Follow-up to Discuss Differing Studies Regarding the New England Patriots Fumble Rate Since 2000

By Warren Sharp

I wanted to provide a brief follow up to the “series” of articles I wrote on the New England Patriots Deflate Gate investigation.  [Click here to read the last installment with conclusions]  What started as a simple question:  “why would they intentionally deflate their footballs” turned into uncovering a statistical fumble-aversion anomaly for the Patriots dating back to 2007 which was absent from 2000-2006.  The beauty of the data is, it speaks for itself, especially when its presented visually, and there really is not much I have to add to the picture.

Of course, with any data-driven analysis, there will be a ton of skepticism, criticism and commentary, particularly when that analysis is sports related.  After publishing the summary piece, which laid out all of the key findings quite plainly, a number of others from various walks of life, particularly the statistics field, wrote articles which cast doubt and criticism on my study.  I wanted to briefly comment on some of the prime criticisms, but before I do that, I think its important to understand my main takeaways from the data, to date.

Point #1 –  Something occurred between 2006 and 2007 which allowed the Patriots to fumble the ball at an extremely low rate moving forward when compared to the rate their team fumbled from 2000-06 (Bill Belichick started coaching the team in 2000).

Point #2 –  Whatever occurred caused the Patriots to shift from a team who fumbled the football the league average (in 2000-2006) to a team who was so superior when compared any other team the odds it was a mere coincidence are extremely unlikely.

The data to support both of those findings is described in detail in my last article, from which the main graphical takeaways are:

(click to enlarge)

Understanding those were the primary conclusions of this research, it was fascinating to see each time someone would send over another analysis for my review which was said to “poke holes” in my conclusions.  Obviously, I was anxious to see if someone found other data which would supercede or “trump” what I researched.

Primarily, I was interested to see:

  • “Did they find something that showed the Patriots did NOT change in 2007, and that their 2000-06 fumble rate actually was very comparable to the 2007-14 fumble rate?”
  • “Did they find something that showed the Patriots were not actually statistical outliers in the 2007-14 period, and that the rest of the NFL, particularly the outdoor teams, actually fumbled at the same rate as the Patriots?”

But unfortunately I never saw anything that actually looked at my conclusions, using the same time periods, and determined the fundamentals of my two key points were incorrect.  I’ll start by sharing a common theme in these combative articles and then move to a few specifics.  Most of the pieces were written by statistics professors at universities.  These gentlemen assuredly know more about statistics than I do, considering I do not teach statistics at a university.

Instead of trying to deal with the two periods I clearly laid out, where my conclusions are unmistakable, they all wanted to eliminate periods of time and/or use other means to reduce the sample size.  Whether they broke up the stats by position (and eliminated the QB position entirely from discussion) and then never combined them again to demonstrate any conclusion, or whether they looked at dome teams who played outdoors (who obviously would have about 50% of the sample size that a non-dome team would have), or whether they wanted to focus on shorter periods of time, such as the fumble rate of only the 2014 Vikings, it seemed they were working in the wrong direction.  If I found one year the Patriots were exceptional at their fumble rate (2010) and used it as crux of my argument, I would be accused of poor sample size.  But instead, while I use statistically sound sample sizes over 7 and 8-year periods, the criticism by statistics professors comes by using significantly smaller sample sizes.

The NFL, more than any other sport, is a very tricky one to analyze.  There are only 16 total regular season games each year.  Year to year data can be crazy.  Example:  The Oakland Raiders were the #1 team in offensive red zone scoring percentage in 2014 after being #30 just 2 years ago.  The Raiders!  The larger the sample size, the better, especially in the NFL.

I also found that while most of these pieces try to poke holes in some of the smaller points or comments, most of their own large, big picture takeaways actually appear to align with my own.  Let me explain:

For example, one article did not offer any real conclusions on the overall 2007-14 period.  Instead, that analysis took a fumble rate for RBs and one for receivers, individually, and separated them into two buckets on two different graphs.  If they merely combined the data (which they don’t share), into one graph, I’m fairly certain (from looking at the graphs) that the Patriots would be clearly sitting #1 from 2007-14 as the team who fumbled least frequently.  And if they re-introduced QB fumble rates, I’m sure that position would be even more certain.  But they never bother to combine the data.  Why not?  I can only assume its because it would then agree with my Point #2 from above.

That very same article never looked at the critical 2000-06 period’s data.  If they did, I can only assume they would find they Patriots were right in the middle of the NFL in fumble rate (since their data for the skill position players seems to show something similar as mine, though theirs is segregated by position).   They then would be able to see that something definitely started to happen in 2007 which caused the Patriots to move from a league average to the best team in the NFL by a margin.  Which would then agree with my Point #1 from above.

In essence, at a macro level it “seems” that this highly argumentative piece does not actually conclude anything which refutes either of my two main takeaways.  We can’t tell the “scale” of difference they may have vs. the data I presented, because they never aggregate it to compare, but it appears they are finding that the Patriots are perhaps the most fumble-adverse team in the NFL from 2007-14.  By how much, per their article, we don’t know, nor would we without factoring in quarterback rates into the equation.

In fact, the piece also “encouraged” readers to “check out Brian Burke’s post at Advanced Football Analytics for a more reasoned take on fumble rates“.  Ironically, Brian Burke’s piece was written after he read my initial piece, and he states of (of my findings):

“The charts are convincing, and the implication is that NE benefitted from under-inflated balls is unmistakable. But I wasn’t sure how much stock to put in the numbers for a couple reasons. One is that they were so extraordinary they seemed unlikely to be true.  …”

However, once complete with his own analysis, Burke comes to the same conclusion as I do:

Whoa. In this case NE is at the top of the list, and the next best team is a distant second. Notice how the second team (BLT) through the second to last team (PHI) have rates that are within 1 or 2 plays of each other. NE, however, is better than the next best team by 20 plays per fumble.

You can read Burke’s article for more context, but his comment there is precisely what struck me as well, and which is still the key point during this 2007-14 period.  But for some reason, the highly critical piece praised the Burke article, despite Burke’s article finding the same results in the data as I did.  After reading this critical piece, Burke commented on Twitter:

Why was this piece so viciously attempting to disprove something, when the data they introduce themselves actually appears to (without saying) concur with my primary conclusion?  While at the same time agreeing with another article which is (essentially) providing an identical conclusion to mine?  I cannot speculate as to that reason.

Other pieces I read were more critical of other studies I performed rather than the one with my primary conclusions which is the last one in the series.  The key criticism revolved around the individual player statistics.  And on this point of criticism, it’s entirely valid.  When I ran my numbers on the individual player statistics, I incorporated all fumbles by that player.  The reality is to really assess fumble rates which may have changed, you should attempt to remove punt return fumbles and kickoff return fumbles, because they are using a special “K” ball, not the footballs used by the team when playing offense.

As one article surmised:  “I suspect the cause of the bad data is that Sharp collected his figures from the otherwise excellent Pro-Football-Reference.com, which for some reason includes special teams and postseason fumbles under its “Receiving and Rushing” statistics.”  They are correct.  They re-ran the analysis, removing kicks and punts.  What they found, their overriding conclusion, was the individual Patriots players have a touches per fumble on “offense-only” of 132.9, and when those same players leave the Patriots, it reduces to 107.9.  In other words, they fumble 23% less frequently when playing for New England.  And based on their data, the players who handled the ball the most for New England and then left (Welker, Maroney, Green-Ellis and Woodhead) fumbled 38% less frequently with New England than with their other teams.  This is their study, with proper numbers removing kicks, not my own.

My primary reason for even involving the individual fumble data in the first place (it was clearly the most-requested follow-up investigation from the masses) was as a simple “sanity check”.  I thought the Patriots refusal to fumble from 2007-14 could potentially be explained by them drafting, trading for, or otherwise acquiring players who simply NEVER fumbled.  Clearly, if you suddenly start players who never fumble the ball ever, if its their career “calling card”, you would expect the aggregate team data would reflect that was well.

But where are we now with regard to the individual player data?  Did their analysis show players fumble LESS after leaving New England?  No.  Did it show players fumble the SAME after leaving New England?  No.  It still shows players fumble MORE when leaving New England.

Notice, however, that my 2 key takeaways from the most recent analysis do not even address individual players.  To drill down to that microscopic level was simply a sanity check.  While my initial analysis into the player statistics did not properly remove “K” ball plays as mentioned earlier, after removing the kicks and punts, we still see these Patriots players fumble 23% more on average when playing for other teams immediately after playing for the Patriots.  This allows us to rule out the possibility that stocking their team with “magic non-fumblers” was the reason for why the Patriots stopped fumbling in 2007.

So much like the first critical article I discussed above, this article was quite aggressive, but still (ultimately) concluded the Patriots fumbled more when playing for other teams.  Which was my exact conclusion from my own article, but more than that, it means we need to keep searching for what the answer to this anomaly would be.  Individual player statistics should not be the starting nor ending point for this analysis due to sample size, which gets me to the following:

I really want to get back a key point here:  Drilling down to 1 player or 1 season or one skill position or even a couple of seasons significantly reduces your sample size.  Which significantly increases variance.  Which is unnecessary when the macro data is so compelling and there has yet to be a counter-analysis which disproves the two overriding points that the data appears to show.

I could look at Kevin Faulk, for instance, and tell you that in his initial years in New England, thru 2006, he had 908 offensive touches (eliminating returns) and fumbled 19 times, or one fumble per 48 touches.  But from 2007 until 2011 when he retired, he fumbled just once in 387 touches.  That is an improvement of over 700%!  But that alone proves nothing.  However, when you look at the entire team over the course of many consecutive seasons, it becomes obvious where there are anomalies.

My training is as an engineer.  I’ve been practicing for almost 20 years.  While I never actually looked at a website to define what I do on a daily basis, this description was pretty close:

While not a professional statistician, it doesn’t even take an engineer or any professional trade to uncover the anomaly I uncovered in the Patriots fumble data.  That is the beauty of this entire analysis – any one reading this very article is connected to the internet, and that is all it takes to find and then compile this data.  We can leave it to the statisticians to define the probabilities, etc, from that data (which is what I did when I ran the data by a Data Scientist), but the data itself speaks volumes.

If I have any say in the progression of this story, its: stick with the macro data and either prove or debunk it.

  • To Point #1:  Can you disprove that the Patriots changed in 2007, and prove that their 2000-06 fumble rate actually was very comparable to the 2007-14 fumble rate?
  • To Point #2:  Can you disprove that the Patriots were statistical outliers in the 2007-14 period, and prove that the rest of the NFL, particularly the outdoor teams, actually fumbled at the same rate as the Patriots?

That’s what we need to understand.  My data reflects it.  Brian Burke’s data reflects it.  But I would be very interested to see data which reflects the opposite, should it exist.

If the data that others uncover thru different means and statistics show that 1) the Patriots do change in 2007, and 2) they do move well ahead of the NFL average by some margin from 207-14, but not to the exact extent of the data that I used would indicate, that’s still confirming (not denying) a potential issue, and we have even more data (which is different data) which shows 1) they changed and 2) they are different from the rest of the NFL.  So the first step is, find data that disproves my numbers which are graphed above.

After that, the only question is:  WHAT caused the Patriots (starting in 2007) to move so far away from what they historically were in terms of fumble rate, and so far away from the NFL average?  I’ve heard plenty of ideas, a few of which have already been debunked by the data.  I’ve heard its because the Patriots pass more, but from 2007-14 they pass on 57% of their offensive plays, which is the league average and ranks 18th in the NFL.  I’ve heard its because Brady passes faster, but why did the other skill players become so adept at not fumbling starting in 2007?

FYI: I’ve heard a lot of suggestions to look at 2000-06 home games, because maybe those showed the Patriots were engaging in this tactic early on, when they controlled the footballs at home.  There is absolutely NO evidence of that in the data.  The data shows the Patriots were league average in both HOME and ROAD fumble rate from 2000-06.  They became great in home fumble rate from 2007-14, and outstanding in road fumble rate in that period.  Which is why I continue to state:  SOMETHING happened between 2006 and 2007, and its clear from the data whatever occurred was not occurring prior to 2007.

I’ve made it exceedingly clear I am not 100% pinning it on deflated footballs.  I’ve stuck 100% with the data, and the data cannot prove anything as to WHAT it was.   I’ve never, in radio interviews or my articles, said WHAT it was.  It’s suspicious that the data changes so dramatically in 2007, but we don’t know WHY.  As I’ve said before, the data can only clue us in to WHEN a certain pattern started, and it can sometimes prove what it was NOT (as in non-fumblers on the team, an outstanding head coach – who must have been average while winning Super Bowls thru 2006 but became tremendous starting in 2007, or a secret way to hold the football which was introduced in 2007, etc.).  We won’t find the “WHAT” in the data.  But understanding the data should allow us (and the NFL) to ask smarter questions when attempting to find out the “WHAT”.

______________________________________

Warren Sharp of sharpfootballanalysis.com is an industry pioneer at the forefront of incorporating advanced analytics and metrics into football analysis. A licensed Professional Engineer by trade, Warren applies the same critical thought process and problem solving techniques into his passion, football. After spending years constructing, testing and perfecting computer models written to understand the critical elements to win NFL football games, Warren’s quantitative analytics are used in private consulting work, and elements of which are publicly shared on sharpfootballanalysis.com. To contact Warren, please email [email protected] or send a direct message on Twitter to @SharpFootball.

Stats Show the New England Patriots Became Nearly Fumble-Proof after 2006 Rule Change Proposed by Tom Brady

by Warren Sharp

May 7 2015 Update: Please also review my response to the Ted Wells report.

While speculation exists that “Deflate Gate” was a one time occurrence, data I introduced last week indicated that the phenomena MAY have been an ongoing, long standing issue for  the New England Patriots.  Today, that possibility looks as clear as day.

Initially, looking at weather data, I noticed the Patriots performed extremely well in the rain, much more so than they were projected.  I followed that up by looking at the fumble data, which showed regardless of weather or site, the Patriots prevention of fumbles was nearly impossible.  Ironically, both studies saw the same exact starting point:  2007 was the first season where things really changed for the Patriots.  Something started in 2007 which is still on-going today.

I wanted to compare the New England Patriots fumble rate from 2000, when HC Bill Belichick first arrived in New England, to the rest of the NFL.  Clearly, one thing I found in my prior research was that dome teams fumble substantially less frequently, given they play at least 8+ games out of the elements each year.  To keep every team on a more level playing field, I eliminated dome teams from the analysis, grabbed only regular season games, and defined plays as pass attempts+rushes+times sacked.  The below results also look only at total fumbles, not just fumbles which are lost.  This brought us to the ability to capture touches per fumble.

To really confirm something was dramatically different in New England, starting in 2007 thru present, I compared the 2000-06 time period (when Bill Belichick was their head coach and they won all of their Super Bowls) to the 2007-2014 time period.  The beauty of data is the results speak for themselves:

(click to enlarge)

The data is jaw dropping, and this visual perfectly depicts what happened.  From a more technical perspective, John Candido, a Data Scientist at ZestFinance who is a colleague of mine over at the NFLproject.com website and was also involved in the development of this research, comments:

Based on the assumption that plays per fumble follow a normal distribution, you’d expect to see, according to random fluctuation, the results that the Patriots have gotten since 2007 once in 5842 instances.

Which in layman’s terms means that this result only being a coincidence, is like winning a raffle where you have a 0.0001711874 probability to win. In other words, it’s very unlikely that results this abnormal are only due to the endogenous nature of the game.

Many of the arguments giving the Patriots the benefit of the doubt are evaporating.  While this data does not prove they deflated footballs starting in 2007, we know they were interested in obtaining that ability in 2006. (This is something I found out AFTER I performed the first two analyses, both of which independently found that something changed starting in 2007.)

In 2006, Tom Brady (and Peyton Manning) lobbied in favor of changing a NFL rule, and as a result, the NFL agreed to change policies. Brady wanted the NFL to let EVERY team provide its OWN footballs to use on offense, even when that team was playing on the road. Prior to that year, the HOME team provided ALL the footballs, meaning the home quarterback selected the footballs the ROAD quarterback would play with on offense.

Brady’s quote at the time, when pushing for the change was: “The thing is, every quarterback likes it a little bit different. Some like them blown up a little bit more, some like them a little more thin, some like them a little more new, some like them really broken in.”

Obviously this information, when combined with the data above, is exceedingly compelling.  Not only can you visually see the change when aggregating the data into periods of 2000-06 and 2007-14, you can clearly see how it occurs on the following two graphs.  The data is the same, but details are added in the second graph to provide additional information and context:

(click to enlarge)

Once again, a key takeaway is deadly obvious:  prior to 2007 the Patriots were RIGHT IN LINE with the league averages across the other non-dome teams.  When you look team by team, they literally are in the middle of the pack for most seasons, as the histogram in the very first graphic at the top of this article shows.  But starting in 2007, all similarities totally vanish.

The statistical “jump” the Patriots make in the 2006 offseason, from one fumble every 39 plays to one fumble every 76 plays is nothing short of remarkable.  Their trendline over this period is not even close to that of the rest of the NFL.

The 2013 season is an oddity in that the Patriots were actually slightly worse than the rest of the NFL.  Looking at that season, its apparent the reason:  of the Patriots 23 fumbles that season, 6 (over 25%) occurred in a Sunday night game vs the Broncos played in 22 degree weather, with 22 mph winds and a wind chill of 6 degrees.  Cold conditions of this nature absolutely cause more fumbles than usual.  They fumbled a TOTAL of 5 times in 11 of their 16 games in 2013 (69% of their total games), so it truly was this week 12 “antarctic” game (and a week 17 game vs the Bills which saw 4 fumbles) which really put the Patriots fumble rates for 2013 out of sync.  This is exactly why looking at small sample sets, such as single seasons, is not the preferred manner to investigate this analysis.

Why are fumbles so important?  Because as Bill Belichick knows, perhaps more so than most NFL coaches due to his understanding of the game – turnovers usually control game outcomes.  Since 2000, teams who won the turnover battle won 79% of their games, regardless of ANY other statistic.  A 12-5 record equates to 75% wins, so its clear how vital turnovers are in the minds of intelligent coaches.  And as far as turnovers are concerned, the number one concern for a team with a quarterback as skilled and proficient as Tom Brady is not interceptions (because there won’t be many), its fumbles.

There are many arguments which have been raised in favor of why the Patriots don’t fumble as often as other teams.  Many of them are simply factually incorrect.  If it was coaching, former players should be able to tell us that Bill Belichick suddenly and drastically changed the way he instructed players to carry the football in the 2006 offseason.  But the data shows that if mysterious trade secret was delivered, the players forgot about it when they left New England, as their individual fumble rates became drastically worse when playing for other NFL teams.

The bottom line is, something happened in New England.  It happened just before the 2007 season, and it completely changed this team.  While NFL teams apparently are complaining to the league that they felt the Patriots played with deflated footballs during the 2014 season and postseason, all investigations into those allegations would be wise to reference my research herein, and begin the investigation in the 2006.  That was when Tom Brady was able to persuade the NFL to change its rules to allow him (and other quarterbacks) to provide their own footballs for all road games.  I will reiterate, this analysis cannot say it was, undoubtedly, illegal football deflation which caused the data abnormalities.  But it does conclude that something absolutely changed, and it was not the result of simple random fluctuation.

__________________________

Because I was asked so often for the data that I used in the first analysis, as a courtesy, I am going to link an excel file with all the summary data used to create the graphics shown above.  Support Data

Warren Sharp of sharpfootballanalysis.com is an industry pioneer at the forefront of incorporating advanced analytics and metrics into football analysis. A licensed Professional Engineer by trade, Warren applies the same critical thought process and problem solving techniques into his passion, football. After spending years constructing, testing and perfecting computer models written to understand the critical elements to win NFL football games, Warren’s quantitative analytics are used in private consulting work, and elements of which are publicly shared on sharpfootballanalysis.com. To contact Warren, please email [email protected] or send a direct message on Twitter to @SharpFootball.

 

New England Patriots Fumble More Often When Playing for Other Teams

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28Jan15 Update:  The data below does factor in all fumbles (not just fumbles lost) but also includes punt return and kick return fumbles.  After adjusting for the return fumbles, the Patriots still fumble more often (the point of the article, and indeed, its title) but the rate is lower.  For example, players who left the Patriots and went to other teams fumbled 23% more on those other teams, including 38% more for the players with 300+ touches, when adjusting for the return data.  More commentary on this issue can be found HERE.

By Warren Sharp

Last Thursday’s groundbreaking article on the impossibly real fumble prevention statistics by the New England Patriots was certainly a perfect lesson on the power of social media and sending a critical story “viral”.  I tried to take a very unassuming, impartial look into a highly controversial topic, based not on opinion, but on statistics.  What caught the attention of many was that it was uniquely different from the other “theory based” pieces on this topic, and contained undeniable concrete evidence that whatever was happening in New England since 2007 was more than just ridiculously abnormal.  It was absolutely not a random fluctuation in the data and was extremely unlikely to be a mere coincidence.

After watching primetime TV and some of the Sunday morning national news shows, in addition to the Bill Belichick press conference from Saturday, it is clear that many in the media still believe this story is about a single-game incident.  And because that particular game was not close on the score board, the issue of ball inflation is not a concern.  I cannot deny the fact that I too was skeptical of this issue to begin with, and initially believed it to be immaterial – just another irrelevant story being hyped to create ratings.  Which is why I decided to investigate myself, and let the data show any abnormalities, should they exist.

The problem with dismissing this as an immaterial, single-game incident is that it ignores reality.  It ignores the abundance of data which shows a massive anonomly exists in New England which potentially could be tied back to the crux of this investigation:  proper ball inflation (or lack thereof).    Belichick spent an inordinate amount of time discussing a “simulation” they performed of their game day football preparation operation.  Regardless of what they specifically do to the footballs, it certainly would be remarkable if their techniques are so vastly different from the other 31 teams that only the Patriots footballs see a drop of 2 psi while all other teams remain in the legal range.  But as the data appears to indicate, since 2007, the footballs that the Patriots use on offense (or something else the Patriots do offensively) are completely dissimilar to the other 31 teams.  Not just by a slight margin, but so massively that it is an injustice to possibly cite the persistent, obvious variance over 8 years could be attributed to “climatic conditions”, “atmospheric conditions”, a “rubbing process”, or an “equilibrium getting reached”.

There were many follow-up thoughts and questions raised by the masses who gravitated to the piece across not just the United States, but from around the world.  In a way, it was a great example of how international the NFL has become.  Hundreds of thousands people are interested in this story and concerned about the findings I presented.  Certainly, the NFL is justified in spending ample time to research as much as they can to determine the full extent of the situation.  But more than encouraged by the sheer volume (which crashed multiple servers along the way), the reaction to the initial study was an affirmation of the power of data analysis and statistics.   The appreciation for crunching vast amounts of data to obtain a very simple, specific and precise conclusion which is unadulterated by a loud, distracting voice was clearly evidenced by how willing, enthusiastically and expeditiously the story was shared.  The feedback was tremendous, but of all the questions raised, the one most frequently asked (by literally hundreds of people) was: “What if you take a look at individual players when playing for the Patriots and when playing on other teams?  How does the data change, and what would it tell us?”  It was a terrific suggestion.

So I ran the analysis.  I’ll immediately share the results below, before diving into exactly how we arrive at these conclusions:

  1. Patriots players fumbled SIGNIFICANTLY more often when playing on other NFL teams than when playing for the Patriots:
    • Individual players who played on New England during the 2007-14 span and on other teams fumbled 46% less often ON the Patriots as compared to on their other teams (98 touches/fumble on NE, 67 on other teams).
  2. The most utilized of the Patriots players fumbled even more frequently when paying for other NFL teams:
    • The players who played the MOST often for the Patriots during this span fumbled the ball TWICE as frequently on other teams as they did on the Patriots (107 touches/fumble on NE, 53 on other teams).
  3. Learning ball possession skills in New England did NOT transfer to other NFL teams after players left:
    • Individual players who played on the Patriots fumbled 88% more often after LEAVING the Patriots as they did when playing on the Patriots (105 touches/fumble on NE, 56 after NE on other teams).
  4. In fact, the opposite was true – players were MORE secure carrying the football before even playing for the Patriots than they were after leaving the Patriots:
    • Individual players who played on the Patriots fumbled 25% less frequently before joining New England as they did after playing for New England and then leaving (70 touches/fumble before NE, 56 after NE).

Methodology.  I attacked this study it as I always try to do:  logically, impartially and always looking for “something more” even after finding data which offers a strong conclusion.  I looked at all player statistics for the Patriots between 2007-2014.  I started in 2007 because it appears from both my initial “fumble” analysis as well as my “weather” analysis that things suddenly changed in 2007 when looking at long term Patriots data. The 2007 season is when they skyrocket into the realm of other-worldly, where they stand alone from any team in NFL history.

Quick sidebar: Without even knowing what happened in 2007, I can tell from the data something changed for New England which did not change for the other 31 NFL teams. But the stars apparently are aligning on a NFL rule change which Tom Brady (and Peyton Manning) lobbied in favor of, and the NFL agreed to change policies. Brady wanted the NFL to let EVERY team provide its OWN footballs to use on offense. Prior to that year, the HOME team provided ALL the footballs, meaning the home quarterback selected the footballs the ROAD quarterback would play with on offense.

Brady’s quote at the time, when pushing for the change was: “The thing is, every quarterback likes it a little bit different. Some like them blown up a little bit more, some like them a little more thin, some like them a little more new, some like them really broken in.”

Regardless of exactly what started to happen in New England in 2007, the Patriots offense fumbled significantly less often, which is why I looked at their individual player data beginning in 2007.

Comparing the individual Patriots offensive players statistics against statistics for those same exact players when they played on other teams certainly is compelling, as the table below illustrates:

(click to enlarge)

As a whole, these players fumbled once every 98 plays when donning a Patriots uniform, but once every 67 plays when playing for any other NFL team. That is a 46% improvement when they played for New England from 2007 thru 2014.

Clearly there are many players at the bottom of the list (which is sorted by total touches when playing for New England) who carried the ball very infrequently (and never fumbled). To eliminate some of the noise created by these less utilized players, I decided to take a subset of data which looked ONLY at players with over 300 touches as a Patriot from 2007-2014 who also played on other teams before or after. They are the 5 players at the top of the list.

As the chart above indicates, these players fumbled once per 107 touches in New England, but once very 53 touches when playing on another team. That is an improvement of OVER 100%!

Obviously, that data is shocking.  These same individuals fumbled twice as often when playing for other teams.  When trying to explain the Patriots refusal to fumble, we no longer have the argument:  “maybe the Patriots draft/acquire players who don’t fumble.”  We are now at the point where we can say these individuals, for some reason, fumbled TWICE AS OFTEN on other teams as they did in New England.

The next logical question would be:  “What about players who LEFT the Patriots and THEN played for other teams?  Maybe these players learned a ball protection skill or a special secret trick while IN NEW ENGLAND to reduce their fumbles.  Surely they would take this with them elsewhere and their numbers AFTER leaving the Patriots would be good.”

So I performed that analysis.  I looked ONLY at players who left New England at some point after 2007, and I grabbed only their stats when playing for other teams AFTER playing in New England.  The caution here is we are slowly decreasing the data size, and thus adding variance into the numbers.  The chart is below:

(click to enlarge)

As you can see, these players fumbled once every 105 touches in New England, which is similar to the numbers we saw above, and is not surprising.  But when playing for other teams, they fumbled once every 56 touches!  That’s an 88% increase.  And it comes AFTER they recorded incredible numbers for the Patriots.

When trying to explain why the Patriots refuse to fumble, we no longer have the argument:  “there is a secret manner in which to hold the football or special coaching techniques which get entrusted to the Patriots during this 2007-14 time frame.”  These very same individuals, after leaving New England, see their fumbles/touch increase at an alarming rate.

Obviously Brandon Tate stands out in this analysis.  But the only players of these 10 to fumble LESS frequently after playing for the Patriots were Wes Welker and Ben Watson.  All of the other 8 players on this list fumbled MORE FREQUENTLY after playing for the Patriots.

Those of you paying close attention also likely noticed one final, remarkable takeaway from this analysis:

The entire collection of total players in this study actually fumbled LESS frequently BEFORE joining the Patriots as compared to when they left the Patriots.  That flies in the face of the thought that “fumblers” joined the Patriots, were straightened out, and then left as reformed ball controllers.  The first two lines on this next chart are pulled directly from the top two charts, and the third line is the difference:

(click to enlarge)

It is clear by these numbers, that these 18 players who qualified for this analysis fumbled once every 70 touches before joining the Patriots and once every 56 touches after leaving the Patriots.

When trying to explain why the Patriots refuse to fumble, we no longer have the argument:  “the Patriots took fumble prone players, taught them better techniques while in New England to improve their ball possession, and they left better than when they were brought in.”  These players were actually 25% BETTER at securing the football before they ever even worked with the Patriots than they were after playing in New England and then joining another team!

There clearly are a number of takeaways to sum up this portion of analysis, and to restate them from the top of this article:

  1. Patriots players fumbled SIGNIFICANTLY more often when playing on other NFL teams than when playing for the Patriots:
    • Individual players who played on New England during the 2007-14 span and on other teams fumbled 46% less often ON the Patriots as compared to on their other teams (98 touches/fumble on NE, 67 on other teams).
  2. The most utilized of the Patriots players fumbled even more frequently when paying for other NFL teams:
    • The players who played the MOST often for the Patriots during this span fumbled the ball TWICE as frequently on other teams as they did on the Patriots (107 touches/fumble on NE, 53 on other teams).
  3. Learning ball possession skills in New England did NOT transfer to other NFL teams after players left:
    • Individual players who played on the Patriots fumbled 88% more often after LEAVING the Patriots as they did when playing on the Patriots (105 touches/fumble on NE, 56 after NE on other teams).
  4. In fact, the opposite was true – players were MORE secure carrying the football before even playing for the Patriots than they were after leaving the Patriots:
    • Individual players who played on the Patriots fumbled 25% less frequently before joining New England as they did after playing for New England and then leaving (70 touches/fumble before NE, 56 after NE).

Quick sidebar #2:  Another argument which is frequently made in defense of the Patriots abnormal fumble rate:  “Bill Belichick emphasizes possessing the football and cuts players who fumble.”  First, let me say its absurd to assume that other NFL coaches are “fine” with a player who fumbles frequently, and only Bill Belichick stresses reducing turnovers.  But even if we believe only Belichick cares, and he abnormally and quickly hooks any player guilty of this enormous transgression, let’s look at a few players on his team now and historically:

  • In 2013, WR Julian Edelman fumbled 6 times.  No non-QB for Bill Belichick ever fumbled more in one season.  Yet Edelman is the key WR still playing for New England.  In fact, Edelman followed that up with 5 fumbles this season (and twice more in the playoffs).  In total, 5 of these fumbles came on offense (not returning kicks).  But we don’t hear any discussion of benching Edelman for the Super Bowl.  In fact, Edelman’s fumble rate was one fumble every 18 touches in 2013 and one every 20 this year!  If you look at the numbers above, you will see how terrible those numbers are for a Patriot.  No receiver with 50+ catches under Belichick has ever fumbled more frequently than Edelman did this season.
  • RB Stevan Ridley is the poster boy of the “fumbler” for the Patriots, who fumbled 8 times between 2012 and 2013.  But his fumble rate was still only one fumble per 61 touches.  In 2013, he improved his fumble rate from once every 47 touches to once every 74 touches, a significant improvement of 57%.  Compare Ridley to one of Belichick’s most beloved players, Kevin Faulk, and you will see Faulk’s fumble rate was worse:
  • In 2005 RB Kevin Faulk fumbled a total of 3 times despite having only 80 offensive touches (he only returned 4 total kicks that year).  That rate of one fumble per 27 touches is obviously more than twice as bad as Ridley’s two-year average and almost 3 times worse than Ridley’s 2013 season.  Yet Faulk played his entire career for the Patriots, all the way thru until 2011, and is widely considered one of the Patriots most valuable offensive assets over that time.
  • In 2004, the Patriots acquired RB Corey Dillon from the Bengals.  Dillon recorded 5 fumbles on 360 touches, a rate of one fumble per 72 touches.  That rate was worse than Ridley’s 2013 season.  In fact, it was the worst fumble rate for any Patriot under Bill Belichick who had at least 200 rushes.  Yet Dillon finished his career 3 years later in 2006, still with the Patriots.
  • In 2013, RB LeGarrette Blount fumbled 3 times on 155 touches for the Patriots.  That was a rate of 1 fumble every 52 touches.  Very similar to the 2013 fumble rate of Ridley (once every 47 touches).  Yet Belichick brought Blount back to the Patriots in the middle of this season after he was cut from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and is now the starting RB for the Patriots in next week’s Super Bowl.  That is despite Blount having the 3rd worst fumble rate of any Patriots RB under Belichick with at least 100 carries in a season.
  • In 2006, TE Ben Watson had 49 touches and 3 fumbles, a terrible rate of 16 touches per fumble.  It was the worst fumble rate of any receiver under Belichick with over 10 receptions.  Yet Belichick kept Watson in New England for the next 3 seasons, where he played in 42 of the 48 regular season games, starting in well over half the games.
  • Despite fumbling once every 24 touches (an extremely bad rate) in 2008, WR Randy Moss caught 20% more passes for the Patriots in 2009.

Certainly Bill Belichick places emphasis on ball possession, as does every NFL head coach.  And more goes into decisions on who to keep, play and start than just fumbles.  Anecdotally it does seem like Belichick pulls players quickly who fumble often, but the fact is, if you look at the data, he treats other players who have similar (or worse) fumble rates differently.  Ultimately, its likely about the total package the player provides for Belichick rather than simply his fumble-aversion statistic alone.  This far less technical case study certainly appears to show that there is no set “limit” to the tolerance Bill Belichick has for fumbles from his players.  So I think we can dismiss the defense that “Bill Belichick yanks players who fumble often, and then cuts them.”  While he may do that to certain players, clearly it is not a consistent position he has taken historically across-the-board with all players, many of which are mentioned above.

Once again, we are left with highly compelling evidence which certainly refutes a number of arguments made in defense of the statistical anomaly that is the New England Patriots from 2007-2014.  While the data cannot tell us precisely WHAT the Patriots were doing to prevent fumbles, keep in mind, the data was the foremost clue that something was occurring, and told us precisely WHEN it began (all of which I introduced in my article last Thursday).  The additional data compiled from this latest research project is now beginning to shed light on what the Patriots were NOT doing to prevent fumbles.  To prevent fumbles for the New England Patriots:  they were not amassing a collection of highly fumble-adverse players.  They were not teaching a special ball-carrying technique which was entrusted to their players.  And they were not targeting fumble-prone players and reforming them in New England to permanently cure them of their bad fumbling habits.

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Warren Sharp of sharpfootballanalysis.com is an industry pioneer at the forefront of incorporating advanced analytics and metrics into football analysis. A licensed Professional Engineer by trade, Warren applies the same critical thought process and problem solving techniques into his passion, football. After spending years constructing, testing and perfecting computer models written to understand the critical elements to win NFL football games, Warren’s quantitative analytics are used in private consulting work, and elements of which are publicly shared on sharpfootballanalysis.com. To contact Warren, please email [email protected] or send a direct message on Twitter to @SharpFootball.