By LOGAN KING
“We’re going to take the football,” was a phrase echoed repeatedly by Bear Bryant in his time at Alabama to emphasize the importance of generating takeaways on the defensive side of the football. The turnover battle remains a key determinant in the outcome of football games today, however previous research suggests that much of the turnover battle is up to chance and defensive performance significantly fluctuates from year to year.
Despite the inherent volatility of defensive performance at a team level, examining specific coaching schemes may provide greater consistency when analyzing defensive performance in the turnover department. To do this, I looked at season-level takeaway statistics for each defensive playcaller dating back to 2015. While there was a rotating door for top and bottom teams in takeaways, two coaches consistently had defenses performing above the league average: Wade Phillips and Bob Sutton.
To measure the statistical significance of the performance of each coach when compared to the rest of the league, an unpaired two-sample t-test was used for each statistic. Based on these tests, Phillips and Sutton displayed significantly higher takeaway and points scored numbers than the rest of the league. However, the test revealed that their average yards per return were not significantly different than the rest of the league. While takeaway numbers are typically up to chance, the results of these tests indicate both Phillips and Sutton defenses have held a tangible edge over the rest of the league in terms of generating both takeaways and points on takeaways since 2015.
In each of the last five seasons, Phillips’ defenses generated more takeaways than the NFL average with nearly 50% above the league average in 2018. In addition to generating takeaways, Phillips-led defenses were also consistently above league average in generating yards and points on takeaways. Even more impressive are these results being seen with two separate teams.
Two Super Bowl seasons for Wade Phillips (2015 Broncos and 2018 Rams) were highlighted by strong performances in the turnover department. In 2015, Denver’s defense tied for third in points on defensive takeaways in the regular season. The Rams 2018 defense ranked third in takeaways and tied for second in points generated on takeaways.
The value of Phillips coaching is especially apparent in the 2018 season, when compared to a team with similar takeaway numbers. Gregg Williams’ 2018 Cleveland Browns defense finished with 31 takeaways, two more than Phillips’ Rams defense. However, Cleveland only generated 6.2 yards per return and did not score any points on takeaways.
While this could be chalked up to mere volatility in takeaway statistics in a given year, there is an underlying trend. In the majority of seasons since 2015, defenses under Williams have performed below average in takeaways, average return yards, and points generated on takeaways, which points to the ability or inability of certain coaches in this facet of the game.
From 2015-2018, Bob Sutton’s defenses in Kansas City finished above average in takeaways and points generated from takeaways each season, along with finishing above average in yards per return in three of four seasons. Sutton’s defenses tied for fourth or better in points generated on takeaways in three of four seasons, finishing tied for first in 2015. The Chiefs defense also led the league in yards per return in 2015.
The play of the Chiefs’ defense in terms of generating and capitalizing on takeaways under Sutton contributed to the team’s four playoff appearances and three division wins in that span, along with a conference championship appearance.
Sutton currently serves as a senior assistant for the Falcons. While his Kansas City defenses performed well in the turnover department, they received significant criticism elsewhere. In 2018, the Chiefs allowed the second most yards per game (405.5), eighth most yards per play (5.9) through the regular season, and ninth most points per game (26.3) through the regular season. The final straw came in the AFC Championship, where Kansas City’s defense lost two fourth quarter leads and failed to stop the Patriots from scoring a touchdown on the opening drive of overtime. Following Sutton’s replacement, the 2019 Chiefs would go on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
There are several lessons to be learned from this analysis:
- While it is largely random how teams perform year-to-year in terms of takeaways, certain coaches have displayed a particular aptitude for both generating takeaways and efficiency on the returns of said takeaways.
- Defensive performance on takeaways is not solely dependent on coaching ability: many other factors such as individual player ability, level of competition, and sheer luck also play roles in the outcomes of takeaways.
- Overall defensive performance relies on much more than just results in the turnover department, which is why both Phillips and Sutton are no longer with their respective teams.
Coaches who have performed well in terms of takeaways in recent years to keep an eye on include:
- Bill Belichick: With Belichick calling the shots for the Patriots defense in 2019, New England finished with the second most takeaways in the league, tied for third in points generated on takeaways, and was above average in yards per return.
- Don Martindale: In his two years leading the Ravens defense, the team has finished first in yards per return (2018) and tied for first in the NFL in points generated on takeaways (2019).
- Todd Bowles: In his first season as the Buccaneers defensive coordinator, Bowles coached the defense to a tie for the lead in points generated on takeaways, a second place finish in yards per return, and a fifth place finish in takeaways.