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Quarterback hand size, fumbles and rushing attempts - is there a connection?

There is a link, but it’s not what you might think

NFL: Scouting Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Nathaniel Hackett is on the record saying that he wants a smart, accurate and tough QB. Kenny Pickett would fit that bill. The worry with him is that he has some of the smallest hands on record for an drafted QB. His hands were measured at 8.5 inches at the combine. The ball in the NFL is actually bigger than the ball used by the NCAA. This may seem trivial, but for QBs with smaller hands it can (and has) led to problems adjusting to the NFL.

In general QBs with small hands don’t last long in the NFL as starters, but there are exceptions. Note that hand size data before the late 90s is hard to find. Here is a table showing games started by QB hands size for every QB that I could find data on going back to the mid-90s

The prevailing wisdom is that quarterbacks with small hands are more apt to fumble the ball, but if you look at the data, that’s not the case.

There is no correlation between QB hand size and fumble rate (fumbles per game started). But here’s the caveat, Pickett is such an outlier that there is no precedent (at least in the modern NFL). The only other QB close to that small of hands who was a long-term starter is Michael Vick who had 8.5” hands. Michael Vick was a Ferrari. Pickett is Subaru.

There is a correlation here (sort of), but it is actually between rushing attempts per game started and fumble rate. Keep in mind that the NFL still counts a kneel-down as a rushing attempt. Plenty of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady’s rushing attempts were kneel-downs. If you look at all QBs with 32 or more starts since 1997, there is still very little correlation between rushing attempts per game started and fumbles per game started. The R squared value is 0.089. Even if you focus on the QBs with four or more rushing attempts per game, you find that there are a few outliers who are confounding the correlation.

The average fumble rate for all 80 QBs in the data set is 0.60 fumbles per start. Using one standard deviation above or below the mean to define high and low fumble rates, there are twelve fumble-prone QBs and fourteen QBs who did or do not fumble often. No QB in the “good” zone runs the ball more than 3.9 times per game. The two highest runs/per GS rates in the good zone are Patrick Mahomes (3.8) and Justin Herbert (3.7). Four of the fourteen run (or ran) the ball fewer than two times per start - Kyle Orton, Drew Brees, Joey Harrington and Peyton Manning. In reality Brees and Manning probably had less than one actual rushing attempt per start during their careers (because of kneel-downs).

Lamar Jackson 0.76 12.6
Cam Newton 0.45 8.0
Tyrod Taylor 0.49 7.7
Michael Vick 0.85 7.6
Robert Griffin III 0.88 7.3
Josh Allen 0.65 7.0
Kyler Murray 0.59 6.8
Colin Kaepernick 0.64 6.5
Deshaun Watson 0.57 5.8
Vince Young 0.80 5.6
Jacoby Brissett 0.75 5.6
Russell Wilson 0.55 5.4
Daunte Culpepper 1.02 5.1
Tarvaris Jackson 0.71 5.0
David Garrard 0.58 5.0
Daniel Jones 0.97 4.6
Geno Smith 0.65 4.6
Quincy Carter 0.65 4.5
Marcus Mariota 0.57 4.3
Blaine Gabbert 0.69 4.1
Mitchell Trubisky 0.54 4.1
Aaron Brooks 0.71 4.0
Ryan Fitzpatrick 0.58 3.9
Blake Bortles 0.63 3.9
David Carr 0.90 3.9
Andrew Luck 0.51 3.9
Donovan McNabb 0.59 3.8
Patrick Mahomes 0.41 3.8
Kyle Boller 0.89 3.7
Jameis Winston 0.68 3.7
Carson Wentz 0.78 3.7
Justin Herbert 0.28 3.7
Dak Prescott 0.56 3.6
Christian Ponder 0.56 3.5
Alex Smith 0.46 3.5
Teddy Bridgewater 0.30 3.4
Ryan Tannehill 0.63 3.4
Josh Freeman 0.64 3.4
Aaron Rodgers 0.41 3.3
Sam Darnold 0.59 3.3
Matt Cassel 0.68 3.3
Josh McCown 1.07 3.3
J.P. Losman 1.06 3.2
Jake Plummer 0.55 3.1
Charlie Batch 0.44 3.1
Jason Campbell 1.00 3.0
Jimmy Garoppolo 0.57 3.0
Andy Dalton 0.30 3.0
Brian Griese 0.61 2.9
Byron Leftwich 0.70 2.7
Nick Foles 0.65 2.7
Baker Mayfield 0.46 2.7
Chad Henne 0.39 2.6
Jay Cutler 0.62 2.5
Trent Edwards 0.42 2.4
Mark Sanchez 0.71 2.3
Chad Pennington 0.51 2.2
Matt Ryan 0.40 2.2
Jared Goff 0.61 2.2
Kirk Cousins 0.64 2.2
Matt Schaub 0.49 2.1
Tim Couch 0.63 2.1
Tom Brady 0.41 2.1
Ben Roethlisberger 0.47 2.1
Derek Anderson 0.69 2.1
Matthew Stafford 0.41 2.1
Brett Favre 0.56 2.0
Derek Carr 0.58 2.0
Joey Harrington 0.33 1.9
Sam Bradford 0.60 1.8
Drew Brees 0.39 1.7
Rex Grossman 0.68 1.7
Carson Palmer 0.45 1.7
Peyton Manning 0.28 1.6
Philip Rivers 0.46 1.6
Kyle Orton 0.40 1.5
Kurt Warner 0.88 1.5
Eli Manning 0.53 1.3
Marc Bulger 0.44 1.2
Joe Flacco 0.51 1.0

On the “bad” side (a fumble rate of 0.78 or worse), five of the twelve fumblers are or were “running” QBs - Daunte Culpepper, Daniel Jones, Robert Griffin, Michael Vick and Vince Young. All five run or ran the ball 4.6 or more times per game. If we look at the two guys on the edge of “bad”, we find that both are runners. Lamar Jackson (0.76 FUM/GS) and Jacoby Brissett (0.75) average 12.6 and 5.6 rushing attempts per start during their careers.

In fact if you look at the top 25 worst fumblers on the list, only four ran the ball 2.5 times per game or less - Kurt Warner, Mark Sanchez, Derek Anderson and Rex Grossman. So in general as a QB in the NFL, if you run the ball often you will fumble more often. That seems obvious, but it’s nice when the data matches what most understand to be a truism in football.

So what about a link between hand size and fumbles for running QBs, or between hand size and “ball security” for pocket QBs? Well Warner (10.25”) and Sanchez (10.5”) have big hands and were pocket QBs, but both were prone to fumble. On the flipside, Mahomes has relatively small hands (9.25”) and runs a fair amount (both on runs AND on passes), but he is on the good side in terms of fumble rate. The same could be said for Teddy Bridgewater, who is tied for the fourth lowest fumble rate on the list, but has the same size hands as Mahomes.

Then you also have guys like Brett Favre, Nick Foles and Dak Prescott all of whom have massive mitts, but they fall in the “normal” range for fumble rate. Of course, Drew Lock, who isn’t included here since he only has twenty-one starts, has relatively small hands (9”) and has a fairly average fumble rate (0.62) while running the ball 3.4 times per start during his career (also fairly average).

This is relevant to the Denver Broncos because it is possible that we draft Pickett, or Malik Willis, who would most likely be a running QB in the NFL similar to Lamar Jackson or Jalen Hurts. While Jackson has a high fumble rate for an NFL QB, you really have to compare him to running backs since his carries per game is comparable to many NFL running backs. At roughly thirteen rushes per start during his career, that would equate to 221 carries in a seventeen game season. Only nine players had more than 221 rushing attempts in 2021 (although none were QBs).

Jalen Hurts led all QBs in rushing attempts in 2021 with 139 and he fumbled nine times. The worst fumblers among running QBs in 2021 were both backup QBs - Jordan Love and P.J. Walker. Love ran the ball twelve times and fumbled three times while Walker ran the ball seven times and fumbled three times. For what it’s worth, Love has really big hands (10.5”) while Walker has relatively small hands (9.125”).