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Planes, turnovers, and Adrian Petersons

Posted by Doug on December 25, 2008

I was tooling around my buddy JC's sabernomics blog the other day and came across this nifty paragraph in the FAQ, where JC simultaneously apologizes for and absolves himself of some occasional sloppiness in his writing:

I like blogging because it is a good way to post my thoughts quickly. If I proofread my posts as much as I wanted to, I wouldn’t post nearly as often. As George Stigler once said, “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time at the airport.”

The Stigler quote is just a variation of Voltaire's "the perfect is the enemy of the good," but it hits home with me because I'm an incorrigible unreasonably-early-at-the-airport guy. I do spend too much time in airports, and I know it.

And then on Sunday I watched Adrian Peterson fumble the football and the announcers say, "he's trying to do too much." And he was. And, though I don't watch enough of him to say this definitively, I'm guessing he often does. He has more fumbles in the last two seasons than any other running back in the league. But that must be tied to his being so damn good. You can't do more without trying to do more. And it's mighty tough to find the line between more and too much.

The parallel isn't exact, but...

missed planes ---> fumbles

me ---> regular RBs

time spent at airports ---> all that yardage Adrian Peterson is gaining that regular RBs are not

What if Adrian Peterson's life literally depended on him not fumbling at all --- not even once --- during the 2009 season. How many yards do you think he'd gain? Do you think he'd gain a thousand? I don't. No way. Remember, one fumble and he's dead.

If you buy that, then you're agreeing that Peterson's willingness to fumble occasionally is worth about 800 or so yards a year at least. And even after you subtract the damage caused by his half-dozen-or-so fumbles, that's a net gain. The point is, the optimal fumble rate for Peterson (or any other RB) isn't zero. Zero is such a draconian standard that it can't possibly be worth what it costs.

And the same is true with offenses in general. If Stigler is a football fan, he'd say, "If you never throw an interception, you're taking too many sacks, throwing too many balls out of bounds, and getting too many four yard gains on 3rd-and-9."

So if zero is not the optimal turnover rate, then what is? I don't know, and I don't think it's likely that I or anyone else will come up with a study that will convince anyone. But here is a little evidence of the general idea I'm trying to convey.

We all know that good offenses turn the ball over less than bad offenses, right? Here's the data on all teams from 2000--2007:

| points   | teams | to   |
| 274-     |    50 | 32.5 |
| 275--324 |    72 | 30.8 |
| 325--374 |    59 | 26.9 |
| 375--424 |    46 | 26.8 |
| 425+     |    27 | 24.2 |

So yes. Bad offenses have more turnovers. But that's looking at it backwards. If you turn the ball over, you didn't score on that possession.

But what if we just looked at possessions that did not result in points?

| points   | teams | to   | punt | to_pct |
| 274-     |    50 | 32.5 | 88.8 | 0.269  |
| 275--324 |    72 | 30.8 | 81.7 | 0.274  |
| 325--374 |    59 | 26.9 | 78.2 | 0.255  |
| 375--424 |    46 | 26.8 | 70.3 | 0.276  |
| 425+     |    27 | 24.2 | 61.4 | 0.282  |

The last column is turnovers divided by (turnovers plus punts). This table basically says that good offensive teams and bad offensive teams turn the ball over on roughly the same percentage of their non-scoring possessions. But to the extent that there is a difference, the best offensive teams actually turn the ball over on a greater percentage of their non-scoring possessions than the worst offensive teams do.

Here is another look. I took all teams since the merger and I computed their points scored divided by league average, and also their [turnovers divided by (TOs plus punts)], divided by league average. Just for ease of conversation, let's call a team's TO/(TO+punt) its "turnovers per nonscoring possesion."

So I grouped the teams into three groups: (1) turnovers per non-scoring possession less than 90% of league average, (2) turnovers per non-scoring possession between 90% and 110% of league average, and (3) turnovers per non-scoring possession greater than 110% of league average.

GROUP (1) teams, on average, scored points at 98.9% of league average.
GROUP (2) teams, on average, scored points at 99.6% of league average.
GROUP (3) teams, on average, scored points at 101.7% of league average.

The point is: if you want to be a good offense, it's just as important --- maybe more important --- to avoid punts as it is to avoid turnovers.

And maybe part of the reason bad offenses are bad is because they've got their turnover tolerance set too low. They're too willing to punt and not willing enough to risk turnovers. To punt is to spend time at the airport. It won't give you that punch-in-the-gut feeling that missing a flight will, but it will slowly rob you of some productive and/or enjoyable hours.

The key, of course, is to adjust your turnover tolerance depending on the situation. If you've got a multi-million dollar business meeting to get to, or a 4-point lead with a minute left in the game, don't miss that plane no matter how much time you have to spend eating Cinnabons at the Hudson News. If you're on vacation and there's a flight every 45 minutes to your destination, then you can cut it closer.

Certainly teams and players know this. I'm interested in what the optimal turnover rate is on, say, first-and-10 at your own 30 on the opening drive of the game. Do you think teams are generally close to it?

ADDENDUM: Brian Burke had some similar thoughts last week, specifically pertaining to the Redskins.