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Chargers' Sproles barely eludes infamy

1/5/2009 - NFL

It seems impossible, but the player who did the most to improve his stock among football fans this weekend did arguably the single worst thing a running back can do with the pigskin in his hands.

Everyone knows that fumbles are bad. Longtime readers of Football Outsiders know that fumbling the ball, even if you end up recovering it, is a bad sign because fumble recovery isn't a skill -- that is to say, there's no team year-to-year which recovers a consistently high or low percentage of the balls that hit the ground.

The idea of how much a fumble hurts a team, though, is murky because we never know how a drive might've turned out. A fumble at the opposition's 40-yard line hurts, but because we don't actually see how that drive would have ended without the fumble, we can't say that the fumble prevented a touchdown.

It's with this talk of fumbles that we bring up Chargers running back Darren Sproles, who emerged on the national scene with a series of third-down conversions and an overtime touchdown run to push the Chargers into the divisional playoffs. His contributions in the running game accrued 26 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement), the second-highest total of the week.

In the receiving game, though? Sproles picked up -28 DYAR, the second-worst total of any player, giving him a total of -2 DYAR on the day. The reason why wasn't the five catches he had on 10 attempts, a mediocre total for a receiver. It wasn't that only two of his catches went for first downs. He still would've been an above-average player on the day … if it weren't for the fact that he fumbled on the Colts' 1.

Sproles' catch and run was on second down. If Sproles hadn't scored on the play, the Chargers would have had two chances to score from the 1-foot line. Without getting too deep into the probability that the Chargers would or would not score on those two plays, it's pretty easy to figure that there's an extremely significant chance of the Chargers kicking a field goal, if not scoring a touchdown.

Of course, any score would've changed the game. The Chargers would have been kicking on their final drive in regulation to take the lead, not tie. They wouldn't have needed to win the overtime coin toss and drive down the field. Sproles, ironically, wouldn't have etched his name in Chargers history with a run that probably earned him millions of dollars in his future trip to the free-agent market.

As the Chargers basked in success, Sproles' prior transgression was forgotten by seemingly everyone except the game recap and our computers. Had the Chargers ended up losing the game, everyone would have remembered Sproles snatching disappointment from a sure touchdown. Ask Earnest Byner if fans forget that easily.

Here are the rest of the best and worst players of wild-card weekend, according to the Football Outsiders DYAR statistics.





Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.