Being good in the NFL is mostly about skill but it can also involve a lot of luck. Two of the biggest areas where that is the case are on fumble returns and field goals. Forcing fumbles is a skill as is successfully kicking field goals, but fumble recovery rate and opponent success on field goals are both largely random and subject to regression throughout the season.

Teams on each side of the extremes are important to point out as the early season luck — or lack thereof — could change throughout the season.

With that in mind, we took a look at how teams have performed in field goal success and fumble recoveries against expectations over the first four weeks of the season.

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Fumble recovery

This year, offenses have recovered 54.3% of fumbles which is in line with the ~53% rate across the sample of the past five seasons. On a per-fumble basis, here is how each NFL team comes out as recoveries above expectation.

Through four weeks, the Baltimore Ravens have been the team that has benefited the most from fumble luck.

The Ravens haven’t been particularly lucky on offense, where they have recovered three of five fumbles but it’s the Baltimore defense that stands out. The Ravens have forced six fumbles on defense, which is the eighth-most in the league. That, of course, is a skill but the fact the defense has recovered five of those six fumbles (83.3%) is not something that should be expected to continue going forward.

The Chicago Bears are an interesting team to watch going forward. The Bears have fumbled four times on offense, tied for the 12th-most, and have recovered all four. Only one of those fumbles came from the quarterback position, which are more likely to be recovered by the offense. The other three happened in the open field, which tends to favor the defense.

The Cleveland Browns come out as a team that has benefited from fumble recoveries but the rate of fumbles also helps them here. The Browns’ offense doesn’t stand out much, they’ve recovered two of their four fumbles. On defense, Cleveland has recovered six of 10 fumbles, 1.4 above expectation, but those 10 forced fumbles on defense lead the league. Even if the Browns regress to a league-average recovery rate, forcing fumbles that often could still have a big impact for the defense.

On the other side, the Dallas Cowboys have been among the unluckiest teams on fumble recoveries. Much of this falls on the offense. Dallas’s offense has fumbled seven times, which is tied for the fourth-most in the league, and the Cowboys have lost six of them. That’s nearly three fumbles (2.8) worse than expected for the Dallas offense. 

The Las Vegas Raiders and Washington Football Team are also among the unluckiest teams, but those are also teams that have fumbled often on offense (they’re tied for most with nine). The big difference for the net luck for these teams have been what they’ve done on defense. Washington has forced five defensive fumbles but only recovered one (1.3 recoveries below expectation) but Las Vegas has yet to force a fumble on defense.

Field Goal Luck

The below chart shows each team’s net field goals above expectation along with those marks on offense and defense. 

Again, the Ravens come out on top. They’re the fourth-best on offense and it certainly helps to have Justin Tucker as the best kicker in the NFL. But on the other side of the ball, Baltimore has benefitted from opponents making just four of seven attempts with misses of 41, 42, and 54 yards.

The Denver Broncos are another team that has been fortunate on both sides of field goal attempts. Brandon McManus has only missed one of his seven attempts with that lone miss of 58 yards in Pittsburgh. His made field goals include three of at least 50 yards. All of Denver’s opposing field goal luck came from the Week 1 meeting with the Tennessee Titans, which featured three misses from Stephen Gostowski. Outside of that game, Broncos opponents have hit all eight field goal attempts but those have also been rather short attempts. There was a 54-yard make from Sam Ficken of the Jets but only one other non-Titans attempt against the Broncos has even been over 40 yards.

Chicago is worth pointing out here as a team that has gotten lucky from opponent’s missing field goals but hasn’t capitalized on those point swings due to missed field goals of their own. Cairo Santos has hit five of seven field goal attempts but all five makes have been within 40 yards. His two misses were from 46 and 50 yards out. 

The Minnesota Vikings are the biggest outlier here in terms of opposing field goals, both in success and volume. No team has faced more field goal attempts than Minnesota’s 15 and every kick has been successful, including four of at least 50 yards.

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