Turnovers and Dave Berri’s Lions

In related news, Dave Berri and I will be podcasting at 1:30pm MST 2:15pm MST (sorry, they were doing construction outside of Dave’s office) today. Tune in to listen!


What’s the difference between basketball and football? This is a subject that comes up often when I talk to Dave Berri. In fact, it’s quite a night and day difference. When discussing the Detroit Pistons, Dave is often pessimistic about the future of the team. When I discuss the Detroit Lions, who are out of the playoffs and sport a 4-10 record, he is much calmer and, in fact, optimistic about the future!

Football and basketball are quite similar when you think about it. My team has the ball and is attempting to score. This ends if they score, get a turnover or giving the other team the ball (either a missed shot in basketball or a punt in football) And both teams trade the ball back and forth until the game ends. And of course, when that happens the team with the most points wins!

The difference is one most fans know. Football is far more random. There are two pretty simple explanations for this. First, far fewer possessions happen in football. Let’s do a quick comparison between the NFL and NBA in the 2011 season (chosen as it was most recent non-lockout complete season) Below is a ranked comparison between the NBA and NFL of how many possessions each team gets per game*

In 2011 the “Run and Gun” San Francisco 49ers managed around 13 possessions a game. Contrast this with the “slow” Trail Blazers, who only averaged around 89 possessions a game. Or for comparison, the 49ers entire season amounted to just a little over two NBA games! And even in the NBA, the variation of how players perform within two games can be quite massive.

The next explanation is a little closer to home for the Lions. The Lions are being destroyed this season by turnovers. It turns out that turnovers in the NFL are pretty much random, as other Detroit fans have noticed. Here’s some basic info from Stumbling on Wins:

While not the most consistent statistic in basketball, at 61% turnovers seem to have some consistency. You may have to squint to see the NFL turnover rates, with the “most consistent” being at 2%, while quarterback fumbles don’t even show up on the chart (at 0.03%!)

Finally, let’s do the same comparison we did with possessions but with turnovers.

In the NFL not only are turnovers much less predictable, but they are much more volatile. A combination of shorter games and how much teams vary in their turnovers means a team like the Lions can exist. And it’s why Dave can say this confidently about them:

This team is clearly much better than their record. And there is no reason to think this team can’t be a playoff contender in 2013. Firing the coach and/or GM isn’t going to change bad luck. Fans just need to take a deep breath and wait for next year.


*statistics taken for 2011 NFL season from ESPN and Pro-Football-Reference. I did not find a good source for safeties. NBA pace taken from Basketball-Reference.

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