NFL Betting: Turnover Disparity Often Good Indicator of Team Regression or Ascension
This article originally appeared in the 2021 Doc’s Sports Journal.
“That’s why they play with a funny-shaped ball.”
When I first started out as a football handicapper, I had a client that would e-mail me every few weeks to chat about this or that. He’d celebrate big weekends. He’d try to boost my confidence after bad ones. And when I was particularly frustrated by a bad beat or a brutal loss, his response was always the same: “That’s why they play with a funny-shaped ball.”
It’s a funny line. Yet it holds a lot of truth about our own powerlessness against forces of nature and causes beyond our control. Football is a wildly unpredictable and maddeningly inconsistent game. Yes, it is now and forever will be a form of orchestrated combat bathed in blood and brutality. But that odd, oblong ball, and all the erratic, unforeseeable bounces that it takes, are the heart of football’s mystique.
Nowhere is all of this clearer than when talking about turnovers.
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Turnovers are one of the most consequential statistics in professional football and NFL betting. Over the course of the last six years, teams that have won the turnover battle have won their games straight-up 77 percent of the time and covered the spread 76 percent of the time. Going back over the last 15 years, teams that have concluded a game with a positive turnover margin have gone 2,394-649-3 SU and 2,322-690-34 ATS.
That means teams simply winning the turnover battle also win the game 78.6 percent of the time and cover the spread an astonishing 77.1 percent of the time!
Unfortunately, turnovers are also the most fickle and fluky aspect of the sport. Fumble recovery rates don’t follow any discernable pattern. Interceptions are random and a perpetual variable from week to week. So even though we know that turnovers are football gambling’s silver bullet, there really is no way to make that information pay out for us on a weekly basis. It’s like trying to predict where lightning will strike.
Yet there are still some ways we can use turnover data to our advantage. Turnovers don’t just fluctuate wildly from week to week. They are also, with few exceptions, completely unstable for teams from year to year. So, it should be easy to identify potential regression candidates – both positive and negative – by looking at NFL teams whose turnover margin statistics vary markedly from the league average and applying that information in the NFL futures market.
Over the course of the last decade, I’ve focused on teams with double-digit turnover margins, both positive and negative. And the idea is pretty simple: teams that benefitted from an obscenely high turnover margin were relatively “lucky” and are set for a negative regression. Teams that suffered an obscenely low margin were somewhat “unlucky” and should see a turnaround in the following season.
A perfect example is the 2018 and 2019 San Francisco 49ers. In 2018, the 49ers had by far the worst turnover margin in the league at -25. They gave the ball away 32 times that season while generating just seven takeaways, and the result was an ugly 4-12 straight up mark and a 5-11 tab against the spread.
Yet in 2019, those same Niners generated a healthy +4 turnover margin for the season, giving it up just 23 times while racking up 27 takeaways. That 29-possession turnaround resulted in a 13-3 SU, 10-6 ATS mark during the regular season, two more SU and ATS wins in the postseason, and a team that was just one quarter away from being Super Bowl champions. Obviously, they flew over their Las Vegas season win total of 8.0.
Further, the unreasonably high 2019 turnover rates of New England (+21), Minnesota (+11) and Baltimore (+10) all foreshadowed those teams losing against their Las Vegas season win totals in 2020. It also precluded a major improvement from Tampa Bay, who went from a -13 turnover differential in 2019 (thanks to a horrific 41 giveaways) to a +8 margin last season. That growth helped pave the way for the Bucs to surge past their 9.5 season win total mark en route to a Super Bowl title.
From 2010-2018, blindly betting “over” or “under” on season win totals based solely on double-digit turnover margins would’ve resulted in six of eight winning years. That includes going 7-3 in 2011 and 6-3 in 2015. Tragically, it is not that easy, though. That same system went just 5-6 against season win totals in 2018 and 2019 and is just 59-51 (53.6 percent) over the last 10 seasons.
Clearly this isn’t a blind betting system. But year-over-year turnover rates are a useful tool for helping bettors stay ahead of the curve on teams primed to overachieve or underachieve relative to their wins expectations. And some simple handicapping can help us put this tool to good use.
Looking back over the past decade, some clear patterns emerge. First of all, there are institutional reasons why teams like the Patriots are routinely among the league leaders in turnover differential. Coaching, elite quarterback play, and simply having better players, all help the top teams hold onto the football. Conversely, there are obvious reasons why teams like the Jaguars and Jets are consistently among the worst turnover differentials. Terrible coaching, horrendous quarterback play and consistently undisciplined rosters have plagued those organizations.
Also, this system isn’t immune to some bad beats. Take last year, for example. The Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals were two teams primed for bounce-back seasons as a result of their 2019 turnover differentials of -17 and -14, respectively. The Chargers went 7-9 to just stay ‘under’ their 7.5 number. The Bengals won just four games against a 5.5 win number.
But the Chargers came up short because they were the first team in NFL history to blow a lead of 16 or more points in four straight games, losing three of them. And Cincinnati’s season was sabotaged by an injury to quarterback Joe Burrow, who played in just 10 of the team’s 16 games. (They also took one tie that would’ve been a fifth win.)
In 2020, there were only six teams that posted a turnover differential of +/-10. That was the smallest number of teams in this category in more than a decade. Let’s take a look at each of them and the likelihood of them beating their Las Vegas season win total:
Tennessee (+11 TO margin; 9.5 2021 Season Win Total)
2021 Season Win Total Prediction: Under
The Titans don’t give the ball away often because they utilize a run-heavy offense that was No. 2 in the NFL in attempts last year (521). However, one injury to workhorse running back Derrick Henry could cause that plan of attack to collapse and put more pressure on Ryan Tannehill to throw the ball. Defensively, the Titans lost four of their top five players in the secondary and have six new defensive starters overall. That should also decrease their takeaway ability. The Titans were statistical overachievers in several categories last season (a consistent theme in the Mike Vrabel Era). They have also posted five straight seasons above .500, and I think that they could be poised for a letdown. I think that a significant decrease in the turnover department will portend a decrease in wins for Tennessee.
Indianapolis (+10 TO margin; 10.0 2021 Season Win Total)
2021 Season Win Total Prediction: Pass
The Colts are another run-first squad that simply didn’t give the ball away last season. Their 15 offensive turnovers were the third-fewest in football, which was surprising considering Phil Rivers was under center. This year, the Colts will have Carson Wentz under center. Wentz has 48 combined fumbles and interceptions over the last two seasons and was benched in Philadelphia last year in part because he was too loose with the ball. An 11-win season is a tall order for this group. I can almost guarantee that either the Colts or the Titans are going to come up way short on their season win total. Right now, I feel more confident about a Titans flop than one from the Colts. But Indy is in the crosshairs.
Denver (-16 TO margin; 7.5 2021 Season Win Total)
2021 Season Win Total Prediction: Over
This is the perfect example of a team that should experience a major boost in the win column by fixing their turnover problem. This will be Drew Lock’s third season under center. Vic Fangio is an old school head coach with a conservative offensive coordinator. This team is going to put more focus on running the ball in order to protect Lock (or veteran Teddy Bridgewater). Underrated Courtland Sutton will be back from injury, and last year’s rookie wideouts, K.J. Hamler and Jerry Juedy, should be better as well. Fangio, also in his third year, has been one of the preeminent defensive minds of the last decade in the NFL. His stop unit should manage better than the woeful 16 takeaways they cobbled together last year. I expect no less than an 18-point swing in their turnover differential, and that should easily lead them back to eight (or more) wins.
San Francisco (-11 TO margin; 10.0 2021 Season Win Total)
2021 Season Win Total Prediction: Pass
Everyone and their sister is expecting a bounce back season from the 49ers. That’s obvious from the 10.0 Las Vegas season win total. And turnovers is only one of the reasons to be bullish on San Francisco. No team in the league was ravaged by injuries like the 49ers last season. With a full compliment of healthy bodies, this group should more closely resemble the unit that rampaged through the NFC in 2019-20. I’ve already pointed out what a difference a massive swing in turnover differential can make for San Francisco. If they get themselves back in the black this year, it should help thrust them back into the mix at the top of the conference.
Las Vegas (-11 TO margin; 7.0 2021 Season Win Total)
2021 Season Win Total Prediction: Over
The Raiders have had a negative turnover differential each of the last four years. In that time, they have gone 25-39. The last time they finished with a positive differential? That would be 2016 when they exploded onto the AFC scene with 12 regular season wins. That’s the only time over the course of the last 15 years that the Raiders have been better than +1 in this area. The path to improvement here is pretty straightforward: the Raiders defense needs to get more takeaways. Period. They have been in the bottom five of the NFL in takeaways four years running. This group was good enough to beat New Orleans and Kansas City last year. If they can earn some extra possessions, this team should surge past its modest season win total.
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