Fantasy Football Makes Real Football Fans Stupid

>> 8.16.2011

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.

    7 comments:

    Anonymous,  August 16, 2011 at 7:57 PM  

    Ok then, I want to see TLIW's cheatsheet!

    James,  August 16, 2011 at 10:02 PM  

    Ty, I love ya man but this kool-aid stuff is getting a little ridiculous.

    What has Stafford done in his 13 starts as an NFL quarterback to show that he can be among the elite when healthy? You guarantee if he's healthy all season he won't be the 14th best QB (or worse)? I think I would almost guarantee that he would be. You talk about actually watching the games versus looking at the stats, then you must be watching a different QB than what I'm seeing. I see an inaccurate passer with very little pocket awareness, who just dumps it off a lot. I realize he can get better with experience (and I certainly hope he does), but I just don't see the high ceiling that some people see (especially your ceiling which seems to be Sistine Chapel high).

    I think Stafford is a perfect example of when people look too much at the "tools" and "potential" without recognizing what the guy looks like on film. Like you, I also like what Pro Football Focus does, and I can't imagine they think very highly of Stafford. A similar site (in approach) to Pro Football Focus is Football Outsiders. They have Stafford as the 32nd ranked passer with at least 100 passes thrown last year (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/qb).

    jhnhth,  August 17, 2011 at 9:04 AM  

    Another cogent, thoughtful post, Ty. Just what I expect from TLIW. Great stuff.

    I have decided to retire from Fantasy, at least for one year. I've won my competitive office league four times in eight years, but my obsession with statistical performance for players from all 32 teams distracted me from the ONE team that I love. I realized this in the off-season as I watched Detroit's 2010 games again - I missed half of the action in these games because I was too consumed with Fantasy minutiae.

    This year, I'm just going to focus on my *real* team. Maybe I'll come back next year but right now, it feels good not to be stressing over draft prep.

    @James - Really? Are you sure you're not talking about Shaun Hill? He's much more apt to dump it off than Stafford. Stafford consistently looks downfield and hangs in there trying to let plays develop. To my eyes, his pocket awareness is good and he has a strong, accurate arm. May I ask, what specific games give you a contrary impression? I'll re-watch.

    Jon August 17, 2011 at 1:39 PM  

    @James

    It's obvious on watching Lions games that Stafford has the tools to be a top 5 QB in the league. He showed flashes of it in spurts but hasn't had a chance to really show he can do when healthy.

    His arm is strong and is on at an elite level. The playbook opens up so much more than with Shaun Hill/Drew Stanton at QB. This allows Linehan to be more aggressive when calls for it for a deep pass to CJ. Watch how Stafford make his pre-snap reads and he does a good job of identifying defense then make an adjustment according to it. Stafford is one of the top QB against the blitz which tells me that he is doing a great job of reading against the blitz.

    His footwork has improved leaps and bounds from his rookie season/college years in which he has a tendency to throw off his back foot and doesn't always set his feet. Stafford does a great job of throwing under duress which happens all the time in the NFL.

    Furthermore, his leadership is second to none. You can see his teammates embracing Stafford as a leader which is something that you don't see from Joey Harrington several years ago. I see superstardom from Stafford and as long as he stays healthy which I think he will, we'll hear him being mentioned as the elite QB in the league as well as the next generation of great QBs(replacing Manning/Brady).

    James,  August 17, 2011 at 9:19 PM  

    @Jon, I couldn't disagree more. I don't know how you can say his footwork has improved in the 3 games we got to see him in 2010. He has no touch on his passes, and even when he completes a pass, he typically doesn't put it in a spot for the receiver to get the extra yards (which explains his abysmal YPA). His doing well against the blitz has nothing to do with him reading the blitz well - that's all Scott Linehan who's offense is designed to get rid of the ball quickly and use the TEs to pick up the blitz.

    I would agree that he seems to have a leadership quality about him, but that will mean nothing if the wins don't come and/or he can't stay on the field.

    I hope I'm wrong, but we shall see...

    Jon August 18, 2011 at 4:23 PM  

    @James,

    No touch in his pass? I don't know what games you have been watching because his touch has improved from his rookie season to right now.

    Watch the game and watch how Stafford does pre-snap reads. If he recognize blitz, he'll go to the proper hot reads which is why it seems like Linehan calls for a short pass when in reality, Stafford went to pre-snap hot reads and get rid of the ball before the blitzers have a chance to get to Stafford.

    The problem that I've seen from Stafford is inability to step up in pocket when pressured, but the problem is Dominic Riaola in which he is not strong enough to hold into stalemate. He can't step up into the pocket which is why he gets exposed to vicious hit like Peppers. He also has a tendency to hold onto the ball a bit too long which contribute to the hit, but I think that's his gunslinging mentality in which he looks for a big play.

    Matt,  August 20, 2011 at 2:39 AM  

    I think the bottom line with Stafford is that we only have 13 games worth of "film" to cull our opinions from. And let's remember the conditions those games came under. All those games his rookie season came as the heir-apparent, #1 overall pick, QB of the only 0-16 team in NFL history. You can't expect too much from a guy in that situation (remember, too, that there was no Best, Burleson, Vanden Bosch, Suh, etc. on that team). And then on top of it, he was injured for most of the games he DID play. In his 2nd season, we got 3 games, only one of which he finished (and won). Basically, whether you're in the Stafford-Rocks or Stafford-Sucks camp, you really don't have much of a leg to stand on 'cause the sample just isn't there. Sam Bradford has more career starts than Matt Stafford. If you just want to be an injury worry-wart, then you've got plenty of ammo. If you really want to analyze the guy, you just don't.

    All this being said, put me in the "hopeful" camp.

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