Fantasy Football Has Gotten Harder. Is That a Good Thing?
It used to be easy to contrast fantasy football – games once per week, smaller lineups, shallower pool of relevant skill players – with fantasy baseball with its deep rosters, daily games and player pool stretching into the minor leagues. But three major changes have conspired to make fantasy football more complex than it used to be:
(1) The addition of a flex position as a common setting;
(2) The advent of PPR as a common setting; and
(3) The league’s increased use of running back committees and pass-catching tight ends.
(The Thursday game also creates more lineup headaches – if you have a questionable starter going Sunday, sometimes your only viable option is going Thursday, and you need to decide before all the information is known.)
The flex position means you have to go deeper into the player pool, and moreover, you have more choices of who to play there. You’re forced to compare mid-tier tight ends and third-down backs in PPR. Throw in slot wideouts and backs who get goal-line carries but don’t catch passes like BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Chris Ivory, and lineup setting has become a much bigger part of the game.
Even without the flex, the addition of a third wideout slot makes possession receivers like Brandon Gibson, Davone Bess and Jeremy Kerley relevant. Add to that the proliferation of running quarterbacks, and even that positon is trickier to handicap each week. Do you want Colin Kaepernick or Tom Brady given comparable matchups?
In short, there are many more decisions than when we started playing fantasy football, and I know many people would argue that’s a good thing. After all, if you’re a better decision maker than your league-mates, more decisions should mean more success over time. But I don’t agree.
In the past, the draft was 75 percent of the game, with trades, waiver wire pickups and lineup decisions comprising the rest. The time to put in the work was in August as you handicapped the various teams and players in which you’d invest. Then you could largely enjoy watching your investments perform as the season went along. The biggest concern was bad injury luck, something that’s unavoidable in any fantasy sport.
But these days, you have to be on high alert all year – and, in my opinion, for the wrong kind of thing. I really don’t care who’s likely to get seven catches for 58 yards on Team A, or whether a running back on Team B gets 45 or 55 percent of the carries on this particular week. Trying to read a dumb head coach’s or offensive coordinator’s mind is also not what I enjoy about the game.
How this plays out in practice is that lineup decisions are now a bigger percentage of success and failure than before, and I’d argue those are often almost entirely random. Maybe I’m bitter because I benched Brandon Jacobs (100 yards, 2 TDs) against the Bears in Week 6 for Roy Helu, and then benched Helu in Week 7 (3 TDs) for Maurice Jones-Drew. (Seems like the rule in retrospect was start whichever running back is facing the Bears). But to me both of those choices were coin flips, and the only reason I won the matchups is my opponents also left key performers on the bench. In short, I got unlucky, and then lucky and deserved neither a win nor a loss. It was as random as flipping a coin.
There will always be luck in all fantasy sports, and more of it in football than anywhere else given the head-to-head set-up, the small sample and the way scoring depends so heavily on touchdowns. But the extent to which luck governs an activity should be inversely proportional to the amount of work it requires. I think recent developments are adding much more work and only slightly more skill, and to the extent that there is more skill it’s less about predicting true breakouts or handicapping team strength than digging into irrelevant minutiae like whether a slot receiver will catch six passes on a given day.
Criticizing the status quo is usually easier than proposing viable solutions, and this topic is no exception. The running-back-by-committee headache isn’t going anywhere, and there are benefits to having deeper rosters, namely the ability to benefit from being knowledgeable about more players. And even I’ve grown accustomed to PPR and sometimes feel as if something’s missing if my players aren’t getting credit for their receptions. Maybe formats with best-ball starting lineups (you get your optimal starters once Sunday is over) are a good solution. That would eliminate some of the randomness while still preserving (or even enhancing) the importance of in-depth player-pool knowledge.
Is RGIII a top-five QB?
For the first four games of the season, Robert Griffin didn’t look like quite the same player in his second year. For starters he had already thrown four interceptions, his YPA was less than 7.0 and he had run for only 72 yards (18 per game). In Week 6, Griffin had another tough game against the Cowboys, but he ran for 77 yards. And in Week 7, albeit against a soft Bears defense, Griffin had 84 rushing yards, 10.3 YPA and 298 passing yards, i.e., he finally seems like the superstar from his rookie year.
Remember Adrian Peterson had only one 100-yard game out of his first six last year, after similarly returning so quickly from ACL surgery, and the Bears game was Griffin’s sixth (Washington has already had its bye). In games 7-16, Peterson failed to reach 100 yards only once. If Griffin follows that pattern, he’ll be in for a monster second half.
How Much Should We Pay Attention to Vegas?
I might have a particular view of a game – that say the Dolphins should beat the Bills, but I expect the Panthers to crush the Rams, but when I look at the Vegas lines, the Dolphins are laying eight and the Panthers only six. Now it’s possible Vegas is a little off, and the Panthers should be bigger favorites, but I’m in a situation where I can put my subjective opinion over the market’s or simply acknowledge that given my limitations – for example, I don’t know a ton about the non skill players, the team’s offensive and defensive schemes, playcalling, etc. – it’s better to let the market be my guide.
I bring this up because I got bounced in Survivor with the Dolphins this week, and I wonder whether I would have taken Carolina (with whom I laid the points ATS) had I never seen the spreads or the moneylines. Of course, this goes back to the discussion of whether Vegas’ probabilities really were correct regardless of the results – maybe Miami was the right pick even though they lost in the same way calling all-in pre-flop with A-A is the right move whether it gets cracked or not. (I don’t think the NFL is like that, but some commenters disagreed).
Adding insult to injury is the fact that the closing lines had Miami -6 and Carolina -7. But making the picks on Wednesday, I didn’t get the benefit of the closing lines which take into account far more action.
Observations Entering Week 8
– To get an idea of how far Trent Richardson’s stock has fallen consider the Colts brought in Ahmad Bradshaw to go along with a healthy Vick Ballard this summer because they didn’t trust Donald Brown even as their No. 2 back. And when Ballard went down for the year, the Colts traded a first-round pick for Richardson because they still didn’t want Brown to be their backup. But against the Broncos, the Colts gave Brown 11 carries and three targets to Richardson’s 14 carries, i.e., they installed a 50/50 timeshare. It’s like they said: "Brown isn’t even good enough to be a backup, but if the alternative is Richardson, he’s a co-starter." Richardson’s fumble surely didn’t help his cause either.
– I guess Jim Irsay was right after all.
Seriously, though, the talk of the Irsay comments motivating Manning was ridiculous, and the difference in the game was the Colts defense that sacked him four times and forced a fumble/safety and a pick. Moreover, the whole argument that Manning’s run in Indy was so great it doesn’t matter how many Super Bowls he won is ridiculous, just as it’s equally ridiculous to suggest that winning Super Bowls is the only thing that matters. About Manning, two things are true: (1) He had an incredible run of sustained success in Indy while putting up historically good numbers; and (2) He has been only average in the playoffs and won only one Super Bowl against a Rex Grossman-led Bears team, one of the weaker Super Bowl teams in recent memory. Make what you want of those two facts, but both are simultaneously true. If you want a third fact, he shills for (and owns many franchises of) a crappy pizza chain that advertises "better ingredients," but will not disclose them.
– As several others have pointed out, the Colts have beaten the Seahawks, 49ers and Broncos already this year. Indy still has games at Kansas City and at Cincinnati.
– Knowshon Moreno had a quiet day, but he still got 15 carries, a goal-line carry and six targets. Ronnie Hillman got four carries and fumbled, and Montee Ball did not get a single touch. After Hillman’s fumble (and his ball-security problems this preseason), I’d take a flyer on Ball in the not so unlikely event Moreno gets hurt.
– Doug Martin is now out for much if not all of the season after hurting his shoulder, something that shows no running back no matter how young and untainted by prior injuries is free from significant risk. The notion that backs like Moreno, Ryan Mathews or Jamaal Charles are materially riskier than Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson might not be true. Consider how "fragile" Fred Taylor was before winding up 22nd all time on the NFL career carries list. Or that the injury-prone Frank Gore has started 39 straight games, recording double-digit carries in all but five of them. Maybe there are extremes like Darren McFadden on one side and Emmitt Smith on the other, but almost everyone else is of undetermined durability, and we make assumptions about them at our peril.
– Tampa is a broken team, but Matt Ryan deserves credit for 10.5 YPA and three TDs without his top two receivers. Incidentally, in RotoWire colleague Jeff Erickson’s only adult-film cameo, his screen name was "Harry Douglas."
– The Chiefs are the league’s only undefeated team, but they’ve played an awfully soft schedule so far. They get the Broncos and Chargers twice each still, they play at Washington and host the Colts.
– Of all the running backs that seemed safe from a timehare, Alfred Morris had to be near the top of the list. While Morris saw 19 carries to Roy Helu’s 11, Helu saw more of the goal-line work and scored three times. This is not a case of Mike Shanahan being Mike Shanahan – changing feature backs on a weekly whim unless he had one he liked like Morris, Clinton Portis or Terrell Davis. This is Shanahan going with a kind of timeshare, something he’s rarely done.
– Now that Matt Forte’s getting goal-line carries and scoring touchdowns, there’s no good argument why he’s not a top-five running back in PPR. If Cutler were healthy, top-two is probably where he’d belong.
– Tom Brady got Rob Gronkowski back but still managed only 5.0 YPA and an interception against the Jets. On the year Brady has 6.0 YPA, above only Mike Glennon and Brandon Weeden among qualifying players. Incidentally, Michael Vick leads the NFL in YPA at 9.0.
– The Cowboys-Eagles game was hugely disappointing from a fantasy standpoint, and I hope unlike me you didn’t invest in Foles’ gold.
– Sam Bradford’s injury is sad for the player and those close to him, but I’m not sure it matters for the team that was unlikely to make the playoffs anyway and needs an excuse to move on from the underperforming quarterback.