Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rashard Mendenhall: To Fumble or Not to Fumble? That Is the Question

Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin made it a point in his press conference this week to point out that he had re-configured his depth chart vis-a-vis running back. Call it blowing smoke or sending a message; view it as speaking through the media to his players or sheer egotism. But however you see it, Tomlin made it clear that (for the time being) Jonathan Dwyer was the starting running back, with Isaac Redman the 3rd down guy and Rashard Mendenhall in a lesser role.

It's a heckuva role for a former first round draft pick to be in.

Mendenhall has never been the most popular guy in Pittsburgh and, admittedly, I've never been that big of a fan. I want to go on record here:  I do not now, nor have I ever cared about Mendenhall's twitter account. [Nor do I ever foresee a time when I do. In the interest of full disclosure.] What I do care about is his on-field production, the offensive flows when he is on the field and his availability. He is without a doubt the most talented running back on the team. He has tremendous speed, quickness and balance. He is elusive. And he can turn a short gain into a long one.

But I dubbed him 'suspect' in his rookie year and I have the emails to back that up. 'Lo, these many years later, I'm trying to remember why I conferred that nickname on him. Two things leap to mind:  the first is that he dances behind the line too much for my taste. Perhaps I'm old school and such, but he doesn't often hit a gap with real authority. It offends my inner-Mike Ditka.

The other reason I dubbed him 'suspect' was that that he carries the ball way out from his body, as though it were infected with the ebola virus. At other times he almost rests it on his hip bone, like a tired mom with a heavy toddler. [See photos above, below and to the right.]

Every time he carries the ball, my heart is in my throat. That ball is out there begging to be swatted away --  a fumble just waiting to happen. Apparently, coach Tomlin is feeling me because after Mendenhall's heinous fumble in Cleveland last week, Tomlin promptly sat Mendenhall's ass on the bench.

I was pleased -- he is Mr. Butterfingers, after all. And yet, I wondered if my gut was accurate? Was I, like Karl Rove, believing what I wanted to believe because I believed it? Or, like Nate Silver, would the math back me up? Is Rashard Mendenhall the mad fumbler I have always believed him to be?

To the arithmetic!

Mendenhall was drafted in the 1st round by the Steelers in 2008 (23rd pick overall.) In that time, he has played in 58 games, with 908 rushing attempts, 11 fumbles, and 9 fumbles lost (none more egregious than the fumble in the Super Bowl -- he's gonna have to go a long way to live that one down.) Statistically speaking, it averages out to one fumble for every 82 carries, approximately. A feature back [and a guy picked in the 1st round should be your feature back, no?] probably carries the ball about 25 times per game, so that averages out to a little better than one fumble every three games, or about four or five fumbles per season (not factoring in post-season.)

That seems like a lot to me. Is it? Just how does Mendenhall stack up against other backs in the league?

I looked at eight other running backs, all of whom rank in the Top 25 in total rushing yards this season, which is where a back like Mendenhall should be. All of these guys are in at least their third season (so that we can see a substantial body of work).

The Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, is a freak, with one fumble per every 253 attempts, but Ray Rice (chosen in the same draft as Mendenhall) puts the ball on the ground only once per every 125 attempts. [Also, bear in mind that Rice is a major player in the Ravens passing game, so he touches the ball way more often than Mendenhall does on that front.]

Of these eight, only Frank Gore and Jamaal Charles cough it up more than Mendenhall does, but he's pretty close to the middle group of Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch and CJ Spiller. Yet, those guys are a much bigger part of  each respective offense, especially Lynch and Spiller neither of whom has ever played with a proper franchise quarterback. Basically, teams can key on those backs more than they can on Mendenhall (or Arian Foster, for that matter.)

I have to admit, I thought that he would suffer more by comparison, which is not to say that this is a flattering chart (he does rank 7th of the nine player sample size), but I thought it would be even worse, given his ball-carrying style. Actually, given that, it's surprising he hasn't coughed up the rock at a Jamaal-Charlesian pace.

But not all fumbles are created equal. Using, for example, last week's debacle against the Browns, Mendenhall's fumble was born of his holding the ball tenuously out from his body, whereas Jonathan Dwyer took a helmet right on the forearm that was cradling the ball against his body. If I'm a coach and I'm watching that film, I'm a good deal less upset with Dwyer than I am with Mendenhall.

Dwyer's fumble was due to a great defensive play.

Mendenhall's fumble was due to carelessness with the pig.

In the same way that all fumbles are not created equal, all fumblers are not created equal. I am fairly certain that I (and probably a good bit of SteelersNation) would feel differently about Mendenhall had he been taken lower in the draft, in say the 5th or 6th round. Or had he been an undrafted free agent (a'la Redman and Willie Parker).

The thing about being a player with a pedigree is that it cuts both ways. Mendenhall has had more opportunities with the Steelers franchise by virtue of his having been drafted in the 1st round, but we also hold him to a much higher standard, too. When this season is over, Mendenhall will test the free agent market and, no doubt, he will leave Pittsburgh, taking his one fumble per 82 carry average and reckless ball-carrying with him.

Will you be sad to see him go? Why? Or, why not?

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