On the first day of training camp I heard Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett talk about turnovers, as in the Cowboys have to improve, not just in creating turnovers but in giving them up.
He called turnover ratio the most important stat in professional football.
But how important is it, truly? That is what I set forth to find out in this piece as we head into the season opener against the New York Giants.
My desire was to find out how turnover ratio correlates into success in the regular season and whether it truly acts as a propellant to the postseason and, perhaps, the Super Bowl. So I started with Cowboys history — all 56 years’ worth of it.
The Cowboys have been to the postseason 31 times and failed to make the postseason 25 times. So I broke down giveaways and takeaway for each season, calculated the turnover ratio and noted a trend that backs up Garrett’s assertion.
Playoff season total: 1,069 takeaways, 906 giveaways, +163
Non-Playoff season totals: 711 takeaways, 882 giveaways, -171
Playoff season averages: 34.4 takeaways, 29.2 giveaways, +5.2 turnover ratio
Non-Playoff season averages: 28.4 takeaways, 35.2 giveaways, -6.8 turnover ratio
So there is a clear difference in turnover ratio among Cowboys playoff and non-playoff teams. In fact, the difference is a chasm, on average — more than 12 turnovers per season.
Plus, of those 31 Cowboys playoff teams, only seven made the postseason with a negative turnover ratio, with the worst of the bunch being a minus-11 in 1979. Additionally, of the 25 non-playoff teams, just six of them had a positive turnover ratio. So it’s not an absolute certainty that a positive turnover ratio leads to a playoff berth, but it’s happened 78 percent of the time, so it’s significant.
So too is the win differential when the Cowboys have a positive turnover ratio, regardless of whether the Cowboys make the playoff or not. Cowboys teams with a positive turnover ratio won an average of 10.2 games per season. Cowboys teams with a negative turnover ratio won an average of 6.7 games per season.
Plus, all eight of Dallas’ Super Bowl teams had a positive turnover ratio.
Last season the Cowboys had a turnover ratio of minus-22 and went 4-12. So they certainly need more of turnovers like the one Anthony Brown created against Houston in the final preseason game.
So there’s plenty of evidence to support Garrett’s premise. But it’s not a lead pipe lock. For instance, the Cowboys’ playoff team from 2014 had a plus-6 turnover ratio and finished 12-4. But it failed to reach the Super Bowl, despite a ratio that was better than two of those Cowboys Super Bowl teams.
So it’s not just the turnovers. It’s what you do with them and how you defend when your offense allows them. And that’s when the offense comes into the equation.
Now points off turnovers is a bit harder to come up with, so I was able to go back only the last seven seasons (unless you have the time to go through every play-by-play for every Cowboys game the past 56 years. I don’t).
SportingCharts.com was a useful tool here. They’ve charted this for the past seven years and they have a stat called Net Turnover Points — the amount of points a team scores off turnovers minus the amount of points a team gives up after turnovers (the Cowboys made the playoffs in 2009 and 2014):
2015: 27 points scored, 86 points allowed, minus-56 net points
2014: 86 points scored, 70 points allowed, plus-16 net points
2013: 91 points scored, 55 points allowed, plus-36 net points
2012: 52 points scored, 96 points allowed, minus-44 net points
2011: 90 points scored, 67 points allowed, plus-23 net points
2010: 106 points scored, 107 points allowed, minus-1 net points
2009: 50 points scored, 61 points allowed, minus-11 net points
So there isn’t much of a trend there, frankly. But let’s look at the rest of the NFL during this span.
We sampled each of the playoff teams from 2009-15 and looked at their turnover ratios from a couple of different angles.
First, of the 84 playoff teams during that span 65 of them had a positive turnover ratio. That’s 77 percent and lines up perfectly with the Cowboys’ overall history in the category.
Second, of those playoff teams, 53 of them were ranked in the Top 10 in turnover ratio that season, which was 63 percent of those teams.
Third, of those playoff teams, 46 of them were ranked in the Top 10 in points off turnovers, which was 54.7 percent of those teams.
So there’s plenty of evidence to show that teams that do well in the turnover game make the playoffs. It’s happened to three out of every four teams the past seven year.
But making the playoffs is one thing. What about making a Super Bowl? Well here is where things get really interesting.
Of the 14 Super Bowl teams in the past seven seasons, 11 of them were in the Top 10 in turnover ratio in the regular season and 10 of them were in the Top 10 in the league in points off turnover in the regular season.
"We're really disappointed, still, in what our defense did to be part of being 4-12,'' Sean Lee tells CHQ's Mike Fisher. "There are some things we actually did well. We kept ourselves in some games, but in the fourth quarters we didn't get big stops and we didn't get takeaways. That's just got to change this year.''
Indeed, if you’re looking for a path to the playoffs, Garrett is right on the money. And Lee is right on the money. Look at the Cowboys’ turnover ratio and their net turnover points at the end of this season. If it’s positive, there’s a good chance they’re playing January football. If it’s negative, well, there’s a good chance everyone’s going to the Senior Bowl to scout.