Warren Sharp dropped an article regarding the Kansas Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes, wins, Alex Smith and interceptions about a month back.
Needless to say, the information in the article was fantastic and you can read it here if you’d like.
One of the main ideas behind the article can be found in this tweet from Sharp:
The last 2 yrs KC is 22-10. They won the turnover battle in 20 games. These numbers are highly correlated (18-2 when winning the turnover battle). But looking at the KC's metrics, you don't see the 3rd best record in the NFL (22-10, 69%). These are the metrics of an average team: pic.twitter.com/3Tc48u1ZzU— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) August 2, 2018
This is excellent work from Sharp — and at the same time, it scares the crap out of me.
So much can be said about Smith, but looking at this data, it further solidifies to me the main issue with Smith was that his teams rely primarily on winning the turnover battle to find consistent success.
This could be why Smith struggled so much in the playoffs — good teams (like the ones who make the postseason) don’t turn the ball over frequently. Before the playoffs even begin, Smith’s strongest attribute — taking care of the ball — is neutralized by default.
Of course, if you take the time to look at the Chiefs’ recent playoff games, they’ve actually done quite well in the turnover battle. So maybe I’ll stick with my earlier belief Smith failed in the playoffs because he wouldn’t throw into tight windows against zone defenses.
Sharp says the Chiefs have the metrics of an average team, but Smith’s ability to take care of the ball pushed them over the hump during the regular season.
It would follow if Mahomes is going to turn the ball over more, it could spell a lot of problems for a Chiefs team that has relied on winning the turnover battle to win football games since Andy Reid came to Kansas City in 2013.
The questions: If Mahomes is going to throw more interceptions than Smith, what must the team do to counter the negative effects? How many more touchdowns will the Chiefs offense need to produce to counter the negative effects? Is it even feasible for Mahomes to accomplish such a task?
I’ve scoured the internet for answers to these questions, and none were found, so I went looking on my own.
Five years of touchdown and turnover data
I’ll be honest—this was a difficult problem for my mind to grasp, and as I’m typing this, I hope I can relay the information in a clear manner.
The data used for this article was taken from Pro Football Reference. I gathered data from every NFL game from 2013-17 and observed wins, losses, turnovers and touchdowns.
Since it is likely Mahomes will turn the ball over more than Smith, I wanted to track winning likelihood dependent upon turnovers and touchdowns. The ultimate goal is to see what Mahomes will need to do to match Smith’s winning percentage in Kansas City.
I believe examples are the best means for an explanation, so here is a table showing the Chiefs’ winning percentages since 2013 given different combinations of TDs and turnovers (TO).
Chiefs Touchdowns and Turnovers as it Relates to Winning (2013-2017)
|TD-TO||# Games||% Games||Win%|
|TD-TO||# Games||% Games||Win%|
There is a lot of interesting information to glean from this table.
For starters, the most common game (or mode) during the Smith era in Kansas City was the three-touchdown, zero-turnover game. Smith notched 13 of these while playing for the Chiefs and the team went 11-2 in these games for an 84.6 win percentage.
The average game during this five-year span for the Chiefs was 2.75 TDs and roughly one turnover.
Now that we’ve talked a bit about what the Chiefs have done with Smith, I want to look at the rest of the NFL. Specifically, how touchdowns and turnovers affect the outcome of an NFL game.
We’ll start with touchdowns.
The effect of touchdowns on winning
What you will see below are several tables that show how NFL win percentages shift based upon on how many touchdowns are thrown in a game.
Since turnovers play a large role in NFL game outcomes, I have built the data in a way that takes into account the number of turnovers and touchdowns a team has in a given game.
(Note: I discarded TD-TO scenarios in which less than 25 games had occurred due to small sample size.)
The Effect of TDs - Zero Turnovers
The Effect of TDs - One Turnover
The Effect of TDs - Two Turnovers
The Effect of TDs - Three Turnovers
The Effect of TDs - Four Turnovers
I enjoy these numbers because you can see the effect scoring touchdowns has on altering win percentages. Perhaps it’s my OCD tendencies, but I really enjoy watching the numbers form exactly as we’d expect. The more touchdowns thrown, the greater a team’s chances of winning will be. It makes perfect sense.
But what’s important to us, is not only seeing how likely a team is to win, but also noticing how much on average a touchdown helps increase a team’s chances of winning (see the Delta values in the table above).
So I took the weighted average of the Delta fields above, and came to the conclusion a single touchdown improves a teams chances for winning, on average, by roughly 15 percent. — We’ll use this later.
Keep in mind this is not an exact science, but a very strong estimation. A stronger estimation could have been generated by using field goals, sacks, etc.
However, I’ve got a wife and kids at home, and they kind of like to see me from time to time, so 15 percent is what we get.
The effect of turnovers on winning
Like we did with the touchdowns, we’ll apply the same reasoning to turnovers. Please see the following tables that display how turnovers affect an NFL team’s chances of winning:
The Effect of Turnovers - Zero Touchdowns
The Effect of Turnovers - One Touchdown
The Effect of Turnovers - Two Touchdowns
The Effect of Turnovers - Three Touchdowns
The Effect of Turnovers - Four Touchdowns
The Effect of Turnovers - Five Touchdowns
Are you tired of looking at tables yet? — I’m not!
Like before, the numbers move in a way we would expect — As teams turn the ball over more, their winning likelihood drops.
Using the weighted average trick from before, we can get a rough estimate that turnovers drop a team’s average likelihood of winning by roughly 14 percent.
This means, yes, it’s slightly more important to throw a touchdown than an interception in terms of winning football games.
So what does it mean for Mahomes?
We mentioned earlier the Chiefs’ average game during the Smith era consisted of roughly 2.75 TDs and 1.0 turnovers — that would equate to 16 turnovers per year.
In 2017, the average NFL team gave up 22 turnovers through the regular season. So let’s be fair and just assume Mahomes is average at taking care of the ball in 2018 and the Chiefs commit 22 turnovers, or 1.4 turnovers per game.
Remember earlier, when we found that touchdowns and turnovers almost balance each other out in terms of winning likelihood? This means as long as the TD/TO ratio stays the same, Mahomes should do well winning games.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they would need to average 3.9 touchdowns per game to make up for a 1.4 turnover-pe- game clip. For reference, the number one touchdown-scoring team in the NFL in 2017 averaged 3.3 touchdowns per game.
It is simply unfeasible to expect the Chiefs to win as many games if they are turning the ball over at an average rate.
But that’s the big picture. What about a game-by-game basis?
I believe there are two routes Reid can go with Mahomes — he can try to reign Mahomes in, or he can open the floodgates.
Imagine Week 1 against the Chargers and Mahomes throws an early interception. Reid can choose to try and limit the mistakes or ask Mahomes to go out there and keep taking shots.
I believe Reid is going to ask Mahomes to keep shooting until he gets hot, like a basketball player.
If Mahomes throws an interception early, the Chiefs take an immediate 14-percent hit in their winning likelihood — the best way to counter that is to score another touchdown and drive the Chiefs’ chances of winning up 15 percent; thus neutralizing the turnover.
There is a ton of information to support this style of play — Take this research on expected points and deep passes in the NFL written by Anthony Chiado for example.
He states the following in his research:
Despite the fact that deep passes offer 95 TIMES the value per attempt as short passes do, they are attempted less than one fourth as often.
Chiado also goes on further...
There is some ideal split in the proportion of deep to short passing where the value of each is essentially equal, that way defenses have to respect both short and deep passes and the value of passing plays in general is maximized. There’s no way to tell what that ideal split is until it’s naturally found, but it’s certainly much different than the current split. It speaks to how NFL offenses are so grossly misunderstanding the value of deep passing that you can count on two hands the situations in which throwing the ball short is currently the better option. Yet offensive strategy is being approached as though deep passing is a more often used trick play and short passes are the bedrock on which an offense is built.
With Mahomes, Andy Reid may be able to find that perfect balance of deep and short passes — where deep passes are utilized much more frequently.
There is also a mountain of evidence that shows just how prominent passing play has become in today’s NFL. You’d have to live in a cave to not see how the NFL passing game has taken control of the game.
Reid, through his history, has been a coach who likes to throw 60 percent of the time until he gets a decent lead — at which point in time he begins running the ball more frequently.
With Mahomes, Reid should flirt with the idea of passing the ball more than 60 percent of the time. What that perfect balance would be, I am unsure of, but if the Chiefs choose to open the floodgates with Mahomes, 70 percent may be more fitting.
If the Chiefs want to continue to win a lot of games as they have more turnovers from Mahomes, they will need to modify how they play the game by utilizing an aggressive and high-volume downfield passing attack.
This aggressive attack will lead to more interceptions, but it will also lead to more touchdowns. The goal for Mahomes will be to keep firing, and hit more than he misses.
Let’s answer our questions at the beginning of the article.
If Mahomes is going to throw more interceptions than Smith, what must the team do to counter the negative effects?
Reid will need to incorporate a high-volume, aggressive passing offense that focuses on throwing the ball downfield all the while accepting the extra interceptions that will come from this.
How many more touchdowns will the Chiefs offense need to produce to counter the negative effects?
If Mahomes and the Chiefs offense gives up an average amount of turnovers, it would require the offense to score roughly one more touchdown per game to continue their winning successes than they did during the Smith era.
Is it even feasible for Mahomes to accomplish such a task?
It is not fair to expect Mahomes and the Chiefs offense to score 3.9 touchdowns per game.
The Chiefs really need Mahomes to take care of the ball, but there are two things Mahomes can do to greatly improve the teams chances of winning: Reach four touchdowns or have two plus more touchdowns than interceptions (Examples: 2 TD, 0 INT — 3 TD, 1 INT).
Both of these are very possible on a game to game basis, but it will not be easy to do consistently.
The reason for shooting for four touchdowns or having two more touchdowns than interceptions is because each of these situations gives the Chiefs a great chance at winning:
- Teams that score four touchdowns have won 78 percent of their games since 2013.
- Teams that have two-plus more touchdowns than interceptions have won 79 percent of their games since 2013.
Long story short, it’s possible for Mahomes to overcome the turnover bug and win games, but he has an uphill battle in front of him.
So much of the season will depend on Mahomes’ ability to take care of the ball just enough while also slinging it down the field.
If Mahomes has four or less turnovers in his first four games, that’s a win. If the offense has more than four, it could be a long season.
Only time will tell, but I’m so anxious to see how this plays out.