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Turnovers Involve A Lot Of Luck. But Which NFL Teams Are Lucky And Good?

Football has no shortage of adages. It’s a game of inches. It’s about imposing your will and dominating your opponent. It’s about grit, and winning through toughness. But what if football is also largely about being lucky?

Near the end of the second quarter in the Week 11 game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills, the Colts kicked off to the Bills after a field goal made it 17-7. The kickoff by Rigoberto Sanchez sailed 62 yards and was fielded by Bills return specialist Isaiah McKenzie at the Bills’ 3-yard line. McKenzie advanced to the 10, juked to the left slightly to set up the defender crossing the 20 and veered hard right — a little too hard, as it turned out.

McKenzie stumbled at the 15, spilling to the ground on the left hash without being touched, and watched as the ball squirted out from under him and sped across the middle of the field to the right hash, into the arms of cornerback T.J. Carrie. Carrie was eventually tackled at the 2, and Colts running back Jonathan Taylor scored a touchdown on Indianapolis’s next offensive play.

An early finding of NFL analytics is that turnovers are largely a function of luck. While the result applies in some measure to interceptions, it is particularly true of fumble recoveries. This kick return in Buffalo is a shining example: Other than some hand-waving to the fabled “turf monster,”1 there was no good reason why McKenzie should have tripped on this particular kick return without ever being touched down. That the ball would squeeze between his belly and the turf, pop free and then traverse the entire span of the middle of the field — from hash to hash — could never have been predicted. It was splendid luck for Indianapolis, and the Colts capitalized on it immediately, extending their lead and all but ending the competitive portion of the game.

Good fortune of this sort has been a frequent companion of the Colts all season. Through Week 12, Indianapolis has recovered a league-leading 13 fumbles and is tied for third in the NFL with a fumble margin of plus-4. Over their past four games — a span in which they went 3-1 — the Colts scooped up four fumbles, tied for second in the league. And the Colts have been nearly as good at picking off opposing quarterbacks, with 14 interceptions over the course of the season, tied for fourth in the league.

The Colts have had good luck with turnovers in 2021

NFL teams by total turnover margin through Week 12 of the 2021 season, with breakdown of team and opponent turnovers by type

Fumbles Interceptions Total
team Own Opp. Margin Own Opp. Margin Margin
Indianapolis Colts 9 13 +4 6 14 +8 +12
New England Patriots 7 6 -1 8 19 +11 +10
Buffalo Bills 5 9 +4 11 16 +5 +9
Green Bay Packers 5 7 +2 5 12 +7 +9
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6 9 +3 9 14 +5 +8
Arizona Cardinals 3 11 +8 8 8 0 +8
New York Giants 5 6 +1 9 13 +4 +5
Minnesota Vikings 5 4 -1 3 9 +6 +5
Dallas Cowboys 7 4 -3 8 15 +7 +4
New Orleans Saints 5 3 -2 7 13 +6 +4
Seattle Seahawks 3 5 +2 4 5 +1 +3
Houston Texans 6 6 0 12 14 +2 +2
Los Angeles Rams 4 3 -1 10 12 +2 +1
Cleveland Browns 7 3 -4 6 11 +5 +1
Denver Broncos 5 3 -2 7 10 +3 +1
Los Angeles Chargers 2 5 +3 10 7 -3 0
Las Vegas Raiders 3 8 +5 9 4 -5 0
Miami Dolphins 10 9 -1 10 10 0 -1
Cincinnati Bengals 3 4 +1 12 10 -2 -1
Philadelphia Eagles 5 4 -1 8 8 0 -1
Detroit Lions 6 5 -1 8 8 0 -1
Washington Football Team 6 6 0 10 6 -4 -4
San Francisco 49ers 8 6 -2 7 5 -2 -4
Pittsburgh Steelers 7 5 -2 7 5 -2 -4
Chicago Bears 5 6 +1 10 5 -5 -4
Carolina Panthers 5 6 +1 15 8 -7 -6
Kansas City Chiefs 11 5 -6 11 10 -1 -7
Tennessee Titans 8 5 -3 13 9 -4 -7
Baltimore Ravens 4 5 +1 13 5 -8 -7
Atlanta Falcons 4 6 +2 14 5 -9 -7
Jacksonville Jaguars 9 1 -8 10 5 -5 -13
New York Jets 5 5 0 19 4 -15 -15

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

While fumble recoveries are almost completely random, the picture is a little different for interceptions. Throwing picks in the NFL — and avoiding them — appears to be something under the control of the quarterback to at least some degree. Interception rate shows some stability from year to year at the player level, indicating that the ability to avoid or create turnovers through the air is a skill, and Pro Football Focus charts a statistic it calls “turnover-worthy plays” for each quarterback snap in the league that’s even less influenced by randomness.2 Still, there’s a large residual luck component in interceptions, and we wanted a way to measure it to help identify which teams have been the most fortunate with interceptions so far this season.

San Francisco 49ers vs Detroit Lions

Related: Our 2021 NFL predictions

We built a model to estimate how many turnover-worthy plays we should expect from a quarterback given the particular set of circumstances he faced in a season. This ensemble machine learning model used pass attempts, dropbacks, PFF’s big-time throws, defensive pressures, receiver drops, passing yards, quarterback scrambles, the number of passes thrown away, average depth of target and PFF pass grades as predictors of turnover-worthy plays.3 After training and testing, we used the model to calculate the expected number of turnover-worthy plays for each quarterback who attempted a pass this season, and then subtracted the observed number of turnover-worthy plays from expected. Finally, we totaled up Turnover-Worthy Plays Over Expected (TWPOE) for quarterbacks by team.

Wentz has kept the turnover-worthy plays down

NFL teams according to their total Turnover-Worthy Plays Over Expected (TWPOE), summed for all quarterbacks who have thrown at least one pass this season, along with their primary QB and total team turnovers

team Quarterback Team TOs QB TWPOE
Indianapolis Colts Carson Wentz 15 -5.2
Las Vegas Raiders Derek Carr 12 -2.5
Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson 7 -2.5
Los Angeles Chargers Justin Herbert 12 -2.1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tom Brady 15 -2.0
Cleveland Browns Baker Mayfield 13 -1.4
New Orleans Saints Taysom Hill 12 -1.1
Denver Broncos Teddy Bridgewater 12 -1.1
Arizona Cardinals Kyler Murray 11 -0.8
Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers 10 -0.8
Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan 18 -0.7
Baltimore Ravens Lamar Jackson 17 -0.5
Kansas City Chiefs Patrick Mahomes 22 -0.5
Minnesota Vikings Kirk Cousins 8 -0.4
Houston Texans Tyrod Taylor 18 -0.4
Philadelphia Eagles Jalen Hurts 13 -0.3
Carolina Panthers Cam Newton 20 -0.2
Jacksonville Jaguars Trevor Lawrence 19 -0.1
Los Angeles Rams Matthew Stafford 14 +0.0
Washington Football Team Taylor Heinicke 16 +0.0
New York Giants Daniel Jones 14 +0.0
Detroit Lions Jared Goff 14 +0.0
Dallas Cowboys Dak Prescott 15 +0.1
Chicago Bears Justin Fields 15 +0.1
New England Patriots Mac Jones 15 +0.2
Cincinnati Bengals Joe Burrow 15 +0.3
San Francisco 49ers Jimmy Garoppolo 15 +0.5
New York Jets Zach Wilson 24 +0.6
Buffalo Bills Josh Allen 16 +0.7
Tennessee Titans Ryan Tannehill 21 +0.9
Miami Dolphins Tua Tagovailoa 20 +1.2
Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger 14 +1.2

Through Week 12 of the 2021 season. A team’s listed quarterback is the most recent starter.

Sources: Pro Football focus, ESPN Stats & Information Group

Not only have the Colts been lucky with fumble recoveries, they’ve also been getting a career-best season from Carson Wentz in terms of taking care of the football.4 Wentz’s 5.2 turnover-worthy plays under expected leads the NFL, and it’s also far and away the best mark of his career. In fact, if Wentz finishes 2021 with fewer turnover-worthy plays than expected, it will be the first time he’s ever done so. In each of the previous five seasons, he’s had more turnover-worthy plays than we would expect. Wentz’s play coupled with their fumble recoveries has the Colts first in the league in overall turnover margin at plus-12.

Turnover luck of this sort is relatively unknown in Indianapolis. Despite his promising surname, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck was not good at avoiding turnover-worthy plays in Indy. Over his six-year career, he averaged 3.7 TWPOE, the fourth-worst average in the NFL since 2010 and behind only Jameis Winston, Rex Grossman and Carson Palmer. Luck posted fewer turnover-worthy plays than expected just once in his career (-2.1 in 2016). And when Philip Rivers joined the Colts in 2020, he also had more turnover-worthy plays than expected (1). 2021 marks just the fourth season since 2012 that the Colts’ primary QB had good fortune in the form of TWPOE.5

The luck couldn’t have come at a better time, and Colts fans hope it will last. After starting the season losing four of their first five, they’ve moved all the way up to eighth in our Elo rankings with tough games against New England and Arizona looming on the horizon. Currently we have their playoff probability at 53 percent —  just about a coin flip, which seems only fitting.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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  1. Highmark Stadium in Buffalo is open air, but has always had turf of some kind installed on the playing surface.

  2. Per PFF, turnover-worthy plays include fumbles in the pocket, throws that are interceptable and interceptions. Since 2010, among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, interception rate has a year-to-year correlation of 0.20, while turnover-worthy play rate has a year-to-year correlation of 0.38.

  3. The data included all players with a pass attempt from 2010 through 2020 and was split 70/30 into train and test sets with 10-fold cross validation. The out-of-sample r-squared for all players with no pass attempt minimum was 0.91. When a 100-attempt minimum was enforced, the out-of-sample r-squared was 0.70. We elected to use the model with no minimum in order to predict turnover-worthy plays for each pass attempted by each team so far this season. The year-to-year correlation (r) for turnover-worthy plays over expected is 0.24, mostly driven by players like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who have been elite at avoiding turnover-worthy plays over their careers, and less by players like Jameis Winston, who has not.

  4. Turnover-worthy plays include non-throwing plays that PFF deems turnover-worthy, but as Eric Eager points out, if we look just at turnover-worthy play rate on passes, “the correlation doesn’t really change, meaning there is something about being careless with the ball in the pocket vis-à-vis fumbles that translates to passes.”

  5. Jacoby Brissett notched a negative TWPOE in 2017 as well as 2019, after Luck retired.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.