By the Numbers: Impact of Turnovers on Wins

Turnovers can play a major role in the outcome of a game. But over the course of the season, how significant is turnover ratio to a team's success? And do points scored following a turnover make a big difference? Ed Thompson has the answers based on an analysis of turnovers over the past five years.

Over the past five seasons, the Indianapolis Colts have totally dominated the turnover ratio category accumulating a +66 advantage -- and they have reaped the benefits of that performance with 63 wins, second-best in the NFL during that span. Indianapolis won the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl following the 2006 season and claimed the AFC South title all five seasons. 

Not surprisingly, the next-best team in turnover ratio is the New England Patriots, a club that fields a hardnosed defense and a powerful offense that has helped them win an NFL-best 66 games during that period. New England has also won their division all five years, won three AFC championships and two Super Bowls. Their +44 turnover ratio, while a distant second to the Colts, has undoubtedly been a major advantage during the past five seasons.

Those two teams make a compelling statement for the argument that a top turnover ratio translates into a winning program.

But if you look deeper into the statistics, you'll see that the argument doesn't consistently hold up.

Just six teams have posted a +20 turnover ratio or better during the past five seasons and four of the six teams have placed in the top ten in total wins during the stretch. But two teams, the Bengals and the Vikings, don't fit that trend. The Bengals are skewed a bit because they posted a +24 turnover differential in the 2005 season while posting no better than a +7 in the other four seasons. When you look at the top ten teams in turnover ratio, the results are even more inconsistent, with the Falcons, who have won just 35 games over the past five years, posting the 10th-best turnover ratio. 

Team Ratio Wins Wins Rank
1. Colts +66 63 2nd
2. Patriots +44 66 1st
3. Bengals +42 42 15th
4. Chargers +33 50 5th
5. Jaguars +23 45 9th-t
6. Vikings +20 40 16th
7-t. Panthers +19 44 11th
7-t. Seahawks   +19 51 3rd
9. Chiefs +14 43 14th
10. Falcons  +12 35 22nd-t

Conversely, a few of the teams who have been among the league's leaders in wins don't rank among the top ten in turnover ratio. 

The Steelers are close enough, having won 50 games, just like the fourth-place Chargers, and their +10 turnover ratio is 11th-best. Likewise, the Broncos' 49 wins (6th best) had a +8 ratio (12th-best). 

But the Eagles, who also won 49 games, are 18th in ratio (+0) during the five seasons.  Dallas had an 8th-best 47 wins despite a 23rd-best -18 ratio. And for those who think turnover ratio is a slam-dunk determiner of how many games a team wins, don't forget this fact:  Green Bay was 9th in wins over the past five seasons with 45 victories even though they had a third-worst -34 ratio.

Points following turnovers
When a team's turnover results in their opponent scoring -- either immediately by running the miscue back for a touchdown, or by setting up their offense to score -- it often seems to be a significant event during a game.

But how much does it impact the outcome? Are points following turnovers a more accurate way to gauge the likelihood of a team's ability to win? 

The Colts, with a defense that emphasizes speed over size and a consistently potent offensive attack, have scored an NFL-best 528 points following turnovers over the past five years while notching a second-best 63 wins. And the Patriots have scored a 3rd-best 472 points following turnovers while winning a league-best 66 games. 

The Chargers also make a case for points following turnovers as an indicator of success, scoring 444 points while finishing fifth in wins. But beyond those three teams, you'd be hard-pressed to make a case that those points have a highly significant impact on the wins column.

The Bengals have scored 519 points, second-best following a turnover, but rank 15th in wins over the past five years. And five of the top-ten teams in points following turnovers ranked in the bottom half of the league in wins during that time period. 

Team Points Wins Wins Rank
1. Colts 528 63 2nd
2. Bengals 519 42 15th
3. Patriots  472 66 1st
4. Giants 462 39 17th-t
5. Titans 458 39 17th-t
6. Rams 451 37 19th
7. Chargers 444 50 5th
8. Bears 443 43 12th-t
9. Buccaneers 442 36 20th-t
10. Cardinals 436 28 28th-t

The bottom line
The next time someone points to turnover ratio as an essential statistic for being a winning team, you can also point to last year's World Champions as a classic example of a team that debunks that statement.

The Giants finished the regular season with a 10-6 record despite a -9 turnover ratio, 7th-worst in the league. So how did they manage to win ten games and a Lombardi Trophy?

Well, they did what practically every NFL team did last season, winning four out of their five games when they had an advantage in turnover ratio. But instead of winning just half of the games that ended up dead-even in turnovers, they won both of their contests that ended that way. And they also defied the odds dramatically by winning four of nine games (44 percent) when they gave the ball away more often than they took it away. That's more than double the 18.7 percent league-wide rate over the past five years. 

But the most bizarre fact is that when the Giants finished a game with a -1 ratio, they won just one out of five games. When they finished down by a -2 ratio or greater, they won three out of four contests.

As the old saying goes, there are exceptions to every rule. 

Rather than just focusing on turnover ratio, pay attention to how often teams are landing positive and even during individual games throughout the season. Remember, overall turnover ratios during a season can be inflated by spurts of turnovers taking place in single games, while the rest of the time the team could be frequently finishing games from a dead-even or slightly negative turnover rate. What a team really needs to do to be successful is put themselves on the positive side of the ledger as frequently as possible, not simply posting an advantageous turnover ratio over the course of a season.

League-wide, when no team gains a turnover advantage, one team wins and one loses, producing a 50 percent probability of victory in the game. Since 2003, 504 games have been decided without one team gaining an edge in turnovers.

But over the last five seasons, a team with an advantage of just one turnover won 70.2 percent of the time. A two-turnover edge translated into a win 85.8 percent of the time. And in games where a team finished with an advantage of three or more turnovers, that team won 93 percent of the time. Overall, a team that completes a game with any positive turnover ratio at all wins 81.3 percent of the time.

In 2007, the Patriots, Colts, Chargers, Buccaneers, Packers, and Jaguars finished at least nine games with a positive turnover ratio -- statistically giving them an 81.3 percent chance of winning those games -- and they all finished with at least nine wins by the end of the year and all qualified for a playoff spot. 

So while there's no perfect science when it comes to using turnovers to predict a team's success, the frequency with which teams are finishing games on the positive side of the turnover ratio provides them with better odds of winning games than just simply achieving a high overall turnover ratio. And that's why highly-disciplined and well-balanced teams like the Colts and the Patriots are able to consistently put themselves in a winning position year after year.    

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the network and at You can contact him by email through this link.

Statistics referenced in this article are provided by STATS, LLC. Copyright 2008 by STATS, LLC. Any use or distribution of such Licensed Materials without the express written consent of STATS is strictly prohibited. 

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