I love fantasy football. It’s made me a better fan. It took the laser-focused light my mind shone on the Lions, and prismed it out across all 32 teams. I had to learn so much more about what’s happening in the NFL as a whole: the depth charts of every team, the movements of players from one franchise to another, and it helped me place in context the countless tiny triumphs and travails the Lions have gone through in the decade-plus I’ve been playing.
Right when I started playing FF seriously, the Internet fueled its national explosion. Once the exclusive territory of hardcore stat geeks, it’s now a multibillion-dollar industry; even the most casual of NFL fans are in a free league with their friends and family. As a result the “average” NFL fan is an order of magnitude more knowledgeable than in the 80s. However, all that football information sometimes makes us football stupid.
One of my favorite examples is Daunte Culpepper. His ridiculous passing yardage, rushing yardage, and touchdown output in the mid-2000s led legions of thrilled fantasy owners to remember him as an amazing quarterback. What they don’t remember is the Vikings losing more games than they won with Culpepper as the starter (36-37), or him fumbling 80 times in those 73 games.
Another example is the way we mentally “rank” players in an linear, ordinal list. The National Football Post’s Jay Clemons just issued his initial rankings for 2011 NFL starting quarterbacks:
11. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers 12. Eli Manning, Giants 13. Joe Flacco, Ravens 14. Matthew Stafford, Lions 15. Jay Cutler, Bears 16. Sam Bradford, Rams 17. Mark Sanchez, Jets
Let me get this out of the way: Jay Clemons does awesome work, and the piece that contains this list is chock-full of excellent stuff. Let me also say, this isn’t intentionally geared toward fantasy football—it’s not his projection of how many points each quarterback will score. However, the fingerprints of fantasy football are all over this: what other value could an ordinal list of all starting quarterbacks have? Why else would anyone care what any given expert’s opinion is on who the 11th- through 17th-best starters are? Moreover, now that we have this list, what value does it have?
Look at these seven quarterbacks: one veteran whose numbers are steadily mediocre, and six young players with high ceilings and low floors. Is the difference between Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez as great as the difference between #1 (Drew Brees) and #7 (Matt Schaub)? No, not anywhere close. The way players actually grade out is in tiers; up at the top there are little knots of 2-to-3 guys who have roughly similar odds of performing roughly as well. Below, there are great swaths of players whose differences are such fine shades of probability that say who’s “better” than who at any moment.
So what’s the harm? This is just one guy’s opinion, right? Anyone who disagrees is free to make their own! Well, that’s the problem. Ranking all the quarterbacks like this is a great way to get people arguing over stuff that doesn’t matter (and people to click through to your site) and it’s wrong. It’s the wrong way to think about players in the NFL.
Matthew Stafford has Top 5 tools, Top 5 talent around him, and when he’s been healthy his progression has been the progression of a Top 5’er. This season, he will either be a Top 5 quarterback or get hurt. There is very little middle ground; he will either throw for 4,000 yards and 30+ touchdowns or not anywhere close. The one outcome I can personally guarantee will not happen is Matthew Stafford staying healthy all season and being the 14th-best quarterback—so why does this list place him 14th? Because that’s where Jay Clemons thought the balance between Stafford’s upside and the chance of him hitting that upside slotted him on the cheatsheet. That’s what this is, regardless of the author’s intent: one guy’s fantasy football cheatsheet.
Look, I’m not a Luddite when it comes to stats and analysis: I’m the guy who plots PFF grades on radar charts. But it’s counterproductive to think about the relative performance of NFL players in this way. I used to buy every magazine and subscribe to pay websites, and amalgamate all of their rankings. I used to go on forums and have heated arguments with total strangers over who should be the 12th-ranked quarterback. I used to be terrible at fantasy football.
Eventually, I learned to watch the games. I learned to trust my eyes. I learned I needed to feed my brain quality football information, not quantities of numbered lists and macro-laden spreadsheets. I learned to identify on-field talent, not statistical trends. I started picking players based on my educated “likes” and “dislikes” rather than standard deviations of average draft position, and I started winning fantasy football championships.
I think the Greater Internet NFL Fan/Media Hivemind needs to follow this track: we need to find new ways to think about football performance; find new ways to quantify and assess what we see on the field. I think what Pro Football Focus is doing is a great first step: comparing relative quality, not slicing and dicing increasingly artificial statistics.
For me, fantasy football has become what it’s supposed to be: building a team entirely out of players I like, and “guiding” them to victory. I have a lot more fun, I get a lot less stressed, and—get this—I do a lot better. In turn, I’ve focused my scattered light back down on the Lions. I look deeper and more meaningfully at what I really love about football, and I take much more joy in watching games on Sunday.