The Indianapolis Colts, the Power of Turnovers, and the Primacy Effect


The Indianapolis Colts lost at home to the New York Jets in a game in which the two teams had virtually identical passing, rushing, and total yards stats. The difference, of course, was the turnovers, where Indianapolis coughed it up five times to the Jets’ one. Andrew Luck threw three interceptions, and he also fumbled on a scramble at the end of the first half, and then in the most embarrassing and costly event, Frank Gore fumbled the ball with an opportunity to run into the end zone, without being contacted by a defender.

That followed a game where the Colts got crushed at Buffalo, turning the ball over three more times. On the year, they are -7 in turnover ratio through only two games and the sky is falling in Indianapolis.

As it turns out, Indianapolis is the 29th team since 1990 to start the first two games with at least a -6 turnover ratio, and the results thereafter are a lesson in the weakened power of the turnover in being a predictive event, combined with the strong ability of turnovers to control our perception thanks to the primacy effect. I talked about that primacy effect on the NFL fan in one of the very first pieces I wrote at this site five years ago (has it been that long?).

So let’s talk about how those 28 other teams who started with a very bad turnover ratio did the rest of the year. First, actual turnover margin for the rest of the year. Those 28 teams were a combined +26 in turnover margin for the rest of the year, so the turnover troubles did not continue as a group. 16 of the teams had a positive turnover ratio, while 12 did not, over the remaining 14 games.

Straight up, those teams went a collective 196-195-1 over the rest of the season. Against the spread, though? That’s where we see the impact of perception. We would expect a roughly 50% chance of covering. Those teams who were plagued by turnovers early covered 55.9% of their games for the rest of the year (214-168-10).

Good teams comprised a decent percentage of those high turnover victims. Twelve of the 28 were in the playoffs the season before, so the Colts are not alone in starting the next year with slippery fingers and careless whisks of the ball.

Those 12 other teams that had been to the playoffs and then had a bad start were an even better bet going forward. They collective went 118-49-1 (70.5%) straight up for the rest of the year. They covered the spread an impressive 59.5% of the time over the rest of the year (97-65-6 ATS). They went on to post a +83 turnover margin the rest of the year, after starting -83 collectively in the first two weeks.

I don’t know what will become of the Colts–the drama between the GM and coach is a lurking variable–but I suspect they will be decent value for the rest of the year as people collectively jump off the bandwagon. Turnovers are a fickle beast, but perception can linger.

[all data via the pro-football-reference team game finder, image via USA Today Sports Images]