Hot Reads: Fumbles Are Hard to Avoid
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Fumbles Are Hard to Avoid, But Army Might Be Magic

June 14, 2019

The Hail Varsity 2019 Yearbook is officially at the printer as of yesterday evening. (Subscribe now to be sure you don't miss it.) I have a story in there titled "Fumbles are Dumb." The research for that story led me to this . . . 

. . . and for that I'll forever be grateful. The story itself isn't really about fumbles, that was just kind of a way in because you can't really do anything about them. No team or coach is "good" at fumbles. Not at forcing them or avoiding them or recovering them. Every team out there coaches ball security and strip drills, but at the end of the day fumbles are totally random. When the ball comes out, it will end up with the team that fumbled half the time and the other team half time. The average recovery rate for a season is always right at 50%.

Over short spans, however, things can get wacky. Nebraska fumbled the ball 28 times last year, third-most nationally, but only lost 11 of those fumbles (39.3%). The Huskers were a little lucky on that front. And it was unlucky on the flip side as well. Nebraska's opponents fumbled 22 times and the Huskers recovered just 40.9%. Within individual teams and seasons, that sort of deviation from the expected rate (50%) is happening all the time and it can be pretty influential in how those seasons go.

Which brings me to Army. The Black Knights went 11-2 last year and finished 19th in the AP poll, its highest end-of-the-year ranking since 1958. Army's 2017 season, 10-3, was the first 10-win season at West Point since 1996. It has been a remarkable run and the Black Knights will probably start the 2019 season ranked in the AP poll for just the seventh time in program history.

If you want to see bizarre fumble numbers, look at Army over that stretch.

On the recovery side, Army is on a run of pretty decent luck. The Knights recovered 13 of 15 opponent fumbles last year, and nine of 14 in 2017. Over the past two seasons combined, that’s a 75% recover rate. Strange, but those kind of runs happen.

The more interesting thing, however, is how infrequently Army fumbles the ball. Over the last two years Army has lost 50% of its own fumbles, perfectly normal, but it has only fumbled the ball 18 times in 26 games. The Knights fumbled 12 times last season (16th fewest) and just six times (the fewest) in 2017. Those are low numbers for any team, but for an option team they're almost impossible to believe.

Between 2009 and 2018, flexbone teams (Air Force, Army, Navy and Georgia Tech) fumbled an average of 24.7 times per season. They almost always are among the national leaders in total fumbles. Georgia Tech, in 12 seasons under Paul Johnson, never had fewer than 20 fumbles in a season but had more than 30 seven times over that stretch.

This makes me wonder if Jeff Monken is somehow magic. Either that or Army's run has coincided with an extremely unlikely string of fumble outcomes. It's kind of an interesting result, especially if you start from a position of "fumbles happen and there's not much you can do about it" (as I do). I still believe that, but if there were a program that could be uniquely good at avoiding fumbles, maybe it would be Army?

I don't know. It wasn't that way in the past for service academies running the most fumble-prone offense. These are the things you think about in the offseason.

I was already jazzed for Army's trip to Ann Arbor this fall, but now I'm fascinated by it. Michigan only fumbled 10 times last season (fifth-fewest) and lost just three of those fumbles. Something's gotta give on Sept. 7.

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