Black Swans
By Colin Dowling
August 21st, 2011

A few years ago I posted the following in the Shark Pool: "Fantasy football is a lot like poker. There is more skill involved then bad players want to admit, and there is more luck involved then good players want to admit."

As fantasy football's popularity has risen since then, that statement continues to grow in truth. No one would dispute that the principles of Value Based Drafting can help you build a competitive team in any league. By being player agnostic and focusing on value, a savvy and educated owner can build a team that is a threat to win every week and possibly hoist the Championship Trophy at season's end.

That said, all of the planning in the world goes out the window when a Black Swan appears. These outliers and anomalies change the landscape of leagues every year. Teams that looked to have no chance suddenly become juggernauts and well-built teams become near unbeatable. Without looking at the data, I'd suspect most teams that rostered Michael Vick, Peyton Hillis and Arian Foster in 2010 found themselves a cut above the competition. Ditto that for those that happened upon Tom Brady during his 50 touchdown season. These wrinkles extend down to bit players like Drew Bennett in 2004 (8 touchdowns in three weeks at the end of 2004) and Jerome Harrison (561 yards and 5 touchdowns at the end of 2009). If you aren't the owner rostering these players it can be painful to see an offseason of study and all of your in-season transactions go down the drain when someone else hits it out of the park on a seemingly random player.

But are these anomalies truly random? In hindsight the performances of players like Bennett and Harrison are hard to explain. But players like Arian Foster and Peyton Hillis don't seem so bizarre upon careful reflection. Both players "came from nowhere" for sure, but the situations that fostered their statistical explosions actually looked ripe ahead of time. The Browns offensive line was a strength of the team. The coaching staff had a history of running the ball. And the quarterback and receiver play left a lot to be desired. Same goes for the Texans. The team had been successful at generating stats by throwing the ball all over the field but that didn't translate to wins. And in 2008, a marginal talent like Steve Slaton was able to finish as RB8 carrying the ball for Houston.

The question that fantasy owners spend time trying to answer is in identifying these situations and environments. This is where "sleepers" and "breakout candidates" come from. For example, we examine the Tampa Bay passing game and conclude that Josh Freeman needs a second receiver to throw to...and thus the potential of Desmond Briscoe is born. We see that Sam Bradford has a live arm and look all over the St. Louis depth chart in an effort to determine who is going to be the beneficiary of all of the touchdown passes we are just CERTAIN he is going to throw.

With very few exceptions, its hard to identify the right situation consistently. For every Arian Foster advocate last season (and there were a few), there was an equally passionate argument to be made about Ryan Matthews being the next great running back in a Norv Turner system. For every article about Clinton Portis in 2002 there were three times as many about Tatum Bell a few years later. That is to say this whole business of identifying the diamond in the rough, the true "breakout waiting to happen." can be an inexact science at best.

So what is a savvy fantasy owner to do? Most experienced (and successful) owners would advocate a strategy of Value Based Drafting with some "flyers" mixed in during the late rounds. A solid VBD team should be competitive and if one of those flyers hits, all the better. And if that 15th round receiver doesn't pan out, well then, the price wasn't really all that high so nothing is lost.
My take on it is a little different. I think that a team needs to be built solidly to perform every week but I don't like to leave the Championship to chance if I can help it. I've been burned too many times by seeing my "pretty good" team flame out early in the playoffs while a more daring (or luckier) owner coasts to the title. I like to make big bets. That can mean big losses as well, but that's a price I'm willing to pay in an effort to construct a team that leaves other owners shaking in their boots by the time Halloween comes around. Placing these "big bets" means having the courage of ones convictions on certain players. Of overpaying. Of suffering funny looks and giggles from leaguemates. This practice is contrary to Value Based Drafting because it is NOT player agnostic but rather player specific. It's when you've done the research, watched the tape, and said "This guy, this SPECIFIC guy, is going to have a great season. And I'm going to do whatever I have to do to make sure he is on my team."

This season, I see a handful of situation that look ripe for huge rewards.

  • Detroit Lions backfield: Matthew Stafford seems so brittle that its obvious the Lions will need a running game to keep him from getting creamed on a regular basis. But looking even closer the situation seems great for a big time season out of the backfield. The Lions schemes and head coach both favor a philosophy of grinding down the other team and keeping the clock running. While the Lions don't have the best offensive line in the NFC by a long shot, Jim Schwartz spent years in Tennessee in a system that handed off early and often with the deep pass keeping the safeties from creeping up to the line of scrimmage. The Lions drafted Michael LeShoure in the hopes that he could complement Jahvid Best in the backfield, but LeShoure ended up injured and out for the year. Since then the Lions haven't exactly loaded up their backfield with bruisers and veterans to split the load with Best. Is it possible that Jahvid Best, who was hurt last year himself, will be given the opportunity to carry the load? And if so, can we expect him to produce as he did in the first two weeks of last season (268 total yards and 5 touchdowns) over the course of an entire year? It's of course unreasonable to think he would combine for 2,000 yards and 45 touchdowns, but were those two weeks an indication of how Detroit would prefer to utilize Best? With 20 touches a game in the Detroit offense, could Best blow away expectations and finish in the top 10 of running backs? What about the top 5?

  • Cleveland Browns backfield: Peyton Hillis is an early pick this season, but is it possible that the environment that led to his amazing 2010 season lead to similarly amazing numbers again? And if so, is it possible that the beneficiary won't be Hillis but rather his teammate Montario Hardesty? Hillis is inarguably the more powerful back. But he is already dealing with a slight hamstring injury and Hardesty's talent (speed, agility, vision) is exceptional. Could fantasy owners be fixating on the wrong Cleveland running back? Could the Browns produce a different 1,500-yard, 13-touchdown running back?

  • San Diego receivers: Vincent Jackson isn't exactly a late selection among receivers, but is it possible he is still underrated? We've seen what Roddy White can do as the focus of the Falcons passing game. Same with Greg Jennings in Green Bay. Not much upside there I would contend. But we know that in the past, Jackson has been a fantastic fantasy receiver. After sitting out most of last season in a contract dispute, Jackson is having a full camp with his teammates and is completely healthy. The Chargers other receivers are hardly a Murderer's Row of talent. With Philip Rivers throwing the ball all over the field could Jackson be primed for an exceptional season? 12 touchdowns? 15? More?

  • Carolina and Houston tight ends: The tight end spot isn't likely to win you your league, but if it is a required roster position you may as well look for a huge star waiting to happen. The Panthers went out and acquired Greg Olsen because they knew they needed help in the passing game. With only Steve Smith as a viable receiver Carolina had to add another target for their offense. But in examining the Panthers young quarterbacks, is it possible that Olsen will vault from an average finishing position of TE15 in 4 years to the league's elite at the position? Is it possible that Jimmy Claussen and Cam Newton will find him as an outlet even more then is expected? In Houston, Owen Daniels is back and healthy after missing half of 2009 and battling inconsistency in 2010. While Daniels is being selected as a TE1 in most leagues, his torrid 2009 (40 catches, 519 yards, 5 touchdowns in just over 7 games) should have us wondering if he has a 1,000 yard and 10 touchdown season in him. Could he finish in the top-3 among the position?

  • I don't think it's important that you agree with any of the suggestions above. In fact, you probably don't and that is just fine. All of my predictions could be disastrous. Rather, I hope you will think long and hard about the team you want to put together this season. And if you want results where the sky is the limit, albeit with the risk of an early crash, then I would encourage you to dig deep in to the situations around the league where the stars seem ready to align. As they say, you can't get wet by simply dipping your toe in the water and you can't crush your league without making sure the Black Swans, the outliers, are on your roster.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to dowling@footballguys.com.

    © 2011 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved