The Washington Redskins own one statistic that bodes well for the remainder of their 2016 season — toxic differential.
What is toxic differential? I’ll let ex-head coach and current NFL Network commentator Brian Billick explain: “It’s a synthesis stat that combines a team’s turnover differential with its explosive-play differential (explosive plays defined as gains of 20-plus yards). As always, it further underscores the significance of turnovers and big plays in the outcomes of most NFL games, as well as the relationship between turnovers and big plays.”
In other words, teams that maximize positive big plays and minimize negative big plays should win more often. That’s obvious, of course, but you don’t really know for sure which teams are which until you look at the stats.
And it isn’t easy for team to excel at both sides of the Toxic Differential. For example, teams that run safe, conservative offenses tend to limit their negative explosive plays — like interceptions — but they generally do not create many positive explosive plays — like 45-yard touchdown passes. On the other hand, high-powered offenses may generate plenty of big plays, particularly in the passing game, but they often also create plenty of negative plays, like interceptions and strip-sack fumbles. The better teams, generally, are those that manage to create plenty of explosive plays in their favor while making fewer mistakes that lead to the explosive plays that favor their opponents.
The two worst teams this year in toxic differential, as you might imagine, are the San Francisco 49ers (-26) and the Cleveland Browns (-19). Those teams are 31 and 32 in The World’s Most Prestigious Power Poll, so nothing surprising there.
The Houston Texans are next from the bottom (-16) and that’s also not a shock. Their offense is a mess, their QB an interception-machine and they create very few big plays on offense. However, two of the next three teams are in the thick of the NFC playoff race — the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Sandwiched between them are the awful Jacksonville Jaguars, 30th in the latest power poll.) Both the Giants and Buccaneers have quarterbacks prone to throwing interceptions and neither team creates lots of big plays with their defense either. Neither team has many quality wins to their name yet and both face a tough down-the-stretch schedule, so we may see their negative toxic differential finally catch up with them.
As Billick writes:
Two teams in the playoff hunt might be destined for a fall. The Giants are minus-5 in turnovers and minus-8 in explosive plays, leaving them tied for 28th in the league in Toxic Differential. If they’re still there at the end of the season, they likely won’t make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Texans — leading the subpar AFC South — are missing three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, and rank 27th in takeaways. Combined with the poor performance of Brock Osweiler (the Texans are dead last in explosive plays), Houston sits at a lowly 30th in ToxDiff, which should offer some encouragement for AFC South foes Tennessee (18th in ToxDiff) and Indianapolis (22nd).
At the top of the toxic differential rankings is the Minnesota Vikings, with a +17 ratio. How is this resolutely average team with a bland and unproductive offense atop the rankings? Well, their offense is unproductive, yes, but it doesn’t turn the ball over much either. It’s very conservative. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s defense is known for creating turnovers (3rd-best in the NFL) and not allowing big plays against them.
The Atlanta Falcons are second in the rankings because, although their defense gives up a lot of big plays, their offense creates even more big plays — and few mistakes. The Falcons have 56 explosive plays on offense and only nine turnovers, which means their offense is basically carrying the rest of the team. That’s good enough, right now, to have Atlanta atop the NFC South.
The Redskins, in case you were wondering — and I hope you were — are 4th in the rankings, at +13. In Washington’s case, they’re up that far because their offense is doing the same thing Atlanta’s is doing — carrying the remainder of the team. The Redskins defense gives up tons of big plays (as we know), but the offense creates even more and QB Kirk Cousins has really cut down on the interceptions. Meanwhile, with RB Rob Kelly replacing RB Matt Jones in the backfield, fumbles have also basically disappeared. Washington’s explosive offense — 2nd in the NFL in big plays — combined with an ability to avoid turnovers — is allowing the Skins to win most of their games and stay near the top of the Toxic Differential.
The Dallas Cowboys are a relatively mediocre +2 in the rankings, which seems odd for an 11-1 team. The reason is that the Dallas defense is 27th in creating turnovers, so the Cowboys get almost no good explosive plays from their defense. Meanwhile, their ball control offense, centered around the running of Ezekiel Elliott and the short passing game of Dak Prescott, produces long, soul-crushing scoring drives, but fewer explosive plays than you might imagine. However, the Cowboys almost never turn the ball over and that keeps them on the right side — barely — of the ledger in Toxic Differential. Basically, the Cowboys are so good at the non-explosive parts of football that it makes up for the fact that they are not a big play team.
Why is Dallas, so impressive with a 10-1 record, not ranked higher? Because while Dak Prescott has been remarkably adept at protecting the football, the Cowboys defense ranks just 27th in the league in takeaways. On offense, the Cowboys have been productive, but the steady pounding of Ezekiel Elliottdoesn’t produce as many explosive plays as, say Washington, with Kirk Cousins and his deep cast of pass catchers (second in the league in explosive plays on offense).
The Philadelphia Eagles are 24th in Toxic Differential, at -10. That’s not so surprising when you consider their 5-6 record is marred by losses in six of their last eight games. In particular, QB Carson Wentz has started throwing interceptions and his galaxy of mediocre-or-worse receivers isn’t helping him create big plays.
We will see if, in the final stretch of the NFL regular season, teams like the Redskins rise and teams like the Giants fall.