The Formula

Just a quick bit of news before I get to the subject of the article.  Another Seahawk was put on injured reserve this week, but for once it wasn’t a starting offensive lineman.  The unlucky player this time around is CB Ron Parker, a special teamer who was claimed off waivers from Oakland back in week eight.  To fill his roster spot, WR Ricardo Lockette has been elevated from the practice squad.  There’s no guarantee that Lockette will even be on the active roster for the game tomorrow, but he could be exciting as a gunner on the punt coverage unit.  He earned his way on to the 53 man roster by making great catches in practice, but his greatest asset is his speed; Lockette was a track star at Fort Valley State, where in 2008 he won a Division II championship in the 200 meter.  Dude’s fast.

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A few months back I read Rex Ryan’s book Play to Win.  Now, all I really expect from an active head coach’s book is boilerplate ghostwriting with a few useful facts sprinkled throughout, but somehow this one failed to meet even those low expectations.  Honestly, it’s best to think of Play to Win not as a book about football, but as a way for Ryan to brag at length about how awesome he is and how much his life rocks, interspersed with some barebones summaries of Jets games and painful attempts to justify Mark Sanchez’s existence.  Unless you’re as deeply in love with Rex Ryan as Ryan himself, I recommend avoiding it at all costs.

The only reason I bring it up at all is because of one of the rare few useful bits of information in the entire book.  Towards the beginning of chapter five, Ryan takes time out from his self-love fest to talk for a minute about two statistical measures that set successful teams apart from everyone else1:

If you look at rushing attempts plus [pass] completions, if you are ahead in that category, then you win about 80 percent of your games.  It’s a proven fact.  Then tie in protecting the football and getting turnovers on defense with rushing attempts and completions, and presto, that’s all you’ve got to do . . . According to Randy Lange, who works for the Jets on our website, if you count all games (playoff and regular season) since 2003, NFL teams that get at least one more turnover than their opponent win nearly 80 percent of the time.

The concept is simple enough: win the turnover battle, and you win 4 out of every 5 games, and the same is true if you have more rushing attempts and pass completions combined than your opponent.  What I wanted to know is what happens when you combine those two stats.  How high is the win percentage if you’re ahead in both categories, or positive in one but negative or just breaking even in the other?

(To continue reading, please click on “Read More” below.)

So, I spent this last week looking at those two stats for every regular season game played this year up through week fourteen, and if it weren’t for being sick (‘tis the season)2 I would’ve had this whole thing finished and up on the site by Wednesday — sorry about the wait.  Anyway, in 208 regular season games, 201 teams have ended the game with a higher rush attempts plus pass completions total than their opponent, 201 teams had a lower total than their opponent, and 14 teams had exactly the same total.  In turnovers, 163 teams got more turnovers than their opponent, 163 got fewer, and 90 teams broke even.  Here’s how those numbers break down into winners and losers:

Winning Teams Losing Teams
Higher Rush Att.
+ Pass Comp. Total
153 (76.1%) 48 (23.9%)
Even in RA + PC 7 (50%) 7 (50%)
Lower RA + PC 48 (23.9%) 153 (76.1%)
Positive in Turnovers 129 (79.1%) 34 (20.9%)
Even in TOs 45 (50%) 45 (50%)
Negative in TOs 34 (20.9%) 129 (79.1%)

So, the team with more rush attempts and pass completions won the game 76.1% of the time and the team with a higher number of turnovers won 79.1% of the time, both of which are pretty close to the 80% figure Ryan quoted. Next up is a look at how these numbers work out when we combine them:

Higher in
Even in
Lower in
in TOs
91 Won
5 Lost
4 Won
1 Lost
34 Won
28 Lost
in TOs 
34 Won
9 Lost
2 Won
2 Lost
9 Won
34 Lost
in TOs
28 Won
34 Lost
1 Won
4 Lost
5 Won
91 Lost

As you can see, teams that finished ahead in both categories this year have won the game a commanding 94.8% of the time, while win percentage for teams that finished behind in both have won just 5.2%3.  Teams that finished ahead in one category while breaking even in the other still won the majority of the time, although their win percentage drops to 70.8%, while the win percentage for teams that finished positive in one stat but negative in the other is no better than a coin flip.

There does seem to be something to this measurement, but even so it’s important to note that these stats don’t point to any one correct way to win games.  Teams ended up ahead in these categories for any number of reasons.  Some were ahead in rush attempts plus pass completions because they picked defenses apart with short passes, some did it by getting ahead early and grinding out the clock on the ground, while still others finished ahead not because their offense was particularly great but because their defense held the other team to three-and-outs all game long.  Likewise, sometimes turnovers happen not because a defense is filled with ball hawks, but because the other team’s running back is fumbling like crazy or their wide receivers keep letting the ball bounce off their hands for easy interceptions.  (Heck, sometimes the margin between the higher and lower total hardly existed at all; in roughly a quarter of the games I examined, the difference between the two teams’ rush and pass totals was five or lower.)

But while there’s no one winning strategy to be found here, these stats are helpful as a rule of thumb in judging the quality of a team’s win.  If the victorious team was ahead in both categories, then chances are good that they were the dominant team that day, whereas if they were negative in one or both it’s much more likely that they simply got lucky.

So, what about the Seahawks?  Sure, they’ve won four of their last five, but what do the stats have to say about those wins?  Take a look:

Week Opponent RA+PC TOs Result
1 @ 49ers Lower Negative Loss
2 @ Steelers Lower Even Loss
3 Cardinals Lower Positive Win
4 Falcons Lower Negative Loss
5 @ Giants Higher Positive Win
6 Bye
7 @Browns Lower Negative Loss
8 Bengals Even Even Loss
9 @ Cowboys Lower Negative Loss
10 Ravens Higher Positive Win
11 @ Rams Higher Positive Win
12 Redskins Lower Positive Loss
13 Eagles Higher Positive Win
14 Rams Higher Even Win

As you can see, the Seahawks are 6-1 in games in which they were ahead in one or both stats, and in only one of those wins were they behind in either category.  Conversely, they’ve gone 1-6 in games in which they were behind in one or both stats.  So if you go by these figures, the Seahawks appear to have deserved every win they’ve earned this year, but that would also mean that they deserved to lose the games they did.  I’m not sure how I feel about those conclusions, nor am I sure any of this is particularly useful, but I suppose working all this out did keep me busy and out of trouble this week, so there’s that at least.


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1 From pages 163-64 of the hardcover edition.

2 As far as infections are concerned, every winter my sinuses become the trendiest nightclub around.  The damn things love to get their groove on up in there.  Thanks, genetics.

3 Believe it or not, none of those five wins were by the Tebow-led Broncos.  The five teams that somehow pulled off a win were the Lions over the Bears in week five, the Rams over the Browns in week ten, the Browns over the Jaguars in week eleven, the Jets over the Bills in week twelve, and the Steelers over the Browns in week fourteen.  And in case you’re wondering, I have no idea why the Browns were involved in three of the five games.