Are Spencer Ware's Fumbles a Problem?
NEP, for those new to the metric, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data.
Ware's ranking is weird for a few reasons. First, he was one of the most efficient running backs in football last season, as he ranked second in Rushing NEP per attempt among running backs with at least 30 carries. But Ware also only had 72 carries last year when he filled in for Jamaal Charles while splitting time with Charcandrick West. Perhaps he just hasn’t been as efficient in a more full-time role since he’s already carried the ball 54 times this season, which has been 65 percent of the Chiefs’ rushing attempts. But, watching him, he hasn’t seemed all that bad.
So why, then, is Ware 25th out of 25 in Rushing NEP per attempt this year, behind other backs like Todd Gurley, Jerick McKinnon and Lamar Miller? The answer, apparently, comes down to just three plays.
On the season, Ware has a total Rushing NEP of -13.47, and -16.59 of that has come because of three lost fumbles. As those numbers would indicate, the fumbles have been costly.
His first, against the Houston Texans in Week 2, was returned 33 yards and set up an eventual field goal. Against the New York Jets in Week 3, Ware fumbled on what was originally called a six-yard touchdown run, but the play was reviewed and it was determined Ware lost the ball before crossing the plane, which not only wiped out the touchdown, but it led to a touchback for the Jets.
Then, in Week 4, Ware lost a fumble in the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which set up the first of many touchdowns scored by the Steelers in that game.
This is both a new and unlucky phenomenon for Ware and the Chiefs. Heading into this season, Ware had not fumbled on his previous 75 professional carries, and he went 17 carries into 2016 before the first fumble against Houston. The Chiefs, in general, have been unlucky recovering fumbles on offense this season, coming up with just 28.57 percent of balls dropped on that side of the ball. Ware has lost all three of his fumbles this season.
Outside of those fumbles, though, Ware has once again been one of the better backs in the league. On the 51 carries he hasn’t fumbled, Ware has been worth 3.12 Rushing NEP, which equates to 0.06 Rushing NEP per attempt. That would place him 10th among the running backs with at least 50 carries this season. Even with the fumbles, Ware has the third-highest Success Rate -- the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP -- among 50-plus carry backs, behind Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson.
Ware has also added to his game by being a legitimate threat in the passing game. He has the second-highest Reception NEP per target among 43 running backs with at least 10 targets this year. And he has 11 receptions on 17 targets this season after having 6 receptions all of last season and 39 receptions through his entire college career.
For now, the Chiefs seem intent on letting Ware continue to play despite his recent fumble problems. Through the first four games of the season -- Kansas City is coming off a Week 5 bye -- the Chiefs didn’t really have much of a choice. With Charles out, Ware was their best back, and there were few other options. (Charcandrick West has just a 33 percent Success Rate on his limited carries this season.)
But Jamaal Charles should be healthy now, and he’s claimed he’s “ready to take the training wheels off,” starting with the Week 6 matchup against the Oakland Raiders.
The Chiefs have been patient with these fumble problems they haven’t seen from Ware before. But now that there’s an alternative option, it’s worth keeping an eye on to see how long Ware’s leash going forward might be.