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Candidates for Regression, Part 1: Those Turnovers

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks
we’ll take it from here zeke
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

2018 ended for the Seattle Seahawks in a bittersweet sort of way, with a playoff road loss that could have been avoided, but in a year where expectations were low. To see the Seahawks in the playoffs was a pleasant surprise to most observers who’d accounted for all the personnel turnover; to see them lose when the rest of the NFC contenders were somewhat less than intimidating felt like a missed opportunity.

2018 also behaved like every other season in the history of football, in that its random variables played a determining role in turning wins into losses and vice versa. How many games have we witnessed whose result would have flipped the other way if a late interception had been a drop instead, or a lost fumble had been recovered inside the five? (Don’t answer that. It’s a hell of a lot of research. You have better things to do.)

2019 won’t behave the same.

Some bounces that favored our Seattle favorites last season, suddenly won’t. To be more precise, they probably won’t. Regression to the mean, well, means that luck evens out, over a large enough period of time. A team doesn’t get to finish first all the time in a category decided by chance.

You can flip a coin 100 times and have it come up tails 60 times. It’s an unlikely result, but it happens. About 3 percent of the time, you’ll get 60 or more tails.

You can flip it again the next day, and it can come up tails 60 times again. This is possible, and no doubt has been done before. (Again. Don’t do this. It is so boring! Read more football instead. That’s a good use of your limited time on our doomed planet.)

If you flip the coin 100 times for 100 days, though, you’re not going to keep getting tails 60 percent of the time. Regression, the most powerful arm of probability, will tug the percentage back toward 50 percent. It just will. It doesn’t have a choice, and neither does the coin.

The Seahawks have certain elements of their 2018 season that are subject to regression. Too many for one article. You get three. Articles. For the price of none. What a deal.

Part 1 — today — will deal with giveaways and takeaways, those fickle deciders of games.

Part 2 — Friday — will get into some offensive and defensive numbers that were a little out of whack last season, both individual and collective. (Don’t say Tyler Lockett out loud, but it’s totally going to be about Tyler Lockett. And the red zone. Some penalty stuff too.)

Part 3 — eventually — will deal with the leftovers. We’ll talk special teams performance (FG against and such), injuries, and schedule. Plus, of course, any crowdfunded suggestions that arise along the way.

More Like Recovered Funbles, Am I Right

The big number is 14, and the little number is 4. The disparity is 10, a positive one, and that’s a symbol of the good fortune that blessed the Seahawks last season.

Opponents fumbled 26 times and lost 14. Meanwhile, Seattle put the ball on the ground 18 times but only lost 4. Only 4! The Seahawks defense recovered 10 more fumbles from opponents than they gave away on offense.

For context:

  • No team recovered more than 14 opponent fumbles total; Seattle tied Houston and Cleveland for the league lead.
  • No team lost fewer than 4 of their own fumbles; Seattle tied Cincinnati and Washington for the best mark in the league.

Yes, the Seahawks were the luckiest fumble recoverers in 2018. By volume, that is. On both sides of the ball. It almost goes without saying, but I’m here to say things, so: it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Seahawks will benefit from such a confluence of good fortune again in 2019, to be the best NFL team at recovering their own fumbles AND their opponents’ too.

And fumbles, as opposed to running backs, matter. When Seattle recovered a loose ball in 2018, they went 8-1. When they didn’t, it was a much less sparking 2-5 record.

In the final five weeks, as the Seahawks made their usual December surge, they took back 8 out of 11 opponent fumbles. They went 4-1. I’m not here to put a damper on the 2019 outlook, because that’s really, really not my style, but fumble luck is a big reason Seattle made the postseason. With a more normal distribution of recoveries, it’s very likely we’re dissecting a 9-7 or 8-8 season.

Unsurprisingly, the Seahawks +14 turnover margin was the league’s best. As you make your way down the leaders in turnover margin, you notice pretty quickly that the top seven teams all made the playoffs: SEA, CHI, HOU, KC, LAR, NE, NO. The final four teams of 2018 are all there, in fact. Turnovers win, and lose games.

I’ve heard that Pete Carroll’s insistence on ball security pays dividends, along with Russell Wilson’s ability to be cautious and take smart risks, generally. Based on 2018, who would disagree? Until they see a more complete chart.

Get That Ball

Year Fumble recovery % NFL rank
Year Fumble recovery % NFL rank
2012 46.8 23
2013 51.7 14
2014 51.7 14
2015 48.8 18
2016 54.6 8
2017 60 5
2018 63.6 2

If we treat the PC/RW era as a whole, there’s nothing particularly special about the Seahawks in terms of fumbles. When they were winning divisions and conferences and Lombardi(s), they were middle-of-the-pack. The last three years, they’re fumble kings, and in the good way — other teams are paying tribute to them.

When that luck reverses, and it figures to do so someday, will they have the talent, like the 2012-2014 crews, to still win more than half their games? Hard to say.

Total Turnovers: Not nearly enough

Wilson’s interception numbers aren’t likely to change that much as his career enters its second act. Look at the stability, hanging around 2 percent from the start, deviating little in either direction.

Wilson and the Picks

Year Interception % NFL rank
Year Interception % NFL rank
2012 2.5 13
2013 2.2 13
2014 1.5 4
2015 1.7 6
2016 2 13
2017 2 11
2018 1.6 7

You can’t legitimately count on Wilson to be a top five QB in terms of interception percentage. For all the good-decision-making we impute to him, he’s been top five all of once. But you know he’ll be in the upper half, and you know he’ll hang around 2 percent. The fluctuation just isn’t there. If the Seahawks are going to have up and down years as far as offensive turnovers, it’s going to be based on fumble volume and fumble luck.

Last season, only 6.1 percent of Seattle drives ended in a giveaway. We know that Pete Carroll teams focus on protecting the football, but in 2010-2017, they weren’t outliers like they were in 2018.

Top teams in drive turnover percentage

Failed Drives

NFL rank Team Drive turnover %
NFL rank Team Drive turnover %
1 Seattle 6.1
2 Green Bay 6.7
3 Houston 8.1
4 New England 9.2
5 New Orleans 9.5
16 Median 11.1

Here’s the problem with 6.1 — it’s not near the Seahawks’ rolling average, nor the league average. Seattle’s averaged a turnover on approximately 9 percent of drives since Wilson took over, always coming in between 6.9 and 10.0 percent. 2018 was artificially low overall, and that bodes poorly for 2019. And you can’t exactly figure the Seahawks will continue to be roughly twice as good as the league median. They’re an outlier. Outliers don’t tend to last in the NFL.

So what? These are your objections, as imagined by me.

A) Doesn’t RW recover most of his fumbles anyway?

Yes, but other QB’s don’t. To impute recovery skill to him is to ignore a lot more data than one uses.

B) Would seven extra fumbles lost, or so, really flip that many games?

The Seahawks played seven games decided by three or more points and another four decided by one possession or less. I’m comfortable saying some of those games would have turned into losses with average fumble luck.

Random distribution of unlucky bounces means you remove points from seven typical drives — or in the case of Seattle, a total of 16 points, based on a 2.3 points-per-drive average. That’ll flip anywhere from zero to three games.

C) Russ will throw very few picks and Pete emphasizes ball security in the RB corps. That has to matter.

This is true! The coaching staff teaches the quarterback to take fewer risks than he might otherwise, and the front office is far more likely to cut loose a ball carrier who puts the ball on the ground. For those reasons, the Seahawks might be prone to fewer overall turnovers. But that shouldn’t change what happens once the ball comes free.

A primer on regression would be incomplete — as incomplete as a Jared Goff pass traveling more than 15 yards downfield — without reiterating one important disclaimer: favorable results in 2018 do not preclude the same favorable outcome in 2019. It’s just not likely that the Seahawks will be as fortunate with fumbles as they were.