The original version of this article was written shortly after the end of the 2021 regular season. I observed that Antonio Gibson’s fumble rate last season was about 2/3 the interception rate of the average starting QB and suggested that the Washington Football Team, as they were known at the time, should consider drafting a power back to take over the between-the-tackles rushing duties, and flex Gibson out to a wide-back role, where he could do more damage making moves in space.
My editor, James Dorsett, had this to say about the first draft:
“Bold thought out the gate. Gibson and Patterson are 23 and 22 and are under contract for the next couple of years. Gibson ranked top 7 in rushing yards and touchdowns.”
I had to concede that Hogs Haven readers, who might already harbor suspicions about my sanity, due to my curious obsessions with fullbacks and roster fringe players with unusual names, might think I had finally tipped over the edge into full blown psychosis if I suggested that running back should be a top priority in Washington’s draft.
A lot has happened since then.
The first hint that I might actually be on to something came when I examined the Commanders’ prospect visits before the draft. There was an unusually high proportion of running backs for a team that was set at the position, and many of the backs they had in for visits were known for their bruising rushing styles.
Then, on Day 2 of the draft, the Commanders picked RB Brian Robinson in the third round. Ron Rivera’s comments on Robinson after the draft had a recurring theme of ball security.
Fast forward to the preseason opener. On the second drive, Gibson coughed up the ball and was immediately yanked. Robinson came in and quickly set a tone, running through defenders and gaining chunk yardage up the middle of the field. The following week, Gibson found himself taking special teams reps in practice and was used primarily as a receiver in the second preseason game.
I was just dusting off the original article for publication, to take a victory lap for correctly predicting what had transpired, when something happened that threw a spanner in the works. Long-time Hogs Haven commenter, LASkin published an excellent first piece for Hogs Haven on the topic of running backs fumbling, which just happened to hit on that one annoying problem, which I couldn’t explain. Why did Gibson’s fumbling rate increase so much in 2021, following his rookie season in which he had one fumble in 170 rushing attempts?
The key point of LASkin’s article is that fumbles are rare events and, consequently, highly variable and analytically challenging due to the vagaries of sparse data sets. Other leading running backs have had seemingly high fumble rates one year and low fumble rates the next. Some have been named All-Pros in seasons with higher fumble totals than Gibson had in 2021.
I still don’t have an answer for why Gibson’s fumble rate went up in 2021, and probably never will, because it is difficult to make much headway, analytically, from a sample of 6 events. But LASkin’s insightful comments, and the torrent of less insightful abuse directed at Gibson in the comments section, forced me to rethink my fairly simplistic original take on Gibson’s fumbling rate.
Reflecting on two facts that LASkin pointed to made me realize that fumble rates don’t really mean much on their own. First, backs with more fumbles than Gibson have been named All-Pros and league MVP. Second, Gibson fumbled fewer times than many starting QBs did in 2021. None of them were benched. To understand whether a player fumbles too much or not, fumble rates have to be viewed in the context of total production on the field. Quarterbacks generally get away with a lot more than 6 fumbles, not to mention all their interceptions, because they more than make up for it with massive yardage and TD totals. The question, then, has to be whether Gibson fumbled too much relative to his yardage and scoring output.
In this article, I will attempt to determine whether Gibson’s fumbling rate in 2021 was acceptable, or not, in light of his production on the field. In the process, I hope to develop a simple tool to allow me to address another, more general question raised in LASkin’s article in the very near future.
How Much Fumbling Is Too Much?
The main knock on Gibson is that he led the league with six fumbles in 2021. He actually didn’t. The NFL player with the most fumbles in 2021 was Dak Prescott, with 14. The top 20 fumblers in 2021 were all quarterbacks. Antonio Gibson ranked 21st in total fumbles last season.
Gibson did have the most fumbles among players other than quarterbacks. Does that mean that he was the most fumble-prone running back? No, it doesn’t. Gibson had the fourth-most touches of any running back in the league, meaning that he had the fourth-most opportunities to fumble. To understand the first thing about Gibson’s propensity to fumble, we have to adjust for differences in numbers of carries by looking at fumbling rate, by which I mean fumbles per touch.
The 32 least secure ball carriers with over 400 yards from scrimmage in 2021 are ranked by fumble rate in the following figure:
Gibson ranked 5th in fumbles per touch. The most fumble-prone back was the Colts’ Nyheim Hines, who had 3 fumbles on around 1/3 the number of touches as Gibson. Hines’ fumble rate of 0.0265 fumbles/touch was 37% higher than Gibson’s at 0.0193 fumbles/touch.
Still, Gibson ranked 5th among running backs in fumble rate. That seems pretty high, right? Maybe, and maybe not.
Gibson was way more productive than the other backs ranked near him on the fumbling rates graph. In 2021, he ranked 6th in rushing yards, 7th in rushing touchdowns, 8th in total yards from scrimmage and 9th in total touchdowns among running backs. In order to understand whether 6 fumbles is too much, we have to put his fumble rate in context of what he contributed to the team’s yardage totals and score line.
Measuring Fumbling Rates Relative to Production: Risk-Reward Ratios
To get a handle on how Gibson’s fumbling rate relative to production stacked up against other running backs, I calculated Risk-Reward Ratios. Just as it sounds, a Risk-Reward Ratio is simply the ratio of a risk we want to avoid, relative to a benefit we hope to achieve. In this case the Risk variable is fumbling rate, calculated as fumbles per touch for all running backs with over 400 yards from scrimmage. I set the threshold at 400 yards, because I want to compare Gibson to other lead backs and major contributors, not occasional role players and end-of-roster scrubs.
For the Reward variable, I used two different measures of offensive production: Total Yards from Scrimmage and Touchdowns.
The Risk-Reward Ratio can be thought of as fumbling rate, adjusted for production. Lower values indicate lower fumble risk per unit of production. High values are bad and low values are good.
Fumbling Risk Adjusted by Total Yardage
There were 66 running backs with over 400 yards from scrimmage in 2021. Fourteen qualifying running backs had zero fumbles last year and consequently had Risk-Reward Ratios of zero.
When fumble rate was adjusted relative to Total Yards from Scrimmage, Gibson’s ranking fell to 20th within the sample. Risk-Reward Ratios for the 32 riskiest running backs are shown below:
Gibson had a lower Risk-Reward Ratio than nine running backs with over 100 rushing attempts. Only two of those, however, were the lead backs for their teams: James Robinson and Devin Singletary.
Fumbling Risk Adjusted by Touchdowns
The second figure shows Risk-Reward Ratios for fumbling risk adjusted by total touchdowns:
Gibson’s ranking falls even further, to 26th, when fumbling risk is adjusted by touchdowns. In addition to Singletary and Robinson, adjusting by scoring production gives him a better Risk-Reward Ratio than lead backs Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Rex Burkhead, and gives him a pretty similar Risk-Reward Ratio to Jamaal Williams. It also drops his adjusted risk level below Tony Pollard, Chase Edmonds, and Mark Ingram.
Were the Commanders Right to Bench Gibson?
First things first, Gibson wasn’t benched for long. If the second preseason game against the Chiefs is any indication, Gibson has been moved to more of a wide-back type role (just as I predicted), to make better use of his receiving abilities and hopefully get him the ball more in space, where he can do the most damage.
Was it the right decision to replace him on early downs with Brian Robinson? That might depend on your perspective.
Antonio Gibson had the most fumbles among running backs in 2021, but he was also one of the most productive players at the position. When his fumbling rate is adjusted by total yardage production, he had the 20th highest fumbling risk among backs with more than 400 total yards from scrimmage. Adjusting fumbling rate by touchdowns drops his risk ranking to 26th, and puts him ahead of several other teams’ lead backs.
It is possible to do better, but not all that common. Four running backs with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage had no fumbles in 2021: Najee Harris, Alvin Kamara, Darrel Williams, Elijah Mitchell. Only three running backs had more touches than Gibson in 2021 (Harris, Jonathan Taylor, Joe Mixon) and all of them had lower fumbling rates.
If you consider the decision from the perspective of a coaching staff who had undoubtedly expressed their concerns to Gibson about his fumbling rate, benching him when he coughed up the ball on the second drive of the first preseason game makes a certain amount of sense. However, in order to achieve better production relative to turnover risk, Robinson will have to become one of the leading backs in the league. The glimpses we got of him on a few drives in the preseason suggest he just might have that potential.
Regardless of the fumbling risk, I suspect that, once Robinson recovers from his injury and returns to the line up, the Commanders’ rushing attack will be improved by splitting the workload between two lead backs with complementary skillsets.
Here is hoping that happens early in the regular season.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to James Dorsett, without whose contribution this article would not be what it is today, and to LASkin for giving me the idea for this article and the next one, in which I begin to shed light on why fullbacks are so awesome.
In 2022, will Antonio Gibson’s total yardage from scrimmage be:
This poll is closed
Below his rookie season total of 1,042 yds;
Between 1,042 yds and his 2021 total of 1,331 yds;
More than 1,331 yds?
How many touchdowns will Gibson score in 2022?
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Fewer than his 2021 total: 10
More than his rookie season total: 11
10 or 11