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?
11 Sep 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: Welcome sports fans, sports nerds, nerd fans, men, women, children, and pedants of all size and shape to the inaugural edition of that five-hour-old burnt cafeteria coffee of sports journalism we affectionately call Scramble for the Ball!
Tom: Uh, Mike, you may recall we wrote four preseason over/under columns. This is not, in fact, our "inaugural edition."
Mike: I suppose we did, but that was a rigid and vaguely rigorous exercise at evaluating an entire league's worth of talent in roughly 400 words each! This is a rigid and completely unrigorous exercise in making fun of players who screw up and the fantasy owners (usually us) who own them. They are quite dissimilar.
Tom: This is our first regular season column, and that means we have to deal with the aftereffects of National Jump to Conclusions Week. The thing is, we also deal with fantasy football and sometimes in fantasy football it does pay to actually jump to conclusions. This year, Julius Thomas is the heretofore unused and somewhat unknown player who may be inspiring the most conclusion-jumping.
Mike: Indeed. One of the interesting things about head-to-head fantasy football, of which most leagues are comprised, is the disparate methods for evaluating Week 1 breakouts in the lens of the season as a whole. Granted, by far the most common method is "mad dash to waivers to grab whoever got the most points in exchange for whoever you drafted in the 15th round," but we're giving owners the benefit of the doubt.
Tom: Hey, I did draft a kicker and a defense, so that's "whoever I dropped in the 13th round."
Mike: Well, it's definitely whoever I drafted in the 15th round, because I'm pretty sure Yahoo!'s autodraft used that opportunity to pick up a second kicker. Always respond to league emails in a timely fashion, folks!
Tom: I'm sure the Yahoo! draft rater bumped you up at least half a letter grade for your depth there.
Mike: Amusingly, despite having a fully autodrafted team, Yahoo! only gave the squad a B. Self-loathing machines, I suppose.
Mike: This got us thinking: What are the most disappointing "sleeper" players after monster week one performances?
Tom: Last year we fielded questions about whether to pick up Kevin Ogletree, who had 23 points in Week 1 last year (non-PPR). If you used your waiver priority on him, you fared poorly. On the other hand, Alfred Morris had 21 fantasy points in Week 1 and ended the season with 241. If you used your waiver priority on Morris, you fared well.
Mike: It actually turns out that most dominant Week 1 fantasy performances are from established elite players or players who went on to have happy, productive seasons.
Tom: Yes, but those types of players and the guys like Morris who ended up being studs are not the kind of player we're looking for. Everyone knows proven players are low-risk. We're more concerned with the Ogletrees of the world. Take, for instance, Stephen Hill, who put up a 5-89-2 Week 1 last year for 20.9 points. He ended the season 21-252-3.
Mike: So nearly half of his fantasy value, if one can call it that, came in the first week. For reference, that is a whopping 1.48 points per game for Weeks 2 through 17.
Tom: To be fair, he only played in 10 of those remaining 15 games, so he averaged 2.23 fantasy points per game he actually played in. That's much better.
Mike: Good point. Hill is actually a good example of a player for whom we have enough information to avoid jumping on to the waiver wire. In particular, one Mr. Mark "Mark Sanchez" Sanchez.
Tom: True. Ogletree and Morris were the players who stood out as potential waiver wire pickups. Hill was a known big gamble as a young receiver on a low-volume passing offense with a quarterback generally around mediocre or worse.
Tom: Cumberland is a tight end, but yes.
Mike: I think most owners were wise enough to avoid Hill's Week 1 flash in the pan. Of course, performances like this are probably a good way to sort the well-run teams from the monkeys with dart boards. Chances are, however, that if you were willing to bite on Morris, you were willing to bite on Ogletree. And how fared those owners, Tom?
Tom: Kevin Ogletree finished the season with 69 fantasy points. That's 46 points the rest of the year. The Cowboys did not in fact have a third receiver. The Cowboys still do not have a third receiver.
Mike: The problem with the Cowboys is that Jason Witten, for all intents and purposes, is the third receiver, despite FOX commentator's contractual obligation to wax rhapsodic about his blocking ability.
Tom: Witten is a pretty useful player. It is only a problem if you are looking for their third receiver as a useful fantasy option.
Mike: True, though remember the environment leading up to Dallas's 2012: Overwhelming hype, particularly on offense. One could be fooled, based on expectations, to anticipate a Green Bay or New Orleans-style attack that could sustain good fantasy numbers up and down the roster. Sadly, none emerged.
Tom: Ogletree and Hill are far from the only disappointments in recent seasons. Let's take a look at other players who flashed in Week 1 but proved to be pretty much wastes of your waiver priority. Fortunately, last year provided another excellent example at running back. Kevin Smith actually had 21.1 fantasy points thanks to touchdowns both rushing and receiving. That ended up being both his only rushing touchdown and his only receiving touchdown for the season.
Mike: Smith is another great example of a marginal player you could convince yourself into taking a flier on.
Tom: You might. I would have argued his value, like Hill's, was dependent on touchdowns. And he would not have two every week.
Mike: True, but many owners could still vaguely remember his promising rookie campaign of 2008, where he was an above-average back in a platoon who looked ready to lead the Lions out of the backfield darkness going forward. Now, he had a mediocre sophomore season, but there were injury issues at the end of 2009 and throughout 2010 and 2011. So there was a bit of temptation to say "Well, maybe he's finally healthy, and he can be that guy the Lions have been looking for." Especially to complement Detroit's rather potent passing attack. It seems that is a common theme with these players. In fact, now that I think about it, I may have bought into that theory, myself.
Tom: If you're in fantasy football mode, you can convince yourself of this. As a fan of good general thinking habits, this drives me nuts.
Mike: That's the thing, isn't it? Once you're competing, you can convince yourself of a lot of crazy things. The key seems to be marginal players on good (or perceived to be good) offenses. The key to convincing yourself that a player will be worth your waiver priority regardless of whether that pickup is actually successful.
Tom: The other example of the phenomenon is the RB1 on a bad team who seems like he could have value. The best recent example of this may be LaMont Jordan in 2007. He had 15 carries for 70 yards and a score, plus nine catches for 89 yards. He'd had over 1000 yards rushing and nine touchdowns two years earlier, so he seemed like he could be a valuable player. After those 22 fantasy points Week 1, though, he had 76 in the last ten games he played. That's not quite like Hill or Ogletree's disappearance, but it was a sign that he was who we thought he was.
Mike: In a way, his performance was actually more damaging than Hill or Ogletree, since he produced just enough to allow an owner to hold out hope. Nothing is more dangerous than wasting a roster spot on complete dead weight, although that is a topic for another day.
Tom: The other question is what about surprising quarterbacks who flash? Most of the quarterbacks who have big games in Week 1 are the usual suspects, with a smattering of rookie high draft picks like Cam Newton and Robert Griffin who end up being fantasy stars. The closest thing we get is a younger player who seems to have showed promise in the past, but that promise never pans out. Take Chad Henne, who threw for over 400 yards and had three total touchdowns against the Patriots in Week 1 in 2011. He was coming off a couple seasons with a DVOA around 0 and was only in his fourth season as a second-round pick, so he still could have reasonably been considered a future starter. He started three more games in 2011 before getting hurt, in which he had a combined 22 fantasy points, or two-thirds as many as he had Week 1. In the actual NFL, he has been most recently seen not outplaying Blaine Gabbert. As readers of Quick Reads know, that's quite an accomplishment.
Mike: Part of this was probably the 2011 Patriots Defense Effect.
Tom: Yes, playing the right opponent does matter. That's one of the hard things to know about Week 1. We didn't know two years ago that the Patriots pass defense would be almost as bad (in fantasy terms, particularly) as the Patriots pass offense was good.
Mike: There is nothing more exciting than the prospect of simultaneously jumping to conclusions for players and defenses!
Tom: We would also love to jump to conclusions about Jared Cook and, particularly, Julius Thomas. Cook is a player I am very familiar with from his time in Tennessee, but Thomas is more of an unknown. Do tight ends who have big games in Week 1 tend to sustain their production? I would love to be able to answer this question, but the surprising answer is that very few tight ends have had big Week 1 games like Cook and Thomas just had. Unless we missed somebody, not since Keith Jackson in 1996 had a tight end gone over 20 fantasy points in Week 1. Jackson was 31 and in his final season in the league. About the only thing he and Thomas have in common beyond their position is they each played with one of the league's best quarterbacks.
Mike: Yeah, I'm not sure we can do much with Thomas.
Tom: If only Dante Rosario's three-touchdown game last week had come in Week 2 instead of Week 1!
Mike: If only!
Tom: Granted, Rosario isn't much more similar to Thomas than Jackson, but it would at least have been a data point.
Mike: That is actually somewhat comforting, in the end. The big performers in Week 1s are generally the big performers for the season on the whole.
Tom: Except, as we chronicled, when they're not!
Mike: So unless you have a reason beyond aspiration for picking the guy up, a huge Week 1 from a marginal player should be as convincing as playoff wins for Tim Tebow. But even the best delude themselves, as we saw with my embarassing Kevin Smith admission. Feel free to tell us about any "sleepers" you, dear readers, have wasted time and roster space on in the past.
Mike: This is similar to the cavalcade of sarcastic "look how much better we are than Apple" commercials of which, until now, Samsung was the sole purveyor.
Tom: The voice for me is an auto-mute up there with Subway's "Five-Dollar Footlong" commercial.
Mike: That another company is getting in on the act is not a good sign, particularly considering Microsoft's prior attempts at marketing the Surface. I suppose not relying on a bunch of hipsters to sell the goods puts Microsoft slightly ahead of Samsung, but maybe it's simply because Microsoft already tried that with this product and it was a disaster. I think what really gets me is how myopic the sell is. There have been tablets with USB ports for ages. There have been tablets with keyboards. Microsoft may have a nice cover-keyboard solution, but they weren't the first and after a few years of selling them, the market response has been a collective "meh." Worse than meh, in fact. All of the advantages that faux-Siri is so terrified of have been in Surface from go, yet the iPad machine keeps rolling along. If you're going to have overly cutesy advertising, make sure it isn't completely delusional.
Tom: This tells me instead Microsoft thinks people don't actually know that. This is the sort of thing you could know with surveys about what people actually know about the Surface.
Mike: And make sure you're not alienating a huge chunk of the tablet audience with casual misogyny. Whatever you think of the attractiveness of a disembodied computer-generated vaguely female voice, it's a lot more presentable than complete institutional incompetence.
QUARTERBACK: What kind of odds could have you have gotten that Yo Gabba Blaine Gabbert, injured thumb and all, might be the low man for the first week of Loser League, 3:1? Two interceptions, only 121 yards passing, and even with some rushing yards he has a mere 3 points. The Titans meanwhile hid Jake Locker, who avoided the turnovers and thus helped his team win even though he only threw for four more yards than Gabbert, to finish with 6 points.
RUNNING BACK: Against a Tennessee defense that struggled last year, Isaac Redman might have seemed like a potential spot starter. The Steelers found no traction on the ground, and a red zone fumble left him with -1 point. Lamar Miller may be a good player, but his ten carries for three yards gave him 0 Loser League points. Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory each had 1 point, in case you believed in either enough to roster them in either Loser League or real fantasy football.
WIDE RECEIVER: The fantasy riches of Chip Kelly's offense were not to be found in the non-DeSean Jackson wide receivers. Jason Avant fumbled and finished with -1 points, while Riley Cooper held on to the ball and had 1 point. Mohamed Sanu came in between them with a fumble to offset his receiving yards and earn 0 points, while Roddy White, Ace Sanders, Austin Pettis, and Kendall Wright matched Cooper with 1 each.
KICKER: How do you get to 0 points? There are two normal ways. First, you can be like Josh Scobee and play for a team that does not let you even attempt a kick. Second, you can be like Kai Forbath and miss a field goal to offset your two made extra points.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: Picking Lavonte David or Rey Maualuga for their key late game personal fouls would be almost too easy. You have likely heard and read enough about David by now. What has passed much more quietly is that David's infraction was the second key Buccaneers personal foul that led to a score. The first came in the first half, by Mark Barron. After a turnover gave the Jets excellent field position, they went backwards and would have been facing a fourth-and-13 from the 34 had Barron not given the draft new life that they converted into their only touchdown of the game. David's infraction was more narrative-friendly, but without Barron's, it is not nearly as costly.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: At some point, an inability to trust your running back switches from an intelligent precaution to actively hurting your team. Tom Coughlin flirted with this in the Giants' loss to the Cowboys, while Mike McCoy probably went over the edge by asking Philip Rivers, who has committed entirely too many turnovers the past couple seasons, to throw the ball instead of trying to move the ball on the ground and burn clock. The result was a positively Norv-esque blown 28-7 second half lead.
Tom: As they did last year, your Scramble writers will try to find one game a week whose line they might actually wager on, if they believed in actually wagering money on football games. Once again this year, all picks are made without reference to FO's Premium picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.
Mike: As tempting as New York Jets +13 is, I think I have a policy against using multi-touchdown lines as a lock. If this were last year, I also wouldn't hesitate with Houston Texans -10 vs. Tennessee Titans, but Houston's defense did nothing to impress against a thoroughly mediocre San Diego squad in Week 1.
Tom: To their credit, they did play well late.
Mike: It's true, but playing well late leads to close victories after comebacks, not necessarily 10-plus point victories.
Tom: If we had "DVOA after giving up 28+ points," I bet the Texans rank tops in the league this year.
Mike: Our lack of such a stat is clearly short-sighted. I think the safest bet is Dallas Cowboys +3 at Kansas City Chiefs. I still don't believe the Chiefs are any good, so a low line gives me confidence I otherwise would not have on the Cowboys.
Tom: That was one of the lines that stood out to me as well. Kansas City obviously played well, but Jacksonville played quite poorly and I'm still far from sold on Alex Smith as a fit for Andy Reid. I will choose another road underdog, in a pairing of two teams our projections did not particularly care for. As I have noted before, I am higher than our projections on the Rams and concur with them on the Falcons. These two teams may not be that far apart, and Chris Long and Robert Quinn should be able to take advantage of their matchups against Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes. Give me St. Louis Rams +7 at Atlanta Falcons.
Since the season has just kicked off, we haven't had any Mailbag threads. This is a tumultuous time in the fantasy football year, so we’ll take all comers in the comments section. Post away, or hit the mailbag at scramble at footballoutsiders dot com.
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