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Sunday Morning Coming Down: I don't hate Kenneth Dixon, I hate what you did to him

Matt Harmon revists the confusingly optimsic expectations of a rookie running back last year in the tale of Kenneth Dixon.

 

Expectations are everything. Not only should we constantly be trying to manage our own, we also must recognize that our viewpoints and subsequent decisions are made through the prism of outside expectations. 

For instance, if you wish to select a player in fantasy drafts you must be at peace with the price that the expectations of others have set on him. Similarly, the perception of your own opinion about a player’s quality and ability will always be judged against the public’s expectations of them. You can still believe a player is good but not quite up to the ability of the other members of the football thought group, thus making them overrated. So, if your praise falls short of the general perception of their ability you’re generally labeled as thinking that player is bad. Just a reminder, overrated does not mean bad. 

The real issue with this concept makes itself apparent when we set expectations based on assumptions. Oftentimes in football analysis we are tasked with doing so, that’s unavoidable. Yet, mistakes are made when assumptions are the basis of our conclusion becoming reality. 

A situation like this played out last year with Ravens rookie running back Kenneth Dixon. When I watched Dixon before the NFL Draft, observed his college metrics and absorbed the thoughts of other analysts I trust, my general takes on his ability were positive. He certainly has the makings of a fine NFL running back. At no point did I believe he was destined to fail at the pro level.

What did bother me was the persistent overstating of the path to prominence in his rookie season. Yes, the Ravens had an unsettled depth chart with a declining Justin Forsett loosely holding on to the top spot. However, little news coming out of Ravens offseason workouts laid evidence for the case that draft and fantasy analyst favorite Kenneth Dixon was set to run away with that job. 

It didn’t matter for a select group fantasy owners, who were all set to overspend on Dixon in the assumption that his talent would win out. Ah, yes, talent. In last week’s edition of this column we examined why measuring such a force is a tricky endeavor, using my own mistakes as an example, especially when relying solely on unmanaged observational science. I can remember getting into a number of spirited debates with my partners on the NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast in regards to Kenneth Dixon. As I suggested the optimism was out of control, they asserted that his number of abilities shown on his college film was enough to justify it.

The problem is that even if you are right in your evaluation of the player it might not matter at all. NFL coaches don’t hand rookie jobs because you liked watching their cutups as prospects. There was not a single report linked on Dixon’s Rotoworld page that even intimated he was going to be a 1a of a backfield committee. 

As the summer went on, another variable entered the equation as Dixon suffered an injury that would creep into the regular season and cause him to miss time. To me, at that point it was clearly no longer worth stashing Dixon on fantasy rosters. Of course, the natural response from some readers was, “what do you have against talent?”

To be clear, I have nothing against talent and did believe Dixon was a talented running back. Yet, I also know there are times when talent, or the perception of it, simply does not matter. Remove the name, and entering the season we were talking about a fourth-round NFL Draft pick at a devalued position, operating in backfield crowded with bodies and was now officially behind the eight ball because of his injury. From an objective standpoint, that’s an asset no one needs to hold out much hope for as a rookie, much less carry on a redraft fantasy roster. Nevertheless, some refused to blow out the candle. 

In the four weeks Dixon missed to start the season, veteran running back Terrance West saw double-digit touches in each contest and watched his yards per carry grow every week. This should not have been a shock, as multiple waves of offseason reports out of Baltimore indicated West was gaining favor inside the organization. The believers in Dixon would still hear nothing of it, though. 

Two of my mentors here at Footballguys Sigmund Bloom and Cecil Lammey, have long preached that in order to buy into offseason reports, we cannot just blindly follow a one-off piece of news. It must be a steady drumbeat that gains momentum from OTAs and progress into training camp and then crescendo in the preseason. It’s one of the most valuable thought processing tools when collecting information and disseminating the offseason news. With that methodology, it was clear West was always in better position to gain early favor over Dixon, “talent” be damned. 

In a tweet praising the work West had done so far and that it indicated good news for the rest of his season, the majority of the responses were filled with optimistic questions about the pending return of Kenneth Dixon.

“Dixon back in Week 5, though?”

“You misspelled Kenneth Dixon?” 

“What about my boy Kenneth Dixon?”

“Thoughts on Kenneth Dixon?” 

“Afraid at all of Kenneth Dixon?”

“It’s going to be Dixon’s job when he gets back.”

Predicting the future is not easy. I’m bad at it and make incorrect projections all the time. However, such blind optimism without any tangible evidence for it is the breeding agent for missing what the future holds.  

Again, this was a player that the NFL as a whole did not value as a top-three round player as a college prospect. His current team stopped his fall in the early portion of the draft’s third day, a selection with little fanfare or premium, and certainly guarantees nothing when it comes to future role and usage. The tone and tenor around his mythical return were that of a long-awaited first round pick. 

Head coach John Harbuagh claimed his backfield would be unpredictable and Kenneth Dixon would be brought along slowly. Exactly what you’d expect from some fourth-round pick. We should have listened.

Dixon did eventually get on the field and to no surprise, he did start off slow. He totaled 30 rushing and receiving yards in his first four games. Eventually, the promise that his ability always indicated he had did shine through some of the cracks. His high point came in a late season loss to the Patriots where he caught eight passes for 42 yards and a touchdown. It was the confirmation bias those who had been waiting on him for going on nearly four months needed to see to claim “the time was now.” No reports from the team came out to validate that hope, and that matters more than anything else. 

Dixon’s Week 14 performance didn’t cause him to snare the job so many hoped he would. Terrance West saw more touches the next week. He never crossed 70 total yards in any game following that contest and recorded zero starts as a rookie. NFL coaches don’t make decisions based on your fantasy team, just like they don’t make decisions based on your takeaways from a player’s cutups.  

If we’re being honest with ourselves, we can admit that there was a possible scenario for Kenneth Dixon to become a lead part of Baltimore’s backfield committee, for talent to win out. It’s important to project the entire “range of outcomes” and that scenario was indeed in the range, though on the highest percentile of pure optimism. It’s just as important to admit that dream was always a long shot as soon as his draft pedigree was established and became increasingly unlikely as new negative variables entered the equation. 

The over optimism of Kenneth Dixon’s rookie year projections is not a cause to fly a victory flag for anyone. I, for one, certainly do not hate Kenneth Dixon as a player, I just hate what the fantasy community did to him. A more productive use of what we learned is to install a reminder to inject more caution into our expectations in future years, especially for rookies. The medicine of our misses is always easier to view in hindsight, but it doesn't mean that what we should learn from it is any less hepful. Not every one of our favorite late-round running backs will go on to steal starting jobs, no matter how clouded the depth chart might be upon their arrival. 

Talent draws us to players, we begin to take on their journeys as extensions of our own and clouded judgment can ensue. It appears that was the case with Dixon in his rookie year with expectations never matching reality. The winding and confusing tale of the 2016 fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech should serve as a sobering reminder of what most rookie years look like no matter our optimistic view of their talent. As prospects are set to join NFL teams later this month, and they join the ranks of fantasy projections for both dynasty and redraft leagues, hold onto this as a cautionary tale.