They happen in most every game and are the nightmare of every football coach. How much do you know about fumbles and what are you doing to help your team avoid them in 2022?
The big game just ended. The coach spoke to the team and tried to encourage them because they must play again in 7 days, even though they just lost to their arch rival. He goes back to his office and sits down behind his desk. He puts his head in his hands as a couple more of his coaches come in the door. "I can't believe he dropped the ball going in to score," he moaned. The room was silent.
Fumbles just hurt. There really isn't much other way to put it. You have the momentum, the game is going the way you want it to, and then it happens.
"I thought that reverse was a great call at the time," the old coach said after the loss. "We had it," his assistant agreed. "He was about to go down the sideline, surely he would have scored," his coach said trying to make the head man feel a little better. "So nobody touched him, he just dropped the ball?" "Yeah, that pretty much sums it up," his loyal assistant concurred. The head coach shook his head. "And we never got the momentum back."
The NFL has said for many years that winning the turnover battle is the number one indicator of success. Or failure. The fumble is more than just giving the ball to the other team. Fumbles create field position and can truly turn the momentum of the game. "It's like we said that everything is going too well. What can we do to screw it up? Well, let's just give them the ball on our end of the field and see if we can stop them," one veteran coach said.
Old coaches that have put decades into the game have forgotten some of the big plays that helped them when the big game. But they can tell you every critical 4th quarter fumble that cost them any contest.
Before you can prevent fumbles, you must understand the whole concept of fumbling the football.
First, some fumbles are just worse than others. Goal line fumbles just rip your heart out. Your team drives the length of the field and the runner fumbles on the 2 yard line. Fumbling on your own goal line coming out of the end zone is just as bad. They almost always lead to touchdowns by the opponents. Those fumbles that occur out in the open field, particularly behind the line of scrimmage are bad as well. Those are the kind that the defense seems to pick up and run for a touchdown. It's bad enough to fumble, but for the opponent to score gives them a double whammy of momentum.
You have a small lead and you need a first down to ice the game away. On 3rd and 1, the back fumbles at midfield and the next thing you know they have caught a touchdown pass to win the game. Late in the game fumbles or overtime fumbles can really coast you a victory.
It won't make coaches feel any better thqt studies show that most fumbles occur from poor ball carrying techniques and not from contact. Some offenses tend to create more fumbles. If your team pitches the ball to runners, likes to run reverses or run reads (like the RPO game, zone read, etc.) where the quarterback meshes with the runner while making a decision whether to pull it or keep it, those offenses tend to drop the ball more.
Before we can look at preventing fumbles, we must understand who fumbles in a game. Running backs carry the ball so they are the first target. But receivers catch passes and then run, and tend to be subject to strips or hard hits. Kick returners may be defensive backs who don't normally handle the ball. But quarterbacks are often left out of the fumble equation. They are subject to back side strips while in the pocket. Many will scramble and hold the ball with one hand or loosely while running.
So what causes fumbles? Poor ball carrying techniques are the first culprit. Runners that let the ball come away from their body, or have their body upright which allows tacklers to strike the ball with their helmet are at risk. There are times that runners need to get both arms around the ball. Defenders are taught to strip the ball and runners must feel those tacklers and keep the balls secure. Some fumbles come from a hard lick that the runner doesn't see coming or a surprise tackle and strip from behind. We have already discussed the quarterbacks issues.
Here are some ideas on preventing fumbles.
1) Drill, drill drill! There are hundreds of ball carrying drills but the best ones should simulate things that actually happen in the game. Three points of contact - the hand over the end of the ball, in the bend of the elbow and tight to the side. Over the last decade, coaches have worked at getting ball carriers to raise the point of the ball more toward the chest. In traffic, ball carriers must lower their pads to prevent tacklers from hitting them in the chest area. Receivers, quarterbacks and kick returners must drill as well. Switching the ball from one arm to the other is an important skill to master
2) Coaching the ball carriers in scrimmage situations is important. Which arm the ball should be under, pad level, rolling the ball to the stomach while securing with two hands in tight traffic is critical to prevent the fumble and should be coached during live competition. If your offense is doing live goal line work, the importance of protecting the ball should be drilled in everyone's mind. Part of coaching the quarterback is protecting the ball in the scrimmage. Drills must take themselves from group work to scrimmage situations.
3) Provide some personal discipline when fumbles occur. Anytime the player fumbles in drills, have him do 10 push ups on the ball. It is an early way to teach them that fumbles have consequences. Remove the player from the scrimmage if he fumbles. Coaches should let them know that they cannot play them if they fumble, that it lets down the whole team.
4) Never allow a runner to make an excuse for fumbling. It matters not if a defender broke through and hit him in the backfield. When the play is over, the runner should still have the ball. A good rule for quarterbacks on handoffs, if the back doesn't get the ball on a handoff, the quarterback takes the responsibility. If the back has an improper pocket or is running the wrong angle, it is the quarterback's job to get him straight.
5) Don't chew on players for fumbling, just take some of their playing time. If the coach jumps on him, he will worry more about fumbling than running with the ball which will make him a cautious runner. Coach the technique.
6) Put together a videotape of fumbles. This is a great way to show players why fumbles occur and what the team results were afterward because of the fumble.
As coaches work toward changing the attitude of the team toward fumbles, they should also work the other side. Creating an attitude of causing fumbles, striping the ball and recovering the ball are solid skills that every defensive team should include in their beliefs.
Coaches must be aware of weather. Rainy weather and driving rain storms do have an effect on players' ability to handle and secure the ball. Play calling should be adjusted to the weather.
Finally, go back and check stats and keep up with the fumbles. Post the number of fumbles on the board each week by your team and your opponent and set a goal to improve that number in 2022.