People are constantly looking for the right combination of stats to indicate the probable success of a team. What are the key factors to winning? Is it sacks, third-down conversions, first-down efficiency, the ability to run the ball and stop the run, total passing yards? All are important, but none are a precise indicator of success.
Beginning in 1998 when I was the Vikings' offensive coordinator, I used a formula that I called the "toxic differential" as the best barometer for our team's success. Simply stated, the toxic differential is the correlation between turnovers and explosive plays.
For years, coaches have preached that if you win the turnover battle, you will win the game. Last season, eight of the top 10 teams in turnover differential went to the playoffs. The two Super Bowl participants, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, were second and fourth respectively.
Looking at this season's numbers, the Vikings are currently in a two-way tie for fewest turnovers in the NFL with eight. That is an impressive statistic when it stands alone, but they only have 12 takeaways for an overall turnover differential of +4. Compare that to the 49ers, who also only have eight turnovers but have created 21 takeaways for a differential of +13. That leads the league and is a big reason they are 8-1 as opposed to the Vikings, who are 2-7.
In a more recent trend, because of the changes in rules that promote the passing game, explosive differential now rivals turnovers as the key determinant of success. Explosive differential is the difference between the number of explosive plays (more than 20 yards) that you earn as an offense, compared to how many you give up on defense.
Last season, the Steelers led the NFL in explosive differential with 78 explosive plays on offense compared to giving up just 36 on defense for an explosive differential of +42.
This season, the Panthers are second in the NFL with 49 explosive plays on offense but have given up 41 on defense for an explosive differential of +8. Compare that to the Texans who have earned 44 explosive plays offensively and have given up just 28 defensively. That is good for a differential of +16, second best in the NFL. On the flip side, the Jaguars have given up a league-low 23 defensive explosive plays and have generated only 19 on offense, second worst in the NFL. The Jaguars have an explosive differential of -4.
When you combine both the turnover and explosive differentials, you get what I call the toxic differential. It's a pretty telling stat (see box, right). The top 10 teams in toxic differential all have winning records and are in the thick of the playoff hunt.
For a coach, the challenge is to recognize the need to improve in these areas, but at the same time not putting your team at risk. Take the Bears. They have generated 20 takeaways to just 11 turnovers (+9 turnover differential) and have produced 39 offensive explosive plays to allowing 33 defensively (+6 explosive differential). That's a toxic differential of +15. To increase their toxic differential, the Bears may emphasize generating more explosive plays on offense, but you can't do it at the cost of throwing more interceptions and therefore decreasing the turnover differential.
These differentials will become more and more prominent as the season progresses, especially now that the bye weeks are ending and everyone will have played an equal number of games.