The Fine Line Between Rules of Thumb and Bias
Unless you're crunching a massive amounts of data to inform your every decision, you'll usually wind up taking some short cuts in the form of general rules. Things like: "Never draft a defense or a kicker until the final three rounds," would be an example of one. But beyond the obvious, each of us has some more controversial ones we've adopted that have worked in the past - at least in those instances we remember. Here are a few I've employed or heard others use in the past few years:
• You can always wait on quarterbacks
• Fade running backs older than 30
• Take the "only game in town" receiver over an equally good WR with talent on the opposite side
• Sell injured players if you can because they often fail to return to 100 percent at the projected timetable
• Load up on running backs in the middle rounds as they're the most scarce
• Always start your studs
I'm sure you could come up with 10 or 20 more of these pretty quickly, but you get the idea. These rules are useful because they keep us from making certain kinds of errors to which we might have been prone in the past. That one time I benched Eddie George against a top-rated run defense, and he had 100 yards and three TDs, or earlier this year when I drafted Steven Jackson in the second round in one RB-heavy, TD-heavy league.
But there's a fine line between helpful rules of thumb and harmful bias. I remember in 2004 when three of the top-five backs were Corey Dillon (30), Curtis Martin (31) and Tiki Barber (29), and Jerome Bettis (32) had 941 yards and 13 TDs. And while the over-30 rule was more likely to be right than wrong in the early days, many people have now adopted it, and in some circles it's been priced in - and then some. As such, Frank Gore and Fred Jackson have been a major bargains this year.
The other problem is that few of these rules have been subjected to rigorous study. "Always start your studs" will keep you from overthinking matchups and will certainly save you from a certain kind of error, but it's pretty clear that I'd rather have Mark Ingram going against the fourth-quarter Cowboys defense than Adrian Peterson going against the 2000 Ravens. The question then is where to draw the line, and there will inevitably be tough decisions between your usual starters and a backup with a favorable match-up. While your rules will save you from egregious errors - and therefore will help you at the beginning stages of the learning curve - it won't do you much good once your competition knows what it's doing.
And even if we did a more rigorous study of how top-10 ADP (or average slot on the rest-of-season cheat sheet in a given week) running backs fare vs. comparable running backs on the weekly cheat sheet who are outside the top 10 the rest of the year, it's unclear how useful that would be for your particular match-up decision going forward. The correlation between how players are ranked both for this week and for the rest of the year plainly does not cause those running backs to perform better or worse on the field. If we did the study, it would be interesting to see, however, in which direction (if any) the industry was biased - either toward the studs or the one-week matchup guys.
Its Biggest Weakness Is Its Biggest Strength
My friend used that phrase about his current home town, Portland Oregon, saying while the weather is pretty bad, that's why it hasn't yet been overrun and ruined by too many people flocking there. In short, it's biggest drawback is its biggest strength.
That concept could also be applied to the Giants who heading into this year had questions on the offensive line, the defensive backfield, the linebacking corps, the running back position and the defensive line (as Jason Pierre-Paul was returning from back surgery). The one stable area beyond question was at quarterback, a position the durable 32-year old, two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning had held down since he took over for Kurt Warner in 2004. (Yes, likely Hall of Famer Warner who also lost his job to Matt Leinart for awhile in Arizona before getting it back only after Leinart got hurt).
But it turns out the Giants biggest strength was their biggest weakness. Manning has a YPA of 7.0, below league average, 16 interceptions, a few of which have been returned for scores, and has taken 22 sacks. If you look at adjusted net YPA (which includes sacks, touchdowns and interceptions), Manning ranks 29th among qualifying passers this year, behind Chad Henne, Ryan Tannehill, Mike Glennon and Matt Schaub among others.
Lest you think this is just an anomaly due to the team's sub-par offensive line play, Manning's poor performance stretches back into most of last year too when the line was good. Over his last 18 games, Manning has averaged only 6.91 yards per attempt, with 25 touchdowns and 24 picks. Moreover, his best game in that span was a meaningless Week 17 blowout over an Eagles team that had packed it in. Remove that five-TD, zero-INT game, his YPA drops to 6.8, and his TD/INT ratio to 20/24 over 17 games.
While Manning was falling apart, however, (and the special teams have also been beyond abysmal, though that's a much smaller aspect of the game), the team's defense has excelled, albeit against some weak opponents of late (the Josh Freeman-led Vikings, the Matt Barkley-led Eagles and the Raiders). When you add up their defense's entire per-play performance - and that includes matchups with the Broncos, Bears, Cowboys and Michael-Vick/Nick Foles-led Eagles, they've allowed only 4.8 yards per play, fourth in the NFL, behind only the Browns, Seahawks and Bengals and slightly ahead of the Cardinals and Panthers.
But having Manning as the team's biggest weakness is at least some cause for hope as he's always been a streaky quarterback capable of getting hot for an extended stretch. Given how weak the NFC East is, the Giants catch a break in getting the Packers without Aaron Rodgers in Week 11 (the Giants are six-point favorites, while the Cowboys play the Packers presumably with Rodgers in mid-December) and the Giants play the Cowboys again in Week 12, they can easily win the division if Manning returns to anything resembling his 2011 form. Whether he will is a tougher question as Manning's steaks and slumps have never been predictable (no one saw either Super Bowl run coming, for example), and the offensive line is still a work in progress - though Andre Brown's return should at least keep them occasionally in attack mode and not merely tasked with pass blocking on sub-optimal downs and distances.
Bad Incentives Lead to Bad Policy
On Sunday, I heard an announcer (can't remember who) say after a third-down play came up just short: "It's short. They have to punt."
This annoyed me. Of course they do not "have to" punt. They might choose to punt, and it might or might not be the right decision, but they don't "have to" do anything. Framing it that way is part of the problem because it takes the agency away from coaches and therefore absolves them of responsibility for what should be a probability-based decision. It's pretty clear why coaches don't maximize win percentage in their punt/go-for-it/FG decisions - because it is not something to which they're properly incentivized. If a coach goes for it on fourth and short, gets stuffed, and the team loses, the media destroys him. If he punts, even though it's the wrong call, and the team loses, there's nothing.
So the coach - whose job in the long-term depends on winning and whose job in the short term depends on how bad things look - has a call to make. That call - probably made subconsciously - is how to minimize looking bad in a loss to the media and dumb fans (to whom the media largely caters) while sacrificing only some win probability. I doubt coaches as a professional group are especially stupid, so the reason so many of them consistently do the wrong thing (assuming winning were the only goal) is they must be correctly responding to bad incentives. So it's really up to fans to prod their local media to ask the right questions of coaches who fail to make the optimal calls, regardless of whether it yielded the right result.
That the local media doesn't do this on its own probably isn't because they're all stupid, either, but that they too are not properly incentivized. If a reporter asks of a coach, who punted down 15 on 4th and 10 from his own 20 with five minutes left, why he cared what part of the field the other team eventually did its kneel-down, that coach might chew his head off. The other media members in the room - who did not ask the question - would probably not back him up with follow-ups along the same lines. The reporter who asked the question therefore risks losing some access to the coach and his assistants, or at least being persona non grata in his work environment.
So you have coaches subconsciously sabotaging their teams' chances to win in the hopes of extending their careers long enough to go on a run and get tenure, while the media, instead of exposing that as they should, are (also probably subsconsiously) worried about staying in the good graces of their colleagues and the teams upon which their access depends. That's why fans - who have no incentive except seeing their favorite teams win - need to demand more of their local and national media as well as their coaches.
Week 10 Observations
• This was one of the crazier weeks for Survivor pools. Fading Tennessee was the easy call once it became apparent 68 percent of pools were on them. It mostly came down to whether you had used Indy already. If you had, you probably took the Giants and possibly won your pool outright. If you hadn't, it was over early.
• The Rams have had two road games where they absolutely annihilated heavily-favored AFC South teams with defensive and special teams TDs. In a year where the AFC is taking it to the NFC, the Rams have been an exception, going 3-1 and crushing the team that beat both Seattle and San Francisco.
• The Cowboys run defense fell apart in the Sunday night game. If you combine the production of Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, you get 36 carries for 244 yards (6.8 YPC) and 16 catches for 115 yards and five combined touchdowns. That's 81 points in a PPR league. The Saints also set an all-time record (40) for first downs in a game.
• How does Dez Bryant get two targets in a game the Cowboys lose 49-17? And why were Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray still in the game with a few minutes left in the fourth quarter? Even Kyle Orton would be too valuable to use in that situation. Get a back-up linebacker or third-string running back to take the snaps at that point.
• While I'm piling on, good article by Jonathan Bales on why the Cowboys conservative strategy was stupid. Essentially, by not wanting to attack down the field and risk 3rd-10s if the passes fell incomplete, you wind up with many third and manageables. But when you complete passes beyond 10 yards, you don't get to third down at all. What's harder, having to convert one 3rd-and-9 on a drive, or three 3rd-and-4s?
• On a related note, the Chargers, down 15, against Denver let the clock run out at the end of the third quarter without running a play. Does the clock only come into play when you're down six with two minutes left and no timeouts? Or maybe when you need two scores (one of which needs to have a two-point conversion), and the team you're playing is likely to score again, you shouldn't squander the time for a play - even in the third quarter.
• Sharp bettors loved Atlanta at home getting six against Seattle and drove that line down to 3.5 by kickoff. Of course, Seattle rolled. Otherwise, it was the day of the ugly dog: the Jaguars, Rams, Vikings and Bucs won outright, and the Raiders covered.
• Colin Kaepernick had 91 passing yards, 16 rushing yards and a pick at home against the Panthers. While that might be the toughest defense in the league, he'll have to make more happen against one of the league's top offenses in New Orleans next week. It looks like Vernon Davis should play, but Kaepernick needs to get someone else (Mario Manningham?) involved.
• For some reason, Jonathan Stewart led the Panthers in carries with 13, while a more effective DeAngelo Williams saw only eight.
• Matt Ryan is simply not good enough to transcend his difficult circumstances. It hasn't helped that he's faced Seattle and Carolina of late and this week draws a tough matchup at Tampa Bay.
• Case Keenum didn't have a good game in Arizona (4.7 YPA) and lost a fumble for a touchdown, but he's willing to target Andre Johnson in the end zone, something no Houston quarterback has ever done over his 11-season Hall of Fame career. As such, Johnson has to be considered in the big six WR, replacing the injured Julio Jones. (Others are Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant). Jordy Nelson belonged in that group before Aaron Rodgers went down, too.
• The Cardinals suddenly have quality skill players now with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd (when healthy), Andre Roberts (when they use him), Andre Ellington and a now-healthy Rob Housler. And they even mix in Patrick Peterson on occasion. Unforunately, they're a bit like the Giants with a shaky quarterback and below-average offensive line.
• Philip Rivers would be so much better if he were only as athletic as the average man. When Rivers gets pressure not only can he not scramble, he can't even move around in the pocket.
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