Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
by Al Bogdan
Welcome back to the Second Annual Football Outsiders Loser League Contest. For those of you just joining us, the Loser League is a fantasy league, but not like one you've played before. Instead of trying to put together a team of the best performers every week, you are trying to compile a roster of the worst. It's one of the few leagues in America where Arizona Cardinals are regularly drafted in the first round.
(Click here to pick your team for the Loser League if you know the rules already.)
A group of us started doing the Loser League amongst ourselves before Football Outsiders ever started. We'd draft a new team of players weekly, since the players you've drafted in Week 1 would hopefully be so bad that they'd be out of a job by mid-season. After writing about our weekly league during the website's first year, our readers wrote us in droves trying to get in on the action.
By popular demand, we developed a contest to allow our readers to share in the joy of owning Dez White and Phil Dawson. Based loosely on the annual HACKING MASS contest run by our partners at Baseball Prospectus, the object is to pick a roster of players who will put up the fewest fantasy points. Unfortunately, we can't have a snake draft each week with all the Football Outsiders readers, so we split the season into two contests so that you aren't penalized later in the year by guessing correctly that a player will be terrible in the first half of the year. One contest will run from Weeks 1 to 9, while the second half contest will run over Weeks 10 to 17. The team that you select at the beginning of each contest is yours to keep throughout the eight or nine weeks the contest runs.
(Of course, you can still run a Loser League over e-mail with your friends, re-drafting every week like we do. You'll find a few more rules to help you do that here.)
Now, you may be saying to yourself, "Self, this sounds easy. I'll just draft fourth-string running backs and emergency quarterbacks and I'll be a lock to win. They won't put up any points!" And you'd be right to think that. Except we've designed the league so that people lame enough to employ such a tactic aren't guaranteed to win.
You have to draft players that are expected to play in a game, or you'll incur a hefty penalty for that week. For each quarterback that attempts fewer than ten passes, running back that rushes fewer than eight times, or wide receiver that catches fewer than two passes, you're penalized 15 points. A team made up of Jared Lorenzen, Josh Parry, Lorenzo Neal, Sean Morey, Jerricho Cotchery, and your favorite Gramatica brother may be a lock for 0 fantasy points every week, but in this contest they'll likely score 90 points because of their complete lack of passes, carries, receptions, or kicks.
Here are the full scoring rules:
(Note: You only incur a kicker penalty if another kicker on that team makes an attempt and the selected kicker does not. If a kicker's team makes no attempts in a game, there is no penalty. Kicker penalties are one of the world's greatest evils.)
Each team will select their roster for Weeks 1-9 by Saturday, September 10, 2005. Your roster will consist of 2 QB, 3 RB, 3 WR, and 2 K. The highest scorer at each position gets thrown out each week (remember, we're aiming for the lowest score here). You'll end up getting credit for 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR and 1 K every week. This also won't keep one injury at a position, or a bye week, from destroying an otherwise perfectly crappy loser team since you can't make changes to your roster once it's submitted. Only one team per person, please.
The winner of each half of the contest will get a free copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2006, once it's fresh off the printing press next year. The person with the best score in both halves combined wins a very special Loser League grand prize: a Ryan Leaf replica San Diego Chargers jersey (size 48). Win the whole year and one half and you get the jersey and a book. We'll update the full standings every week on the website and highlight some of the best performers each week in Scramble for the Ball.
Need help drafting your team? Here are some folks that I like for the first half of the year:
QB: You don't want to draft someone here that won a tightly contested position battle in training camp, or who has a backup quarterback breathing down his neck for playing time. As tempting as Tim Rattay or Joey Harrington might be, there's a great chance he'll be holding a clipboard well before Week 9. What you need is a quarterback from a team that has a vested interest in sticking with their starter even if they struggle over the first half of the season, or from a team without a viable backup to replace a below-average starter.
The first QB names that come to mind are Eli Manning and J.P. Losman. Both the Giants and Bills see those quarterbacks as their quarterbacks of the future and, barring injury, will give both plenty of opportunities to correct any mistakes they make early in the season. One veteran that falls into the second category of Loser League starters is Brett Favre. With the loss of his two Pro Bowl guards, and the increasing onset of age, both myself and the all-knowing KUBIAK expect Favre's stats to take a tumble this season. Even if Favre throws three picks a game and/or averages under 200 passing yards, there's no way he'll be benched in favor of Aaron Rodgers or Craig Nall. Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Pittsburgh are some tough defensive opponents in the first half.
RB: Your ideal RB candidate will get 8-12 carries a game, every game. That usually means the slightly lesser half of a running back by committee. Unfortunately, going into the season it's awfully tough to guess at who that will be. There's no way right now to say who is going to end up with the majority of the carries in Carolina or Pittsburgh, for example, over the first nine weeks of the season.
For your first two running backs in this contest, I'd recommend staying away from these risky situations and instead look for starting running backs in poor offenses that will most likely get at least eight carries a game. Last season, no one fit this description better than Kevan Barlow. Barlow was hands down the best RB Loser League performer over the full 2004 season. Barlow had seven games where he scored six points or less, virtually unheard of numbers from a starting tailback. Frank Gore may eventually take away his carries, but Barlow will likely be given until midseason to hold onto his job.
Another person I'm going to target is Fred Taylor. The major risk with Taylor is that he'll miss time because of injury. Even taking that risk into account, however, he's a solid loser league pick. He doesn't have a backup breathing down his neck for playing time, so even with a decline in effectiveness because of the toll of his frequent injuries, he'll still be given the ball at least eight times a game when he can suit up.
For the third running back, you can take a chance and go after one of the RBBC situations. Someone like DeShaun Foster would seem to fit the bill here; however you shouldn't pick both him and Taylor because they share the same bye week. If he does meet the minimum carries requirement, you have yourself a great low point candidate because of Foster's low Success Rate. He'll occasionally break off a long run, but most of the time he's only getting a handful of yards. If Foster doesn't get the minimum eight carries, you still have your other two mediocre backs to score an acceptably low number of points each week.
WR: The key to a championship caliber Loser League franchise is your wide receivers. This is the position where you stand the best chance of putting up consistently low numbers every week. You want your two wide receivers to combine for under ten points a week. What you want to look for are #2 or #3 wide receivers on bad offenses, or receivers that are in decent offenses, but don't get looks in the red zone.
Arguably the greatest Loser League wide receiver of all time is Ike Hilliard. Last year he was the lowest scoring player overall for the first half of the contest. With the Giants, Hilliard was good enough to stay in the lineup and get a few balls thrown his way every week, but not good enough to do much with the ball once he caught it. He also scored no touchdowns all year. He's currently #3 on Tampa's depth chart at wide receiver, where I would expect him to put up numbers similar to those he had last year in New York.
If you want to talk bad offense in the NFL this year, look no further than San Francisco. Johnnie Morton is currently listed as third on the 49er depth chart, but should earn himself more looks than Arnaz Battle. That's a good thing for Loser League players, since Morton rarely finds the end zone. Over the past three seasons as a member of the high powered Chiefs offense, Morton has caught 134 passes but only scored on 8 of those.
Eagle wide receivers not named Terrell Owens have been great Loser League players because of their propensity to stay out of the end zone. I'd stay away from Greg Lewis, however. The worst kind of wide receiver is the one who has one long touchdown reception for 50+ yards. You end up with 11 points for the touchdown and the yards, plus another 15 added on since the receiver had fewer than two receptions. Lewis seems like he's the type of receiver who will have his share of these days this year. That leaves Reggie Brown, currently the #3 in Philadelphia, as a very tempting pick.
Keep an eye out for the recently released Peerless Price. Price scored five or fewer points in six of the final eight weeks of last season. If he's someone's #2 or #3 receiver by Week 1, I'm taking him over either Morton or Brown.
K: Neil Rackers used to be a guaranteed first round pick in our weekly Loser League draft back when he was a Bengal. However, now that he's with the Cardinals, he has somehow learned to be an effective placekicker, so my recommendation is to look elsewhere.
When you look for a Loser League kicker, you are looking for two things: low field goal accuracy and/or a low scoring offense. Two names are jumping out at me this year: Jose Cortez and Josh Scobee.
Cortez is currently the only kicker on the Cowboy roster, and it's always a good idea to have a former XFL player on your Loser League roster just for the sake of good karma. Not to mention the fact that Cortez has never been a particularly good field goal kicker, with a career field goal percentage just above 70%.
Scobee stands out because we're expecting the Jaguar offense to struggle mightily this season. That means fewer field goal and extra point opportunities for Scobee to hurt your team. Combine that with Scobee's below average field goal accuracy and you have the makings of an All-Pro Loser League kicker.
One more note: Since the Tampa Bay kicking job is still undecided as we are starting the contest, picking the Tampa Bay kicker will give you whichever kicker wins the job as of Week 1, Todd France or Matt Bryant.