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Finding the Most Important Factor for Winning - Part I

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Over the next few weeks, I'm going to try to lay out, in statistical terms, what are the most important factors that lead to winning games in the NFL. I'm also going to show how well the Colts did compared to the rest of the league in each category.

In the first part, I'm going to look at what is conventionally looked at as the most important category: Turnovers. I'm going to take a look at both gross and net turnovers in games, and see how well teams did.

For each of these stats, they can be interpreted as "at least", with the exception of teams with 0 Turnovers. For example, what were the records of teams that were at least +2 in Turnover margin in games, or what were the records of teams that had no Turnovers in a game.

Turnover Margin
TO Margin 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 Total
NFL +1 168-34 177-38 161-40 161-41-1 165-39 832-192-1
+2 97-13 117-12 95-14 104-12-1 114-11 527-62-1
+3 49-8 56-2 49-3 59-4-1 61-4 274-21-1
+4 23-3 25-1 31-0 22-0 28-1 129-5
Colts -2 0-1 1-1 1-0 0-0 0-0 2-2
-1 1-1 2-2 3-1 1-2 2-1 9-7
0 12-2 10-2 11-1 11-2 10-3 54-10
+1 11-1 7-0 8-1 9-1 4-2 39-5
+2 7-0 4-0 4-0 7-0 3-0 25-0

A couple things jump out from this data:

  • First, creating at least one more turnover than giving up leads to a winning percentage of 0.812 over the past 5 years. That is amazing to think about.
  • When the Colts have a turnover margin of +2 or better over the past 5 years, they are undefeated at 25-0. Eventually I'll see if any other teams are that impressive, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say nobody else is undefeated.
Turnovers caused
TO Caused 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 Total
NFL 0 21-60 19-87 27-76 22-77 21-81 110-381
1 235-196 237-169 229-180 234-179-1 235-175 1170-889-1
2 181-78 185-78 170-86 174-88-1 176-78 886-408-1
3 104-22 114-25 105-30 108-28-1 113-25 544-130-1

I'm going to break the Colts into both Turnovers Caused and Turnovers Created. That way we'll get a better sense of how they did under all circumstances.

Turnovers caused
TO Caused 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 Total
Colts 0 1-0 2-1 3-1 0-1 1-0 7-3
1 12-3 10-3 11-1 12-3 11-4 56-14
2 11-3 6-2 8-1 9-3 7-3 41-12
3 5-1 3-0 4-1 4-0 2-1 18-3
Turnovers lost
TO Lost 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 Total
Colts 0 3-0 4-0 2-0 5-0 4-1 18-1
1 10-3 8-4 12-2 7-4 8-3 45-16
2 0-2 3-2 3-1 2-2 5-3 13-10
3 0-1 0-1 1-1 1-1 0-1 2-5

A couple things here as well:

  • Teams not able to force a Turnover only have a 0.224 winning percentage. It's almost the complete opposite Win % of winning the TO battle. Forcing at least 1 Turnover wins games 57% of the time, which is basically a 9-7 record over the course of a season.
  • The Colts only have turned the ball over 3 or more times in a game 7 times over the past 5 years. In contrast, they caused at least 3 turnovers 21 times in that same span. Again, without looking at the rest of the league, they are probably tops in the league in terms of turning the ball over.
  • This year, there were only 2 games in which the Colts turned the ball over more than 1 time: New England and San Diego, both losses. There were only 2 games where the Colts did not cause at least 2 turnovers: Oakland and Tampa Bay, both wins. The Colts did a great job of taking care of the football, and creating multiple turnovers in almost every game.

I think it is pretty clear that conventional wisdom is at least partially correct: Turnovers are a very key part of winning football games, as witnessed above. It may, in fact, be the best gauge of how to win football games. However, we'll have to look at all the evidence before saying it is the leading contributor to wins in the NFL.