Should You Bench Your Fumbling Running Back?

We are very happy to announce that we will be partnering with Advanced NFL Stats this football season, and that our first post was published there earlier today by Sam Waters:

When the Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Cleveland in week 12 of last season, Rashard Mendenhall was the Steelers’ starting running back. Well, he was at first. Mendenhall fumbled on his second carry of the game, and Head Coach Mike Tomlin benched him immediately. On came backups Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and Chris Rainey, who all fumbled and joined Mendenhall on the sidelines in quick succession. Out of untainted running backs to sub in, Tomlin looped back around to Mendenhall, who put the ball on the ground again. Mendenhall, of course, went right back to the bench, ceding his snaps to Dwyer and Rainey for the rest of the game. This was one of the more prolific fumble-benching sprees in NFL history, but we see tamer versions of this scenario all the time. Just look back to last season. David Wilson fumbled and Tom Coughlin actually made him cry. Ryan Mathews fumbled away his job to Jackie Battle. Tears and Jackie Battle – does any mistake deserve these consequences?

I see two legitimate rationales for immediately benching a running back who fumbles, one long-term and one short-term. In the long-term, a coach might argue, benching a fumbler will teach that player a lesson, inspiring him to improve his ball security for the rest of his career and help the team in future seasons. Meanwhile, in the short-term, the same coach might say, a running back who just fumbled is more likely to fumble on his next opportunity, and needs to sit on the bench so he can’t hurt the team right now. The long-term issue is harder to test, so here we’ll focus on the short-term concerns. If we want to test this reasoning, we need to find out if a running back with past fumbling problems is actually more likely to fumble in the future.

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