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Peak Perspective: The Art of the Turnover

Cal, Stanford & SJS head coaches weigh in

Bay Area college football media day at Levi’s Stadium, July 30, 2019 with Stanford head coach David Shaw, Cal Bear head coach Justin Wilcox & San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan.
Bay Area college football media day at Levi’s Stadium, July 30, 2019.
Vic Aquino

“Whatever you want to do or become, you make it a habit. You talk about it all the time, so it’s ingrained in your system. If you don’t practice it, it’s not going to happen. If you don’t preach it, it’s not going to be important. You have to preach it and practice it every day.” says Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw.

Turnovers in football will forever be debated, parsed and philosophied. Football analyses in general is at an all-time high moreso now because of the endless number of analysts and pundits. And having to find ways to continually regurgitate the finite factors of the game is only more credible coming from actual game experts, be it coaches and players past and present.

So as far as turnovers go, as all the coaches interviewed here note, avoiding it and hunting for it is a fundamentally ingrained component of football. It’s a profound factor just as the combination of speed, strength, technique and football intelligence are required to reach any level of success.

“On both sides of the ball, it’s part of every tackling circuit, part of every running with the ball circuit. It’s always about ball security & takeaways, especially for us to be competitive.” expressed San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan.

Under Brennan, the Spartans year-over-year turnover margin has greatly improved from being ranked 129th to 58th - from a minus 26 turnover margin in 2017 to a plus 1 turnover margin in 2018 is indeed a great improvement. This year, Brennan’s goal is to reach the top 25 nationally in turnover margin.

Turnovers are such a visual miscue that signifies both success and failure all at the same time for one side or the other. It simultaneously triggers excitement and disappointment, as that unpredictable exciting thing that’s probably second to the feeling of scoring or getting scored on.

To most sports fans, it’s obviously good or bad. To coaches, it’s either the bane of your existence and or a tangible measurement of success. To players, it’s one of the quickest ways to the bench or being a temporary hero.

Statistically, the simplistic thing to say is winning the turnover margin is obviously an advantage. Without getting into an analytics dissertation, a few interesting facts from Ed Feng, a Stanford math PhD. are worth noting. Feng runs an analytics service called the Power Rank and has dozens of NFL and college football clients.

  • In one given sample size, there were more interceptions thrown on third down than first down, despite 6,000 more pass attempts on first down!
  • In a recent five-year time span, the difference between an FBS team in the top one-third nationally in takeaways and a team in the bottom one-third is only about one takeaway for every two games played.
  • Over the past 10 years, every FBS team has a positive turnover margin when leading for most of the game.
  • Teams that run the ball more turn the ball over far less - but lack of QB efficiency can offset that rule.

Feng’s findings seems to suggest turnovers are more random and subtle, where randomness plays a much bigger role, especially considering all the other dynamics of the game.

Turnovers can also have alternative interpretations or unintended effects:

  • The physical effect to create and avoid turnovers. Backs who need to run the ball with two hands, for example, lose some mobility. A defender going after the ball first can lose their leverage and miss tackles.
  • An unsuccessful on-side kick should/could technically be a turnover
  • A defensive penalty on a long third down gives the offense 15 yards and a first down and you lose a potential offensive possession.
  • A touchdown called back after review and you have to punt on fourth down; more of a reach, though it’s an empty possession, where every possession is of value.

On a lighter note, the color commentary that used to be fun and insightful are just stale now. “Take care of the football.” “We gotta win the turnover battle.” “Turnovers were the story in this one.” “Protect the football.” “That was a costly turnover.” And so on. All around, the game has a ton of them, of course, but some new ones would be nice.

What else is behind the art of the turnover?

“There’s the technique within a play itself,” says Cal Bear head coach Justin WIlcox “On offense: making a block, running a route at the right depth, reading the coverage properly all contributes to turnover avoidance. On defense: it’s the pass rush, getting your hands up & maybe tipping the ball or the drop of a linebacker that all ups your chances to create a turnover.”

The art behind it is also emotional.

“Our defense does a tackling & turnover circuit. We celebrate those turnovers. We make it a big deal every time it happens. We’re energized and excited and we’re reinforcing that behavior. You show them film and appeal to their intellect as well and their understanding of the game,” says Shaw.

But some will beg to differ there is no art, just the need for heightened awareness and athleticism and that it is the talent differential that generates more turnovers. In essence, the byproduct of the proper mental and physical execution is what helps prevent turnovers or create them.

“It’s wholistic. For us, we have to be much more efficient running the football and securing it and then make good decisions throwing it,” counters Brennan. “We have to put players in the right positions in each play, have them understand situations and the players have to execute. That’s what it comes down to, always.”

Overall, it can be a fine line. If you think about turnovers as a player, how paralyzing or limiting can that be? Or if you’re a great team known for protecting the ball and taking the ball away, how empowering can it be against your opponents’ psyche? As the saying goes, “That’s why they play the game.”