Fantasy in Theory: Fantasy is Weird

There should be nothing quite as expected as an unexpected result.

Week 9 of the 2015 season was a really weird week.

James Starks of the Green Bay Packers was a top-5 fantasy back that week, which is odd. But even odder, Eddie Lacy would finish as the 3rd-best fantasy back on his own team, getting outscored by rookie fullback Aaron Ripkowski, who had one reception for 18 yards. (It would be the only time Ripkowski touched the ball all year.)

New England finished the week with two of the top 20 fantasy backs in PPR leagues, and neither one of them was Dion Lewis, who entered the week as RB6. Instead, Lewis got hurt and Branden Bolden turned into an unlikely contributor.

Antonio Brown was the #1 fantasy receiver, to the surprise of no one, but the rest of the top 5 was something of a shock. #2 was Cole Beasley, slot receiver for a Cowboys team that was starting a quarterback who had only been on the team for three weeks after opening the season with the Buffalo Bills, and who had passed for just 97 total yards the week before.

#3 was Sammy Watkins, who over the first half of the season had accrued just 147 receiving yards and who many thought might not even play. Not only did he play, he finished the game with 168 receiving yards on a team that had just 154 net passing yards, (sacks, of course). The #4 and #5 finishes went to Michael Crabtree and Jordan Matthews, who to that point were low-upside fantasy WR3s, not week-winning difference makers.

At tight-end, stars Jordan Reed and Rob Gronkowski ranked 12th and 19th, respectively, combining for just 65 receiving yards. Some of the players who finished ahead of them were Ben Watson, Jacob Tamme, Anthony Fasano, Garrett Celek, Richard Rodgers, and Owen Daniels.

In fact, only one thing was not the slightest bit odd about week 9 of the 2015 season… and that’s just how odd the fantasy results were. You see, there’s nothing special about that week— I chose it at random without peeking ahead of time. I knew without looking that a lot of weird things happened that week, because a lot of weird things happen every week.

When those weird things happened in week 9 of last season, it was easy to dismiss most of them as flukes because we had 8 other weeks of evidence to go off of. Sure, Sammy Watkins’ huge game was just an appetizer for the scorched-earth run that was to follow, but for the most part the Anthony Fasanos and James Starks of the world were who we thought they were. Cole Beasley’s explosion represented a quarter of his points for the season, and he quickly returned to his previous unstartable status.

That’s what happens when things get weird in week 9. But it’s not what happens when things get weird in week 1. Because in week 1, we don’t have half a season of data to go off of, so it’s easy to throw everything we know out the window and accept what we saw as the new normal.

This is a mistake, an overreaction. This is us losing sight of the fact that weird stuff happens all the time in the NFL, and so if something looks weird, odds are great that that’s all it is. If Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley dramatically underperform our high hopes for them, it could mean our hopes were misplaced, but it more likely means that weird stuff happens in any given week.

Every year after week 4 I write an article taking stock of the season so far and comparing it to preseason ADP, because every year when I run the numbers that’s the point where I find performance-to-date holds about as much predictive power as preseason ADP. It takes a quarter of the season before we’ve learned enough to start overruling what we believed heading in.

What does this mean? Imagine that your league re-drafted after week 4. You'd do about as well if you just drafted off of a spare cheatsheet you had lying around from August as you would if you drafted off of a list of results to that point.

One week is not enough to make sweeping judgments. After week 1 last year, Carlos Hyde and Bishop Sankey were both top-5 running backs in PPR. They were highly-drafted 2nd-year pros and it was easy to throw everything we knew about their team and their performance to that point out the window and assume this was the new normal for them. It wasn’t; they finished 75th and 86th from weeks 2 through 17.

After week 1 last year, James Jones, Kendall Wright, and Percy Harvin were top-10 fantasy wide receivers. Jones had come home and was Rodgers’ most-trusted receiver, (or so the story went). Wright and Harvin were both young talents who looked ready for an expanded role. All three stories fizzled quickly.

(One of my personal favorite examples: in week 1 of 2014, Cordarrelle Patterson was a top-10 receiver and became the first WR in history to rush for 100 yards in a game. Patterson has just 412 yards in the 32 games since, including just 38 yards rushing.)

Here’s perhaps the starkest example of the idea that week 1 is far more noise than signal: after week 1 last year, Devonta Freeman, Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, and Lamar Miller ranked 41st, 39th, 44th, and 38th, respectively. Over the rest of the season, they ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. None of the top four backs was even startable in a 12-team league that starts two running backs and a flex!

So Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley, and Adrian Peterson had terrible weeks to start this year. So Willie Snead IV was a top-5 receiver, and Will Fuller V was top-10, and Quincy Enunwa was top-15 and looked great in week 2, as well. So Coby Fleener and Dez Bryant finished the week with as many receptions as Blaine Gabbert.

If any of these invoke a feeling of panic, quash it down. If you lost your opening matchup and are worried about the season already, remember that half of your league is 0-1.

What you believed a week ago is still more likely to be true than what you saw five days ago. Don’t ignore new information as it comes in, but rather, weight it relative to its predictive value, (low!), and combine it with your previous information.

If things got a bit weird last week and it has you on tilt, take a calming breath and remember that fantasy football is always weird.

And that’s why we love it.

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