Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Results
According to one advanced number crunching system (Massey-Peabody) the Rams weren't just the worst team in the NFL – they were worst by a wide margin. And yet with their backup quarterback they not only beat the Saints Sunday – who rated behind only New England and Green Bay – they dominated them. The system wasn't necessarily wrong – after all, the Rams had led for only six minutes in six games combined. So what happened?
It's simple: the Rams historical performance wasn't predictive of their Week 8 one. The body of evidence we had about the Rams – and about A.J. Feeley – was not probative of the result in Sunday's game. When the Saints beat the Colts 62-7, and DeMarco Murray ran for 253 yards against the Rams in Week 7, we expected that to mean something about Week 8. And it didn't.
I wrote about a similar theme last week, and again for me what's important is not whether the Saints are really frauds, or the Rams are the improving team they were last year, but that it happened. Because to the extent past performance was predictive of the game, the Rams could not possibly have won, barring multiple fluke plays and lucky bounces. But the Rams win was not a fluke – they thoroughly outplayed the Saints. So there's a gap between what happened before and what happened Sunday. There's a portion of the picture that remains unseen.
I'm not talking about variance. To me that's a synonym for luck, and luck has to do with fluke plays, not sustained dominance at the line of scrimmage and in the defensive backfield. It's true we don't know what kind of bounces will occur in a given game, but this is something different. This is where we were wrong about the very identity of the teams – at least on that day.
Knowing now what happened to the Saints, how confident can we be that any team (or player) plays to form? If you knew Chris Johnson would be healthy all year, was there any scenario under which you could imagine him getting 2.8 yards per carry through seven games and be at risk of losing his job to Javon Ringer? The implications this has on taking teams with better pot odds in Survivor, or trading players – no matter who they are – when they're at peak value and acquiring struggling players on the cheap are significant.
The tendency for most of us is to ignore these outlying results and move forward as if they never happened. Next week, we'll predict the games based on past performance and assume we know what's going on all over again. It's human nature to be overconfident in this way. The mind abhors uncertainty the way power abhors a vaccuum.
But maybe it's possible to embrace the gap between past data and future projections. Not just within the narrow margins of strange bounces, but recognizing the possibility of major identity changes. The Rams might be a team that no one wants to play in Week 13-17, the Dolphins – post-Tony Sparano – might be, too. In fact, there's ample historical data to suggest that teams change – often dramatically – over the course of a given season. The Bills, Bengals and 49ers are 16-5 on the year, and already we've forgotten what we thought of them before the season. What makes anyone think other teams won't be drastically different four, six or eight weeks from now?
The stats are good at helping us figure out a team's exact performance level in the past. And that level is typically probative of how that team performs in the future. But that relationship is far from ironclad – if it were, bad teams could only improve incrementally, and upsets, barring luck, would be impossible. But they only seem impossible because we're fixated on what we already know as if that's all there is. In fact, they happen every couple weeks.
Dreaming Big at Halftime
Heading into Week 8, my 324-person survivor pool with a decent-sized entry fee was down to 13 people. This is in part because we had to pick two teams in Week 5, and roughly 90 percent of the pool had the Giants that week (home against Seattle) as one of their teams. For Week 8, I took the Titans, six people had the Giants, five had the Ravens and one had the Saints. At halftime the Titans were up 20-0, the Ravens were down 24-6, the Saints were down 17-0 and the Giants were down 17-10, and I thought I might take down the entire pool then and there. Unfortunately, I was at a sports bar, so all I could do was drink more when the Ravens and Giants came back. Had I been in Vegas, I would probably have had to bet substantial sums of money on Baltimore and New York on the halftime lines, though I have no idea how to get more than $400 or so out with my ATM card. There might come a time if the pools get sufficiently down to the end where I'll have to fly to Vegas in advance with a bunch of cash in order to hedge. If you don't, that's tantamount to betting four months salary on a football game, something I only do in the preseason.
Things to Take Away from Week 8
• The Patriots seem like a smoke and mirrors team – good enough to outsmart most opponents, especially in the regular season, but not good enough to face top defenses or go deep into the postseason.
• The Ravens came back to win against the Cardinals, but after losing in Jacksonville and being life and death against Arizona at home, it's hard to take them seriously as a threat to win the Super Bowl. Joe Flacco bounced back for 336 yards, but it took him 51 attempts to get there against an abysmal Arizona defense.
• Chris Johnson and DeAngelo Williams are going to cost running backs like Fred Jackson and Peyton Hillis (assuming he ever returns to last year's form) a lot of money. The Frank Gore extension (which looked awful through four weeks) is a relative bargain.
• Now that Adrian Peterson once again has a role in the passing game, he's the No. 1 overall back and probably the No. 1 overall player. Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Calvin Johnson deserve consideration, too.
• Eli Manning's averaging 303 yards per game this year, and he would have had about 450 on Sunday had his receivers not dropped a few perfectly thrown balls. The Giants schedule gets brutal – @NE, @SF, vs. PHI, @NO, vs. GB, @DAL, vs. WAS, @NYJ and vs. DAL – the rest of the way, but NE, GB and WAS are in the bottom third in YPA allowed, and only NO is in the top third. In other words, those are good teams, but if anything, most of them (other than the 49ers and Jets) are likely to score points and force Manning to throw in the second half.
• Assuming the Packers are the class of the NFL, what team would you give the best chance of beating them? I'd have to say the Eagles, who were a Desmond Bishop ankle tackle of DeSean Jackson away from knocking them out of the playoffs last year. Incidentally, Andy Reid is now 13-0 coming off the bye week. I wonder whether that'll be priced into the line next year. It certainly wasn't this year. And every team except the Pats won after the week off, so the notion that the new bye-week rules made a difference is probably false.
• The Tim Tebow experiment might not last a whole lot longer – 4.4 YPA not including seven sacks for another 55 yards lost is far below the baseline above which intangibles like leadership and inspiration could possibly make a difference. From a fantasy perspective, it's nice that he tries so hard in garbage time, but it seems like Broncos management knows the season is lost and is simply allowing Tebow to prove he's in over his head, so that it won't have to deal with fans clamoring for him while they try to develop a real quarterback.
• I have to admit Ryan Mathews simply can't stay healthy. I'll give a mulligan to players who simply have had bad luck, but he seems to leave almost every week with one injury or another and doesn't play through it.
• The Geico caveman commercials were *never* funny. At this point, they're just embarrassing.
• The Browns seem incapable of producing any player with fantasy value. They're like the Saints if New Orleans averaged 15 points per game.
• While I felt pretty good about the Titans in survivor this week when they were up 20-0 early, I had a slight scare early in the third quarter when the Colts drove down the field and had a 4th and goal from the Titans four. When Jim Caldwell settled for a field goal to make it 20-3. I pumped my fist, called my brother and said: "That's why we backed the Titans this week!" I almost admire the unique and fathomless cowardice it takes to do that when you're 0-7 and down 20 on the road in the second half. From a different perspective the decision could be looked at as art.
• How unsurprising was it that the Chargers fumbled away a sure regulation win?
• Matt Cassel should be a viable fantasy quarterback going forward. The Chiefs don't run very well, and Jonathan Baldwin gives him another big target to go along with Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston.
• The Bills got nine sacks against the Redskins Sunday after getting just four all season before that. You might want to start opposing defenses against the Redskins. Tim Tebow is pretty likely to take at least 4-5 sacks per game, too.
Things to Look for in Week 9
• Eli Manning gets to back up his comparison to Tom Brady in person.
• The Jets take on the first-place Bills.
• San Diego draws the Packers as it attempts to bounce back from giving away a game in front of a national audience.
• The surging Steelers get a home rematch against the Ravens after a no-show in Baltimore.
• The Eagles get another national game to re-establish their "dream team" status – Monday night against the Bears.
Beating the Book
Packers -5.5 at Chargers
I'm not going to lie – I despise the Chargers and absolutely hate backing them. But after their embarrassing debacles the last two games, this is the perfect time to buy low, especially against the league's only undefeated team and defending Super Bowl champs. I'm sure Norv Turner will make me regret this, but I'm saying Chargers not only cover, but win outright at home. Back San Diego.
Chargers 27 – 24
Last week we won with the Rams to go 5-3 in this forum, 5-7-1 on the week and 56-55-5 overall. We were 10-7 in this forum last season and 40-27 over the four years of the column (we skipped Week 17 in 2007). From 1999-2010 we've gone 1565-1387 against the spread (53%, not including ties). The full article comes out Wednesday night.
Surviving Week 9
We already discussed what happened last week, so let's jump right into this week's slate:
|Team||Opponent||% Picked*||Vegas ML**||Vegas Odds|