When teams start preparing for the 2016 season, there are a lot of factors that play into it. Many will point to a dominating quarterback, which doesn’t always translate – it didn’t work for Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan or Drew Brees. Some will point to having a team that puts up a ton of points, which doesn’t always translate – only two teams in the NFC won more games than the Vikings, but eight teams scored more points.
As close as games are to being won and lost – many are within one score – being able to get take the ball away from your opponent is the quickest way to success.
It isn’t always how many times you take the ball away from an opponent, it’s the proportion of how many times you take the ball away compared to how many times you give up. The New England Patriots had just 21 takeaways, which placed them in the bottom third of the league. But the Pats turned the ball over just 14 times – least in the league. The result was obvious. The Patriots were one of the most dominant teams in the league.
In 2014, the Minnesota Vikings finished 7-9 and were minus-1 in giveaway/takeaway ratio. While the team showed improvement as the season went along, one thing they couldn’t do was get a slew of turnovers.
But those that created turnovers saw success. That season, there were 12 NFL teams that finished plus-5 or better when it came to taking the ball away more than they give it away. With few exceptions, the numbers and the records spoke for themselves. If a team was on the top end of the giveaway/takeaway numbers, their odds of losing went down.
1. Green Bay – plus-14 (12-4 record)
2 (tie). New England – plus-12 (12-4)
2 (tie). Houston – plus-12 (9-7)
4. Seattle – plus-10 (12-4)
5. Arizona – plus-8 (11-5)
6 (tie). Buffalo – plus-7 (9-7)
6 (tie). Detroit – plus-7 (11-5)
6 (tie). San Francisco – plus-7 (8-8)
9 (tie). Dallas – plus-6 (12-4)
9 (tie). Cleveland – plus-6 (7-9)
11 (tie). Denver – plus-5 (12-4)
11 (tie). Atlanta – plus-5 (6-10)
Of those 12 teams, only two of them had losing records and seven of them won 11 or more games. Coincidence? Sure, it could only be a one-time thing that found a way to impact the 2014 season.
In 2015, there were 14 teams that were plus-5 or better in turnovers and the results came out pretty much the same as they did in 2014.
1. Carolina – plus-20 (15-1)
2. Kansas City – plus 14 (11-5)
3. Cincinnati – plus-11 (12-4)
4. Arizona – plus-9 (13-3)
5 (tie). Seattle – plus-7 (10-6)
5 (tie). New England – plus-7 (12-4)
5 (tie). New York Giants – plus-7 (6-10)
8 (tie). New York Jets – plus-6 (10-6)
8 (tie). Buffalo – plus-6 (8-8)
10 (tie). St. Louis – plus-5 (7-9)
10 (tie). Houston – plus-5 (9-7)
10 (tie). Minnesota – plus-5 (11-5)
10 (tie). Green Bay – plus-5 (10-6)
10 (tie). Washington – plus-5 (9-7)
Of those 14 teams, only the Giants and the Rams had losing records and both of them were notorious for dropping games in the fourth quarter or they would have been winners. Of the 16 teams that had records of .500 or better, 12 of them were on this leader board.
Of the seven teams that won 11 or more games, only Denver wasn’t on the list – primarily because they had 31 giveaways. The only teams with more than that were Tennessee and Dallas, who combined to put up a record of 7-25 – and a testament to how strong Denver’s defense was to overcome that.
The simple fact remains that with all the metrics that come into play when it comes to winning and losing NFL games, the ones that work the most often are the simplest – take the ball away more than you give it away.
The numbers don’t lie. Yardage rankings can be skewed for even the best defenses when building a 20-point lead, dropping into a shell to avoid big plays and allowing 150 garbage yards late in games.
What could make things scary for Vikings opponents is that they were the biggest ball hawks in the league on defense. Their 22 takeaways last year were more memorable than numerous. Of the teams in the plus-5-or-better club last year, only the Patriots had fewer takeaways.
If the Vikings offense can keep turnovers numbers down, Minnesota may only be scratching the surface as the core defenders enter a third season in Mike Zimmer’s system.
A year from now when one looks back on the 2016 season, perhaps no numbers may be more indicative of success than the simplest and most time-honored. Given the excitement surrounding the Vikings defense heading into this season, jumping to the top may be closer than it appears.