Turnovers can benefit bettors

Oct 9, 2007 2:49 AM

Turnover Margin in 2006

WORST ATS record   BEST ATS record
Raiders (-23) 6-10 ATS   Ravens (+17) 10-7 ATS
Browns (-15) 7-8-1 ATS    Rams (+14) 9-7 ATS 
Bucs (-12) 6-9-1 ATS   Chargers (+13) 9-8 ATS
Lions (-9) 6-10 ATS   Patriots (+8) 11-7-1 ATS
Seahawks (-8) 7-10-1 ATS    Bears (+8) 10-8-1 ATS
Steelers (-8) 7-8-1 ATS   Colts (+7) 12-8 ATS

Let’s examine one of the most basic fundamentals of winning football — turnovers.

Defensive coaches have been preaching more aggressive, attacking stop units over the last decade. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has spent two decades coaching college and pro football, at Duke, Florida, South Carolina and the Washington Redskins.

When asked about what the biggest change he had noticed in the college game, Spurrier spoke not about the wide-open passing attack that he helped to popularize, but about defenses. He mentioned that when he first took over at Duke in the 1980s. Defenses were basic and reacted to what the offense would try and do on each play

However, since that time, defenses have become far more aggressive, trying to attack the offense rather than sit back and react. Two decades ago the Chicago Bears famed 46 defense caused havoc around the league during a 1985 Super Bowl season. The Bears were 18-1 straight up and 15-3-1 against the spread, led by a devastating, attacking defense. They pitched four shutouts and held 14 of 19 opponents to 10 points or less.

Defensive coaches in both the pro and college ranks have been teaching players to not only tackle properly, but aggressively strip the ball from opposing players. Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick and Lovie Smith have used their teaching talents to upgrade defenses.

A key component of aggressive defenses is forcing more turnovers. They are a huge part of any contest. Take a look at the bottom teams in turnover margin in the NFL last season:

Several things stand out.

”¡ Only Seattle made the playoffs.

”¡ The defending champion Steelers fell short of the postseason.

In fact, the Steelers were strong in a lot of statistical categories in 2006, ranking sixth in total offense and 11th in defense, but turnovers were a killer. Those teams were a combined 39-55-1 ATS.

”¡ Teams with the worst turnover differential in 2005 were a combined 36-57 ATS.

A quarterback who throws too many picks can kill the momentum of his offense, and his confidence can get worn down. It can even spill over onto the sidelines.

A few years ago in a playoff game, QB Marc Bulger threw three interceptions against the Panthers. While the Rams had a chance to win the game late in the fourth quarter, coach Mike Martz decided to play it safe and settled for a game-tying field goal. He was widely criticized after the Rams lost in overtime and it’s clear in the back of his mind he was thinking, "I don’t want Bulger to throw another interception. I’d better play it safe."

The biggest reason that Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears have been such a disappointment is QB Rex Grossman, who started with 1 TD and 6 INTs before getting benched.

It’s not hard to notice how essential turnovers are. All the top teams in turnover margin except the Rams made the playoffs in 2006. The Bears and Colts made the Super Bowl. No team had a losing spread record, combining to go 61-45-1 ATS. The Chargers had a 14-2 regular season year ago, but this season are minus in turnovers — a huge factor in their disappointing start.

The Rams had a terrible defense last season, ranked second to last against the run. A huge plus-margin in turnovers helped them to overachieve, both SU and ATS. This season has been very different. St. Louis is among the worst teams in turnover margin during a 0-4 SU/ATS start.

The cumulative spread record of the 2005 top turnover teams was 70-47-5. That doesn’t even include the champion Steelers, who were 13-7 ATS. The Steelers were not far off the list, either, ranking tenth in TO margin at +7. Teams good at forcing turnovers not only win on the field but there is an ATS correlation.

NOTE: After four weeks of play, the top teams in 2007 in turnover margin were the Colts, Cowboys, Seahawks, Bucs, Patriots, Steelers and Packers. The combined spread marks were 22-6! All had winning records, three were undefeated. The Bucs and Packers have been the NFL’s biggest surprises.

Be careful backing teams that are sloppy at taking care of the football. Chances are they don’t win or cover the number as regularly as those that play smart, mistake-free ball.