The 2000 Ravens and the 2007 Ravens appear to have little in common.
The 2000 Ravens were the best team in Ravens history by many measures. The 2007 team arguably its worst.
However, as I noted previously, both share in common a historically elite run defense. While the 2000 squad is the best run defense in NFL history, the 2007 is no slouch either, coming in at #10. One reason for the great divide between these teams has to do with fumbles.
Fumbles are an interesting statistic because they are one of the most game-changing plays in a football game, and yet fumbles have a noticeably random element to them once they begin bouncing on the turf.
One truism of Fumbles is that causing them is a skill, while recovering them is not. We know that the ability to punch the ball loose is a skill that some players are particularly good at, such as Charles Tillman. Training a pass rusher to reach for the upheld ball on a speed rush is another skill, as Terrell Suggs has done on numerous occasions. However, once an oddly shaped, air-filled leather ball hits the ground, recovering it becomes essentially a random event. Some fumbles do tend to favor the offense recovery (mishandled snap for instance) while others favor the defense (such as a wide receiver fumble downfield) but ultimately the actual ability to get the recovery is not a skill in any real sense of the word.
Fumble recovery rate (often referred to as "Fumble Luck") is a major driver of a game’s outcome. When a game sees a particularly high number of fumbles, this rate becomes more important the larger the gap grows. Taken over the course of the season, the impact can be extremely important on how a team performs. When a team enjoys a high fumble luck rate, it tends to be overrated in the eyes of fans as their record obscures the underlying truth. Conversely, a team with a bad fumble luck rate, often loses more games, may miss the postseason as a result, and may not be really as bad as its record might suggest.
The 2007 Ravens were one such team.
Going 4-2 to start the season fresh off a 13-3 2006 season, the Ravens looked poised for another strong run. Instead, they collapsed, finishing 5-11, culminating in Brian Billick’s firing as the head coach.
How did this happen? How could the NFL’s best team from 2006 collapse so thoroughly, and then just a year after that return for a deep postseason run?
Aside from natural player turnover, such as the loss of Adalius Thomas, the Ravens’ best player in 2005 and 2006, there was another factor at play that went overlooked: a historically unlucky fumble recovery rate.
The offense possessed the second worst recovery rate since 1978 at just 20%. The team managed to recover just five of 25 offensive fumbles, a staggeringly bad ratio. Even though the rate of fumble recoveries is largely random year to year, the offense did themselves no favors with how often they fumbled as well. Having run 1,042 plays in 2007, the team fumbled 35 times, a rate of 3.36%, their fourth worst in team history. The Ravens have averaged an offensive fumble rate of 2.58% over 18 years of team history, indicating that the 2007 team was significantly worse at protecting the football than their average.
Below is the team history for offensive fumble rate ranked from best to worst:
And for the visual learners, here is a graph of the above:
Keep in mind that these percentages don’t account for the recovery rate. The recovery rate is obviously a huge factor in winning; however, it would not be a good statistic to judge how good a team was because recoveries constitute a random event.
Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics found that fumble rate, the number of total fumbles divided by plays, proved a better statistic (sadly, the links to parts 2, 3 and 4 of his article are broken at the moment). The actual recovery rate may vary but the ability to actually cause the fumbles (or protect the football) is very much a skill that players develop.
Ray Rice, for instance, possesses one of the great fumble rates of running backs in the modern era. Through the 2012 season, Rice had fumbled just seven times in over 1500 touches, a rate of one per 218 touches.
Conversely, his fumble rate in the playoffs is staggeringly high, fumbling seven times in 152 touches - a rate of one per 30 touches. Has he simply been lucky in the regular season or unlucky in the postseason? The sample size would suggest the latter but still he has fumbled at least once in every postseason run.
According to Barnwell and Stuart, the answer is probably both. He has probably been a bit fortunate not to fumble often in the regular season but has been unlucky to fumble so often in the postseason AND have them recovered by the opposing team as often as he has.
Back to the 2007 team, as if their offensive fumble rate wasn’t bad enough, the Ravens defense fared little better, producing a forced fumble rate of just 1.24%, its lowest historically by far. Over 18 years, the Ravens average a defensive forced fumble rate of 2.39%, a full 1% above its 2007 rate.
In fact, the 2007 Ravens suffered at recovering fumbles so badly that they were expected to win a full 2.3 more games in 2008 purely on the statistical likelihood that their fumble rate would regress towards their average rate. In effect, the 2008 Ravens, if nothing else changed, could expect to be a seven or eight win team simply due to a likelihood of seeing an improvement to its fumble luck.
Of course, the 2008 Ravens did not stay the same, adding a high-caliber head coach, franchise Quarterback and Running Back which contributed to a turnaround. Moreover, their fumble rate did actually regress almost exactly to their historical average (2.65%). In addition, the 2008 team doubled its production at forcing defensive fumbles (2.26%). These factors contributed to the Ravens swing back to a contending 11-5 team, reaching the AFC Championship game.
Below are the Ravens’ defensive forced fumble rates:
The 2000 Ravens
Impossible to overlook in the defensive forced fumble rate is the production of the 2000 Ravens team. Everyone knows that the 2000 Defense was a legendary squad, reigning #1 in numerous categories both that year and historically, holding teams to a NFL record best 10.3 points a game.
What is not well-known is the absolutely stunning rate at which they forced fumbles. The 2000 Ravens forced a fumble on no less than 4.87% of all plays. The graph of this rate really speaks to how incredibly high that is:
All told they would cause no fewer than 45 fumbles. The 2000 Ravens recovered 26 of the 45 which is a 58% recovery rate, just a bit above average.
But that team produced fumbles so often that they statistically gave themselves a fantastic chance to win games by generating turnovers. That team would produce 49 turnovers (23 interceptions, 26 fumble recoveries), a number so high that it is the best in the NFL since the Ravens came into existence in 1996 and the 18th best in the Super Bowl era.
I illustrated in a previous article that turnover ratio is essentially the second best correlating statistic to winning after, obviously, points. The 2000 team did both at an elite level, forcing nearly 50 turnovers and holding opposing teams to just 10 points a game. No wonder they would produce a point spread equivalent to a 13.3 win team, winning the Super Bowl in dominating fashion.
The 2012 Ravens
The 2012 Ravens are an interesting case study offensively. While that team would win the Super Bowl as well, it did so in almost the exact opposite fashion of its previously dominant teams. They did not force many turnovers, producing a defense forced fumble rate of just 2.12% and a defensive interception rate of just 2.33%.
The 2012 team; however, did one thing at a truly elite level in team history: protect the football. While I demonstrated its superior interception rate at just 1.96%, something that Flacco has historically been incredibly good at, its fumble rate was just as good. They would fumble on only 1.34% of offensive plays. In addition, their recovery rate was just a bit above league average as well at 56% on defense, and 60% on offense.
Yet ironically, in the playoffs, fumbles nearly cost them their season. Ray Rice would commit two horrible fumbles against the Colts when the game should have been put out of reach. Fortunately, the defense would prevent the Colts from scoring a single TD or otherwise that game might have been frighteningly close.
Against Denver, Flacco would fumble a snap in the -12 degree weather leading to a costly change of field position in the 3rd quarter. Subsequently, the Broncos would commit a bad holding penalty on a 3rd and short conversion setting up 3rd and 11. On the very next play, Terrell Suggs would toss Clady backwards like a ragdoll right into Manning forcing a fumble.
In the Super Bowl, Ray Rice would allow Tarell Brown to punch the ball loose on a short pass to the flat leading to a stunning change of fortunes that allowed San Francisco to score a field goal, closing the game to 28-23. Had the defense not held, the game’s outcome might have been very much different.
Fumbles are an interesting statistic due to the randomness inherent in them. Sometimes as fans we tend to praise a team more than it deserves due to its lucky fumble recovery rate or criticize teams that maybe were just more unlucky than they were bad. As the saying goes: better lucky than good. We see now that the 2007 team was certainly a fairly poor team in its own right but more than that, it was fairly unlucky at recovering fumbles. Perhaps it was not as bad as 5-11 would indicate and as a result it is little surprise that the teams bookending it, the 2006 and 2008 teams, were as strong as they were once they benefitted from a closer to league average fumble luck rate.
More interesting still is the 2000 team. Although heralded for its defensive prowess, its ability to generate turnovers was truly among the best the NFL has ever seen.