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Ryan Mathews Fumbling Problems and Moving Down the Depth Chart

Ryan Mathews was expected to be the full time starter at running back when the Chargers went to Kansas City last week. Instead, it was Jackie Battle getting the start and the early touches. Mathews ended up with one fewer carry, but had more yards (61 to 39). Most believed that was a message sent because of Mathews’ fumble in the Atlanta game, which was his 11th fumble of his career.

The Chargers are again listing Jackie Battle as first on the depth chart heading into this week’s game. What in the wide, wide, world of sports is going on here? Well, it may have to do with the fumble issues, and an illustration of how running backs who fumble better be really, really good to continue to get opportunities. Passing games are too good, and even the best backs cannot generate as many yards.

Several years ago, I wrote about changes in fumble rates over time and how we have seen the rate of fumbling steadily decrease across the league since the 1970′s (so much for those espousing better fundamentals back in the old days?). One of my theories as to why we have seen such a drop in fumbles over time is the improvement in passing.

With these changes to the rules, though, the passing offenses become relatively safer and more efficient over time, while still having explosiveness resulting in more big point producing plays than the running game. The big play ability of running backs is still important, but less so when you can more readily get those big plays in the passing game. Thus, it becomes relatively more important that the running back not turn the ball over, to avoid taking the ball out of the hands of his team’s increasingly efficient passing game. Much like the smaller animals, the fumblers are selected against with greater pressure than before. And just like a smaller animal better be at the far left of the speed curve to survive in the changed environment, the more fumble prone back better be at the far left of the explosiveness curve, moreso than before. He either adapts, or is so good in every other facet that teams are still willing to tolerate the flaw.
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The purpose of the running game has changed over time, now serving a greater role in lead preservation, but a smaller role in getting the lead in the first place compared to thirty years ago. Along with this change in focus has been a change in risk tolerance. In my opinion, this is yet another subtle effect of the changes in the passing rule.

Where have all the fumbling running backs gone? Like the Dodo Bird, Thylacine, and Quagga, they have been the victims of natural selection. They either changed their stripes, or they became extinct.

The Chargers are asking Mathews to change his stripes after 5 fumbles in a platoon role in the last two seasons, and a fumble on more than 2% of his touches. He then came out in his return and immediately fumbled in a goal line situation. That has temporarily put him in the dog house.

The good news, long term, is this. San Diego’s concerns are probably not likely to be borne out. Fumbles, even for the most fumble prone star running back, are rare events. When I look at the running backs (with at least 300 carries) to have the highest fumble rates by age 24 since 1990, I see some familiar names who fumbled just as frequently as Mathews. Garrison Hearst, Terry Allen, Thomas Jones, Adrian Peterson, and Jamal Lewis all show up as fumbling at least 2% of the time they touched the ball before their 25th birthday.

At ages 25 and 26, among all players in that group who went on to have 100 touches over those years, the fumble rate dropped to 1.2%, basically league average. Either they improved their ball security, or it was just random and regressed to league average performance, or perhaps a little of both.

Mathews’ early fumbling problems shouldn’t carry over as he ages. Of course, if they do, he may find himself in a platoon for a lot longer. Even though he’s clearly a better talent, you can’t put the ball on the ground and play running back when you are on a team with a decent passing offense. No matter how explosive you are as a running back, you aren’t producing enough big plays to surpass the passing game.

[photo via US Presswire]

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