The Data Says: Can The Cowboys Win Without Turnovers?


With the Dallas Cowboys organization all hot and bothered about “takeaways” again this training camp season, it’s time to examine what the data says about the importance of turnovers in relation to winning football games.

We all know what head coach Jason Garrett says – he’s been hammering it since the team landed in Oxnard, Calif. last week:

"If you look at how we did last year, we did a very good job in the early part of the season taking the ball away. I think we were in the Top 5 for most of the year. And then towards the end of the year we didn’t make as many takeaways as we had earlier on, and it reflected in how many points we scored offensively and the opportunities that we got. So that will continue to be an emphasis for us. If you look at the statistics in the National Football League over the past year, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, all the way back, it is the No. 1 statistic that correlates to winning. We constantly have that in front of our players. The first drill that we do in practice is The Ball Period, to make sure that we’re taking care of the ball on offense and getting the ball on defense, so we’ll continue to do that, and it needs to show up. It is the difference-making stat in football."

The Cowboys generated 19 turnovers in the first eight games, and in the last eight games they got just nine turnovers. They outscored their opponents by an average of 28.8 to 23.3 in the first half of the season, and got rocked 26.1 to 30.1 in the second half.

So while the drop in turnovers had a negligent effect on the offense’s production, the defense fell apart, yielding nearly a full touchdown more per game in the second half of the season. If you recall, it had gotten to the point where the defense couldn’t force a punt, and the only way they were stopping anyone from scoring was by taking the ball away.

For the year, the Cowboys were 5-2 when they won the turnover margin and 1-3 when they lost it. I pulled the raw data from Pro Football Reference. Here are the games in which the Cowboys won the turnover margin:

[table id=39 /]

The Saints game sort of skews things here. Dallas got crushed 49-17. The defense forced a punt on New Orleans’ first drive. The Cowboys punted back after a 3-and-out, but return man Darren Sproles muffed it. That was the only turnover in the game. It was also the only punt of the game for New Orleans, as the Saints would score touchdowns on seven of their eight remaining drives – the only hiccup being a missed 37-yard field goal in the third quarter. What’s the more meaningful stat? That the Cowboys won the turnover margin 1-0? Or that the defense didn’t force a punt for 56 minutes and gave up 40 first downs?

Even with this game, the Cowboys outscore their opponents 27-25 when they win the turnover battle. Without this game, they are 5-1 with an average score of 29-21. That might be a more realistic view of how the Cowboys perform when they protect the ball on offense and take it away on defense.

Here are the games in which the Cowboys lost the turnover battle:

[table id=40 /]

Four games decided by a total of five points, and the Cowboys were -6 overall in turnovers. People love to blame the play calling for the Green Bay loss, but the Packers had five second-half drives and scored five second-half touchdowns. If the defense forced a single punt in the second half, this is a win. One punt. Even a field goal.  Or, since we’re on the subject, how about an interception of journeyman backup quarterback Matt Flynn? The offense scores 36 points, the team loses, and all anyone wants to blame is the offensive play calling. This is why I don’t watch ESPN.

Twice in the second half of the season, at New Orleans and again at Chicago, the Dallas defense gave up 40+ points, and the Dallas offense didn’t turn the ball over once. Know how hard it is to score 40 points in an NFL game? It happened 34 times last year. That’s 6.6 percent of games. Know how hard it is to score 40 points without the benefit of a turnover? It happened five times last year. Twice to the Cowboys. They forced one punt in eight quarters of football. Leave the offensive play caller alone. You’re upset because the paint is peeling in your house, and you’re thinking you need to fix that. But the paint is peeling because your house is on fire.

So far in the Garrett era, the NFC East has been won by the team with the best turnover differential:

[table id=38 /]

Maybe it is that simple. If only because a turnover is as good as a punt.