The NFL’s only undefeated team owes its torrid start to more than just an improved defense, a multifaceted receiving corps and Kyler Murray’s improvisation.
The Arizona Cardinals have also benefited from the football consistently bouncing in their favor.
In six games so far this season, the Cardinals have recovered all but one of their league-high 12 fumbles. That dwarfs the 54.9% of fumbles that offenses have recovered on average over the past three full NFL seasons.
Arizona’s defense has also scooped up a disproportionately high seven of 11 fumbles forced so far this season. Overall, the Cardinals have recovered 78 percent of all fumbles, second best in the league this season and best among teams with at least 10 fumble recovery opportunities.
That serendipitous fumble luck was one of the stories of Arizona’s 37-14 demolition of Cleveland this past Sunday. Murray fumbled four times and each time regained possession. By contrast, Markus Golden and J.J. Watson each strip-sacked Baker Mayfield, and both times the Cardinals recovered.
So is Arizona’s fumble recovery rate really just luck? Or is there some skill involved in retrieving a loose football? The answer is somewhat nuanced.
Poking or ripping away a football is a tactic that defenses practice. Skill position players are also taught to practice ball security in traffic and to hold the football in their outside arm, away from the defender. But what happens once the ball hits the ground is essentially random.
Last season, the Carolina Panthers led the NFL with a 65.7% fumble recovery rate. The year before, they were 25th in the league at 43.9%. The New Orleans Saints were top five the past two seasons. So far this season, they’ve lost the football the only time they fumbled it and recovered just one of four fumbles they’ve forced.
The player who recovered more fumbles than any other in NFL history doesn’t think he had any particular knack for it. Nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Warren Moon insists it was just as frustrating for him to snatch a bouncing football as it was for anyone else.
“It makes you look kind of goofy, like you don’t have a lot of athletic ability,” Moon told Yahoo Sports. “When that ball is loose, you never know how it’s going to bounce.”
Why did Moon recover 56 of his 161 fumbles in his 17-year NFL career? Because, he says, he often fumbled the snap and he was usually able to pounce on it. After dislocating his right thumb in 1990, Moon never regained the flexibility in it that he previously had and as a result had to change how he received a snap from the center.
“Sometimes, if it was a cold day or if it was rainy, I just couldn’t hold the football,” Moon said. “I didn’t have as much strength in that thumb as I normally would have. That’s where a lot of my fumbles came from, but usually I could just fall right back on the ball before anyone else realized it was out. It was easy for me.”
Indeed, Moon is on to the one fallacy of “fumble luck.” You can predict whether the offense or defense will recover depending on how a fumble happens.
In 2012, Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com published “The definitive analysis of offensive fumbles.” He grouped all offensive fumbles from 2000-2011 into six categories:
QB/center exchange fumbles
QB sack fumbles
QB fumbles on running plays
QB fumbles on non-sack plays behind the line of scrimmage
Fumbles on non-QB running plays
Fumbles after completed passes
As you might expect, the offense’s chances of retaining possession differed from situation to situation. Only 24.4 percent of the time did the defense recover a botched snap. Conversely, the defense recovered just over 50 percent of the time after a quarterback sack and more than 60 percent of the time after a fumble on a non-quarterback run or after a reception.
“A receiver fumbling downfield who then has a teammate recover the fumble is a lot luckier,” Stuart concluded, “than a quarterback who fumbles the snap and then recovers it.”
That context helps explain some of the Cardinals’ fumble luck. Six of Arizona’s 12 fumbles have been by Murray, many on botched snaps. On the other hand, the Cardinals’ defense has forced seven strip-sack fumbles and dislodged the football once from a running back and three more times after receptions.
So while the Cardinals have benefited from favorable bounces, it would be a stretch to say their 6-0 start is a product of fumble luck. Three of the other top-five teams in fumble recovery rate this season are the Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks. Their combined record? 6-11.
The Cardinals are winning because their pass rush is getting home, because their secondary is outperforming expectations, because their receiving depth is taking the pressure off DeAndre Hopkins and because when all else fails they have a quarterback who can make something out of nothing.
After Sunday’s rout of Cleveland, a reporter asked Murray if his four fumbles were going to gnaw at him a little bit.
“Not at all,” Murray responded. “I’m not too worried about it.”
And, hey, maybe he’s right. There’s not much to worry about when you’re lucky enough to recover 18 of 23 fumbles and good enough to take advantage.