Turnover Analysis: Fumbles, Forced Fumbles, and Backward Passes?

Submitted by Enjoy Life on October 25th, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Synopsis: A recent commenter asked the question of why the Michigan defense has fewer Forced Fumbles (10) versus Total Fumbles (16) – "Has the opponent really dropped the ball 6 times without being hit?" Although it would seem unlikely, the answer is indeed YES! And, it turns out that the rate of Forced Fumbles (and not total fumbles or fumbles recovered) is the best measure of the overall defense and defensive players. It is a little bizarre that "forced fumbles" are not included as one of the NCAA rankings for turnovers.

Examples of Unforced Fumbles: How weird is it that Michigan and/or our opponents have experienced almost every example of unforced fumble in just these 4 games?. Here are the 6 unforced opponent fumbles plus 2 unforced M fumbles:

WMU: Gallon fumbles a punt (recovered by Gallon)
WMU: High snap that Carder bats to Drake –  fumble (recovered by Drake)
WMU: Carder fumbles snap (recovered by Mich)
ND: Rees fumbles snap (recovered by Rees)
ND: Wood runs into own man and fumbles (recovered by Mich)
ND: Rees loses the ball as he brings the ball back to pass (recovered by Mich)
SDSU: SDSU punt accidently hits Floyd in back of foot (recovered by Gallon)
Minnesota: Cobb loses the handoff just before being hit by Brink (scoop & score by Mich) – In real time this looks like Brink forced the fumble. On replay, the ball is obviously out before Cobb is hit. In fact, Cobb never had possession.

When Is A Fumble NOT A Fumble?: The NCAA Rule Book states, "To fumble the ball is to loose player possession by any act other than passing, kicking, or successful handling. The status of the ball is a fumble." But, if you watch the game and see Denard drop the snap, reach down, pick it up, try to run a sweep, and get tackled for a loss –  is that a fumble? Same scenario but Denard has difficulty picking up the ball (but does so successfully) and is immediately tackled? Well, the former is NOT a fumble, the latter IS a fumble. WTF? It turns out that the Football Statisticians Manual defines the following exception, "No fumble should be charged (a) on a momentary bobble of the ball at the point of reception if, in the statisticians judgment, the bobble had no effect on the continuing action, or (b) on a point-after-touchdown try."

EDIT: In the NW game: 9:27 of the third quarter. Denard drops the snap, picks it up, and runs for 25 yards. In the stats, this is not recorded as a fumble even though it was obviously a pass play (look at the receivers and O line) and did effect the continuing action.

Therefore, in some instances, it is the "statisticians judgment" that determines whether a fumble actually occurred. This is predominantly on mishandled snaps and/or handoffs.

The Rest of the Story: What I thought would be a quick and simple review turned out to be a time consuming and relatively difficult investigation. However, I did learn some interesting stuff along the way so it was well worth it.

I first looked at the NCAA Football 2011 and 2012 Rules and Interpretations which has a whopping 129 instances of the word "fumble" but exactly ZERO instances of the words "forced fumble". Next, I did JFGI (for Forced Fumble) and Advanced NFL Stats has some great information about the importance of forced fumbles – forced fumbles per play shows the highest correlation to wins and points allowed for the defense – but no official definition.

Attempts to JFGI for "Unforced Fumble" ended with no definitions and some hilarious results – the best of which was Hank Williams Jr.'s unforced fumble of his MNF gig.

As I trudged through various hits from JFGI, it was looking fairly grim to get any meaningful definition. However, I did come across a reference to a game "statistician" and that led me to conclude that there must be an official scorer in football (similar to baseball) that decides what is a forced versus unforced fumble. To my surprise and delight JFGI (of NCAA Football Statistician) produced the 2011 Football Statisticians' Manual.

Fumbles, Forced Fumbles, and Backward Passes: The NCAA Rule Book defines fumble and backward pass in the context of how the on-field official must rule subsequent recovery and whether the ball can be advanced. For example, a bad snap is defined as a backward pass and not a fumble (a bad snap on 4th down  can, therefore, be advanced by any player, whereas a fumble on 4th down cannot be advanced by any player except the player that fumbled the ball). The NCAA Rule Book does not address forced fumble because there is no on-field significance. A backward pass that is mishandled is included as a fumble in the statistics.

The Football Statistician's Manual does address fumbles and forced fumbles but only defines fumble and does not define forced fumble (I guess it must be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer?). There are 196 instances of fumble and just 15 instances of forced fumble in the Football Statistician's Manual. The manual has dozens of different scenarios of situations that may involve a fumble and how the official statistics should be recorded.

The only source I could find for the definition of a forced fumble was from Wikipedia: "A fumble may be forced by a defensive player who either grabs or punches the ball or butts the ball with his helmet …."

The NCAA Rule Book provides the following: "To fumble the ball is to loose player possession by any act other than passing, kicking, or successful handling. The status of the ball is a fumble."
"If during any backward motion of a legal snap, the ball slips from the snapper's hand, it becomes a backward pass and is in play"
"The snap is a backward pass and may be advanced by any player [of the offense]."

Also according to the NCAA, "All statistics reported to the NCAA should be compiled by the host institution press box/row statistics staff during the contest."

Football Statistician's Manual: "A fumble is an act that results in the individual's loss of possession of the ball or his failure to handle a ball that has been properly centered or handed to him. Exceptions No fumble should be charged (a) on a momentary bobble of the ball at the point of reception if, in the statisticians judgment, the bobble had no effect on the continuing action, or (b) on a point-after-touchdown try." (BTW, an interception of the PAT is also not recorded in the statistics.)

Wild Pass from Center: "Any loss resulting from an obvious wild pass from center is charged to "Center Pass" and not to any individual player. Team A is charged with a team rush, the loss, and a fumble."

Here is just one example from the Football Statisticians Manual. In this example, the team that blocks a punt is charged with a fumble LOST. Notice there is no mention of a fumble recovery so I have no clue whether a fumble recovery would be recorded (some examples in the manual do reference fumble recoveries but other examples that obviously would have a fumble recovery do not – yeah, gotta love that consistency). IMHO Adams should be credited with a fumble recovery.

"Team A's ball on its 30, fourth down and 10. Adams punt is blocked by Brown and is picked up by Adams on Team A's 20. Adams runs to Team A's 40 for a first down. Charge Team A (not Adams) with a blocked punt of zero yards. Credit Brown with a punt return of 10 yards and charge Team B (receiving team) with a fumble lost. Credit Adams with a rush of 20 yards and Team A with a rushing first down."