In the closing minutes of Denver's 36-14 victory over Carolina on Sunday, a remarkable thing happened.
Willis McGahee recovered his own fumble.
Normally this wouldn't be notable, and certainly not worth celebrating. But it was the first time all season that the Broncos had recovered one of their own fumbles.
In Week 10.
McGahee's gaffe - his second of the game - was the team's 14th of the year, and only the second one that didn't cost Denver possession; against New Orleans in Week 8, Ronnie Hillman fumbled shortly after halftime, but the ball took a fortuitous bounce out of bounds.
On countless occasions, we've noted that recovering a fumble is about pure chance; Bill Barnwell recently referred to the Broncos as "the unluckiest team in the league."
Our readers, whether in the comments section, or via Twitter, have wondered if there's something more to Denver's woes. Is it a lack of effort, whether in terms of quitting on a play, or not going after a loose ball hard enough?
We'll get into the numbers later in the week, but for now, let's take a detailed look at each of the Broncos' fumbles to try and gain a sense of what's been happening:
|1||1||McGahee||Rush||Pittsburgh||Strip, right into hands of defender|
|2||2||Moreno||Rush||Atlanta||Strip, Decker falls on ball, Bronco emerges with it, but officials award to Atlanta|
|3||3||D. Thomas||Reception||Houston||End of game hook-and-lateral play|
|4||4||D. Thomas||Reception||Oakland||Drop, defender barely beats Tamme to ball|
|5||5||D. Thomas||Reception||New England||Strip, only defender has chance at ball|
|6||5||Manning||Sack||New England||Strip, ball squirts in front of defender|
|7||5||McGahee||Rush||New England||Strip, ball drops right in front of defender|
|8||6||Bolden||Kickoff||San Diego||Strip; Bolden appears to fall on ball, have it ripped away in pile|
|9||6||Holliday||Punt||San Diego||Irving nearly pushes Chargers gunner into Holliday, who muffs kick; Tony Carter falls on ball but it squirts out|
|10||8||McGahee||Rush||New Orleans||Strip, bounces right to defender|
|11||8||Hillman||Rush||None||Strip, ball bounces out of bounds, Broncos retain possession|
|12||10||Manning||Sack||Carolina||Franklin falls on ball, but it squirts out|
|13||10||McGahee||Rush||Carolina||Strip, defender kicks ball, three defenders fall on it|
|14||10||McGahee||Rush||Denver||Strip, ball is within McGahee's reach as he's on the ground, and he's able to pull it in just before defender|
From here, we'll refer to each fumble by its number (the first column) for simplicity's sake.
We'd argue strenuously that Fumble 3 shouldn't factor here, because of the game situation. Trailing by six points in the closing seconds of their Week 3 loss to Houston, the Broncos opt for a hook-and-lateral from their own 30-yard line. Eric Decker makes the initial catch and laterals to Demaryius Thomas, who in turn attempts to get the ball to Lance Ball, ultimately failing.
For our purposes, we're going to omit this play and say the Broncos have had 13 actual fumbles.
Fumbles 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, and 13 were all indisputable, where the opponents were in obvious position to recover the ball, and did so. That's 7 of 13 fumbles which had clear changes in possession.
Denver kept the ball after Fumbles 11 and 14; McGahee wasn't necessarily in better position to recover the ball, but was an instant quicker than the nearest defender. This one could have gone either way.
Fumble 2 was the most controversial play from the Broncos/Falcons MNF officiating disaster, the one that pushed us into the territory of blaming replacement officials for Denver's loss.
After Knowshon Moreno's fumble, Eric Decker clearly falls on the ball, and a teammate eventually emerges from the pile with the ball (we're unable to see this on replay, but Mike Tirico describes the action as such), yet the scabs inexplicably award possession to Atlanta approximately 45 minutes later.
On Fumble 8, Omar Bolden muffs the kickoff, picks it up, is stripped of the ball, and like Decker, pretty clearly falls on it. A Chargers defender has one arm between Bolden's two, and presumably rips the ball from him. Unfortunately, possession in these cases is not reviewable, but on the replay, it's rather apparent that Bolden is down on the ground with the ball in his arms, and the Broncos should have maintained possession.
This leaves Fumbles 9 and 12, which feature Tony Carter and Orlando Franklin falling on their teammates' fumbles, yet having the misfortune of the ball popping out and into the arms of an opponent. Denver should have come away with the ball in each case.
By our (subjective) accounting, the Broncos could easily have emerged with possession after 6 of their 13 fumbles, or four more times than they actually did. We'll attribute two instances (2, 8) to officiating, and two others (9, 12) to just rotten luck.
From studying the tape, there's not a single instance of Denver not going hard after a loose ball, or of trying less hard than their opponents.
Could the Broncos do a better job of holding onto the ball? Of course they could, although they're not fumbling at an absurd clip.
Again, we'll get deeper into that data later in the week.
But for now, rest assured that the Broncos haven't been to blame for their seeming inability to dive on loose footballs, and there's a good chance that own recoveries like that of Willis McGahee's on Sunday won't be such rare events going forward.