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Toxic Results

Posted May 31, 2011

Tampa Bay’s increased explosiveness on offense in 2010 coupled with good work in the turnover department put the Bucs high up on a chart that predicts playoff contenders


It is said that the modern NFL is a “big man’s game.”  That’s hard to argue when 300-pound linemen are occasionally referred to as “undersized,” and when quarterbacks are bigger than their blockers were 25 years ago.

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers team that played in Super Bowl XLV this past February had 13 players listed at 300 or more pounds, or almost exactly one quarter of the roster.  That sounds like an enormous squad, but in fact the Steelers were almost exactly average in terms of size last year.  Their 53-man Week One roster in 2010 had an average height of 6.15 feet and an average weight of 247.70 pounds per player.  The NFL averages were 6.16 and 248.13.

 

No, what got Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl last year wasn’t big men.  It was big plays.

 

Follow the NFL for any length of time and soon enough you’ll hear an announcer or a coach say, “Turnovers win and lose ballgames.”  It is a truism at this point, an idea so universally agreed upon that it’s hardly worth debating.

 

Here were the top 10 teams in turnover differential in the NFL last year, from first to 10th: New England, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Green Bay, Kansas City, N.Y. Jets, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and St. Louis.  Of those 10 teams, only Tampa Bay and St. Louis didn’t make the playoffs, and both were only eliminated on tiebreakers on the season’s final day.

 

Follow your favorite team’s draft preparations for any length of time, and you’re sure to hear a coach say he wants players who can bring “explosiveness” to the offense.  This too is easy to understand and often obviously represented in the standings.  Green Bay, the team that beat Pittsburgh in SBXLV, ranked second in the NFL big passing plays according to Statspass, with such plays being defined as 25 yards or more.  The Steelers were 10th on that list, and also 11th on the big-play rushing chart (10 yards or more).

 

So why are we discussing these two relatively unquestioned ideas?  Because combining the two goes a long way towards explaining why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the surprise team in the NFL last season.

 

Credit for this combination idea goes to Brian Billick, the NFL Network analyst and former head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.  While serving as the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings in 1998 (and there was a team with big-play ability), he began alerting his team to a combo statistic he called “toxic differential.”  The stat combined the difference between a team’s big plays on offense and big plays allowed on defense with its turnover differential.

 

Fellow NFL Network analyst Jim Mora, a former head coach in Atlanta and Seattle, refers to the same idea as a “double positive.”  Mora’s point is that excelling in either big play differential or turnover differential is going to help a team win on any given Sunday, but excelling in both at the same time almost ensures victory.

 

The formula for what Billick called his TOX Rating last year is simple: A team’s total of explosive plays on offense (runs or passes that gained 20 or more yards) minus the number of explosive plays it allowed on defense produces an explosive play differential.  A team’s turnover differential is added to that number to create the final TOX rating.

 

For example, the Steelers led the NFL last year with a TOX Rating of 59.  Pittsburgh had 78 explosive plays on offense while allowing only 36 on defense, for an explosive play differential of 42.  The Steelers’ 17 turnover differential was then added to that for the final score of 59.  That was almost twice the next-highest total, a score of 30 shared by New England and San Diego.

 

The TOX rating can and often does go into the negative.  The worst TOX rating team in the NFL last year was Seattle, which had an explosive play differential of -25 (51 gained, 76 allowed) and a turnover differential of -9 for a total TOX score of -34.  Yes, the Seahawks made the playoffs, but at 7-9 they were the first team to do so with a losing record, thanks to the historically bad combined record of the entire NFC West.

 

In 2009, when Billick first began sharing this formula on the airwaves, it proved to be remarkably predictive.  Ten of the top 11 teams in TOX rating that season made the playoffs.  This past year, seven of the top 11 teams qualified for the postseason, but a look at the standings shows an even stronger correlation.  Here are all 32 teams ranked by their TOX rating in 2010:

 

2010

Off.

Def.

Explosive

TO

TOX

Team

Rec.

Explosive

Explosive

Diff.

Diff.

Rating

1. PIT

12-4

78

36

42

17

59

2t. NE

14-2

63

61

2

28

30

2t. SD

9-7

79

43

36

-6

30

4. PHI

10-6

80

63

17

9

26

5. TB

10-6

65

51

14

9

23

6. NYG

10-6

80

56

24

-3

21

7. GB

10-6

60

54

6

10

16

8. HOU

6-10

75

62

13

0

13

9t. ATL

13-3

44

48

-4

14

10

9t. KC

10-6

55

54

1

9

10

11. NYJ

11-5

55

56

-1

9

8

12. SF

6-10

61

57

4

-1

3

13t. DET

6-10

52

54

-2

4

2

13t. OAK

8-8

72

68

4

-2

2

15. CHI

11-5

53

57

-4

4

0

16t. DAL

6-10

68

69

-1

0

-1

16t. TEN

6-10

59

56

3

-4

-1

18. MIN

6-10

58

49

9

-11

-2

19. BAL

12-4

47

58

-11

7

-4

20. NO

11-5

54

55

-1

-6

-7

21. IND

10-6

50

56

-6

-4

-10

22t. CLE

5-11

49

59

-10

-1

-11

22t. WAS

6-10

63

70

-7

-4

-11

24. STL

7-9

45

66

-21

5

-16

25. MIA

7-9

49

54

-5

-12

-17

26t. BUF

4-12

51

54

-3

-17

-20

26t. CAR

2-14

44

56

-12

-8

-20

28t. AZ

5-11

55

74

-19

-5

-24

28t. CIN

4-12

48

64

-16

-8

-24

30. DEN

4-12

68

84

-16

-9

-25

31. JAX

8-8

61

72

-11

-15

-26

32. SEA

7-9

51

76

-25

-9

-34

 

Of the top 11 teams on the list, the only one that seems out of place is Houston, with its #8 ranking and it’s 6-10 record.  Otherwise, every team in that group had a winning record.  Furthermore, of the bottom 11 teams on the list, not one of them had a winning record and only one reached .500.

 

The average win total of the top 11 teams on the list was 10.5.  The average win total of the bottom 11 teams on the list was 5.4.

 

And you probably noticed that the Bucs came in at #5 on the list, with a big-play differential of 14 and a turnover differential of 9, impressive marks in both categories.  The big-play differential of 14 may not seem overwhelming, but note that only four teams did better: Pittsburgh, San Diego, the New York Giants and Philadelphia.

 

The Buccaneers improved in every aspect of TOX rating from 2009, when a team in transition finished with a 3-13 record, to last year, when they won 10 games and became the first NFC team (along with the 2010 Giants) to win 10 games but not make the playoffs.  The 2009 team produced 49 explosive plays but allowed 61 for a differential of -12.  It also had a turnover ratio of -5.  From these numbers, it’s easy to see why the Bucs were able to affect the greatest season-to-season turnaround in franchise history, an increase of seven wins.

 

In an article on NFL.com early last December, Elliot Harrison examined TOX rating and listed the top 10 teams in that category overall since 2000.  The Buccaneers tied Green Bay for sixth on the list:

 

Explosive

TO

TOX

Team

Diff.

Diff

Rating

1. Pittsburgh

170

43

213

2. Philadelphia

138

58

196

3. Indianapolis

129

46

175

4. San Diego

131

17

148

5. New England

34

75

109

6t. Tampa Bay

15

62

77

6t. Green Bay

48

29

77

8. Denver

42

17

59

9. N.Y. Jets

29

28

57

10. Dallas

95

-57

38

 

Note, however, that while this list includes nine of the 11 Super Bowl winners since 2000, not all the team’s TOX ratings are created equally.

 

San Diego, for instance, has a really high big-play differential but a rather pedestrian turnover differential.  Dallas, actually makes the list despite a pretty terrible turnover ratio.  New England is well below the top four in big-play differential but tops on the list in turnover differential.

 

It’s a credit to the Buccaneers that they are this high on the list, and that surely had a lot to do with their 2002 Super Bowl title and their three NFC South championships.  However, the numbers paint a familiar picture for Tampa Bay fans – an aggressive and productive defense plus an offense that often struggled to move the ball consistently.  Of all the teams in the top 10, the Buccaneers had the lowest explosive-play differential.

 

The 2010 team was different, however, and that speaks well of the team’s postseason chances in the immediate future.  With the additions of LeGarrette Blount, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, the rapid development of quarterback Josh Freeman and the continued presence of Kellen Winslow, the 2010 offense was much more likely to make the big strike.  If that offensive core continues to grow together, and if Raheem Morris’s defense can be as turnover-happy as always, the Bucs might be able to get into Steelers territory in this important combined statistic.

 

And if that happens, things could get toxic for the rest of the NFC South.

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