Numerous studies have concluded that the success rate of any defense in recovering fumbles is almost entirely down to luck. Everything should regress to the mean with anyone who has a good or bad season just being lucky or unlucky and there’s no reason to believe that will repeat in the following season.
There is surely some skill involved. Some players may be more adept than others at reacting, rallying to the football and wrestling the ball away from their opponents in a crowd. The types of fumbles being forced may also be a factor. Stripping the ball away from a ball carrier in space may give a better chance of a recovery than sacking a quarterback who is surrounded by linemen, for example.
However, the prevailing consensus is that basically who recovers a fumble is a coin flip. So a team like the New York Jets who had bad fumble luck in 2022 can lament the fact that they didn’t recover closer to 50 percent and wonder what difference that would have made to their season.
Turnovers were no doubt a key factor in the Jets’ collapse last year. They forced 15 turnovers in the first 11 games and started off 7-4, then forced just one in the last six and ended up 7-10.
Fumbles, and their inability to recover them, were a major part of this. The Jets recovered just four fumbles on defense all year and were on course to tie the all-time NFL record for the lowest total until Carl Lawson broke a nine-game drought by recovering one with two games remaining.
While the nine-game drought fell way short of the all-time mark (the 2016/17 Cincinnati Bengals went 19 games without recovering one), four defensive fumble recoveries in a 17-game season is unprecedented. It’s not like they didn’t have opportunities either - they were dead last in the league as they recovered just 21 percent of their opponent’s fumbles.
Had they been at or over 50 percent as half the league obviously would have been (led by the Atlanta Falcons at 58 percent), this would have been six more turnovers, which could have made a big difference to their postseason hopes.
Getting a lucky enough bounce to recover a fumble is one thing but there are levels to how lucky a bounce can be. How often does a ball bounce right to a Jets player who can run it into the endzone for a momentum-changing touchdown? In their history - quite a lot. In recent years - not so much.
The Jets had nine defensive fumble returns for touchdowns in the 2000’s, six in the nineties and 10 in the eighties. During that time, they twice had a run of six seasons in a row with at least one. However, since 2010, they have just two. In fact, they have just one in the last 10 seasons.
The last Jets player to score on a fumble return was Jamal Adams, who memorably ripped the ball out of Daniel Jones’ hands and took it the distance. Prior to that, the last defensive fumble return for a touchdown was in 2012 by Muhammad Wilkerson, who returned a Russell Wilson fumble for a score in Seattle following a Mike DeVito sack.
Uniquely, the Jets actually have more non-defensive fumble touchdowns (3) than defensive fumble touchdowns (2) over the past 12 years. Matt Slauson, Charone Peake and Art Maulet (on special teams) scored these.
The Jets’ current fumble return drought is matched only by the pre-80’s Jets (and Titans of New York), who had just four defensive fumble returns in the first 20 years of the franchise’s existence.
If you aren’t recovering any fumbles, that magnifies the need to intercept passes and of course the Jets had no interceptions during their season-ending six game losing streak. They also had a five-year drought from 2013 to 2018 with no defensive touchdowns at all and didn’t have any last year, although they did have five pick-sixes from 2019 to 2021.
The Jets will try anything to force more turnovers in 2023, from actively targeting players who are adept at it, running plays designed to force mistakes and even running specific drills. Ultimately, though, if the experts are right and it largely depends on luck, then it feels like the Jets are overdue some good luck themselves.
If only it worked like that.