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Explosive plays, turnover margins, and good news for the Eagles

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Finding win-loss indicators that actually work...

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been a football fan long enough, you’ve been subjected to all the played out clichés surrounding win-loss indicators. In your lifetime, how many graphics have you seen that shove the same tired narrative of “teams that run more win more games” down your throat? It’s wild that in 2018 that talking point still exists and, in some circles, is feverishly defended. Yes, teams with leads run the ball, but correlation does not imply causation.

So what actually serves as an indicator for success in the NFL? In the foreward of Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview, I saw an interesting quote from Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelly.

“We want to have more explosive plays which gain over 20 yards than the other team. A more common goal is we also want to have fewer turnovers. Data shows if you win those battles, you’ll win the game over 80% of the time.”

We’ll start with turnover margin, which is a more ingrained and accepted method of calculating a teams’ success. Taking a macro of the entire season rather than individual games, the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles score well here. They ranked 4th in the league and tied for tops in the league in road game differential with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Looking at the entire league, the top half of the league accumulated a record of 153-103 (60%), leaving the bottom half to mess themselves on their way to a sloppy 103-153.

Regarding the first point about explosive plays, the 2017 data backs this up. Again we are extrapolating this data over a full season and not individual games. The top 11 of 13 offenses in plays of 20+ yards had winning records. That’s why teams are constantly reaching for raw, “take the top off” receivers while passing on more nuanced, but less athletic route runners.

For defenses best at limiting these plays it helped the top 8 of 11 teams to winning records. Combating those speedy deep threats takes talent on the back-end, which is why Earl Thomas is so heavily coveted and the Seattle Seahawks should do everything in their power to retain his services.

I took it a step further and ran the numbers against each other, creating an “Explosive Margin”. The Minnesota Vikings led the league with a +29 differential, with the next closest team boasting a 20+ differential in the New Orleans Saints. All told, the top 11 teams in Explosive Margin had winning records. Conversely, 10 of the worst 11 in margin had losing records.

The Eagles performed well in this creating and preventing splash plays. They ranked 11th on offense, 6th on defense and 8th in differential. They bring back all three of their big play magnets in Nelson Agholor (9), Alshon Jeffery (8), and Zach Ertz (7), but it gets better. The Baltimore Ravens were dead last in explosive plays on offense (37), but guess who led the team by a wide margin? If you guessed Mike Wallace, you’d be correct.

In fact, Wallace would’ve led the Eagles as well, as he created 11 explosive plays last year with bargain bin quarterback play. Wallace still has plenty of juice left and adds to a squad already teeming with play-makers. More good news on that front, not only did the Eagles perform well in this category against a tough slate last year, but it projects to be much easier sledding this year.

It pays to be sudden and teams that can’t travel downfield quickly eventually bog down. Inspecting drives that start in a teams’ own territory shows a correlation between ability to grab chunk yardage and ability to score touchdowns.

One example is the New York Giants’ offense. They ranked 30th in explosive plays on offense, and 29th in touchdown drives that started on their side of the 50-yard line. It wasn’t just the run game they were looking to spark when they drafted running back Saquon Barkley. They were trying to make the offense more dynamic as a whole and in that way the pick (not the cost) makes sense. It would also make sense to give Odell Beckham Jr. a new contract. From 2014-2016 no receiver had more touchdowns of over 20 yards (16) than Beckham, but I digress.

The Eagles, New England Patriots and Saints were tops in pointing points on the board from their own territory and all three ranked in plays of 20+ yards. The Vikings defense choked the life out of offenses, containing them for a league low 39 plays of 20+ yards and a league low 16 touchdown drives of over 50 yards.

Wrapping both Explosive Margin and Turnover Margin together provides an even deeper correlation to success. 12 teams had check marks in the positive column for both metrics; all 12 had winning records and all 8 division winners came from this dirty dozen. Overall, those 12 teams posted a 130-62 (67%) record. The 14 teams that checked both boxes in the negative crapped out with a 90-134 record.

Turnover Margin has long been tied to narratives about winning and that still holds true, but if you tie in Explosive Margin, you get an even better indicator of success. Grinding out drives is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is explosive plays are what men want to be, and what women want to be with. For the Eagles, Wallace moves the needle towards more wins and a potential step forward by the young group of cornerbacks nudges it further.