How NFL turnover differential helps us predict the future
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

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In Week 6 of the 2011 NFL campaign, Drew Brees and a New Orleans Saints squad that would finish the year with a 13-3 record traveled to Tampa Bay as 6-point road favorites for an NFC South divisional showdown with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers club that would conclude the season at a woefully underwhelming 4-12.

Naturally, the Buccaneers — who would go on to lose each of their final 10 games that season — defeated Brees and the Saints by a final score of 26-20. There were many factors that contributed to Tampa’s upset win and New Orleans’ shocking outright defeat on that warm October afternoon, but what makes the most noise in the postgame box score is the fact that the Bucs won the turnover battle 4-0.

I think a very high percentage of us would agree with the notion that turnover differential (takeaways minus giveaways) serves as an integral indicator in determining a given team’s success rate in terms of wins and losses. For example, the five organizations that finished in the top-5 in turnover differential last season (Chiefs, Raiders, Patriots, Falcons and Vikings) went a combined 57-23 (.712) straight-up and 51-29 (.637) against the spread during the 2016 regular season.

Meanwhile, the clubs that finished in the bottom-5 in turnover differential last year (Jets, Bears, Jaguars, Browns and Rams) posted a combined regular season mark of just 16-64 SU (.200) and 28-50-2 ATS (.358) during the regular season.

For those of you who may be thinking that the 2016 season was an anomaly, the following information is dedicated to you: The franchises that finished first in the NFL in turnover differential over the last five years went a combined 64-16 SU (.800) and 49-30-1 ATS (.620) during their respective regular seasons, while the squads that finished dead-last in turnover differential over the last five campaigns went a combined 18-62 SU (.225) and 25-53-2 ATS (.320).

At this point, I take it we’re all willing to agree that turnover differential is an important metric worth considering when evaluating NFL teams, correct?

The problem, however, is that we’re taking a valuable metric and applying it to the past, where exactly zero financially beneficial opportunities exist. Instead, we need to discover a method in which we can utilize turnover differential to help us peer into the future.

Luckily for us, that aforementioned method is the crux of this article.

What we’re going to examine today is each NFL team’s turnover differential over the last 10 seasons and specifically ask, “When a team experiences a drastic improvement or regression from one year to the next in regards to turnover differential, what happens in year three?”

For example, the 2007 Baltimore Ravens posted a turnover differential of -17 en route to a 5-11 record. But the Ravens bounced back in a big way the following year, transforming from a -17 turnover differential club in 2007 into a +13 turnover differential team in 2008 that went 11-5.

With a drastic swing of +30 in the turnover differential department from 2007 to 2008, we now find ourselves asking, “So what happened in year 3 [2009]?”

The Ravens regressed to a +10 turnover differential squad with a final record of 9-7.

You’ll soon notice that this type of movement is somewhat predictable and, thus, extremely useful.

Over the last 10 NFL seasons (2007-2016), there have been 29 instances in which a team experienced a swing in turnover differential of +/-20 from one year to the next. And in 25 of those cases (86.2 percent), the team in question’s turnover differential went the opposite direction in year 3 by the staggering average of 15.36 turnovers.

I realize that the previous paragraph may be a bit confusing, so let me furnish you with a visual:

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

2010: -1 turnover differential, record of 6-10
2011: +28 turnover differential, record of 13-3
2012: +9 turnover differential, record of 11-4

See what I’m talking about now? The 49ers experienced a +29 gain in turnover differential from 2010 to 2011. And when San Francisco returned to the gridiron in 2012 (year 3), that number went in the opposite direction as it had from 2010 to 2011.

This type of scenario played out in 86.2 percent of all cases over the last ten years in which a team experienced a +/- swing of 20 or more in turnover differential from one year to the next.

I realize that some of this may be a bit confusing, so I’ll get to the point: There are three NFL teams that experienced a swing of +/- 20 or more in turnover differential from 2015 to 2016. That means those three teams are candidates for a 2017 campaign that sees their respective turnover differentials head in the opposite direction from where they trended from 2015 to 2016.

To reiterate, of the 29 teams that experienced a turnover differential swing of +/- 20 from one year to the next during our 2007-2016 study, 25 (86.2 percent) found themselves going in the opposite direction in year three by an average of 15.36 turnovers.

Which, as ample evidence has shown us, could be the different between a 10-6 record and a 7-9 record.

DALLAS COWBOYS

2015: -22 turnover differential, 4-12 record
2016: +5 turnover differential, 13-3 record

Analysis: Ezekiel Elliott, the 2016 NFL rushing champion, is facing a six-game suspension, quarterback Dak Prescott isn’t going to surprise any unsuspecting defensive coordinators this season like he did last season and the Cowboys face a first-place schedule this year as opposed to the last-place schedule the franchise navigated in 2016. Bottom line: This is one of the top candidates for regression in 2017 and our turnover differential analysis only helps to support that contention.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

2015: +20 turnover differential, 15-1 record
2016: -2 turnover differential, 6-10 record

Analysis: The Carolina offense is set to unleash a brand-new look in 2017 thanks to the addition of speedy, shifty and versatile rookie playmakers Christian McCaffrey (first round, Stanford) and Curtis Samuel (second round, Ohio State). Quarterback Cam Newton is lighter and looking to bounce back from a horrific 2016 campaign that brought all the naysayers out in full force. The schedule sets up rather nicely for a 3-0 start (at San Francisco, vs. Buffalo, vs. New Orleans).

NEW YORK JETS

2015: +6 turnover differential, 10-6 record
2016: -20 turnover differential, 5-11 record

Analysis: Consider New York the rare team that falls into the 13.8 percent of turnover differential clubs that do not fit our trend. This is an organization in full-on tank mode with no hope for any bright spots in 2017. Do not expect the Jets to follow our trend and bounce back. If anything, bet the under on this win total (4).

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How NFL turnover differential helps us predict the future
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