History Says It's Way Too Early to Give Up on David Wilson

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History Says It's Way Too Early to Give Up on David Wilson
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 NFL regular season kicked off just four days ago, but boiling points are already being reached in regard to New York Giants running back David Wilson and his inability to avoid costly mistakes. 

Wilson fumbled twice and whiffed on a key red-zone block in the Giants' season-opening Sunday Night Football loss to the division-rival Dallas Cowboys. As a result, the 2012 first-round draft pick spent the final 27 minutes of that contest on the sideline.

Also as a result, the Giants have signed veteran back Brandon Jacobs to shore up a backfield that is now in flux. Jacobs is 31, which makes him a senior citizen at that position. Ahmad Bradshaw is gone. Andre Brown, who was supposed to be the third-down back, is out at least half the year due to a broken leg. Da'Rel Scott, who also made a costly mistake in the opener, is hurt now as well, and Michael Cox is just a rookie. 

That's it. You can't give up on first-round picks this quickly and the Giants clearly don't have that luxury based on the contents of the previous paragraph. Naturally, Wilson's ball security has become the hottest topic in the New York sports world, which is why everyone involved is getting testy. 

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has run out of patience:

And Wilson himself has lost his cool:

Hard to blame him. Perform a search of his Twitter handle and the word "suck" and it gets ugly real fast. Let's remember that the guy is 22 years old and is dealing with people like this:

The point is that we all need to take a step or two back. Wilson has fumbled three times on 139 regular-season offensive and special-teams touches, and I don't deny that's a bit of a problem. 

"He has to overcome this issue," Coughlin said Thursday, per NFL.com. "He's a marked man."

That measured pressure is probably necessary, so I won't question Coughlin's tactics. But the problem has been inflated by circumstances. After fumbling on his second career touch last season, Wilson went the rest of his rookie year without a turnover.

All three of his career fumbles have been recovered by the opposing team, which is plain bad luck. Had the ball bounced differently on some, or all, of those occasions, we probably wouldn't even be discussing this right now.

All three miscues also took place in nationally televised prime-time games, with both coming against America's most popular team and the Giants' biggest rival.

It doesn't matter that Wilson has avoided fumbles in 23 of his 25 career preseason and regular-season games because he's made his only big mistakes in the moments in which the spotlight was shining the brightest. 

Jitters, timing, bad luck. All factors. 

This is the NFL in 2013, where instant reaction reigns and grand conclusions are drawn immediately on Twitter and elsewhere. It's especially hard to overcome these things in New York. But before we write Wilson off, let's consider how many great backs—some of the greatest of all time, in fact—have managed to put similar issues behind them:

Tiki Barber: Between 2000 and 2003, the Giants' all-time leading rusher fumbled more than any other running back in football. When Coughlin arrived in 2004, he adjusted Barber's mechanics.

"Barber would carry a football everywhere," noted Newsday's Bob Glauber, "holding it to his chest, with his hand up near his shoulder and his elbow down at around a 45-degree angle."

The fix worked and Barber fumbled just nine times over the next three seasons. 

Tiki Barber's fumbles
2000-2003 2004-2006
Total fumbles 35 (1st) 9 (10th)
Touches per fumble 35.5 130.0

Pro Football Reference (rank in brackets)

Darren McFadden: The No. 4 overall pick didn't start as a rookie, mainly because he was a huge liability in blitz pickup. There were also some ball security concerns, but he has become a half-decent pass-blocker and has fumbled only three times on 410 touches since 2010. 

Kevin Faulk: He was never a superstar, but Faulk fumbled nine times in 11 starts during his first two NFL seasons in New England and then fumbled only 16 times in 36 starts over the remainders of his career. 

Kevin Faulk's fumbles
First 8 seasons Final 5 seasons
Total fumbles 23 2
Touches per fumble 39.4 193.5

Pro Football Reference

Adrian Peterson: Here are some actual pre-2011 headlines (including one lighthearted and obvious one from The Onion) on Peterson's once-major fumbling issue:

There was even a popular YouTube video dedicated to Peterson's many fumbles:

It took some time, but Peterson corrected a mechanical flaw regarding the way he carried the ball in order to avoid making so many mistakes ahead of the 2010 season. He has fumbled only six times since.

Adrian Peterson's fumbles
First 3 seasons Next 3 seasons
Total fumbles 20 6
Touches per fumble 49.9 155.5

Pro Football Reference

Barry Sanders: He had 10 fumbles as a rookie in 1989, but never had more than six after that. 

Barry Sanders' fumbles
First 4 seasons Last 6 seasons
Total fumbles 25 16
Touches per fumble 52.7 130.9

Pro Football Reference

Eric Dickerson: It was a different era, but it's still hard to believe that Dickerson somehow got away with fumbling six times in his first three NFL games in 1983. He was never great when it came to ball security, but he was also a workhorse who touched the ball a lot. Eventually, even Dickerson cut down on the mistakes. 

Eric Dickerson's fumbles
First 4 seasons Next 7 seasons
Total fumbles 49 22
Touches per fumble 32.3 77.0

Pro Football Reference

Frank Gore: Another stud running back and another mid-career improvement in the field of ball security:

Frank Gore's fumbles
First 4 seasons Next 4 seasons
Total fumbles 18 12
Touches per fumble 61.7 92.9

Pro Football Reference

LaDainian Tomlinson: He fumbled eight times as a rookie back in 2001, but only once coughed it up more than four times over the next 10 years. 

LaDainian Tomlinson's fumbles
Rookie season Every other season
Total fumbles 10 23
Touches per fumble 39.8 147.8

Pro Football Reference

Emmitt Smith: He had 15 fumbles in his first two seasons, but only twice fumbled it more than five times again.
Emmitt Smith's fumbles
First 2 seasons Rest of career
Total fumbles 15 46
Touches per fumble 45.3 92.3

Pro Football Reference

Edgerrin James: Eight fumbles as a rookie in 1999, but only once did he have more than five after that. 
Edgerrin James' fumbles
Rookie season Rest of career
Total fumbles 8 36
Touches per fumble 53.9 84.2

Pro Football Reference

Marcus Allen: He fumbled a league-high 14 times in his second season, losing 12. But after his third year, fumbling was no longer an issue. 
Marcus Allen's fumbles
First 3 seasons Next 13 seasons
Total fumbles 27 38
Touches per fumble 32.3 72.1

Pro Football Reference

Walter Payton: Sweetness was never a ball-security expert, but he was fumbling at a crazy rate early in his career before cutting that in half for the last 10 years he was in the league.
Walter Payton's fumbles
First 3 seasons Rest of career
Total fumbles 30 56
Touches per fumble 30.7 60.9

Pro Football Reference

In 2010, Football Outsiders found that an average NFL running back fumbled once per every 79 touches. Wilson has one fumble per 27.3 touches thus far in his career.

There are no guarantees here. Wilson could wind up fumbling for his entire career, like Ahman Green. The worst-case scenario goes beyond that, but I think the takeaway here is that it's way too early to know. 

He's in the right spot and has the proper support, which is a start. Coughlin commented Wednesday on the technical aspect of the dilemma, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post, and you can tell that they're on the right track:

He’s following the technique that he’s been taught and we’ll see under pressure if he can continue to do that. The problems occur when you try to make a move and the ball moves to the side. When there’s no place to go and other people are surrounding you, you have no choice but to cover it up with both hands and get in position where you’re taking care of the football. That’s not that difficult a thing for David Wilson, because of his body style and because of his running position, he can do a good job of covering the ball up. He was careless and it cost us dearly but I’ confident he’s gonna learn from it.

Barber sized things up in a very similar fashion this week, per Glauber:

If people are ready to give up on David, that's ridiculous. As much as people want to say it's in his head, that he has to be smarter and man up and do these things, it's so much of a mechanical thing. It's fixable.

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Still, the fumble issue isn't likely to completely disappear. Wilson fumbled seven times during the 2011 season at Virginia Tech, so there will still be turnovers regardless. They just have to come so rarely that Coughlin can trust him. 

This goes hand in hand with pass protection. Chris Johnson and Peterson aren't good pass protectors, but when you're that productive with the ball in your hands, it's easy to get past that. The Giants like to use multiple backs anyway and Wilson probably isn't cut out to take all of the third-down reps this early in his career. 

He should naturally improve in both areas. Technique and mechanics aren't emphasized as heavily at the NCAA level, defenses aren't as feisty in terms of ripping the ball away and blitz pickup isn't usually a priority.

It takes time, which I know is difficult for a lot of NFL people to comprehend.

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