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Actual advantage of Deflategate? New England Patriots low fumble rate

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May 17, 2015


Like a bad episode of Law & Order, Deflategate continues. While the NFL is in the doldrums of post-draft and pre-training camps, they’ve managed to stay at the top of the news cycle due to Deflategate.

Following Roger Goodell’s ruling on the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady, the NFL Network was more reminiscent of CNN than a sports-oriented station. NFL Network covered the news of New England’s harsh punishment – a $1M fine, loss of first and third-round draft picks in 2016 with Brady suspended for four games – for hours on end, interviewing former Patriots players, who predictably came to the team’s defense.

Brady is the NFL’s poster boy; a pretty boy with a competitive fire that burns hotter than the sun, a winner of four Super Bowls who is now seen by many football fans as a cheater. For those not closely connected to the league, Brady and the Patriots’ Deflategate is a black eye on the NFL, putting in doubt the integrity of it all. New England being the reigning Super Bowl champions and the top team in the NFL for years only makes this all look worse.

The rules Brady and his boys broke were small in the grand scheme of things – letting some air out of the footballs – but it was a violation, nonetheless. Through the seriousness of the Patriots’ punishment, it seems clear that rule-breaking led to a competitive advantage for New England.

It’s not just Brady – who could grip the less inflated ball more easily – who gained an advantage, the Patriots running backs did, too.

A softer ball means it’s easier to squeeze tightly, resulting in far less fumbles per rushing attempt than the average team.

New England’s winters can be brutal. They’re cold, windy and wet. When that wind whips wildly, teams can be forced into running the pigskin. And when the rain or snow falls, fumbles follow. Not for New England, though.

The Patriots have long prided themselves on protecting the football, not fumbling it away to opponents. But they’re so much better than other teams, the question must be asked; Did New England gain an advantage when running the ball due to under-inflated footballs?

This wonderfully-done report on Slate examines just that, and comes to the conclusion that, “But regardless of what, specifically, is causing these numbers, the fact remains: This is an extremely abnormal occurrence and is not simply random fluctuation.”

What are the numbers?

Warren Sharp looked at the number of total fumbles lost per total offensive plays run over a five year period. While most teams average one fumble per 105 plays, New England is astronomically better than that, at 187 plays per fumble. In fact, according to Sharp, that 187 plays per fumble from 2010-2014 is the best rate ever.

From the piece:

1. 2010–2014 Patriots: 187 plays/fumble lost

2. 2009–2013 Patriots: 156 plays/fumble lost

3. 2006–2010 Colts: 156 plays/fumble lost

4.  2005–2009 Colts: 153 plays/fumble lost

5. 2007–2011 Patriots: 149 plays/fumble lost

6. 2008–2012 Patriots: 148 plays/fumble lost

7. 2010–2014 Texans: 140 plays/fumble lost

8. 2004–2008 Colts: 139 plays/fumble lost

9. 2006–2010 Jets: 135 plays/fumble lost

10. 1999–2003 Chiefs: 134 plays/fumble lost

Two things line up in Sharp’s study: In 2006, the Patriots went 0-2 in wet weather home games, and since 2007 have gone 14-1 in such games. Also, Jim McNally, the Patriots locker room attendant who was nicknamed the “Deflator” began in his role in 2007.

From 2002-2006, New England ran 91 plays per fumble. That jumped significantly to 149 plays per fumble from 2007-2011.

Now, let’s go a bit deeper. What if we could look at running backs and their fumbling before/during playing with the Patriots.

There aren’t a ton of players, so the sample size is small, but the information is interesting:

LeGarrette Blount: Starting with a current Pats running back, we were hoping LeGarrette would be “a smoking Blount” in this investigation. But, due to his propensity for fumbling, the numbers aren’t damning. Consider this: From 2010-2012 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Blount fumbled six times and lost four. In 2013 with the Pats, he had three more fumbles and lost two of them. Then, with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014 to start the season, there was one fumble and one lost. After transitioning back to the Patriots in 2014? Zero fumbles.

So, out of 10 fumbles and seven lost in his career, Blount fumbled three times and lost two with New England. Again, it’s hard to determine an unfair advantage since he fumbled multiple times before and during his Pats career.

In 76 postseason carries with the Patriots the last two seasons, Blount had zero fumbles. Career average: 70 carries per fumble.

Fred Taylor: Taylor was the bruising back for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1998-2008, but then left to join the Pats. In 2009-10 with New England, Taylor played in 13 games, carrying the rock 106 times with one fumble and one lost. Interestingly, Taylor fumbled 20 times before joining New England, with 13 turnovers, but considering his huge number of carries (2,534) his carries per fumble (121) were phenomenal.

Laurence Maroney: Maroney is a bit of an outlier in this analysis because in 2009 he fumbled four times with the Pats and lost the ball every time. Six career fumbles, five lost and a carry per fumble average of 103.

Corey Dillon: Like Taylor, Dillon played most of his career with another team (Cincinnati Bengals) before joining the Pats in 2004. Dillon is the most fumble prone player on this list, with 28 in his career and 19 turnovers. In New England (2004-2006), Dillon fumbled the ball eight times and lost it seven. Could Dillon be one of the reasons the Patriots decided to start deflating the ball, therefore making it softer and easier for backs to hold onto? No one knows for sure, but it’s a possibility. Career carry per fumble: 93.5.

Kevin Faulk: Faulk may be the most telling of all, since he played his entire career in New England. The running back played from 1999-2011, meaning we can compare his fumble numbers pre-2007 and from 2007 forward, when Sharp noticed their fumble per play numbers sky rocketed. For Faulk, the fumble numbers back up the claim.

Faulk fumbled 11 times in his career, with eight fumble losses; every one of them came from 1999-2005. From 2006-2011? Zero fumbles. Of course, two factors could lead to this result. First, Faulk was more prone to fumbling as a more youthful back. Second, he carried the ball much more in his youth than in the second half of his career. Faulk’s last seven years only counted for 35 percent of his career carries.

Faulk saw spot action in the 2007 and 2009 playoffs, carrying the ball 20 times with zero fumbles. His career carries per fumble average was 78.5.

Did the New England Patriots gain a competitive advantage from deflating the ball? Sharp’s study on plays per fumble seem to illustrate that point.

Turnover differential is one of the most important factors when determining which team will win on a week-to-week basis; it’s possible the Pats found a loophole and committed (almost) the perfect NFL crime.

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