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Three meaningful NFL statistics (and one meaningless)

Sacks are one of the most telling statistics in the National Football League according to Dave Wyman. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Now that every team is at the halfway point of the 2011 NFL season (six teams have played nine games), a look at certain statistical categories is telling – some significant, and some meaningless in a good way – especially for the Seahawks.

What I love about football is that some things can’t be explained.

Statistics don’t explain how the (5-2) New Orleans Saints, coming off a 62-7 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts, get beaten by the (0-6) St. Louis Rams the following week. They don’t explain how Tim Tebow (arguably the least technically sound quarterback in league history) finds a way to win games on the road against the Oakland Raiders and the Miami Dolphins.

They don’t explain how Alex Smith has transformed himself from a No. 1 draft bust into a winning quarterback in San Francisco. They don’t explain how a 6-4, 220-pound cornerback from the Canadian Football League can find his place on an NFL team in his 7th year as a professional (Brandon Browner).

But every once in a while the nerd in me comes out.

I looked at four different statistical categories over the past five years. Here’s what I found out about the best five teams and the worst five teams in the following categories: 3rd down percentage (offense), sacks, penalties, and turnover ratio.

3rd down percentage

It may come as no surprise that Peyton Manning’s Colts have dominated this category over the past five years. The Colts were No. 1 in 3rd down percentage four of the last five years. It’s also not too surprising that the Manning-less Colts are ranked 21st this year. The top five teams on 3rd down have a 55-25 record, while the bottom five teams are 25-55. I love when it works out like that – a perfect mirror opposite.

Translation: The top five teams in 3rd down conversions win 11 games per year and the bottom five teams win five games per year. The Seahawks are 28th this year, putting them in that five win range at this rate.


During the Seahawks’ stretch of playoff appearances from 2003-07, their defense was ranked in the top 10 in sacks four of those five years. In 2005 when they went 13-3 and earned a trip to the Super Bowl, they were No. 1 in sacks with 50.

Over the past five years, teams that were in the top five in sacks went 53-27, and the bottom five teams went 27-53. Again, a mirror opposite.

Translation: When you’re sacking the quarterback you’re winning football games. Sacks are huge plays that put offenses in predictable situations. This year the Hawks are No. 29 in sacks with 13.


Here’s a statistic that is entirely meaningless over the past five years but comforting to young teams who are prone to mistakes (and Raiders fans).

Believe it or not, highly penalized teams can still be successful. In 2009, three of the five most penalized teams went 11-5 (Dallas, Green Bay and Philadelphia), and the 2008 Titans had the 4th most penalties in the league and went 13-3. Collectively, the five most penalized teams went 42-38 and the five least penalized teams went 44-36. Nothing significant there unless you’re a fan of the young Seattle Seahawks who are currently the 2nd-most penalized team in the NFL with 70.

Turnover ratio

The Grand Daddy of them all. The difference between the interceptions and fumbles you give away versus the ones you get is the most telling statistic in football.

Every year there are a few anomalies – this year the (6-3) New Orleans Saints are -6 and the (6-3) Pittsburgh Steelers are -11 (worst in the league), but eventually negative turnover ratio will catch up with them.

The 2010 San Diego Chargers are a classic case of that. The ‘Bolts had the No. 1 offense AND the No. 1 defense in the NFL but went 9-7 and missed the playoffs because of a -6 turnover ratio.

The long and short of it is that if you are in the top five in turnover ratio, you can expect 11 or 12 wins. And if you’re in the bottom five, you’ll finish the year with four or five wins. Of the 25 teams in the top five in turnover ratio from 2006-2010, 23 have gone to the playoffs. Being a top-five turnover ratio team gets you a trip to the playoffs 92 percent of the time.

The 2011 Seattle Seahawks are not in the bottom five, but they do have a -5 turnover ratio.

While I was a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch, I was trained to say the same words I’m about to write: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results” – sound advice for any investor or football fan.