Turnovers make or break teams

Dec 7, 2004 12:32 AM

Last week I looked at the importance of run defense in pro football. This week we turn to turnovers, one of the most basic fundamentals of winning football.

Defensive coaches have been preaching more aggressive, attacking stop units over the last decade. Before Steve Spurrier left the SEC for the NFL, he had spent over a decade coaching in the college ranks at Duke and Florida.

When asked about what the biggest change he had noticed in college football, 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 late 1980s, defenses were basic and reacted to what the offense would try and do each play.

However, since that time, defenses nationwide have become far more aggressive — trying to attack the offense rather than sit back and react.

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 and Lovie Smith have used their teaching talents to upgrade defenses.

This season first-year New York Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson has turned the Jets into a more aggressive, attacking unit. The Jets were 20th in total D in 2003, but are 7th this season. The whole idea of aggressive defenses is designed to force more turnovers.

They are a huge part of any contest, and turnovers can easily turn a game around. Take a look at the bottom five teams in turnover margin in the NFL after Week 12. None are likely to make the playoffs, even though the Rams and Cowboys made the postseason a year ago. Also, notice that the spread records of those teams are an awful 20-35 ATS.

A quarterback who throws too many picks can kill the momentum of his offense, and his confidence can even begin to get worn down. It can even spill over onto the sidelines. In last year’s 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 ultra-safe and settled for a game-tying field goal. He was widely criticized for this after the Rams lost in overtime (and rightfully so) 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."

Take a look at this season’s top teams in turnover margin. It’s not hard to notice how essential turnovers are. You can find the top teams in each league are all playoff contenders. The cumulative spread record is a sizzling 51-23 ATS.

A team from the bottom (Dallas) played a team near the top (Philadelphia) earlier this season on Monday Night football. The Eagles won and covered easily, 49-21. You may recall QB Donovan McNabb had four TDs and no picks with 345 passing yards. But, you may have forgotten that the Eagles won the turnover battle decisively, 3-0.

QB Vinny Testaverde threw an interception and the Cowboys lost two fumbles. 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.