Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Turnovers, A Fickle Ally

This about sums it up...
In a twist of cruel fate, the San Francisco 49ers missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl thanks to two costly special teams turnovers. While there were certainly other key factors that went into determining the final outcome of the game, those two ill-timed and wholly unexpected turnovers were the kill shots that put the 49ers into the ground. The irony of the defeat, or the manner thereof, is certainly not lost on me, and I feel certain it is not lost on 49ers fan either. Consider the following:

San Francisco tied the NFL single season record with just 10 turnovers this season.

San Francisco lost an NFL low (tied) 5 fumbles this season.

San Francisco had a turnover margin of +28.

San Francisco’s special teams unit ranked 2nd in the final DVOA standings, narrowly trailing Chicago.

San Francisco had turned the ball over just 5 times in their last 11 games (including the playoffs).

San Francisco had lost the turnover battle just twice all season.

San Francisco had not had a special teams fumble all year. Not one.

And yet, the 49ers are currently sitting at home, listening to sports writers and analysts opine on the greatness of Eli Manning. The reality is that we should be tearing our hair out over two weeks worth of “The 49ers just force turnovers…that’s what they do!” stories. But we’re not. This time, the game changing interception was broken up by an accidental collision between teammates. This time, the timely fumble came a split second after the whistle had blown. Hey, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Now, that’s not to say that the 49ers “lucked” their way into 13 wins. Please don’t misunderstand that point. With a Pythagorean record of 12.3-3.7, it’s clear that San Francisco wasn’t a masquerading fraud. They had a historically low amount of turnovers mostly due to offensive design, and the defense was as every bit as dominant as everyone made them out to be. All in all, they earned their first round bye because they were consistently excellent. (Just for reference, the Saints Pythagorean record was 12.1-3.9)

However, to say that luck didn’t play a large part in the 49ers resurgence would be ignorant. To have a +10 turnover margin would be the mark of a very good defense…to have a +28 turnover margin is the mark of a team that sold their soul to the devil.

Clearly, turnovers have been the ally of the 49ers this season, but they are certainly a fickle ally at best. I’ve commented on the relative unreliability of turnovers all season, and Sunday’s NFC Championship Game served as a clear window into just how dangerous a game it can be. Sometimes the ball bounces harmlessly past a guys knee, and sometimes it barely grazes him.

To be fair, there is skill in forcing turnovers. San Francisco didn’t just “accidentally” get 38 takeaways. If Sunday’s game proved anything, it showed that the ‘Niners have one of the fiercest, hardest hitting defensive units in the league. They battered Eli Manning from start to finish, they punished the RB’s on each and every carry…no wonder so many guys lose the ball against them!

Even still, it was inevitable that, at some point, the breaks would not go San Francisco’s way. There would have to be one game where the other team didn’t put the ball on the ground, or where San Francisco couldn’t get to it in time. There would have to be just one time where Carlos Rogers, who could never EVER catch anything in Washington, wouldn’t make like Jerry Rice when the ball was headed his way. Much like in poker, where a good hand won’t always win, the 49ers were bound to get beat on the River. Well, consider them River’d after what happened on Sunday.

Not surprisingly, San Francisco isn’t the only turnover based defense to find themselves on the wrong end of the bounce come playoff time. Here is a chart showing the relative lack of playoff success by the league’s top turnover margin defenses in the past ten years:


Turnover Margin
Record
Playoffs
2011 San Francisco 49ers
+28
13-3
1-1
2010 New England Patriots
+28
14-2
0-1
2005 Cincinnati Bengals
+25
11-5
0-1
2011 Green Bay Packers
+24
15-1
0-1
2009 Green Bay Packers
+24
11-5
0-1
2007 San Diego Chargers
+24
11-5
2-1
2004 Indianapolis Colts
+19
12-4
1-1
2003 Kansas City Chiefs
+19
13-3
0-1
2007 Indianapolis Colts
+18
13-3
0-1
2005 Denver Broncos
+18
13-3
1-1
  
Just so we’re all keeping track, that’s a 5-10 playoff record, with just three teams advancing to the Conference Championship, and none advancing to the Super Bowl. In fact, the turnover margins of the past 8 Super Bowl winners have been:

2010 Green Bay Packers +10 (2nd in NFC)
2009 New Orleans Saints +11 (3rd in NFC)
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers +4 (t-7th in AFC)
2007 New York Giants -9 (14th in NFC)
2006 Indianapolis Colts +7 (3rd in AFC)
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers +7 (T-6th in AFC)
2004 New England Patriots +9 (7th in AFC)

If the Patriots win two weeks from now, their +17 turnover margin will be the best for a Super Bowl winner since the 2003 Patriots, who also had a +17 margin. Ironically, they beat the Carolina Panthers and their -5 turnover margin in that Super Bowl.

Clearly, forcing turnovers is not an indicator of playoff success. Unfortunately, for the 49ers, the research I dug up paints an even darker picture than the above chart did. Here is another chart showing just how unreliable and fluky turnovers can be from year to year.


Turnover Margin
Record
Next season’s T/O margin
Next season’s Record
2011 San Francisco 49ers
+28
13-3
?
?
2010 New England Patriots
+28
14-2
+17
13-3
2005 Cincinnati Bengals
+25
11-5
+5
8-8
2011 Green Bay Packers
+24
15-1
?
?
2009 Green Bay Packers
+24
11-5
+10
15-1
2007 San Diego Chargers
+24
11-5
+4
8-8
2004 Indianapolis Colts
+19
12-4
+11
14-2
2003 Kansas City Chiefs
+19
13-3
-6
7-9
2007 Indianapolis Colts
+18
13-3
+9
12-4
2005 Denver Broncos
+18
13-3
+5
8-8
2010 Pittsburgh Steelers
+17
12-4
-13
12-4
2008 Miami Dolphins
+17
11-5
-8
7-9
2004 New York Jets
+17
10-6
-10
4-12
2003 New England Patriots
+17
14-2
+9
14-2
2002 Green Bay Packers
+17
12-4
0
10-6
2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
+17
12-4
+2
7-9
2011 New England Patriots
+17
13-3
?
?
2007 New England Patriots
+16
16-0
+1
11-5
2002 Kansas City Chiefs
+16
8-8
+19
13-3
2009 Philadelphia Eagles
+15
11-5
+9
10-6
2007 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
+15
9-7
+4
9-7
2006 Baltimore Ravens
+15
13-3
-17
5-11
2004 San Diego Chargers
+15
12-4
-6
9-7

That’s 20 teams with a +15 TO margin or better since 2002 (not counting this year’s teams).

95% saw a drop-off in turnovers the next season.
90% saw a drop-off of 7 or more turnovers.
75% saw a drop-off of at least 10 turnovers.
55% saw a drop-off of at least 15 turnovers.
35% didn’t even have a positive turnover margin the next season.

70% saw a drop-off in record next season.
55% saw a drop-off of at least 2 wins the next season.
40% didn’t even have a winning record the next season.

Now, just because I have a cool chart that says the 2004 Jets dropped 27 in the turnover margin and 6 in the win column just one year later does NOT mean that the 49ers are going to miss the playoffs. They’re not going to finish in the middle of the pack defensively, they’re not going to turn it over like crazy, and they’re not going to finish with 6 wins. Assuming relatively modest health, there’s no reason to expect San Francisco to be involved in next year’s Matt Barkley Sweepstakes. However, there is every reason, both historically and logically, to expect a modest drop-off next season.

Take another look at that chart. Note the teams that were able to maintain consistent success despite variance in their turnover margin. You’ll certainly notice that the Patriots appear on the list multiple times, as do the Packers and Colts. None of those teams suffered significant drop-offs in win totals despite suffering drop-offs in turnover margin. Of course, the reasoning behind that seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning. Three HOF QB’s, three explosive offenses. San Francisco certainly does not fall in this category, and it’s why I don’t think their current model is sustainable. Without the benefit of timely, and ultimately fluky, turnovers, the 49ers simply cannot move the ball consistently enough to stay in the upper echelon of the NFL. So, what should we expect from San Francisco next year?

First and foremost, there is almost no chance that Alex Smith protects the ball as well as he did this year. It defies logic. In 445 attempts, the man threw just 5 INT’s, an INT rate of 1.1. Considering that his career INT rate is 3.0, I’d say a regression to the mean is almost assured. Even if his INT rate jumps to around 2.0, which would still be VERY good, that would mean upwards of 10 INT’s next year. Furthermore, Smith’s ridiculously high sack rate makes it extremely possible that his fumbles will jump next year. With a sack rate of 9.0, losing the ball is probably the least of Smith’s worries down the road!

Secondly, we can likely assume San Francisco’s recovery rate of opponents fumbles will regress, if only slightly. As you could probably have guessed, recovering a fumble is pretty much a 50-50 proposition, which makes it all the more remarkable that the 49ers recovered 15 of 20 forced fumbles. Let’s just add these up:

Let’s say Alex Smith throws 8 INT’s next year, and loses just one more fumble…
And let’s say that Kendall Hunter loses his first fumble…
And let’s say they lose one special teams fumble as well…
And let’s say they intercept 20 passes next year instead of 23…
And let’s say they recover 2 less fumbles…

If all those happen, and they are pretty modest expectations actually, that means San Francisco’s turnover margin will have been altered by 11 turnovers. That would still give them an incredible +17 turnover margin, but imagine what losing 11 turnovers would have meant for them this year? They probably drop a couple regular season games, and they definitely lose to New Orleans in the Divisional Round.  Instead of being a Super Bowl contender, they’re the Houston Texans.

Once again, just so everyone understands, I’m not in any way saying the 49ers were a bad team this year or that they’re going to be a bad team next year. If they happen to win just 9 games next year, which is my early prediction, they’ll be exactly the same team they were this year, just a bit less lucky and with a harder schedule. Happens all the time in the NFL. What I am saying is that they were never a championship team, and they probably never will be as long as they continue with this strategy. They either have to turn Alex Smith loose and open up the offense, or they have to be real with themselves and find a true long term solution at the position. If I were a 49ers fan, my vote would be for the latter, as Smith was nothing more than a middle of the road starter, even in his “breakout” year. Playing for field position and banking on the big turnover was a great way to win in the 1980’s, but it’s just not sustainable in today’s NFL. I think Jim Harbaugh is smart enough to know this, it’s just a matter of getting the right personnel. Unfortunately for ‘Niners fans, it appears as if Smith is going to receive a big contract to remain as starter. Better hope luck is once again on your side, because a serious regression is possible in the high stakes game of turnovers.

8 comments:

  1. Yeah, 9 sounds about right. at GB, at NO, at NE, vs. DET, vs. NYG... thank you, graduated NFL scheduling!

    ReplyDelete
  2. How many wins do you end up with if Kyle Williams is the full time punt returner for 16 games?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Low blow, man. So very low....

    BTW, you know that all season I have been saying I like Kyle Williams. Considering the guy started the season basically on the practice squad, he performed well throughout the year, sometimes in big moments. You know how our 3rd down %age was atrocious? I was some charts awhile back showing that he was our most effective 3rd down guy, with a great catch rate and in general an amazing 3rd down %age on passes thrown his way. That's more than you can say for all the other crappy receivers on our team who run a curl route 1 yard short of the 1st down marker against tight coverage on every 3rd down (yes, this happened in the Championship game too, I wonder if you were thinking of me when you saw it!). And look, Ted Ginn may not have fumbled like that this year, but I'm not exactly thrilled about Captain "let's see if running backwards 30 yards helps me on this return", either. And let's not forget that 2 of Alex Smith's INTs this year were basically passes bouncing off of Teddy G's helmet or the slabs that he calls hands and into a defender's arms. It's not like Ginn's was a genious out there. I hope Kyle Williams stays on the team and develops into a nice #3 option someday. I just hope we have a full-time return-man, too.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm just messing with you. And yeah, it's kinda low. All I have after watching Dallas Kyle Williams it up all year long.

    Ginn is one of the best return men in the league, and he'd be even more effective if they weren't using him at receiver so much. Gotta upgrade that position big time.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks! I won't lie, I put a lot of time into researching this one.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It was good research and a good presentation. You could probably write a thesis on this and get your doctorate. I'd call you "Dr. Turnover." Oh wait, Jake Delhomme already claimed that nickname!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Not so, Casey, he just has an amazingly high completion percentage on balls thrown to defensive backs...he's a pioneer.

    ReplyDelete