WASHINGTON — Matt Jones has been putting in extra offseason work trying to improve his ball-carrying skills. Coming off his rookie season, in which he fumbled five times (recovering one), Jones acknowledges he was “careless” with the football in 2015.
While Jones doesn’t literally sleep with a football in his hands, he did say recently “I go to sleep with it on my mind and wake up with it on my mind.”
According to The Washington Post’s Master Tesfatsion, Redskins running backs coach Randy Jordan has given Jones a High And Tight football, specially designed to emit an audible beep when it is being gripped properly.
As Michael Phillips recently wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jones has been reviewing film of former Giants running back Tiki Barber, whose fumbling proficiency became a national narrative before he was able to shake the label late in his career.
Jones said he saw highlights of Barber in which the former U.Va. star was cradling the ball high and tight, and adopted a version of that approach for himself.
“I was letting my team down, so I needed to find a way to fix it,” Jones said. “I started holding it like (Barber) and it worked.
“But I wasn’t comfortable holding it as high as Tiki had it. I want my ball close, so I can squeeze and grip and keep all my pressure points on it.”
Barber tells 106.7 The Fan’s Chad Dukes he is frequently asked, by current coaches who played at the same time as himself, how he was able to finally learn to protect the football, and says a great deal of fumbling is mental.
Over a five-year period from 1999 to 2003, Barber put the ball on the turf an extraordinary 40 times (recovering 21), a rate of eight fumbles per season. Amazingly, Barber wasn’t even aware he had such a problem until a writer for the New York Times brought it to his attention.
“One of those writers came up to me and was like, ‘Tik, I want you to dissect and tell me about your fumbling problem,'” Barber recalled. “And I’m like, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I don’t got a fumbling problem.’ And then he brought out all the stats: ‘eight fumbles per year and you lose six of them, and if you parse it out based on the percentage of carries, you have a significant fumbling problem.’
“For the immediate aftermath of that, all I could think about was, ‘Well, man, what happens if I get hit and I fumble?’ I started thinking mathematically. I was like, ‘Damn, that percentage goes up, then I become a liability. Then I become less viable as a player going into free agency. Who am I going to be if this is the narrative around me?'”
He credits the 2004 arrival of then-Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, and running backs coach Jerald Ingram, for helping to coach fumbling out of his game, saying Ingram addressed three specific areas of concern: bicep strength, what he does when he’s about to get tackled, and the way in which he carries the ball.
“I got a lot stronger, started working out with a strength and conditioning coach, really a power lifting coach who made me a beast in the weight room,” Barber said. “I stopped worrying about trying to run around guys all the time and just started taking angles. Someone’s coming to tackle me, I know your’e going to hit me, but if I take your shoulder — and get you off balance and take your shoulder — I can run through that tackle, so I don’t have to run around the guy anymore. And then, obviously, lastly, the mechanics: holding it high and tight all the time.”
“And it fixed my problem,” he added. “It made me more explosive as a player.”
Barber fumbled nine times in 2003; he would only fumble nine more times over his final three NFL seasons.
“I was 28 years old when that happened,” he said. “I had been carrying the ball a certain way since I was 12. Sixteen years later, I kind of figured out how to do it right.”
As Barber described, “it’s an awareness thing.”
“That extra half a yard doesn’t necessarily matter as much as I think it does. I got to the point, and this is what I would encourage young ball-carriers to do, you get to that point where you know what you’ve gotten, you wrap yourself up, get yourself high and tight, secure it with your off-hand like I was describing earlier, and then power your way for those extra couple yards.
“Don’t fight through it, because fighting through traffic, while it seems like it’s great if you actually come out the other end — which might be about two percent of the time — it’s a fantastic highlight, but rarely does that happen. It’s a risk-reward proposition that, if you’re smart enough, you comprehend and you understand.”
One other mechanical issue Barber says can significantly reduce a running back’s likelihood of fumbling is in how he falls to the ground: “The challenge is hard. It’s like, how do I fall with my hands to my chest? You kind of want to brace yourself. But once you figure it out, you realize it actually makes you much more efficient as a runner as well, because you’re compact and you’re more powerful when you’re compact.”
Barber went on to say of Jones: “He’s a big dude. And some of the wiggle that you talk about, while it’s exciting and it leads to big plays, it’s not always necessary. Especially if it compromises your ball security.”