Football has no shortage of adages. It’s a game of inches. It’s about imposing your will and dominating your opponent. It’s about grit, and winning through toughness. But what if football is also largely about being lucky?
Near the end of the second quarter in the Week 11 game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills, the Colts kicked off to the Bills after a field goal made it 17-7. The kickoff by Rigoberto Sanchez sailed 62 yards and was fielded by Bills return specialist Isaiah McKenzie at the Bills’ 3-yard line. McKenzie advanced to the 10, juked to the left slightly to set up the defender crossing the 20 and veered hard right — a little too hard, as it turned out.
McKenzie stumbled at the 15, spilling to the ground on the left hash without being touched, and watched as the ball squirted out from under him and sped across the middle of the field to the right hash, into the arms of cornerback T.J. Carrie. Carrie was eventually tackled at the 2, and Colts running back Jonathan Taylor scored a touchdown on Indianapolis’s next offensive play.
An early finding of NFL analytics is that turnovers are largely a function of luck. While the result applies in some measure to interceptions, it is particularly true of fumble recoveries. This kick return in Buffalo is a shining example: Other than some hand-waving to the fabled “turf monster,” there was no good reason why McKenzie should have tripped on this particular kick return without ever being touched down. That the ball would squeeze between his belly and the turf, pop free and then traverse the entire span of the middle of the field — from hash to hash — could never have been predicted. It was splendid luck for Indianapolis, and the Colts capitalized on it immediately, extending their lead and all but ending the competitive portion of the game.
Good fortune of this sort has been a frequent companion of the Colts all season. Through Week 12, Indianapolis has recovered a league-leading 13 fumbles and is tied for third in the NFL with a fumble margin of plus-4. Over their past four games — a span in which they went 3-1 — the Colts scooped up four fumbles, tied for second in the league. And the Colts have been nearly as good at picking off opposing quarterbacks, with 14 interceptions over the course of the season, tied for fourth in the league.
|New England Patriots||7||6||-1||8||19||+11||+10|
|Green Bay Packers||5||7||+2||5||12||+7||+9|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||6||9||+3||9||14||+5||+8|
|New York Giants||5||6||+1||9||13||+4||+5|
|New Orleans Saints||5||3||-2||7||13||+6||+4|
|Los Angeles Rams||4||3||-1||10||12||+2||+1|
|Los Angeles Chargers||2||5||+3||10||7||-3||0|
|Las Vegas Raiders||3||8||+5||9||4||-5||0|
|Washington Football Team||6||6||0||10||6||-4||-4|
|San Francisco 49ers||8||6||-2||7||5||-2||-4|
|Kansas City Chiefs||11||5||-6||11||10||-1||-7|
|New York Jets||5||5||0||19||4||-15||-15|
While fumble recoveries are almost completely random, the picture is a little different for interceptions. Throwing picks in the NFL — and avoiding them — appears to be something under the control of the quarterback to at least some degree. Interception rate shows some stability from year to year at the player level, indicating that the ability to avoid or create turnovers through the air is a skill, and Pro Football Focus charts a statistic it calls “turnover-worthy plays” for each quarterback snap in the league that’s even less influenced by randomness. Still, there’s a large residual luck component in interceptions, and we wanted a way to measure it to help identify which teams have been the most fortunate with interceptions so far this season.
We built a model to estimate how many turnover-worthy plays we should expect from a quarterback given the particular set of circumstances he faced in a season. This ensemble machine learning model used pass attempts, dropbacks, PFF’s big-time throws, defensive pressures, receiver drops, passing yards, quarterback scrambles, the number of passes thrown away, average depth of target and PFF pass grades as predictors of turnover-worthy plays. After training and testing, we used the model to calculate the expected number of turnover-worthy plays for each quarterback who attempted a pass this season, and then subtracted the observed number of turnover-worthy plays from expected. Finally, we totaled up Turnover-Worthy Plays Over Expected (TWPOE) for quarterbacks by team.
|team||Quarterback||Team TOs||QB TWPOE|
|Indianapolis Colts||Carson Wentz||15||-5.2|
|Las Vegas Raiders||Derek Carr||12||-2.5|
|Seattle Seahawks||Russell Wilson||7||-2.5|
|Los Angeles Chargers||Justin Herbert||12||-2.1|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Tom Brady||15||-2.0|
|Cleveland Browns||Baker Mayfield||13||-1.4|
|New Orleans Saints||Taysom Hill||12||-1.1|
|Denver Broncos||Teddy Bridgewater||12||-1.1|
|Arizona Cardinals||Kyler Murray||11||-0.8|
|Green Bay Packers||Aaron Rodgers||10||-0.8|
|Atlanta Falcons||Matt Ryan||18||-0.7|
|Baltimore Ravens||Lamar Jackson||17||-0.5|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Patrick Mahomes||22||-0.5|
|Minnesota Vikings||Kirk Cousins||8||-0.4|
|Houston Texans||Tyrod Taylor||18||-0.4|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Jalen Hurts||13||-0.3|
|Carolina Panthers||Cam Newton||20||-0.2|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Trevor Lawrence||19||-0.1|
|Los Angeles Rams||Matthew Stafford||14||+0.0|
|Washington Football Team||Taylor Heinicke||16||+0.0|
|New York Giants||Daniel Jones||14||+0.0|
|Detroit Lions||Jared Goff||14||+0.0|
|Dallas Cowboys||Dak Prescott||15||+0.1|
|Chicago Bears||Justin Fields||15||+0.1|
|New England Patriots||Mac Jones||15||+0.2|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Joe Burrow||15||+0.3|
|San Francisco 49ers||Jimmy Garoppolo||15||+0.5|
|New York Jets||Zach Wilson||24||+0.6|
|Buffalo Bills||Josh Allen||16||+0.7|
|Tennessee Titans||Ryan Tannehill||21||+0.9|
|Miami Dolphins||Tua Tagovailoa||20||+1.2|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Ben Roethlisberger||14||+1.2|
Not only have the Colts been lucky with fumble recoveries, they’ve also been getting a career-best season from Carson Wentz in terms of taking care of the football. Wentz’s 5.2 turnover-worthy plays under expected leads the NFL, and it’s also far and away the best mark of his career. In fact, if Wentz finishes 2021 with fewer turnover-worthy plays than expected, it will be the first time he’s ever done so. In each of the previous five seasons, he’s had more turnover-worthy plays than we would expect. Wentz’s play coupled with their fumble recoveries has the Colts first in the league in overall turnover margin at plus-12.
Turnover luck of this sort is relatively unknown in Indianapolis. Despite his promising surname, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck was not good at avoiding turnover-worthy plays in Indy. Over his six-year career, he averaged 3.7 TWPOE, the fourth-worst average in the NFL since 2010 and behind only Jameis Winston, Rex Grossman and Carson Palmer. Luck posted fewer turnover-worthy plays than expected just once in his career (-2.1 in 2016). And when Philip Rivers joined the Colts in 2020, he also had more turnover-worthy plays than expected (1). 2021 marks just the fourth season since 2012 that the Colts’ primary QB had good fortune in the form of TWPOE.
The luck couldn’t have come at a better time, and Colts fans hope it will last. After starting the season losing four of their first five, they’ve moved all the way up to eighth in our Elo rankings with tough games against New England and Arizona looming on the horizon. Currently we have their playoff probability at 53 percent — just about a coin flip, which seems only fitting.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.