Dynasty, in Theory: Age is Just a Number

Musings on the importance of avoiding a false sense of certainty.

Through his long and well-chronicled career, Andre Johnson has been a lot of things. A dominant player, the face of a franchise, an ambassador. A yardage monster with a surprising dearth of touchdowns. A consummate professional who famously lost his cool one time. The man with a thousand receptions and perhaps the world's saddest farewell tour. (How uneventful was his stint with Tennessee? It's telling that the default player photo on Footballguys still features him in his Colts uniform.)

And yes, in ten years time, he'll likely be a Hall of Famer, too. (But probably not in six years.)

Here's one other thing he was: the only former all-pro receiver named Johnson to play a snap this season.

What Am I Getting At?

To some extent, I think for fantasy football purposes we're all products of the environment that we "grew up" in. Like many, I started playing fantasy football during the "workhorse running back" era, and that has shaped many of my assumptions about the position over the years.

My introduction to dynasty happened in 2007, and I still remember an early debate that shaped the way I viewed production and age for years after. 2007 marked the beginning of the end of the old-guard receivers; Marvin Harrison fell off a cliff, while Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Torry Holt all made their final pro bowl. Moss and Owens were even the AP's two first-team All-Pro receivers, marking the final such awards in their storied careers. (They retired as two of just three receivers since the merger to be so honored at least four times, along with Jerry Rice.)

If 2007 was a farewell to the old, 2008 was a hello to the new. Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson were the top three fantasy receivers by a substantial margin, (more than 20 points in standard scoring); all three were young, budding superstars, top-3 draft picks with dazzling futures. And there was a huge debate in dynasty circles about who should be the top receiver off the board.

On Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson's side was experience. Both had been to two pro bowls prior to 2008. For Fitzgerald, it was his third season with 1400+ yards and 10+ touchdowns. Andre's 2008 season followed on the heels of an injury-shortened 2007 that was actually even better on a per-game basis. While he was a little bit older, his situation was more stable, with 27-year-old Matt Schaub looking to be a fixture for years to come and 37-year-old Kurt Warner nearing the end of his career.

Calvin, on the other hand, was still relatively raw. He didn't even make the pro bowl for his huge campaign and didn't have the history of sustained dominance of the other two. Plus, Detroit was bad. As bad as it possibly could be, in fact— remember, 2008 was their 0-16 campaign, and that kind of season can distort outcomes. (Calvin's numbers would fall fairly substantially in his 2009 follow-up.)

More than anything else, the debate seemed to break down as experience vs. youth. Andre was the most-proven, but 28. Calvin was the least-proven, but 24. Larry slotted in the middle and was 26. (For those curious, I was firmly on #TeamFitzgerald, especially after that historic playoff run.) The thinking was that Calvin Johnson owners would suffer in the short term, but make it up on the back end.

That context is why I find it so interesting that Andre Johnson's career lasted eight games longer than Calvin Johnson's.

Expectations Disguise A Range of Possibilities

I wrote last year that we're probably thinking about age the wrong way, arguing that the concept of aging curves give us a false sense of certainty about how the future is going to play out. I think the debate between these three receivers was the perfect example, (though, of course, I couldn't have known it at the time).

Calvin Johnson retiring early is a shocking development. Andre Johnson barely hanging on a roster at 35 is less so. But the idea that the 4-year-older receiver should outlast the 4-year-younger one just doesn't compute when we think of careers as relatively orderly processions of seasons.

The third receiver in that comparison, Fitzgerald, demonstrates just how crazy our assumption of an orderly procession is in practice. After his 1st-place finish in 2008, here are Fitzgerald's season-ending rankings in standard scoring: 5th, 17th, 5th, 42nd, 17th, 55th, 11th. Through the first half of this season, he ranks 9th and is on pace for his best season since he was 28 years old, something that just shouldn't be happening with a 33-year-old vet according to any age curve you'll ever see.

Instead of aging curves, I proposed using something called a mortality table to model aging. In short, in any given year, a player will either fall off a cliff or not. If he doesn't, he typically just maintains the status quo instead of declining. But the odds of falling off a cliff go up as a player ages.

Using my mortality tables, I can calculate the number of expected years remaining, or EYR, in a player's career. And by my charts, a 24-year-old like Calvin Johnson should have had 6.26 EYR, while a 28-year-old like Andre Johnson had 3.62 EYR. In other words, my charts give Calvin 2.64 more "expected years remaining".

But even those bottom-line numbers hide a whole range of possibilities, and the point of the mortality table is to highlight that range, not hide it. By multiplying out the year-by-year "death rates", a 24-year-old receiver would have a 44% chance of falling off a cliff within four years. A 28-year-old receiver would have a 22% chance of not falling off during that same four-year span. Which means that the same charts that were predicting 2.64 more years from Calvin would also say there's a 10% chance that after four years Andre would still be going and Calvin would be done.

(As an aside, if the bust chances for a 24-year-old receiver seem high, I would like to remind you of Braylon Edwards, David Boston, Germane Crowell, etc. Busts like these tend to be forgotten by the collective memory, but they are well-remembered by the historical data that the charts are based on.)

10% is unlikely, but it's not exactly Leicester City winning the English Premier League. And again, Andre outlasting Calvin is exactly what we saw happen, (though in fairness, my charts would count it as a win for Calvin, as EYR calculates fantasy-relevant years remaining, and Andre hasn't exactly been fantasy-relevant these last two seasons.)

It's also worth noting that this is what we saw happen with the previous crop of top-tier receivers, too. In 2003, Randy Moss was 26, Torry Holt was 27, Terrell Owens was 30, and Marvin Harrison was 31. Their last fantasy-relevant season was 2009, 2007, 2010, and 2006, respectively.

You could even add Chad Johnson— 25 and still years away from being known as Ochocinco, with a final fantasy-relevant season coming in 2009. That is especially interesting, given that Owens, the receiver who outlasted him despite being five years older, did it on Ochocinco's own teamleading the 2010 Bengals in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns.

Not To Put Too Fine A Point On It

To be clear, I'm not saying that age is irrelevant. Again, my mortality tables predicted that Calvin Johnson would have lasted 2.64 years longer than Andre Johnson. It's just that, while age is somewhat predictive of longevity, those predictions hide a surprising amount of variation. And any discussion of age should be done, in my opinion, with a great deal of respect for the uncertainty involved.

Julio Jones is currently 27 years old, while Antonio Brown is 28. If all else was equal, I should prefer Jones to Brown in dynasty; that one-year age difference should translate to about 0.6 more years of expectations for Julio.

But it's important not to underestimate just how tenuous those 0.6 more years really are. It's not likely that Jones and Brown are eventually calling it a career so close to each other. Instead, there's a good chance that Jones outlasts Brown by several years. And, crucially, there's a nearly-equally good chance that Brown outlasts Jones by several years.

And that doesn't just apply to Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. A.J. Green is 28. Odell Beckham is 24. That four-year gap is substantial, and Beckham, (rightfully!) carries much greater expectations for longevity as a result. But remember, this is the precise age gap that we saw between Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson following the 2008 season.

Really, while we can use these expectations to inform our decision-making in dynasty leagues, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that we know how things are going to play out. The default state in fantasy football is uncertainty, and that is especially true in dynasty. We can use player ages as a rough guide for how much longer they might have left, but we should make plenty of contingencies for the eventuality that we will be wrong.

In a hobby that revolves so much around contextless statistics, it's important to remember that age is a number just like any other.

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