Fantasy Football Red Flags: Do Fumbles Sideline Running Backs?

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Picture this: your favorite fantasy running back trots onto the field with his team’s offense. It’s 1st and 10 from their own 25. The first play call is a quick slant to the reliable slot receiver, who picks up a healthy 6 yards to start the drive. On 2nd and short, the quarterback takes the snack, drops back, and hands it off to his running back as you throw your arms up and cheer. The RB hits the hole with speed, and…

Fumbles

It doesn’t get much worse than this. Right off the bat, your fantasy team takes a -2 point hit. The drive has ended abruptly, which means valuable game time will tick off the clock while the offense is off of the field. Most importantly, though, you start to worry about this running back actually getting back on the field.

It’s a tale as old as time: a young RB coughs up the ball, and an old-fashioned head coach or offensive coordinator finds him a seat on the bench for the rest of the game (and perhaps beyond). The only time he will be on camera again is when the broadcast pans to him, shaking his head in disgust, after the opposing team converts the turnover into points.

A poignant scene, sure, but is this really what happens? Do we really see a marked decrease in playing time after a player fumbles? In this article, I’ll examine if RBs that fumble see a decrease in their usage. This question has massive fantasy implications, especially early in the season. Perhaps you drafted a late-round flier at the position (personally, I’m drafting Tyrion Davis-Price everywhere) and he has the ball knocked loose in the opening weeks of the year. Will his opportunities decrease, and should you find other options in fantasy? Or should you trust the process despite the miscue?

Methodology

I’ll be looking at 2021 data from, as usual, nflfastR. We don’t want to consider really deep, back-up RBs that aren’t getting many carries in any scenario. However, we also don’t want bell-cow RBs like Jonathan Taylor or Austin Ekeler, since the coaching staff has lots of trust in them that won’t be shaken by a mere fumble. The ‘sweet spot’ is a group of RBs somewhere in the middle: they see enough action to be fantasy relevant, but their standing on the team isn’t completely secure.

Specifically, I’ll look at RBs who had between 25 and 120 rushing attempts on the season. There are 56 backs, which include Rashaad Penny, 14 of which lost a fumble at some point in the year. This is a small sample size, and our analysis will have to reflect that uncertainty!

From here, the process is straightforward. We can measure the average carries per game given to an RB before the first fumble, after the first fumble and, if they fumble again, after the second fumble. This helps us to measure if their usage, and ultimately fantasy opportunity, has fallen to a point where they might be best left on the waiver wire.

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Usage Trends

In the pre-fumble period – either before a fumble for RBs who do fumble, or for the entire season for RBs who never fumble – this group averaged 7.0 carries per game. After the first fumble, and before the second fumble, that number drops slightly to 6.5 carries per game. After the 2nd fumble, if there is one, the number falls off a cliff: 3.7 carries per game.

Now, before we draw any conclusions, it’s important to remember that this is a small sample size. Only 14 RBs in this sample lost a fumble last year, and only 3 actually fumbled twice (Carlos Hyde, Nyheim Hines and Ronald Jones). This means that if we do a formal test of statistical significance, we can’t definitively conclude that there’s a drop-off in usage.*

Still, the signs do point to less trust from the coaching staff, especially after multiple fumbles, and it’s very possible that we would find statistical significance if the sample size was larger. Carries isn’t the entire story, either. If we look at these 14 non-starting RBs that fumble at least once, only three eclipse 400 yards on the season, and the best mark is 428 (Ronald Jones). Simply put, it’s difficult to have a mid-tier running back who has fumbled but is also truly fantasy relevant.

Conclusion

The first few weeks of the season – or the ‘Draft Chunk’, as Mike and the other Ballers like to put it – might be the most important of the season. You’re learning about your late-round picks every week: who has a path to production and fantasy glory? Who is going to fall on the depth chart and, unfortunately, your bench?

It’s important to be on the lookout for signs in both directions in the early weeks, especially as fantasy managers scramble to find previously undiscovered fantasy output on the waiver wire. If your sleeper RB loses a fumble early on, should you move on and sign a different option?

Personally, I think that the answer is no. The drop-off in carries is so slight (0.5 carries a game) that it’s probably insignificant in a two-game sample, and doesn’t change much if we consider early-season fumbles. Talented players still seem to get their shot, despite the proverbial ‘post-fumble benching’ attributed to coaches like Bill Belichick. However, although it’s an even smaller sample size, it does seem like multiple fumbles can be a true warning sign for a player. If lightning does end up striking twice, it’s probably a good idea to look elsewhere.

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Curios about other red flags? Message me on Twitter.

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*at the 5% level of statistical significance

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