Exploring the most fumbles in NFL history: From quarterbacks to running backs, unveiling top fumblers and their impact on the game.
Fumbles are football’s great equalizer. Unlike an interception, which requires some type of mistake by the offense and quality playmaking from the defense, it’s possible to recover a fumble without even trying!
Some players simply have a harder time holding onto the football than others. Famous football movies such as Friday Night Lights and The Program use fumbling as dramatic or comedic elements – the player who has to carry the ball around campus, and is punished if any of his teammates take it away.
But looking back in NFL history, who has the most fumbles?
*For the purposes of this article, fumbles are simply considered losing control of the ball – we are not considering whether the player’s own team or opponent recovered the ball for our statistics.
What is a Fumble?
By definition, a fumble occurs when a player who has possession and control of the ball loses it before being tackled or going out of bounds.
So if a player drops a pass into the hands of a defender, it’s not a fumble because he never had possession or control.
The kicking team recovering an onside kick is not a fumble for the same reason.
However, a quarterback who loses control of the ball before attempting to pass is considered to have fumbled the ball up until the point his arm starts moving forward (you’ve probably seen the famous ‘Tuck Rule’ play from the 2002 AFC playoffs).
That leads us to our next category…
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Which Player has the Most Career Fumbles?
Despite most fans associating fumbles with running backs or other ball carriers, you may be surprised to learn that the top THIRTY-ONE fumblers in NFL history are all quarterbacks!
It makes sense, especially as time goes on and teams throw the ball more and more each year. Defenses emphasize putting pressure on that quarterback, who’s in a very vulnerable position as he looks to fire the ball downfield. One well-timed hit or wrong step and the ball is loose.
At the very top of the list is the same player who leads the NFL in career interceptions thrown – Hall of Famer Brett Favre. Over a 20-year career, Favre fumbled the ball 166 times!
Favre also ranks in the Top 10 all-time in fumble recoveries with 42 – but that stat is a little less impressive when you realize that almost all of them were his own miscues.
Most Fumbles in NFL Career History
Some of the game’s best all-time quarterbacks appear on the list. It’s also interesting that they’re all primarily pocket passers as opposed to mobile quarterbacks who like to scramble and make plays.
Long careers with thousands of passing attempts lead to plenty of opportunities to fumble. But what about players who strictly carry the ball?
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Which Running Back Has the Most Career Fumbles in NFL History?
Tony Dorsett and Franco Harris, two legendary backs of the 1970s and 1980s, top the list with 90 career fumbles a piece.
Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears great, is right behind them at 86 fumbles.
All Hall of Famers, all rank among the greatest running backs of all time – and all ran for 12,000+ yards in their NFL careers. That’s a lot of opportunities to lose the football.
Which Team Fumbled the Most in One Season?
They happened 40 years apart, but two separate teams tied for the most fumbles in one season in NFL history.
The 1938 Chicago Bears put the ball on the ground a whopping 56 times. The team was replacing its two leading ball carriers from the previous season, including Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski – and the costs were substantial. Amazingly, the Bears still finished with a winning record of 6-5.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the ‘feat’ was equaled, when the 1978 San Francisco 49ers fumbled exactly 56 times. The 49ers weren’t as lucky, finishing 2-14 because they couldn’t throw the ball either. Their mark of 63 total turnovers still stands as an NFL record that probably won’t be surpassed any time soon.
Which Teams Had the Most Fumbles in One Game?
Those same 1978 San Francisco 49ers are tied atop this list as well for losing the ball 10 times in a December 17, 1978 game with the Detroit Lions.
But they were just returning the favor – 11 years later the Lions themselves had established the very record San Francisco tied in a 10-10 tie against Minnesota. Detroit dominated the game on the stat sheet and those drops cost the Lions a win.
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Who Led the NFL in Fumbles in 2022?
If you’ve read to this point, you won’t be too surprised it was a quarterback who led the way – Chicago’s Justin Fields, who fumbled 16 times one year ago. Only two of Fields’ fumbles were recovered by the defense, however.
Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence had some terrible luck, as opponents recovered nine of his 12 fumbles in 2022.
The Indianapolis Colts topped the team list with 37 fumbles in 2022.
Neither Fields’ Bears nor the Colts made the playoffs, which reinforces an emerging fact. Fumbles are sometimes a product of luck, and statistically teams recover more of their own fumbles than the opponent’s.
But if you’re careless with the ball, over time turnovers will happen, and fumbles are particularly dangerous because the situations are so hard to practice.
Plenty of fantasy football leagues penalize for lost fumbles. A score of negative -2 is a common penalty for any type of turnover. So take a look at your players’ turnover statistics – interceptions and fumbles – before selecting your 2023 quarterback.