A Loose History of the Fumble

We know what the fumble is, and what it does. But, still, no one has quite figured out football's oldest flub.
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Dropped something.

Image via Flickr/A.J. Guel.

The fumble, that shock drop and bounce: we know this story in our bones, know what fumbles do and where they lead. Think David cracking that Too Tall son of a bitch upside the head, only to leave it on the turf with Uriah’s wife; think Natural Selection, moving the chains with steady gradualism until—fumble—punctuated equilibrium, the catalytic event upending pure survival of the fittest. Or, if you prefer, just think of San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews.

Equal parts prodigal hero and mercurial change agent, the habitually dispossessed ballcarrier is the NFL’s most uncontrollable X-factor, and the Chargers have an elite exemplar of this hybrid in Mathews. Adding the barometric tension of a bad breakup to a surly September heat wave, Mathews' future in San Diego hangs in the balance every time he cuts past rip-stripping lineman and ball-hawking Mikes. Mathews is good enough to have made last season’s Pro Bowl, and bad enough to have registered a mighty eleven fumbles in just over two seasons (tied for the second-most among tailbacks in that span). Just one week removed from killing a crucial early drive by losing the rock a mere lunge from paydirt, Mathews spent Week 4 backing up his backup, Jackie Battle. Nor was he in the starting lineup Sunday night when the Chargers coughed up a seeming gimme against the Saints. He was not beaten-out, but benched.

No disrespect to Battle, the journeyman has a badass name and hits the hole hard—solid qualities that translate into a mess of second and eights. Matthews, on the other hand, has “it”—whatever you want to call it, that thing, the Shaolin combo of lateral maneuverability, variable acceleration, and field vision that mark Matthews a lethal threat every time he touches the ball. Matthews earned the bulk of the carries against New Orleans, but because of the fumbles—and because Coach Norv Turner doesn't have much rope to spare after two seasons as a postseason spectator—Mathews remains a risk to lose it: control of the ball, possession, his job. The serially tepid Norv knows which back gives him a better chance to win and which makes him more at risk to lose: while Jackie Battlemay not be anyone’s idea of a difference-maker, with over 200 carries to his admittedly badass name, Norv’s interim number one has never lost a fumble. It matters that much.


Serious talk of the chronic fumbler typically diverts to the corrections made by Adrian Peterson and Tiki Barber, and ball security frequently does improve with age and experience—see also Ottis Anderson, who all but stopped fumbling as his career went on (and on, and on). But what of the lifelong incorrigibles? Some are still out there, working still.

The inveterate fumbler is like Cormac McCarthy’s defiantly self-destructive Suttree, like Barry Hannah’s magnetically wayward Ray, like Ryan Gosling’s rock-smoking educator in Half Nelson: the only way to keep royally fucking up is to be so charmingly exceptional someone will always offer second, third, and fourth chances. Our heroes and their exposed Achilles heels—this is also a story we know well. Even Gosling understands the gridiron’s hard line—that's him front and center in Remember The Titans, gimlet-eyed and dreamy as Denzel promises to "break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts" if Mr. Hey Girl puts the ball on the turf. It's a commandment as old as the game itself. John Heisman reportedly said very much the same: "Gentleman, it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football."

No one fumbled in the leather-helmet era. Not Bronko Nagurski, not Red Grange, not Whizzer White. At least as far as we know: the fumble wasn’t recorded as an individual statistic until 1945. Since then, Jim Brown fumbled 57 times in his nine seasons, which probably isn’t the sort of thing you should mention to his face. In his All-Pro season of 1967, Jim Nance dropped the ball 10 times.

There is no style of tailback uniquely predisposed towards the fumble. The League has witnessed Crisco-fingered jitterbugs—Greg Pruitt and 83 career fumbles; Joe Cribbs winning the 1980 rookie of the year with a symmetrical 1600 yards from scrimmage and 16 fumbles in 16 games. Rangy, upright runners have also struggled to tuck the ball—the aforementioned AP, galloping Eric Dickerson, and the Bolts' own Chuck Muncie. What made Chuck unique was that he didn’t even need to take a hit to give up the rock, so prone was he to waving the damn thing like a weapon, as if fixing to truncheon a path through filling linebackers and arm-tackling defensive backs.

There was Wendell Tyler, high-stepping, sharp-cutting—a prototype. Except instead of being mentioned in the same breath with Sweetness, Ram and Niner fans recall his three seasons with double-digit fumbles and mutter Tyler's name under theirs. Eric Metcalf was a one-man Lucretian swerve, a game-changer capable of lining up all over the field, with the potential to punctuate equilibrium for either uniform. He also never enjoyed a fumble-free season and logged his 53rd and final fumble in the first quarter of the last game of his 13-year career.

Long before players reached a free agent "walk-year" following a handful of active seasons, the chronic fumbler typically ran out of chances and was shown the door at that same three-to-four year mark. George Rogers—a bigger Willis McGahee, a faster Larry Johnson, a South Carolina legend who had his jersey retired while still an active player—was traded from the Saints to the Redskins after four fumble (and injury) marred seasons. Trumping 12 touchdowns with 25 fumbles, Joe Washington was sent from Baltimore to Washington after three seasons. Muncie himself lasted four full seasons in New Orleans before being shipped to San Diego; Dickerson four years with the Rams before becoming a Colt.

Mathews is in his third NFL season.

Probability and his condition being what they are, sooner or later Matthews will fumble again. What happens after that is less definite. When the ball skids off the turf, will Norv flyswat his play-card and execute the full-body, spinal-jelly shimmy for which he is known? Probably, but that's Norv. The bigger question, especially for Mathews, is how steadily GM A.J. Smith responds.

Smith is himself a classic fumbler, a no-name scout who took over the Bolts and whopped Goliath upside the head with killer 2004 and 2005 drafts, fully restocking a down franchise before coughing it up with years of lackluster picks, misguided signings, and progressively baroque John Wayne hard-assery. Other than retaining his gift for spotting linebackers, Smith has recently hung his hat on playing hardball with other people’s money: cutting Mathews loose after a fumble-riddled year seems the sort of thing that might actually give Smith a sour, defiantly self-destructive sort of pleasure.

Matthews’ nasty injury bug might alone make him expendable, but Smith has shown patience in that regard: the Bolts carried first round bust Buster Davis on the IR for multiple seasons, and Larry English and his bad wheels remain in San Diego’s defensive mix. But where Smith announces zero-tolerance, he’s shown, well, not a lot of tolerance—most notably fumbling his leverage with Vincent Jackson and ensuring that Philip Rivers' most dangerous downfield threat would leave San Diego as soon as free agency offered the chance.

But in this case, Smith seems prepared to play things according to precedent. Speaking with Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune about Mathews, Smith broke down the career arc of the chronic fumbler. First those players take a seat, then they lose reps on the field. If the fumbling continues in limited duty, Smith concluded, "then you will be someone else’s fumbler." The implied lesson is as old as the sport, or older: hold on.

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