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East Coast Offense: The Map is Not the Territory

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

"The Map Is Not the Territory"

It's ironic that Jets fan, occasional promoter (and sometime paranoid detractor) Mike Salfino recently uttered this Alfred Korzybski line in a telephone discussion we had about net-YPA and Salfino's pals at Yale, Cade Massey and Rufus Peabody, who are creating a data-based NFL power-rankings system that predicts future performance. Salfino was questioning the M-P system's read on the Jets-Pats game since it seemed to reward the Pats for scoring efficiency, i.e., points per yard, when he felt it should do the opposite. After all, he reasoned, if you're not getting enough yards to justify your points, one would expect a regression to the average amount of points for the amount of yards you got. Salfino backed this up further by looking up the highest point-scoring teams over the last 20 years, and sure enough, most of them were either first or second in yards, while this year's top-scoring Pats, heading into Monday's game were 13th.

I think Salfino is probably correct as a general matter, and I told him as much, but there are always exceptions, and what's true under most conditions can be false under some. After going back and forth for 15 minutes about what data we should look at as most predictive of future success generally, and for Monday night's game specifically, Salfino blurted out: "The map is not the territory, bro." Of course, the only "territory" was the field the teams would play on Monday night. So we agreed the game would be an interesting test of his theory. Would the Pats be able to score a lot of points without racking up a ton of yards, or would their average ability to generate yardage doom them against a first-rate Jets' defense?

We all know what happened, which is that both teams went off the grid completely. I wish I could have asked Salfino for 100 to 1 odds on the Pats minus 40, because I would have gotten them, and I don't think many non-Jet backers would have refused me, either. As much as we obsess over the numbers and read the signs, the terrain is always beyond our ability to comprehend entirely. Some will dismiss outlier performances like this as mere "variance," but that's just semantics. The game blew our minds. What can we learn from that?

The temptation is to dismiss net-YPA, Salfino's regression theory, Massey-Peabody and any other system which if it's worth it's salt would not have steered us to a 42-point Patriots win. "These statheads don't know what they're talking about," the argument might go. The most prescient prognosticators for Monday's blowout were probably Patriots homers whose reasoning stopped after considering the two quarterbacks, and saying "'Nuff said." But using one surprising outcome to usher in a revival of football ignorance where name value and hype rule the day is an overreaction. On the other hand, those who take rigorous data-based systems seriously as predictive tools should be humbled by their limitations. Not only are we not that close to drawing an optimal map of NFL team capabilities (though Salfino, M-P and others are constantly working in that direction), but even if or when we do (assuming that's even possible), it will never be a substitute for the "territory."

There will never be a pundit who has it figured out, and there will never be a formula that guarantees your success. Which brings me to another Korzybski quote:

There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.

It's unfortunate, but every week, it's up to us to decide which data is worth believing, and which is worth being skeptical about, no matter how much easier religious adherence to a formula or smug rejection of all data in the face of its frequent misinterpretation might be. As someone who handicaps the NFL games every week (and who is not having a good year), I often wish it were otherwise.

Silent Trash Talk

Of course, there's another side to the Liss-Salfino discussion, which I summed up in this Facebook post after the game:

I know some Jet fans who talked *a lot* of yang before this game who got in my grill when the Giants lost to Dallas. But I won't text them even a syllable because I KNOW that they know, and they know I know it. My silence is a telepathic beatdown amplified 10-fold by their paranoid, tormented and self-hating Jet-fan imaginations. Res Ipsa Loquitur. The game speaks for itself.

No matter how many numbers you crunch, or how much analysis you do, you should never lose the emotional attachment to your team or the hatred you feel for its rivals. Watching Tom Brady take apart the Jets - a team I've despised since childhood - was a spiritual experience few attain in their lifetimes on this earth.

Of course, there’s a downside to that sort of attachment, too. (Courtesy of RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today, 11 AM – 2 PM ET weekdays, XM 147, Sirius 211.)

Credit Sean Payton (Somewhat)

While the Bengals jumping offside up three on a 4th-and-2 in the game's closing minute is beyond inexcusable, credit Sean Payton for being the only coach whose table image raised some doubt as to whether the Saints might actually run a play. A guy who will try an onside kick in the Super Bowl just might be crazy enough to go for the win (and risk a loss) rather than sending the game into overtime. In fact, the announcers, Ron Pitts and John Lynch were fooled initially, too.

Things to Take Away from Week 13

• The Giants are running the ball well despite missing starting LT Dave Diehl and starting C Shaun O'Hara. And Eli Manning hasn't been sacked in his last five games.

• Sidney Rice is back, and his production apparently does not depend on the health of Brett Favre.

• Peyton Manning now has 11 picks in his last three games, and four pick-sixes in his last two. Reggie Wayne bounced back huge from the worst game in his career with 14 catches for 200 yards and a score, but dropped a key would-be first down in overtime that might have been the difference.

• The Titans really miss Vince Young, or is it Kenny Britt? Before Britt went down, they were 5-3 and coming off a blowout win over the Eagles at home (granted it was the Kevin-Kolb-led Eagles). Since then, they're 0-4. I still don't know why they won't throw to Randy Moss, but that mystery is no longer important enough to solve.

• Incidentally, I hope the writers who complained when Kolb lost his job to Michael Vick due to injury, have since issued a retraction and apology to Andy Reid.

• If the season were to end today, there's a 99 percent chance Tom Brady would be voted MVP, since Philip Rivers is likely to miss the playoffs, and Michael Vick is a convicted felon. I'd pick Brady over Vick by a slim margin personally, but barring a Patriots collapse and an Eagles first-round bye, Brady will win in a landslide.

• If the season ended today, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers would join Rivers as spectators. Of course, the Packers play the Bears in Lambeau still, and both teams play the Patriots. (The Bears' final four games (NE, NYJ, @MIN, @GB) are brutal.)

• James Starks (18 carries for 73 yards) is part of a three-back rotation for the Packers, but with huge games coming up, expect Mike McCarthy to go with his best back most of the time. That's probably Starks - at least on running downs.

Things to Watch in Week 14

• After demolishing the Jets, the Pats go into Chicago to face another top defense.

• The Chargers at home in an elimination game against the first-place Chiefs.

• The Jets picking up the pieces at home against Miami.

Beating the Book

Seahawks +4.5 at 49ers

This seems like an awfully large line, especially with Seattle winning decisively last week, and the Niners losing badly in Green Bay. But Seattle's far worse on the road, and Alex Smith is likely an upgrade at quarterback this week. Go contrarian and take the Niners who incidentally were blown out in Seattle earlier this year.

49ers 27 - 21

We won with the Bengals last week to go 7-6 in this forum and 89-98-5 on the season. We were 10-7 in this forum last season, 131-122 overall. We were 12-5 in this forum in 2008. From 1999-2009 we've gone 1439-1262 (53.3%, not including ties).

The full article comes out on Wednesday night.

Surviving Week 14

Last week, I went with the heavily favored Chargers and lost. Almost everyone else (the Packers, Chiefs, Giants, Eagles and Saints) came through. The Dolphins and Colts also lost, but they probably didn't take too many people down with them. Let's take a look at this week's numbers:

Team Opponent Percent Taken
Falcons Panthers 31.9%
Jets Dolphins 16.7%
Steelers Bengals 15.3%
Jaguars Raiders 11.1%
Saints Rams 6.3%
Chargers Chiefs 3.7%
Colts Titans 2.7%
Packers Lions 2.6%
49ers Seahawks 2.5%
Broncos Cardinals 2.5%

Keep in mind this late in the year, you want to check who's available to the remaining teams in your pool, as the above numbers are just averages across a large sample of pools. Moreover, as more owners get eliminated, the sample from which they're drawn shrinks, making it less reliable.

There are no double-digit favorites this week, and all of the biggest favorites are on the road and/or facing division rivals. I'd expect a good deal of carnage with quite a few pools being decided this weekend. As of right now, I'd go with the Packers in Detroit in a must-win game, then the Steelers at home against the Bengals, then the Falcons in Carolina, then the Saints at home against the Rams and then the Chargers at home against the Chiefs. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind when the full column comes out Wednesday night.