offense and forcing the fifth-fewest turnovers on defense with seven. Two of those seven turnovers have come on opponents’ missed field goals, too, which points to a clear lack of playmaking talent on that side of the ball. (Not to beat a dead horse on the Khalil Mack trade or anything …) On offense, the Raiders’ league-worst eight interceptions is the biggest bugaboo. Derek Carr had a clean sheet with zero picks in the unlucky Week 2 loss to Denver but got lucky with two INTs in the Week 4 win over the Browns, which oddly was the one game Oakland’s offense was able to score more than 20 points this season. Quirks such as that aside, it’s easy to see why Jon Gruden’s team has struggled to finish off games better considering how his team is losing the possession battle.
Prior True Turnover rankings: