- The Buccaneers win nearly 80% of the time when they have a turnover ratio of +2 or better
- Mike Evans and the 2014 class of rookie receivers are setting new standards for scoring touchdowns
- There are some stark contrasts between the rusher-dominant and receiver-dominant offenses in team history
Statistics can help illuminate the game of football…or they can take us down a misleading path. As Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith said: "I believe in stats, but it's [which] stats."
Smith, for instance, doesn't pay much attention to the NFL's defensive rankings, since they are based on yards, which he considers a meaningless measure. When he shares defensive stats with his team, he focuses on points allowed, takeaways, scoring on defense and red zone proficiency.
Here on Buccaneers.com, we unabashedly love stats, but we also understand the need to wield them wisely. Sometimes, we can get a better feel for why the team is performing as it is by going a little deeper into the numbers. And sometimes we can simply point out something we consider interesting, and hope you will find it interesting as well.
That's our goal with Football Geekery. Each week, we're going to give you a sampling of statistical and or historical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Buccaneers' current state of affairs. This week we begin with a look at how steeply a team's chances of winning goes up with every additional bump in turnover ratio. We also check back in on the great 2014 class of receivers from a different angle and look at which Buc teams have relied on dominant rushers or dominant receivers. Let's get started.
1. Every Turnover Hurts
Lovie Smith needed only one statistic to explain his team's loss in Chicago in Week 12: Turnover ratio. The Buccaneers saw a 10-0 lead evaporate suddenly in the third quarter with 21 unanswered points by the Bears, including 14 on a pair of very short drives following takeaways. Every coach in the NFL preaches the importance of turnover ratio, but rarely is the point so blindingly obvious as it was in Sunday's game at Soldier Field.
"We turned the ball over four times; they did one time," said Smith. "Plus-three [turnover ratio] – that's normally the winner that has that."
As much as he believes in that point, even Smith probably would have been surprised to know how accurate his words were, at least in terms of Buccaneer history. For four decades worth of Tampa Bay teams, falling behind by one in turnover ratio makes things difficult, falling behind two turns the situation almost bleak and falling behind by three almost always slams the door shut on the possibility of victory.
On the other side, each notch that the Buccaneers go up in terms of turnover ratio drastically improves their chances of victory. The best turnover ratio Tampa Bay has ever had in a single game was +7; the worst was -6. In the chart below, we've separated all 607 Buccaneers regular-season games into the 14 possible levels of turnover ratio in each game, then calculated the winning percentages for all the games at each level. The chart is arranged from best Buccaneer TO ratio to worst. The numbers are compelling.
The first line on that list is a hilarious outlier. On October 30, 1983, the visiting Buccaneers picked off Pittsburgh quarterback Cliff Stoudt three times, while recovering four of the Steelers' seven fumbles on the day. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense didn't turn the ball over once. Yet somehow the Buccaneers left Three Rivers Stadium with a 17-12 loss after the Steelers rallied for 17 points in the fourth quarter. The great Kevin House got behind the defense for what looked like it would be a clinching touchdown reception in the fourth quarter but the ball slipped through his hands.
The chart returns to sanity after that lowest-possible-sample-size beginning. All 12 games in which the Buccaneers won the turnover battle by five or six resulted in victories, as did almost all of the +4 performances. Those are obviously relatively uncommon occurrences, accounting for just 5.8% of all the games in franchise history, but even the much more common +3 and +2 games are nearly almost winners. In fact, given the winning percentages in those two categories, just getting to +2 is the key; any more after that is gravy.
LB Danny Lansanah helped the Bucs to a +2 in turnover ratio in New Orleans, which is usually enough to deliver a Buccaneer victory
It's clear from this chart that just breaking even hasn't been enough for the Buccaneers, historically. Obviously, one has to keep in mind that the team's overall winning percentage is just .388, thanks largely to a decade-and-a-half of futility under previous ownership beginning in 1983. Still, the team's .248 winning percentage in games with an equal turnover ratio is below its overall winning percentage. Just make it +1, however, and you more than double your chances.
Of course, this conversation began with a game on the lower end of the chart, the 55th outing in franchise history with, specifically, a -3 turnover ratio. The fourth turnover of the day, the one that put the Bucs into that -3 hole, was Vincent Jackson's fumble inside the Bears' 10-yard line early in the fourth quarter. That kept the Bucs from closing the lead to a one-score game, helping result in a loss for the 52nd time in those 55 games. Add in all the games were the Bucs were at least -3 in turnover ratio, and the record falls to 3-87. Three wins in 90 chances.
Often, statistics – even simple ones like turnover ratio and win-loss records – reveal something that counter to our commonly-held beliefs. This is not one of those occasions. Turnover ratio is critical, and more to the point, every single step you take farther away from an equal ratio drastically moves the needle closer to victory for the team on the plus side.
2. Ladies and Gentleman, Once Again, the WR Class of 2013!
You've heard a lot about this year's group of rookie wideouts – we even touched on it here in Football Geekery four weeks ago – and for good reason. As many have noted, this year's newcomers look like they may go down as the most productive rookie class of wideouts ever, or at the very least challenge the bumper crop of 1996 for the top spot.
In one category, however, the 2014 receivers have already moved to the head of the list, and there will be no turning back: With five weeks (minus three Thanksgiving games) still to play, we already have 69 touchdown passes caught by rookies, the most in NFL history by a significant margin. Now, it's fair to point out that more games (the NFL has gradually grown its season from 10 regular-season games to 16) and more teams in play (expansion has taken the league from 26 clubs to 32 since 1976) mean more opportunities for all receivers, including rookies. Thus, one would expect the numbers to be higher in 2014 than they were in, say, 1974. Still, looking only at the last 13 seasons, since the most recent expansion (Houston in 2002), it's still clear that this year's class is badly out-pacing the rest.
Touchdown Catches by Rookie WRs, By Season
* Through Week 12
If Mike Evans and company can keep up their current pace of 5.75 combined touchdown catches per week, they will finish the season with 92, a bump of 58.6% from last year's class. Evans and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin are tied among this year's class with eight touchdown catches each, but 19 different rookies have contributed to that total of 69 so the production is coming from all over and isn't likely to screech to a sudden stop. That's particularly true since it is the rookies who are actually leading the way among all receivers this year when it comes to finding the end zone. Take out the rookie production over the final five weeks and we might see a precipitous decline in scoring.
That's where this really gets interesting. Is this class of receivers going to be a collective flash in the pan or will it be taking over the NFL for the next decade? Well, so far, the group has collectively made itself indispensable.
There are 114 different wide receivers who have caught a touchdown pass in the NFL this season, and as we mentioned 19 of those are rookies. Those 114 players are spread out over 14 years of draft classes (including undrafted free agents who entered the league in those years), dating back to 2001. While there are still a couple '01 rookies holding on (Steve Smith and Reggie Wayne), the majority of players on the list have entered the league since 2008. Here's that group broken down by season of entry:
Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne
Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson
Larry Fitzgerald, Wes Welker
Vincent Jackson, Roddy White
Greg Jennings, Brandon Marshall
Calvin Johnson, James Jones
DeSean Jackson, Jordy Nelson
Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin
Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas
Randall Cobb, Julio Jones
T.Y. Hilton, Alshon Jeffery
Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins
Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin
The 2010 group has plenty of "notables;" Demaryius Thomas and Antonio Brown are 1-2 in the NFL in receiving yardage this year but their class also includes Dez Bryant, Emmanuel Sanders, Golden Tate, Victor Cruz, Mike Williams and many others. The 2007 group has not had much staying power, with Calvin Johnson and James Jones the only ones on the list.
None of those groups, however, can match this year's crop of rookies, which has accounted for 19.6% of all touchdowns caught by NFL wide receivers this year. It remains to be seen if the 2014 season will be a springboard for this group to become the greatest class of wideouts in league history, but it is undeniably off to a powerful start.
3. Balance Tips to WR
Speaking of Mike Evans, he happens to be the Buccaneers leader in every receiving category – thanks to his phenomenal month of November – catching 49 passes for 841 yards and those eight touchdowns. Evans' total is more than twice as much as the ground yards for the Buccaneers' leading rusher, Bobby Rainey (395). At their current paces, Evans would finish with 1,223 receiving yards and Rainey would finish with 575 rushing yards; the difference between those two totals (albeit in different categories) is 648 yards.
So, is that an unusual occurrence for the Buccaneers, to have their highest individual receiving-yardage total be so far beyond its highest individual rushing-yardage total? Unusual…not really. In 22 of the Buccaneers' previous 38 campaigns, the team's leading receiver finished with more yards in his category than their leading rusher had in his, and in 12 of those 22 years the gap was more than 200 yards. However, it would be an unusually-high gap; in fact, that margin of 648 yards would be the third-highest ever between the Bucs' leading receiver and their leading rusher. The second-highest occurred just last year, when Rainey led the way with 532 yards while Vincent Jackson powered his way all the way to 1,224, creating a difference of 692. The record, as seen in the charts below, is well beyond that, however.
It's easy to understand how this can happen from the last two seasons, when injuries have forced the Bucs to cycle through a variety of running backs. Doug Martin was healthy for all of 2012 and he had 1,454 rushing yards as pretty much the only ballcarrier the team used. Last year, on the other hand, Martin, Rainey and Mike James combined for 1,283 rushing yards but nobody had more than 532. And in terms of this year's projections, it's worth noting that Rainey's carries have gone down sharply since both Martin and Charles Sims have returned from injuries. It's not likely that Rainey continues on his pace from his first 11 games, and he may not even end up as the leading rusher, depending upon how the carries are split over the next five weeks. In other words, the gap between Evans (or Jackson if he overtakes his rookie teammate in the next five weeks) and the Bucs' leading rusher is probably going to be even more than the estimated 648.
Below are two charts, one shows the five seasons in which there was the largest gap between the Bucs' top individual rushing-yardage total and their top individual receiving-yardage total. The second chart is the opposite, displaying the season where the receiver was well ahead. In essence, it's a display of the seasons in which the Bucs' "dominant" offensive non-quarterback player was a rusher and the seasons in which it was a pass-catcher.
Most Rusher-Dominant Seasons
Most Receiver-Dominant Seasons
* Projected 16-game totals
There are two playoff seasons (1979, 1997) among the five rusher-dominant seasons, but also a 2-14 campaign (1995). There is only one playoff season (2001) among the five receiver-dominant seasons, though the current team has an outside chance to double that. Overall, four of the Bucs' 10 playoff seasons fall within the top 10 rusher-dominant squads on the list, while only three fall among the 10 most receiver-dominant teams. The greatest Buccaneer team, the 2002 group that won Super Bowl XXXVII, was the ninth-most receiver-dominant team (Keyshawn Johnson, Michael Pittman), while the 1999 squad that came within five points of a Super Bowl is the 10th-most rusher-dominant team (Mike Alstott, Jacquez Green). It appears as if you can get it done both ways as long as you're getting decent overall production out of the rush and the pass.