Actually, you can handicap turnovers in the NFL

By Jeff Fogle  ( 

November 24, 2018 10:17 PM

Once upon a time in sports handicapping, the phrase “you can’t handicap turnovers” was a maxim. Variations included: “turnovers are random,” “nothing you can do about turnovers,” and “how was I supposed to know so-and-so was going to turn the ball over five times?”

It was the go-to excuse for people who just lost a bet, or TV pundits that made a bad pre-game prediction.

The two teams playing Sunday at MetLife Stadium may have done more to change that misconception than anybody. When you watch New England at the NY Jets (CBS, 1 p.m. ET), you’ll be watching two ends of the turnover spectrum. Look at these NFL rankings in turnover differential dating back to 2010…

Turnover Differential Rankings

2010: New England #1, NY Jets #7

2011: New England #3, NY Jets #19

2012: New England #1, NY Jets #29

2013: New England #4, NY Jets #30

2014: New England #2, NY Jets #29

2015: New England #5, NY Jets #6

2016: New England #3, NY Jets #31

2017: New England #11, NY Jets #23

2018: New England #9, NY Jets #26

New England was in the top five for seven straight seasons before the league started catching up. The Jets had a couple of good years, but were mostly horrendous. 

This has been a hallmark of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era in New England. VSiN didn’t want this whole article to be one big table, so we didn’t have room to include that the Patriots also finished #3 in 2007, #5 in 2006, and #2 in both 2003 and 2004. 

New England’s consistency PROVED that turnovers COULDN’T be completely random! It’s amazing how many in the field of analytics were spouting the myth as recently as a few years ago. 

There’s no way to know “exactly” how many turnovers any team will commit in a short 60-minute sample size. But “turnover potential” as a skill set is very easy to recognize.

For offenses who want to avoid committing turnovers…

*Throwing short passes to open receivers is much safer than throwing downfield into traffic.

*Quick release passing approaches are better than giving the pass rush time to hit your QB and knock the ball loose (a theme of this past Monday’s Chiefs/Rams thriller).

*Experienced quarterbacks are usually better than rookies or otherwise inexperienced passers.

*Accurate throwers are better than inaccurate throwers.

For defenses that want to force turnovers…

*Aggressively attacking is better than sitting back “to keep everything in front of you.” (Yes, this is risky on the scoreboard…but specifically in terms of forcing turnovers, aggressiveness is obviously better). 

*Blitzing is better than running a “prevent.” 

When evaluating game conditions…turnovers are more likely to happen in bad weather than good weather…in wind rather than calm. For in-game betting, turnovers are more likely to happen to teams who must pursue high risk approaches when playing from behind than to conservative teams who can sit on a lead. 

Common sense really. Just for fun, run through the Sunday schedule to see if you can anticipate which teams will have an edge in the turnover category. Focus on quarterback styles, opposing defensive tendencies, weather conditions, and the potential for implosions from teams forced to play from behind. Might open your eyes to potential edges you weren’t seeing before.

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