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Turnovers: How a healthy plus/minus ratio often leads to Super Bowl success

There were many debates a season ago about the Steelers struggles in the giveaway/takeaway department--particularly regarding Dick LeBeau's highly-touted defensive unit that struggled to create turnovers for a second straight season--but no matter what your opinion may be on the importance of turnovers, history has shown that a healthy plus/minus ratio often equates to Super Bowl success.

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Like most years that end with an 8-8 record, folks in Steeler Nation engaged in many long and heated debates during the 2012 season. One of the topics discussed often centered around turnovers, takeaways, and the Steelers' lack of success in both areas. Indeed, for the second season in a row, Pittsburgh finished in the red in the turnover department with a minus-10 for the season (in 2011, the Steelers finished minus-13 in that category).

In fact, turnovers and lack of takeaways have been a problem for Pittsburgh in three of the past four years, where the offense has averaged over 27 turnovers a season, while the defense has averaged 19 takeaways. The result, two missed playoff years and a one and done in the wild card round.

The lone exception was the 2010 Steelers team that finished +17 in the giveaway/takeaway category, and not coincidentally, appeared in Super Bowl XLV.

Regarding the giveaway/takeaway debate, maybe the most heated arguments among fans and pundits in 2012 had to do with a Pittsburgh defense that managed to finish first in total yards for a second straight season despite, once again, finishing near the bottom in takeaways--the unit finished 25th in total takeaways with 20 after finishing dead-last in 2011 with only 15.

Because Dick Lebeau's unit finished high in several key defensive categories, many people wanted to dismiss the lack of takeaways and still considered the defense a dominant force--most notably in the aftermath of the Week 12 loss in Cleveland, where the Browns had eight takeaways to Pittsburgh's one.

Maybe it's not much of a surprise, but most Steelers fans argued that their defensive unit was the more superior one that day. "Pittsburgh had the better defense because it had to make up for its offense giving the football away eight times!" Few fans would even give the Browns' defense any credit for actually creating the turnovers, and instead, placed the blame on the running backs, Charlie Batch and the rest of the inept Steelers' offense for "giving the ball away" so many times.

Pittsburgh's defense did perform admirably, holding the Browns to 238 yards and keeping the team in the game until the very end, but was it a complete defensive effort? For my money, Cleveland's defense had the more superior performance because takeaways are every bit a part of a dominant defense as total yards and sacks.

Without takeaways, a defense may be strong and efficient, but is it truly dominant? And furthermore, can a team with a poor plus/minus ratio go on to achieve championship success?

After taking a look at some Super Bowl history, I'd have to say the answer is, "not very often."

Thanks to Pro Football Reference, I researched the plus/minus ratio of all 47 Super Bowl winners and discovered the average number in that category was a very healthy plus-8.7.

The 47 Super Bowl Champions gave the football away an average of 28 times a season (right around Pittsburgh's average in three of the last four years), but the defense took the football away a shade under 37 times a season (almost double the Steelers' combined average of 19 takeaways in '09, '11 and '12).

No Super Bowl winner has recorded less than 25 takeaways in a non-strike season, and only six champions have ever finished with a negative number in the turnover category.

Pittsburgh has averaged 37.75 takeaways during its eight Super Bowl seasons, with the lowest total going to the Super Bowl XLIII Championship squad that created 29 turnovers.

Interesting fact: The '79 Steelers were one of the six Super Bowl Champions to finish with a negative number in the turnover department, leading the NFL with 52 turnovers and finishing the year at minus-10. Of course, in order to accomplish such a rare feat, you better have a roster filled with guys named Bradshaw, Swann, Stallworth, Harris, Greene, Lambert, Ham and Blount. It also helps to have a defensive unit that takes the football away 42 times, like Pittsburgh did that year.

The Raiders won three Super Bowls from '76-'83, but they finished with a negative turnover number twice--minus-4 in '76 and an astounding minus-13 in '83. Again, though, it helps to have rosters with guys named Stabler, Biletnikoff, Branch, Tatum, Atkinson, Hendricks, Allen, Plunkett, Millen and Long.

Without takeaways, a defense may be strong and efficient, but is it truly dominant? And furthermore, can a team with a poor plus/minus ratio go on to achieve championship success?

Speaking of those Raiders, their 1980 team is regarded by many as, perhaps, the weakest Super Bowl Champion of all-time. Indeed, Oakland missed the playoffs in '79 and '81, sandwiched around a trip to Super Bowl XV as a wild card team in '80. What was the X-factor? Maybe it was the whopping 52 turnovers the defense recorded in the regular season. That's how you overcome an offense that gives the football away 44 times like the Silver and Black did that year, and that's how you make up for only out-scoring your opponents by an average of three-points a game.

Other interesting giveaway/takeaway facts:

-The San Francisco 49ers averaged a plus-14.8 in the turnover department during their five Super Bowl winning seasons.

-In 1983, the defending champion Redskins recorded an incredible 61 takeaways and finished with a plus-43 for the regular season, and they didn't even win the Super Bowl that year! Washington was blown out in Super Bowl XVIII by that Raiders team that finished minus-13 for the year. Still, that '83 Washington team was 14-2 in the regular season, with both losses coming by one point. Also, the Redskins set a record with 541 points in '83. I'm guessing that healthy plus-43 ratio had a lot to do with it.

-The Redskins also recorded 24 takeaways in nine games on the way to winning Super Bowl XVII in the strike-shortened season of '82. You add those takeaways to the 61 recorded in '83, and that's 85 takeaways in 25 games. Averaged out over two full seasons, that would be 103 turnovers.

-The 1990 New York Giants only turned the football over 14 times in the regular season, the fewest by any Super Bowl Champion--even the '82 Redskins turned the football over 16 times in nine games.

-The 52 giveaways by the '79 Steelers are the most by any Super Bowl winner.

-Not surprisingly, the '85 Chicago Bears hold the record for most takeaways in a season by a Super Bowl Champion, when they recorded 54 during the regular season

-The Los Angeles Raiders turned the football over 49 times during their 1983 Super Bowl season. No team has turned the football over more than 37 times since, and only five of the past 29 champions have reached the 30's in giveaways.

-To this day, people wonder how the 2000 Ravens managed to win a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer as their quarterback. Maybe it was the 49 turnovers the defense recorded for the season, allowing the team to finish plus-23 in giveaways/takeaways.

There are many variables that go into the amount of turnovers a defense creates and an offense gives up--for example, key injuries to play-makers on both sides of the ball have been at the forefront for the Steelers in recent years--but there is no question that a healthy turnover ratio (especially the number of times a defense takes the football away) is paramount to championship success.