A year after New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady–along with Denver quarterback Peyton Manning–lobbied the NFL for a rule change to allow opposing teams to bring and use their own footballs, the Patriots started to prevent fumbles at a nearly statistically impossible rate.
According to a thorough study by Sharp Football Analysis, “in 2014, the Patriots were just the 3rd team in the last 25 years to never have lost a fumble at home” even though the team ran between 150 and 200 more plays this year than the two teams that had previously never lost a fumble at home. Since 2010, “Patriots players have fumbled (whether lost or recovered) once every 73 touches from scrimmage, which is 52% better than the league average. The next best team is the Ravens, who have fumbled once every 55 touches,” as the Wall Street Journal noted.
The study found that since 2010, the Patriots averaged 187 offensive plays per lost fumble while the league average was 105 plays”:
Based on the assumption that fumbles per play follow a normal distribution, you’d expect to see, according to random fluctuation, the results that the Patriots have gotten over this period, once in 16,233.77 instances.
Which in layman’s terms means that this result only being a coincidence, is like winning a raffle where you have a 0.0000616 probability to win. Which in other words, it’s very unlikely that it’s a coincidence.
That rate is also the best of any team over the last 25 years, and it started in 2007, the year after Brady lobbied for the rule change.
“The thing is, every quarterback likes it a little bit different,” Brady told the Sun-Sentinel then. “Some like them blown up a little bit more, some like them a little more thin, some like them a little more new, some like them really broken in.”
The first year after the rule change, the Patriots finished the regular season undefeated before losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, which was coincidentally held in Glendale, Arizona, where this year’s Super Bowl will be played:
As you can see, the Patriots won their Super Bowls having a below average rate of fumbles lost given today’s average of 105 plays/game. But in 2007, something happened to propel them to a much better rate (you’ll remember, that just so happened to be the same year they went 16-0 in the regular season). But even looking at these numbers, its clear how insane the 187 number is: they are almost running 100 MORE plays without a single fumble as compared to the 2002-2006 period when they won 2 of their 3 Super Bowls.
Another Sharp analysis found that “individual players have fumbled less while playing for the Patriots compared to other teams”:
Current Patriots players Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell and LeGarrette Blount as well as former Patriots players BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, and Wes Welker, fumbled eight times in 1,482 touches since 2010, once every 185.3 touches. When those players were wearing another team’s jersey, they fumbled 22 times 1,701 touches, once every 77.3 touches.
Though much of the conversation around Deflategate has centered around whether Brady could throw a deflated football easier, former NFL players have explained that since deflated footballs are easier to grip, players would be less likely to fumble it.
Sharp Analysis also “found that the Patriots performance in wet weather home games mysteriously turned ridiculous starting in 2007.” The Patriots went 0-2 in “home games in wet weather in 2006” and have “gone 14-1 in those conditions at home since 2007.”
Sharp wondered if the Patriots are “so good that they defy the numbers” or if something else is at play:
As my friend theorized: Perhaps they’ve invented a revolutionary in-house way to protect the ball, or perhaps they’ve intentionally stocked their skill positions with players who don’t have a propensity to fumble. Or perhaps still, they call plays which intentionally result in a lower percentage of fumbles. Or maybe its just that they play with deflated footballs on offense. It could be any combination of the above.
But regardless of what, specifically, is causing these numbers, the fact remains: this is an extremely abnormal occurrence and is NOT simply random fluctuation.
It will be interesting to see if the Patriots cough up the football on Sunday against an aggressive and ball-hawking defense in a game away from Foxboro that will be played with footballs monitored by league officials.