≡ Menu

Yesterday, I took a comprehensive look at offensive fumbles and the associated fumble rates. Let me first say that going through eleven years of play-by-play logs is an impossible one-man task, which means you need to write a lot of code to sort your way through the hundreds of thousands of plays.

Its pretty easy to do that for offensive fumbles; coding is not nearly as effective or efficient when it comes to unique fumbles. I’ve done my best to be both exhaustive and accurate, but am not particularly confident that I met either such goal. I’d love to hear from others who have studied fumbles by defensive and special teams players and compare notes — just drop a note in the comments or shoot me an e-mail. With that said….

Defensive Fumbles

According to my database, there were 115 interceptions where the defender fumbled on the ensuing return. The passing team wound up get the ball back 52 times (45.2%). The most memorable of these was when Marlon McCree intercepted a Tom Brady pass in a playoff game following the 2006 season; on the return, Troy Brown forced a fumble and Reche Caldwell recovered, keeping New England’s hopes alive. This, of course, means that 63 times (54.8%) the intercepting and fumbling team would retain possession after the turnover.

As you might imagine, trying to locate plays where a team recovered a fumble and then the recovering player fumbled is not one that was particularly easy to identify. Without spending an inordinate amount of time on this, I did look at all rushing and passing plays that appeared to have two fumbles. I surely missed some, but I found 37 examples. Only nine times (24%) did the team on offense get the ball back.


If anyone could point me to a study on fumbles on special teams plays, I’d appreciate it. Parsing through the data was not easy, so I’m not going to pretend that I am 100% confident that I did this correctly. Note that I excluded all onside kicks and kickoffs where the receiving team was executing laterals.

There were 940 kickoffs that resulted in fumbles or muffs. The kickoff team recovered the ball 305 times, while the receiving team retained possession 635 times (67.6%). There were a total of 30,230 kickoffs, which means that roughly 3.1% of all kickoffs resulted in fumbles, and roughly 1% of the time the kicking team ended up gaining possession.

Punt returns

There were 30,777 punts in my database, and 1,085 punts where the returning team muffed or fumbled the punt return. Usually, the punt returning team would keep the ball — 731 times or 67.4% of the time to be exact. That leaves 354 times where the punting team would retain possession, or on 1.15% of all punts.


My database shows only 45 field goal attempts (or possibly fakes) that were nixed due to fumbles (out of over 11,000 attempts; obviously not all field goal attempts that went awry were labeled as fumbles in the game recaps.). It’s true that 35 times the kicking team recovered the fumble, but it was always a short-lived victory. In each of those cases, the kicking team did not gain enough yards to pick up a first down. In fact, Tony Romo had the best single play following a fumbled field goal attempt, by rushing for 7 yards. And people say he’s not clutch! The other 22% of the time the defensive team recovered, and three times they scored a touchdown on that play.

My database shows only 35 fumbles by punters before punting — again, no doubt that some punts have been excluded from the sample. In any event, 70% of the time the punter or punting team recovered. Again, the important thing here is that regardless of who recovers, it would be extremely rare for the punting team to actually get a first down (only three in my database).

Note: There is a small miscellaneous category — things like fumbles on onside kicks, fumbles following blocked field goals, fumbles on laterals on the last play of the game, — that my brain begged itself to ignore.

  • Ben

    Not to be a negative nancy, but what did we learn from this article?

    • From yesterday: “This post is intended to be more exhaustive than groundbreaking, more like an encyclopedia than a fiction novel.”

      I believe Chase is just dumping — I use that term in a non-pejorative way — findings for the statistical record and for our edification.

    • Chase Stuart

      I am proud to hear that the expectation is that we learn something from every article at FP.

  • OK, so for fun — and since this series is supposed to be encyclopedic — I’ll take the bait and supplement everything Chase has presented over the past 2 days w/ the p-values corresponding to the probability that a recovery by the fumbling team is, in fact, statistically random:

    Aborted Snaps: p (1,047 or more recoveries on 1,367 fumbles is random) < .001
    QB Sacks: p (1,200 or fewer recoveries on 2,440 fumbles is random) = .215
    QB Runs: p (143 or more recoveries on 262 fumbles is random) = .078
    QB Negative Runs: p (72 or more recoveries on 108 fumbles is random) < .001
    Non-QB Runs: p (660 or fewer recoveries on 1,741 fumbles is random) < .001
    Receptions: p (635 or fewer recoveries on 1,588 fumbles is random) < .001

    Interceptions: p (63 or more recoveries in 115 fumbles is random) = .176
    Fumble recoveries: p (28 or more recoveries in 37 fumbles is random) = .001

    Kick returns: p (635 or more recoveries in 940 fumbles is random) < .001
    Punt returns: p (731 or more recoveries in 1,035 fumbles is random) < .001
    Field goals: p (35 or more recoveries in 45 fumbles is random) < .001
    Punts: p (25? or more recoveries in 35 fumbles is random) = .008

    Moral of the story: Heeding the aforementioned data collection caveats, the only situations in which a recovery is statistically random (at the Bonferroni-corrected α = .004 level) are when a QB fumbles after being sacked or running past the line of scrimmage, when a defender fumbles after intercepting a pass, and when MORTIFIED MICHIGAN PUNTER is on the field. In 6 of the other 8 situations, a recovery by the fumbling team is highly likely; which means that an opponent is only highly likely to recover when the fumbler is a pass catcher or non-QB runner.

    • Chase Stuart

      This is hot, even if I only understood half of it.

  • Independent George

    Oh, Marlon McCree. You make the Marty weep.

  • Danny

    I know the sample sizes are already small, but it’s probably a good idea to distinguish between fumbles on punt and kick returns and muffs on those plays. I suspect there’s a higher probability of a muffing team recovering than a fumbling team, especially on kick returns. A fumble 10 yards into the return caused by contact with the kick coverage looks very different than a muff in the end zone with the kicking team still seconds away.