Brandon Bolden had a good showing for the New England Patriots on Sunday night against the Denver Broncos; his 13 carry, 58 yard night was highlighted by a 33 yard burst in the middle of the second quarter. Shane Vereen also pitched in, though his night was made much more by his 60 receiving yards than his 31 rushing on 10 carries. Absent from the running back stable was Stevan Ridley, who was benched after his fourth carry turned into a Von Miller touchdown. This is not the first time Bill Belichick has pulled his star; Ridley was stuck on the pine for most of week one after his second quarter fumble turned into a touchdown for Da'Norris Searcy. After each game, headlines were consistent in addressing Ridley's fumbling issues, and he has admitted that his fumbles are "sickening." The problem with this hyperbole is twofold; Stevan Ridley doesn't have a fumbling issue, and it wouldn't be a big problem if he did.
Figuring out a fumbling problem is really pretty easy; you wait until someone fumbles a couple times and then pretend that it's a huge deal when he "acknowledges his mistakes" and then everyone writes columns saying he has issues holding on to the ball. Or you can see how much he fumbles relative to his peers. I chose the second method, and, lo and behold, Stevan Ridley does not fumble significantly more often than his peers. We really have only one year to go on for Ridley in the NFL, but he also played the majority of two seasons in college with LSU, so we can get some stats from there too. Of course there is a level of competition caveat, but seeing as a lot of the players he lined up against in the SEC are currently in the NFL, I'm not going to worry much about that. Let's take a look.
2012 saw the emergence of Ridley as a true threat, and he was rewarded with 296 touches over the course of the season. There were fifteen backs in the league who had a clearly higher number of touches than the trailing pack, and Ridley is one of four of those to have dropped the ball four times. In fact, among this pack there were two players with five fumbles each (Marshawn Lynch and Chris Johnson). Ridley has added four fumbles this year, which is a much worse pace, but that still is only one more fumble than peers Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller, Reggie Bush, Rashard Mendenhall, and Ben Tate and leaves him tied with Adrian Peterson for the lead in running back fumbles. It's not his fault that he has two fumbles returned for touchdowns this year; it's actually surprising since both fumbles came in opposing territory. If we look at his total touches since his sophomore year of college, he has 853 touches with 12 fumbles, for approximately 70 touches per fumble. The average for high usage NFL backs is a fumble every almost 90 touches, which puts Ridley at approximately 2.5 more fumbles than he ought to have over the four seasons and change that he's played. That's not a fumbling problem, that's some bad luck and sensationalist reporting.
Even if you were to say that there is a problem here, how big a deal is it? We haven't addressed at all the fact that some of these fumbles were recovered, which isn't a turnover at all. Fumbles are generally recovered at approximately a 50/50 rate for offense and defense, so even if we say that Ridley will add two fumbles a season (which he almost certainly does not), that's one turnover over 16 games. Through eleven games this year, the Patriots have 13 turnovers. This is nearly inconsequential in the big picture.
This is also something that can be fixed. Players with real fumble problems have improved over time with added strength and repetition. Patriots cult hero Kevin Faulk went from fumbling 11 times in three seasons to putting the ball on the floor just 4 times in his last six. Adrian Peterson fumbled 16 times over two years, and has 10 fumbles in the four years since. Tiki Barber once had 35 fumbles over four years, but dropped that to nine in his last three while gaining over 2,000 yards from scrimmage each year. He famously changed his carry style to that more in line with a rugby player, and that turned out pretty positively for him. There is definitely room for Ridley to improve; younger players do generally have higher fumble rates than older players, and Ridley is just 24 years old. The problem with this line of thinking is that he doesn't really have a problem in the first place.