Turnover triumph a double-edged sword for 49ers

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 10, 2012

By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Ball Controller

The first true test of offense versus defense this postseason will kick off the Divisional round, when the New Orleans Saints travel to San Francisco. The teams met last season, with Drew Brees leading a game-winning field goal drive for a 25-22 victory after Alex Smith had led a game-tying touchdown drive.
The 49ers had several impressive statistics this season, such as their top-ranked rushing defense, and the best average starting field position on both sides of the ball.
But the area San Francisco made a clean sweep of leading the league in revolved around turnovers.
  • No team had fewer giveaways (10), which tied the NFL record set by the 2010 New England Patriots.
  • 49ers tied the Saints, Bills and Patriots for the fewest lost fumbles (5) in the league.
  • 49ers tied a NFL record for fewest interceptions in a season with 5.
  • No team had more takeaways (38) than the 49ers, giving them a league-best +28 turnover differential, which is tied for 4th highest since 1940.
  • 49ers led the league in forced fumbles (31) and fumbles recovered (15; tied with Minnesota).
  • 49ers had 23 interceptions, which tied them with New England for 2nd most in the league (Green Bay – 31)
Those are dominant numbers on both sides of the ball, which you would imagine bodes well for San Francisco in the playoffs, as they attempt to navigate a path to the Super Bowl that likely runs through the Saints and at Green Bay, with a possible meeting in Indianapolis with New England.
The best method for the 49ers to keep up with those offenses is to shorten the game, maximize each possession, which means Alex Smith must avoid turnovers in his postseason debut. Problem is, the Saints, Packers and Patriots are also among the best in recent history at not turning the ball over.
But what do the cold, hard facts say about teams that protected the ball so well in the regular season? Is it sustainable through the playoffs, is it a fluke, or is the team headed for a ticker-tape pick parade, complete with a case of fumbilitis?

Those Who Ignore History…

It was just last season when the Patriots set a NFL record by committing zero turnovers in five straight games. They would extend that record to seven consecutive games, before RB Danny Woodhead lost a fumble in Week 17.
This year, the 49ers enter the playoffs on a 5-game streak without a turnover, which means it is the second longest streak in NFL history, and makes it the longest streak any team has ever entered the playoffs with.
But if you’ll recall, things didn’t end so well for the statistically dominant Patriots last season. In the AFC Divisional playoffs, Tom Brady threw an interception on the first drive of the game against the Jets. While it was the only official turnover on the day for New England (they would also lose the ball on a failed fake punt and 4th-and-13 attempt), it set a tone for the rest of the game, which the Jets prevailed with a 28-21 victory.
The Patriots were the most recent example of a team that put up historically great turnover numbers, only to falter to a quick exit in the postseason.
The following table shows the 15 teams that had the fewest turnovers in a 16-game season in NFL history. They are the only teams to average 1.0 turnovers/game or fewer. Included are this year’s 49ers and Packers.
Fewest Turnovers in a 16-Game Season
Rk Team Year Record Turnovers Playoffs Result
1 San Francisco 2011 13-3 10 ??? ???
2 New England 2010 14-2 10 0-1 Lost AFC-D
3 Miami 2008 11-5 13 0-1 Lost AFC-WC
4 NY Giants 2008 12-4 13 0-1 Lost NFC-D
5 Green Bay 2011 15-1 14 ??? ???
6 Kansas City 2010 10-6 14 0-1 Lost AFC-WC
7 NY Giants 1990 13-3 14 3-0 Won SB
8 New England 2007 16-0 15 2-1 Lost SB
9 San Diego 2006 14-2 15 0-1 Lost AFC-D
10 Jacksonville 2002 6-10 15 N/A No Playoffs
11 Kansas City 2002 8-8 15 N/A No Playoffs
12 Dallas 1998 10-6 15 0-1 Lost NFC-WC
13 Green Bay 2009 11-5 16 0-1 Lost NFC-WC
14 Denver 2005 13-3 16 1-1 Lost AFC-C
15 NY Jets 2004 10-6 16 1-1 Lost AFC-D
With two results still to be determined, what stands out about our lucky 13?
First, only four of them won a playoff game, and the only Super Bowl winner was the 1990 Giants (the oldest team on the list). 49ers fans, you may recall all too well how the Giants won that season. They recovered Roger Craig’s fumble in San Francisco in the NFC Championship, and went down the field for a game-winning field goal. In the Super Bowl, they watched as Buffalo’s Scott Norwood missed the only do-or-die field goal in Super Bowl history.
The next oldest team on the list is the 1998 Cowboys, who were upset at home to the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card round. Then you have a pair of teams in 2002 (Jaguars, Chiefs) that didn’t even make the playoffs or have a winning record.
That takes us to 11 teams that have made the list since 2004; the same year illegal contact was reinforced. Our top six teams are from 2008 to this season, so it has become more common for teams to have fewer turnovers in just the last few years.

But What About Those Playoff Results?

In the regular season, these 15 teams compiled a 176-64 (.733) record. In the playoffs, they are just 7-10 (.412). Excluding the 1990 Giants, who truly are from a different era of football, they are 4-10 (.286), and that doesn’t include the two teams that did not make the playoffs at all.
Since 2008, the lowest turnover teams are 0-5 in the playoffs.
Out of the 11 teams with playoff results, a shocking seven of them went one and done. To make matters worse, six of those seven teams were playing at home. Only the 2009 Packers were playing on the road, at Arizona, and their season ended with a turnover in overtime on just the second defensive touchdown in OT playoff history.
Playoff Turnovers vs. Reg. Season Turnovers
Team Year Record Turnovers Playoffs Result Playoff TOs RS High TOs
Kansas City 2010 10-6 14 0-1 Lost AFC-WC 5 2 (4x)
Miami 2008 11-5 13 0-1 Lost AFC-WC 5 2
San Diego 2006 14-2 15 0-1 Lost AFC-D 4 3
Green Bay 2009 11-5 16 0-1 Lost NFC-WC 3 3 (2x)
Dallas 1998 10-6 15 0-1 Lost NFC-WC 3 3 (2x)
NY Giants 2008 12-4 13 0-1 Lost NFC-D 3 3 (2x)
New England 2010 14-2 10 0-1 Lost AFC-D 1 3 (2x)
New England 2007 16-0 15 2-1 Lost SB 0, 3, 1 4
Denver 2005 13-3 16 1-1 Lost AFC-C 1, 4 3
NY Jets 2004 10-6 16 1-1 Lost AFC-D 0, 1 3 (2x)
NY Giants 1990 13-3 14 3-0 Won SB 1, 0, 0 3
The update to this table shows the 11 teams and how they did in the playoffs with turnovers (Playoff TOs). For teams that played multiple games, the turnovers are listed in chronological order for each game. The last column (RS High TOs) is the most turnovers the team had in a game in that regular season.
For example, the 2010 Chiefs never turned the ball over more than 2 times in a game, and that was something they did four times that season. Against Baltimore, they turned it over 5 times. It was the Baltimore defense that also forced the 2008 Dolphins to go from having one game all season with more than one turnover, to having 5 in the Wild Card loss.
Four of the 11 teams had their worst turnover game of the season in the playoffs, while three others matched their regular season worst. The teams averaged 2.1 turnovers/game in the playoffs, which is more than double their regular season average of 0.9 turnovers/game.

Low Turnover Teams Since 2004

With the focus on teams recently turning the ball over less frequently, we looked at every team since 2004 that had 10 to 19 turnovers during the season. Out of the 54 teams to ever have fewer than 20 turnovers in a 16-game season, 34 of them have come since 2004.
The table is the same format as above, showing the number of turnovers the team had in the playoffs, and what their worst game in the regular season was.
Teams with Fewer than 20 Turnovers (Since 2004)
Rk Team Year Record TOs Playoffs Result Playoff TOs RS High TOs
1 San Francisco 2011 13-3 10 ??? ??? - 2
2 New England 2010 14-2 10 0-1 Lost AFC-D 1 3 (2x)
3 Miami 2008 11-5 13 0-1 Lost AFC-WC 5 2
4 NY Giants 2008 12-4 13 0-1 Lost NFC-D 3 3 (2x)
5 Green Bay 2011 15-1 14 ??? ??? - 2 (3x)
6 Kansas City 2010 10-6 14 0-1 Lost AFC-WC 5 2 (4x)
7 New England 2007 16-0 15 2-1 Lost SB 0, 3, 1 4
8 San Diego 2006 14-2 15 0-1 Lost AFC-D 4 3
9 Green Bay 2009 11-5 16 0-1 Lost NFC-WC 3 3 (2x)
10 Denver 2005 13-3 16 1-1 Lost AFC-C 1, 4 3
11 NY Jets 2004 10-6 16 1-1 Lost AFC-D 0, 1 3 (2x)
12 New England 2011 13-3 17 ??? ??? - 4 (3x)
13 Atlanta 2010 13-3 17 0-1 Lost NFC-D 4 2 (5x)
14 San Diego 2009 13-3 17 0-1 Lost AFC-D 2 2 (5x)
15 Indianapolis 2008 12-4 17 0-1 Lost AFC-WC 0 3
16 Tennessee 2008 13-3 17 0-1 Lost AFC-D 3 3
17 Washington 2006 5-11 17 N/A No Playoffs N/A N/A
18 Jacksonville 2005 12-4 17 0-1 Lost AFC-WC 2 4
19 Seattle 2005 13-3 17 2-1 Lost SB 3, 0, 1 5
20 Indianapolis 2004 12-4 17 1-1 Lost AFC-D 1, 3 3 (2x)
21 Houston 2010 6-10 18 N/A No Playoffs N/A N/A
22 Pittsburgh 2010 12-4 18 2-1 Lost SB 2, 2, 3 2 (5x)
23 Minnesota 2009 12-4 18 1-1 Lost NFC-C 0, 5 2 (6x)
24 Washington 2008 8-8 18 N/A No Playoffs N/A N/A
25 St. Louis 2006 8-8 18 N/A No Playoffs N/A N/A
26 San Diego 2004 12-4 18 0-1 Lost AFC-WC 1 4
27 Cleveland 2011 4-12 19 N/A No Playoffs N/A N/A
28 New Orleans 2011 13-3 19 1-0 (?) ??? 2, ? 4
29 TampaBay 2010 10-6 19 N/A No Playoffs N/A N/A
30 Dallas 2009 11-5 19 1-1 Lost NFC-D 1, 3 4
31 Carolina 2008 12-4 19 0-1 Lost NFC-D 6 4
32 Indianapolis 2007 13-3 19 0-1 Lost AFC-D 3 6
33 Indianapolis 2006 12-4 19 4-0 Won SB 3, 2, 1, 3 4
34 Indianapolis 2005 14-2 19 0-1 Lost AFC-D 0 3 (2x)
Four of the 34 teams are still writing their postseason story, while six never made it. That leaves 24 teams to look at in the playoffs.
Including New Orleans’ win over Detroit last week, these teams have a 16-23 (.410) record in the playoffs, with the 2006 Colts claiming the only Super Bowl championship. Ten of the teams had at least one playoff win (including Saints again), leaving 15 that went one and done.
In case you’re wondering, only two pairs of these teams played each other in the playoffs. The 2004 Jets played at San Diego, with the Jets winning in overtime after Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal. In 2009, the Cowboys went to Minnesota and were blown out 34-3.
Eight of the 24 teams had their worst turnover game of the season in the playoffs.
That would include top-seeded Atlanta from last year, as they turned it over 4 times against Green Bay. The 2010 Steelers would also fall victim to Green Bay, turning it over 3 times in the Super Bowl after never having more than 2 turnovers in the previous 18 games. A year earlier, the Vikings turned it over 5 times in the NFC Championship against the Saints, after not having a game with more than 2 turnovers all season. Finally, Jake Delhomme’s meltdown against Arizona in 2008 resulted in 6 turnovers for the Panthers.
The Colts (2005 and 2008) are the only team to lose their playoff game with zero turnovers, and they did it twice. Of course you’d already know that bizarre stat from Captain Comeback this year.
Five teams matched their regular season high in turnovers, leaving 11 that stayed under their worst game in the playoffs. That’s almost a 50/50 split of teams having their worst or tied for worst game of turnovers happening in the playoffs. These 24 teams averaged 2.23 turnovers/game in the playoffs compared to 1.03 turnovers/game in the regular season.

Is It a Fluke?

A lot of research has concluded that turnovers are not consistent from season to season, which is why you see teams have such wild jumps in their interception totals, as well as the quarterbacks. Turnovers are very situational, and include a fair amount of luck. Not fumbling the ball is a skill. Recovering a fumble is chance.
We looked at the teams that averaged less than 1.0 turnovers/game and how they did the following season.
Next Year's Results in Turnovers
Team Year Record TOs Year N+1 Record TOs Diff.
NY Giants 2008 12-4 13 2009 8-8 31 18
NY Jets 2004 10-6 16 2005 4-12 34 18
Miami 2008 11-5 13 2009 7-9 29 16
Jacksonville 2002 6-10 15 2003 5-11 31 16
Kansas City 2010 10-6 14 2011 7-9 28 14
Denver 2005 13-3 16 2006 9-7 30 14
NY Giants 1990 13-3 14 1991 8-8 23 9
San Diego 2006 14-2 15 2007 11-5 24 9
Dallas 1998 10-6 15 1999 8-8 23 8
New England 2010 14-2 10 2011 13-3 17 7
New England 2007 16-0 15 2008 11-5 21 6
Green Bay 2009 11-5 16 2010 10-6 22 6
Kansas City 2002 8-8 15 2003 13-3 18 3
All 13 teams of course saw their turnovers increase the following season, and by an average increase of 11.1 turnovers. Their winning percentage fell from a combined .711 to .548, with every team but the 2002-03 Chiefs losing more games the following season. Five of the teams made the playoffs the next season.
Given their lack of a successful track record, and after tying the record this season, it’s more than likely the 49ers will exceed 20 turnovers in 2012, and win fewer games.

So You’re Saying There’s a Chance…

What does this mean for the 49ers in this year’s playoffs?
It’s the playoffs. Competition is tougher. It’s one and done. Anything can happen.
What has happened recently is the teams with few turnovers in the regular season have been losing in the postseason, usually in the first game, and with turnovers being part of the problem.
Even the opponent this week, New Orleans, had some difficulty in their first game. The Saints only fumbled 6 times all season, which was by far best in the league. But they lost two fumbles in the first half, and one could have been a real turning point in the game, but a whistle blew it dead. The solution to that problem was to stop Detroit after each fumble, which they did.
That’s really the big thing with turnovers. You can win with them as long as you avoid the critical ones, and limit their impact as much as possible.
In his first playoff game, Alex Smith can’t afford any pick 6’s or fumbles that give the Saints a short field. But if the Saints are rolling offensively, he may feel the need to press in an attempt to keep up. For his career, Smith hasn’t been the best at protecting the ball. His updated turnover rate through 2011 is 4.28%.
But, Smith is facing the Saints, who had just 16 takeaways this season (31st in the league). Only the Steelers had fewer with 15, and they came up with one in Denver (albeit a big one in the fourth quarter). On Saturday, the 49ers will not be playing a defense that takes the ball away with any great success.
Still, it could be just one big turnover that does San Francisco in. They’re riding the second longest streak without one, which is probably something you don’t want to go into the playoffs with. Though, if you want a counter-stat, the passing yardage leader is 0-45 at winning the Super Bowl. So there’s always that, Drew Brees.
We’re not predicting the 49ers will turn it over five times this week (half their season total), but if they uncharacteristically do it 2-3 times, you should not be surprised.
The precedent has been set.
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. Divisional playoffs? It was a fumble. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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