"Toxic Differential": A Key To The Rams' Playoff Aspirations?

David Welker

Statistics only tell a part of any story, especially as they relate to the NFL. But when a respected, Super Bowl-winning head coach develops a formula to gauge a team's success, it's worth paying attention to. The Rams have invested huge resources in acquiring just the type of players that can make a difference.........in a "toxic" kind of way.

The first time I heard the expression "toxic differential", I was taken aback. That is a term I immediately associated with statistical studies of toxic dump sites, or Chernobyl. How could that term relate to an NFL concept and statistical formula??

The expression "toxic differential" was coined by former NFL coach Brian Billick. Billick was the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens for 9 seasons - and led them to a Super Bowl victory - in the 2000 season.

From an article by Brian Billick - for NFL.com - in November, 2011:

"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."

Terminology

Turnover Differential

"Turnover differential" is the difference between the number of giveaways [interceptions and fumble recoveries] an offense allows, and the number of takeaways [interceptions and fumble recoveries] a defense creates.

Big Play Differential

"Big play differential" is the difference between the number of big plays [running plays of 10+ yards plus passing plays of 20+ yards] an offense creates, and the number of big plays a defense allows.

Toxic Differential

"Toxic differential" is derived by adding together the "turnover differential" and "big play differential".

The 3 accompanying charts present the 2012 differential rankings, for all 32 NFL teams, in each of 3 categories: Turnovers - Big Plays - "Toxic". In 2012, the St. Louis Rams ranked: 23rd in "toxic differential" - 18th in "turnover differential" - and 27th in "big play differential".

2012 Toxic Differential Leaders
Team Turnover Differential Big Play Differential Toxic Differential
1 San Francisco 49ers 9 63 72
2 Washington Redskins 17 45 62
3 Seattle Seahawks 13 40 53
4 New England Patriots 25 12 37
5 Denver Broncos -1 32 31
6 Carolina Panthers 1 28 29
7 Minnesota Vikings -1 30 29
8 Baltimore Ravens 9 19 28
9 Chicago Bears 20 0 20
10 New York Giants 14 2 16
11 Pittsburgh Steelers -10 19 9
12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3 5 8
13 Houston Texans 12 -5 7
14 Green Bay Packers 7 -1 6
15 Atlanta Falcons 13 -11 2
16 Cincinnati Bengals 4 -9 -5
17 Indianapolis Colts -12 4 -8
18 San Diego Chargers 2 -11 -9
19 Miami Dolphins -10 -5 -15
20 Tennessee Titans -4 -12 -16
21 Cleveland Browns 3 -24 -21
22 New Orleans Saints 2 -23 -21
23 St. Louis Rams -1 -20 -21
24 New York Jets -14 -9 -23
25 Oakland Raiders -7 -18 -25
26 Jacksonville Jaguars -3 -23 -26
27 Buffalo Bills -13 -16 -29
28 Philadelphia Eagles -24 -11 -35
29 Detroit Lions -16 -20 -36
30 Kansas City Chiefs -24 -13 -37
31 Dallas Cowboys -13 -26 -39
32 Arizona Cardinals -1 -42 -43

Is "toxic differential" the best statistical measure for gauging a teams success? In 2012, 13 teams had records of 10-6 or better [12 of those teams made appearances in the postseason]. All 13 teams ranked in the top 17, using the "toxic differential" formula. Three of the four teams that reached the conference championship games ranked in the top 8.

2012 Turnover Differential Leaders
Team
Turnover Differential

1 Philadelphia Eagles -24

2 Kansas City Chiefs -24

3 Detroit Lions -16

4 New York Jets -14

5 Buffalo Bills -13

6 Dallas Cowboys -13

7 Indianapolis Colts -12

8 Pittsburgh Steelers -10

9 Miami Dolphins -10

10 Oakland Raiders -7

11 Tennessee Titans -4

12 Jacksonville Jaguars -3

13 Denver Broncos -1

14 Minnesota Vikings -1

15 St. Louis Rams -1

16 Arizona Cardinals -1

17 Carolina Panthers 1

18 San Diego Chargers 2

19 New Orleans Saints 2

20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3

21 Cleveland Browns 3

22 Cincinnati Bengals 4

23 Green Bay Packers 7

24 San Francisco 49ers 9

25 Baltimore Ravens 9

26 Houston Texans 12

27 Seattle Seahawks 13

28 Atlanta Falcons 13

29 New York Giants 14

30 Washington Redskins 17

31 Chicago Bears 20

32 New England Patriots 25

Of the 13 teams that won 10 or more games last year, 10 of them finished in the top 11 in turnover differential [9 playoff teams finished in the top 11]. The 4 teams that played in the conference championship games all finished in the top 9.

What would Jeff Fisher like to see his defense do better this season?:

"We had a stretch - I think we had a streak of about five or six games where we didn't have a turnover. I think we need to work consistently on turnovers and cause fumbles."

The Rams defense created 21 turnovers last season - 4 fumble recoveries and 17 interceptions. The Rams ranked 31st in the league in fumble recoveries, and 11th in interceptions.

On offense, the Rams were intercepted 14 times, and had 8 fumbles lost. They ranked 12th in interceptions thrown, and 15th in fumbles lost.

2012 Big Play Differential Leaders
Team

Big Play Differential
1 Arizona Cardinals
-42
2 Dallas Cowboys
-26
3 Cleveland Browns
-24
4 New Orleans Saints
-23
5 Jacksonville Jaguars
-23
6 St. Louis Rams
-20
7 Detroit Lions
-20
8 Oakland Raiders
-18
9 Buffalo Bills
-16
10 Kansas City Chiefs
-13
11 Tennessee Titans
-12
12 Atlanta Falcons
-11
13 San Diego Chargers
-11
14 Philadelphia Eagles
-11
15 Cincinnati Bengals
-9
16 New York Jets
-9
17 Houston Texans
-5
18 Miami Dolphins
-5
19 Green Bay Packers
-1
20 Chicago Bears
0
21 New York Giants
2
22 Indianapolis Colts
4
23 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
5
24 New England Patriots
12
25 Baltimore Ravens
19
26 Pittsburgh Steelers
19
27 Carolina Panthers
28
28 Minnesota Vikings
30
29 Denver Broncos
32
30 Seattle Seahawks
40
31 Washington Redskins
45
32 San Francisco 49ers
63

Of the 13 teams that won 10 or more games last year, 11 of them finished in the top 16 in "big play differential" [10 playoff teams finished in the top 16]. 3 of the 4 teams that played in the conference championship games ranked in the top 9. The Rams ranked 27th in "big play differential" for the 2012 season. They had 68 big plays offensively, while the defense gave up 88 big plays.

How important are "explosive"/"big plays" to scoring points [and preventing them] in the NFL?

From Mike Sando - ESPN:

"Last season, NFL teams averaged 0.7 points per drive without an explosive play and 3.8 points per drive with at least one of them"

From Ramblin' Fan - June 6, 2013:

"For quite a while now the Rams have been missing a guy that can make the big play. Every player on the Rams offense now has the ability to make the big play and it is essential that they do so. Making a big play is huge for an offense in two ways. One, is that it’s a huge momentum shifter. Take the Baltimore Ravens for example. The big play kept them alive all throughout the playoffs last season and they executed it perfectly when they needed it most. The big play also shortens drives in the good way. The offense can go from being deep in their side of the field to being in field goal range all in one play. Instead of having a 10+ play drive, you can have a 6-10 play drive. The offense doesn’t have to work as hard to get points on the board. Last season the Rams only had 68 big plays which ranked 22nd in the NFL. A big play is categorized as a running play that goes for 10+ yards and a passing play that goes for 20+ yards. The big play is also huge on defense. The Rams lost both of their safeties in the offseason and now have two inexperienced players. The Rams already allowed the 9th most big plays last season, having two new safeties won’t help the situation. The safeties cannot be a liability. With Palmer, Kaepernick, and Wilson all in the division, the Rams must protect the deep ball. If the Rams can generate some big plays on offense and limit their opponent from getting big plays, the playoffs could be within reach."

The Rams and the "Toxic Differential" in 2013

It's evident there is a correlation between the "toxic differential", and an NFL teams success on the field. The "toxic differential" will be a key to the Rams playoff aspirations in 2013. Their two divisional rivals [S.F. and Seattle] ranked in the top three, and both teams are among the Super Bowl favorites this year.

The chief reasons for the Rams' low "toxic differential" ranking?

  • Too few fumbles forced by the defense.
  • Too few big/explosive plays produced by the offense.
  • Too many big/explosive plays allowed by the defense.

In relation to the "toxic differential" formula, do the Rams now have the pieces in place - to improve their Toxic Differential in 2013 - compete with their divisional rivals - and make the playoffs?

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