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The Wyatt Earp Effect: Ravens' Fumbling Problem vs. Colts

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The Ravens have a fumbling problem against the Colts. They've also been historically unlucky in recovering fumbles against them, too.

Jed Jacobsohn

Many of you might be too young to remember the movie "Tombstone" featuring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp. That's too bad because it is a great movie.

But for those who need a refresher, Wyatt Earp was a gunslinger and lawman in the 19th century who was famous for fighting in and surviving an absurd number of gunfights, such as the O.K. Corral.

The Wyatt Earp Effect is a statistical concept popular with sports analytics practitioners.

The concept essentially states that given a large enough sample size, it is a statistical certainty that extremely unlikely events will eventually occur that offer no predictive value.

For instance, 125 years ago, lots of people fought in gunfights in the West. Lots of people died in them, too, and the more they fought in, the more likely it was they would perish.

However, it was a near statistical certainty that at some point someone was going to fight in a lot of gunfights and miraculously survive them all.  That was Wyatt Earp and thus did he rise to fame and serve as the raison d'être for this idea.

Simple Example:  Ray Rice as Wyatt Earp

Ray Rice has one of the best historical fumble rates among NFL running backs. He also is remembered for being a playoff fumbler. Three of them were against Indianapolis and Indy recovered them all.

Wyatt Earp Effect explains Rice's issue.  In decades of football, with hundreds of running backs and thousands of games played, it was eventually going to happen that one running back would emerge who had a crazy disparity in their fumble rate from regular season to playoff time. Ray Rice was one such guy.

It is unlikely that Rice was elite at ball protection only to forget how to secure the ball when the lights were bright. In truth, he was probably a bit fortunate to fumble so little in the regular season, and unlucky to fumble so often in the postseason.

Ravens Lost Fumble Rate against Colts is so bad, Wyatt Earp Effect is only explanation

In my last two articles, I explained the Ravens' ridiculous turnover margin against the Colts as being four times worse than it is against any other AFC team. There is no question that the Ravens turn the ball over against Indianapolis more than any other team by far, which has contributed to their poor record against them.

That alone is evidence of the Wyatt Earp effect. Does it make sense that a team would have such a crazy turnover ratio against one team but not others? No, it doesn't, but given 48 years of NFL history in the Super Bowl era, it actually is not that surprising either that this sort of thing could happen.

But it's not just their rate of putting the ball on the turf and turnover margin. It is the Ravens' horribly unlucky rate of recovering fumbles, too, against Indianapolis. These two things together are a huge reason that Baltimore is 4-9 against this team.

Fumble recoveries are by their nature, essentially a random event. Few things in the NFL are the product of luck but recovering an oblong object bouncing around as 275 lb. armored men fall on each other in desperation to get the ball is most definitely a product of chance. Here is a comparison:

BAL v IND fumbles

Playoff games highlighted in yellow. The Ravens recover a fumble against the Colts only half as often as Indy does.

In the playoffs its worse.  The Ravens have a lost fumble rate of 86% while the Colts just 25%. In the infamously tragic playoff loss to the Colts in 2006, the Colts recovered all five fumbles in the game. You don't need me to tell you that this was a determining factor in us losing that game.

Takeaway: Raven's haven't helped themselves, but have been unlucky, too

The Ravens have not necessarily been unlucky to lose so often to Indianapolis — after all, they have committed far more turnovers and fumbled twice as often. That is their fault and you can't expect to win losing the turnover battle so frequently. Bad luck does not exonerate them from committing these turnovers.

But the recovery rate Indy has enjoyed against Baltimore has greatly aided them in many critical games. Fumble luck really is a thing, which is why advanced football statistics incorporate it, usually by assuming a league-average recovery rate. They are game-changing plays and unfortunately, against Indianapolis, Baltimore has been both fumble-prone and unlucky in their recovery rate when they do happen.

The Wyatt Earp Effect tells us that this is coincidence. Nevertheless, if the Ravens want to win on Sunday, they need to take chance out of it and not put the ball on the turf as they historically have done.

Or they'll end up like Wyatt Earp's opponents in the O.K. Corral: dead and gone.