Deflate-gate triggers stat spat as analysts attempt to solve why Patriots don't fumble

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PHOENIX – Maybe the smoking gun isn’t in a bathroom at Gillette Stadium. Maybe it’s in the laptop of a civil engineer in Washington, D.C.

One of the strangest twists in the already strange saga of deflate-gate is the sudden star turn of a man who runs a gambling website when he’s not doing his day job. Warren Sharp is a 36-year-old dad who loves numbers and algorithms, and decided to apply some statistics to the Patriots when he heard about the football deflation investigation. What he found sent ripples through the sports world and got a few other statisticians pretty upset.

It also may have implications beyond Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Sharp’s idea was to look at fumbles. That led him to a more refined topic: how well the Patriots held onto the ball both before and after the 2006 season, which happened to be the year Brady and Peyton Manning pushed for a rule change which allowed each team to provide their own footballs for games.

“Something significant changed from 2006 to 2007 that allowed them to retain the football,” Sharp said by phone Tuesday, “and that continues today.”

According to Sharp’s calculations, the Patriots’ fumble rate was 42 touches per fumble from 2000 through 2006. That was about the league average. Since 2007, however, that rate has dropped dramatically, to 74 touches per fumble. Over that time, the Pats are the best team in the NFL at holding onto the ball, even including dome teams.

“Based upon the data we’ve collected and the probabilities, it definitely is extremely unlikely that their ability to hold onto the football would change so much and be as far away from the rest of the NFL,” Sharp said. “It’s extremely unlikely.”

LeGarrette Blount (29) reacts after scoring a touchdown in the AFC championship game. (USAT)
LeGarrette Blount (29) reacts after scoring a touchdown in the AFC championship game. (USAT)

We all know correlation does not mean causation, but this is one whopper of a correlation. The Patriots were basically an average team in terms of fumbling the football, and then Brady pushed for a rule change, and then the Patriots suddenly become wizards at football control. And all this would be cool or quirky if we weren’t embroiled in a nationwide debate over whether the Patriots altered the footballs they bring to games.

This finding trickles down to individual players, in some cases. Kevin Faulk was drafted by the Patriots in 1999 and played in New England through 2011. Up until the 2007 season, Faulk had 23 fumbles. After that point, he had two. Danny Amendola had 10 fumbles in four seasons with the Rams, then came to New England and lost the ball only once in two years.

As for Brady himself, he had 59 fumbles in his first six seasons, and only 37 in his most recent seven seasons.

“Did Bill Belichick teach players anything differently starting that season?” Sharp asked. “Something clearly happened.”

What does all this prove? Well, nothing definitively. Sharp himself admitted there is no ironclad conclusion from his data. Fumbles are somewhat random occurrences. Some fumbles happen on kickoffs, which use different footballs by league rules. And obviously the weather is different in each game. Playing in Miami in the heat of early September is far different from playing in Green Bay in December.

But Sharp is well aware of all that and yet he insists the findings can’t possibly be happenstance.

“This is definitely not random fluctuation,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, more than a few Patriots fans are not buying it. “Statistical hocus pocus,” rants one fan on Facebook. But Sharp’s analysis is also under fire from a couple of other statisticians.

“It’s 98 percent bunk,” said Greg Matthews, an assistant professor of statistics at Loyola University in Chicago. “He basically reached a conclusion already and he wants to find the most sensational stats he can find.”

Matthews said he found a “tremendous amount” of flaws in Sharp’s breakdown, among them the touches-per-fumble method of lining up the Patriots against the rest of the league.

“I refute the fact that the Patriots are an outlier,” Matthews said. “I refute that fact definitely. Are they better after [2006]? Possibly, but it’s not outrageously better.”

Tom Brady looks on during a New England Patriots practice on Wednesday. (Getty)
Tom Brady looks on during a New England Patriots practice on Wednesday. (Getty)

Matthews admits he’s a Patriots fan, though he insisted, “This has nothing to do with Patriots.”

His own portrayal of the statistics, however, doesn’t differ all that largely from Sharp’s. Matthews gives the Patriots’ fumbles-per-100-carries from 2007 through 2014 as 0.63, and the next best team is St. Louis (a dome team) with 0.71. The league average is 1.0. That still sets the Pats apart, if not as starkly. It still sets 2006 as a demarcation point.

Another leader in the statistic community, Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics, drew this conclusion in a recent post after looking at fumble rates (excluding dome teams):

“Whoa. In this case NE is at the top of the list, and the next best team is a distant second. Notice how the second team [Baltimore] through the second to last team [Philadelphia] have rates that are within 1 or 2 plays of each other. NE, however, is better than the next best team by 20 plays per fumble.”

That’s hard to explain away.

Sharp doesn’t claim any team as his favorite. His affinity is for the numbers, whether for his handicapping site or for his algorithms. He said he would like other people to crunch the numbers even if it shows where he went wrong.

“Can you deny that the Patriots did not change dramatically in fumble rate since the 2006 season?” he asked. “Can you deny that the Pats are significantly better than the rest of the NFL since then?”

If no one can deny those two assertions, the question that raises looms as large as deflate-gate, if not larger. Winning the turnover battle is an enormous part of winning football games, and if the Patriots found a way to win the turnover battle, whether by deflating the ball or some other measure (or both), that indicates a turning point in the sport starting in 2006.

It's important to recognize that the Patriots' ability to hold onto the football isn't just about statistics. It reflects terrific preparation and execution, led by a future Hall of Fame coach and a future Hall of Fame quarterback. But this latest controversy has brought scrutiny to everything Pats-related – even a Brady quote that was innocuous in 2006.

“The thing is, every quarterback likes it a little bit different,” Brady said back then, arguing his case for every team being allowed to provide its own footballs at games. “Some like them blown up a little bit more, some like them a little more thin, some like them a little more new, some like them really broken in.”

Statistics, like footballs, are malleable. But Sharp is confident that although humans can change their story over time, numbers do not.