The Buffalo Bills playoff berth last season was often attributed to positive turnover differentials. We’ve already covered takeaways and come to the surprising conclusion that the Bills weren’t much better than average last year. This means that stat shouldn’t fall off a cliff. But, what if giveaways increase? Departed starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor takes with him an elite ability to protect the ball. How much of a change might we see?
The 2017 Season
As we did with takeaways, we’ll start with some data from the 2017 season to give us context moving forward. Though the giveaway argument often circles back to Taylor, we’ll stick to team data due to extrapolation problems. For instance, if we’re looking at comparing QB interception rates we’d need to made predictions off of possible starter Nathan Peterman. One disastrous half of football skews his stats to a degree that is not fair to the conversation.
- The Buffalo Bills gave the ball away 19 times last year. There were ten interceptions and six fumbles.
- The Bills were the sixth best team at protecting the ball.
- The range of giveaways is surprisingly different than takeaways. You might recall takeaways ranged from 13-34. For giveaways the range broadens. The best team (Kansas City) and the worst (Cleveland Browns) created a range from 11-41.
- Nearly half the league (15 teams) were in the 20-25 range
With so many teams tightly clustered around the middle and the broader range of performance last year compared to takeaways, it suggests validity to the idea that a particular factor or two is associated with success (or lack thereof). We’ve all seen Taylor’s turnover stats enough times to avoid a regurgitation here. The bottom line is that we are most likely in for an increase of giveaways. The league average for giveaways is the same as takeaways at around 22. If the Bills regress to the mean, we’re looking at about six more giveaways in 2018. Due to how skewed the stats are based on one game, it’s also noteworthy to expect a more even distribution of giveaways across the season. What this means is that on a week-to-week basis, the Bills will be faced with overcoming turnovers more frequently.
Stability of giveaways and trends
Most, if not all, of us suspect the reason Buffalo had so few giveaways last season was due to Tyrod Taylor. To take a deeper look and make sure, we’ll do the same thing we did with takeaways and see what the last ten years of Bills teams have done. With the groundwork laid last time, we’ll skip right to the most complex chart and dissect things that way.
The blue line is the number of Bills giveaways each year. The red line is league averages each year, with the black line being the trendline.
The red and black lines are identical to the takeaway chart for the record. Turnovers are a zero sum stat (if one team loses the ball, another gains it). The trendline predicts a decrease in turnovers for 2018 for everyone as part of a steady decrease in the last couple decades. As is abundantly clear, though, league trends don’t explain the Bills’ data in the least. Thankfully, our team dynamics sure as heck do.
For the Bills, the coach and quarterback pairing each year is very tightly linked to giveaway stats. The first two years on the chart were Dick Jauron years. Despite a conservative approach to the game, Jauron had a QB carousel and the turnover numbers were above league average. Chan Gailey took over for the next three years. Gailey opened up the offense and rolled mostly with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is known as a bit of a gunslinger. Are you shocked that these are the worst three years in the last decade? I assume you’re shocked. Bills fans still feel Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s conservative play calling via the magic of punting jokes. They managed to come close to league average despite having a rookie QB in EJ Manuel their first year. The Kyle Orton era slightly improved on turnover rates.
The Tyrod Taylor era led to immediate and drastic improvement in turnovers. During his time as a starter, the worst the Bills managed was still four turnovers less than league average. If you’re curious as to the impact Rex Ryan might have had, it’s a safe conclusion that Taylor deserves a lot of the credit. With the New York Jets, Ryan’s teams never came in at fewer than 21 turnovers, and they “achieved” as many as 37 in a single season. Thirty or more happened several times in six years.
It’s not comprehensive data by any means, but so far there’s a pretty clear connection between quarterback and turnover rates for teams. The data of the last decade only reaffirms what we already knew. Expect more turnovers this year.
I think we all knew to expect an increase. The goal here is to attempt to quantify it. We could extrapolate data from Nathan Peterman or AJ McCarron’s time on the field, but small data sets and changes in system and/or coaching staffs since the last time either took the field make it difficult. Similarly, we could examine rookie interception rates to try to pin down Josh Allen. Knowing an average doesn’t help us much without a deeper dive that tries to sort out a few other factors.
Perhaps the best way to look at it came from the very first chart. It takes a special kind of bad in today’s NFL to break the 30 barrier. The Denver Broncos were the only other team to join the Browns. Only seven teams (less than a quarter of the league) made it beyond 25 turnovers.
Preparing fans for the worst case scenario then, growing pains might lead to a 25-27 sort of season. Going back to the data on takeaways, there’s no reason to think the Bills should fall off a cliff. Even if the Bills were to fall a bit below the mean and hit 20 takeaways, they’d be left with a net negative in the 5-7 range.
A negative-seven differential would be a far cry from the plus-nine they had in 2017. This would create an uphill battle for the team. Last year, 25% of playoff teams had a negative turnover differential. None of them had more than negative four, however (Tennessee Titans).
Don’t give up hope though. The above is a best guess at a worst-case scenario based on available data. It’s quite possible the defense improves and takeaways could remain stable or even improve. The incredibly tight cluster in the 20-25 range of giveaways could end up being the reality. A positive turnover differential isn’t out of the question by any means.