Sports Nut

Before They Were Stars

In fantasy football, it takes losers to win.

Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles. Click image to expand.
Michael Vick

Remember when the Bengals used to be good? Ah, 2009, when Cincinnati was king (or at least a division champ), Kurt Warner and Tony Romo ruled the air, and Brett Favre was just like a kid out there. Alas, five of the 12 teams in the 2009-2010 playoffs —the Bengals, Cardinals, Chargers, Cowboys, and Vikings—missed the postseason this time around. For pro football, this is actually an impressive rate of retention. In each of the previous four seasons, either six or seven of the prior year’s playoff teams came up short of the postseason.

If your favorite team has fallen on hard times, there are always the fantasy playoffs. Winning your fantasy league, of course, requires you to flout everything you know about what it takes to win football games in real life. Most importantly, the savvy fantasy player must resist drafting players who’ve proven themselves on the field. Instead, you’ve got to get guys who stink, are perceived to stink, or (most preferable of all) have only recently stopped stinking, never to stink again.

The key to prolonged success in non-fantasy football is to maintain the same strengths year over year. The Philadelphia Eagles are the only team to make the playoffs in 2009 (with Donovan McNabb) and 2010 (led by Michael Vick) with a different starting quarterback each season. The Patriots, Colts, Saints, and Packers, all teams with elite quarterbacks, made the playoffs in both 2009 and 2010 behind top-10 offenses. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco isn’t bad either, leaving the Jets as the only team to win in spite of its signal called for two years running. The Cardinals, Cowboys, and Vikings, meanwhile, all suffered massive declines at quarterback, either due to retirement, injury, or the rapid aging of a Wrangler pitchman.

A good offense doesn’t guarantee you a playoff berth: The San Diego Chargers led the NFL in total offense and total defense this season and finished out of the running. Still, it makes sense to build your team around the guys who score points. As the NFL empiricists at Football Outsiders have shown, “offense is more consistent from year to year than defense, and offensive performance is easier to project than defensive performance.”

Like NFL general managers, fantasy football owners spend countless hours projecting football players’ offensive performance. Given that offense is more consistent than defense and that top quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees tend to retain their value, you might think that dependable fantasy football success would be simple to achieve. All you have to do is get a good quarterback, draft the previous year’s top-scoring available runner or receiver whenever your draft pick comes up, and coast into the fantasy playoffs.

If only it was that easy. Conventional fantasy football leagues are structured in such a way that the most foreseeable data about the upcoming season is given the least weight. A typical roster includes one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, a tight end, a kicker, and a defense/special teams unit. As a consequence, quarterback play, which is relatively predictable, is of less importance than the performances of individual running backs and wideouts—arguably the least steady component of an NFL offense.

Focusing on the unknowable makes fantasy football fun—who’d want to play if the season was over before it started?—and incredibly frustrating. This is why nobody wants to hear about your fantasy travails: Stand in line, because everyone’s roster sucks. And then, of course, there’s the pest in first place—the newbie who picked Arian Foster in the tenth round. You can stop gloating now, jerk. The draft was four months ago.

Foster, the Texans running back who zoomed from 47 fantasy points to 313 in his second pro season, is just the most-striking example of how fantasy fortunes change from one year to the next. Check out the chart below, which shows last year’s best possible fantasy roster—the group that, according to ESPN.com’s fantasy stats, would’ve earned you the most points in 2009.

Fantasy points by year chart.

As you can see, every single player (as well as the San Francisco 49ers defense) performed worse fantasy-wise in 2010. For fantasy owners, it’s actually more frightening than that. Thirty-one of the top 50 fantasy point scorers in 2009 were non-quarterbacks. Only four of those 31 (Jamaal Charles, Roddy White, Rashard Mendenhall, and Steven Jackson), and none of the top 13 fantasy players, scored more points in 2010 than 2009. And consider this year’s best possible fantasy roster—Vick, Foster, Adrian Peterson, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Lloyd, Greg Jennings, Jason Witten, Sebastian Janikowski, and the Steelers defense. (Congratulations, by the way, to the Vikings’ Peterson, the only player to make the fantasy all-star team in 2009 and 2010.) That group scored 1,916 fantasy points in 2010. The same players put up 890 points last year, a measly 46 percent of their 2010 output.

Fantasy owners, of course, can be more cutthroat and more flexible than NFL personnel directors. A bad or injury-riddled season from a star player isn’t necessarily a disaster: If Brett Favre stinks, you can replace him with a mid-level starter like Ryan Fitzpatrick. You also didn’t suffer too badly if you picked up, say, Chris Johnson at the top of the first round—even though he lost one-third of his value, Johnson was still one of the top fantasy running backs. Nevertheless, it’s the nature of the NFL—the constant injuries and the running back committees and the new stars fresh from the college—that the best runners and receivers will cease to be the best runners and receivers before you can adjust your draft strategy.

The major difference between real football and fantasy football, then, is that the latter prizes inconsistency. Almost invariably, a fantasy champ has to luck into nonstars who, on account of a surge in playing time or unexpectedly improved performance, transition from gridiron non-entities to Pro Bowlers. If you look at the players who dot first-place fantasy teams, as ESPN.com did recently, you won’t find Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Drew Brees. Rather, the guys you see most often are former duds like Foster, Bowe, Lloyd, Peyton Hillis, and Jacob Tamme. An NFL general manager who gives short shrift to quarterback play and scours the waiver wire for underperforming running backs is going to get fired. A fantasy player who does the same might just win a championship.

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