Loser League Season Preview: Sam Darnold and Other Disasters
Here's to those who draft not wisely and are hopeless by Week 3;
To the ones who curse in anger at their useless, benched QB;
To those who'd trade their left leg for their guys to catch a ball;
Here's to the losers; bless us all.
Hello, fellow Losers! We're baaaaaaaa-aaaaack!
In the beginning, there was very little. When Football Outsiders first flickered into existence in the summer of 2003, it looked very little. There was no Audibles at the Line, no Quick Reads, no Almanac, no KUBIAK. We hadn't even put the D in DVOA yet, and DYAR wasn't yet a twinkle in anyone's eye. But right there from the very beginning, right there in bold text in the introduction post that went up on Day 1, was the Loser League.
The Loser League is a celebration of the very worst players fantasy football has to offer. The running backs who couldn't find a hole if they were physically carried through one by their left guard. The passers who refuse to believe that deep safeties or lurking middle linebackers exist for deeply personal and confusing reasons. The receivers caught in an endless vortex of screens and deep fades cooked up by the least creative offensive minds in the game. And, of course, the kickers who believe uprights are more suggestions than targets. The very players who make you tear your hair out when forced into your regular fantasy lineups can lead you to the hallowed halls of Loserdom Glory.
So while boring, regular fantasy plebes were celebrating Alvin Kamara rushing for six touchdowns on Christmas Day or seven passing touchdowns by Peyton Manning in his first game in a Broncos uniform, we Losers were finding the true beauty and joy in the utterly asinine. Nathan Peterman's five interceptions in a half. Jonathan Stewart fumbling twice in three carries against Keanu Neal and the Falcons. Chris Chambers catching zero out of 10 targets on a wet and blustery day in Buffalo. These achievements were cruelly overlooked by those who unfairly value competence and ability over blunders and gaffes. The true discerning Football Outsiders reader knew how to properly value these feats of daring-don't.
And then it was gone. The Loser League went AWOL for the past two seasons. In that time, our readers have been most vocal on the subject of the Loser League. Where is the Loser League? When are you going to start the Loser League? Why aren't you starting the Loser League now? And so on. Yet the League itself remained quiet. Four-interception days by Sam Darnold and Jake Luton came and went but no one profited. Rostering Frank Gore only produced sadness. A.J. Green's multiple catchless performance went unnoticed outside of Cincinnati. Truly, these were dark times.
Those days are over now. The Loser League is back, bigger and bolder than ever before. Weekly roster changes! Prizes for the biggest Losers in any given week! And the grand prize for the season's biggest Loser; two tickets to the Big Game at the end of the year! You know the one: the Biggest of Games with the Biggest of Trademark Protections attached to it. This prize just might beat out the previous big award of having your awesome team name singled out in Scramble for the Ball. Maybe. Call it 50/50.
To go along with the contest, we're introducing a weekly Loser League column. We'll be highlighting the worst of the worst from the week that was and trying to predict the players who will get you the fewest points in the week to come. If you're participating in the contest, this is your place for friendly banter and general bemoaning about the state of your players, either on your fantasy or real-life teams. And if participating in the Loser League isn't your style, you're still welcome to come kvetch about your team's high-priced free agent who can't catch or early draft pick who can't decode a defense. We're all here to celebrate terrible football, whether or not you want to assign a numerical value to it.
How does Loser League work? I'm glad you asked.
Your objective is to select the lineup that will result in the lowest weekly score. Each week, you'll pick 10 players -- two quarterbacks, three running backs, three wide receivers and two kickers. The highest scoring player at each position will be dropped, meaning you'll have six players actually scoring points for you. Scoring is fairly standard for a fantasy league:
- 1 point for each 20 yards passing
- 1 point for each 10 yards rushing
- 1 point for each 10 yards receiving
- 4 points for each passing TD
- 6 points for each rushing or receiving TD
- -2 points for each fumble or interception
- 3 points for each field goal made
- 1 point for each extra point made
- -2 points for each missed field goal
- -5 points for each missed extra point
So, why not just take a bunch of third-stringers and bye week players? Because you need to pick players who actively participate in the game; otherwise, you face a hefty penalty. No trying to cheat they system by picking someone who doesn't have a chance to record stats; you're trying to find players who are terrible, not ones who are AWOL.
The penalties for 2021 are as follows:
- 18 points for any QB who has fewer than 10 passing attempts in a game
- 15 points for any RB who has fewer than 8 rushing attempts in a game
- 15 points for any WR who has fewer than 3 targets in a game
- 12 points for any K who is not active or has no attempts but another K on his team attempts a kick for any reason
Whether you're new to the game or a returning veteran, the most important thing to know about this year's Loser League contest is that you set weekly lineups, rather than picking a team at the beginning of the year and sticking with it for a full- or half-season. This is a huge change, and should really alter overall strategy, because not only can you play matchups now, you can also take bigger risks with some of the more time-limited lumps clogging early starting rosters.
When you were stuck with a single lineup, you had to be careful that the players you were picking weren't going to find themselves on the bench four weeks later, permanently erasing a roster spot and guaranteeing you a penalty for inactivity week after week after week. But now you can go ahead and take someone such as Andy Dalton in Week 1, knowing that even if Matt Nagy changes his mind and promotes Justin Fields to the starting job in September, you won't be stuck with a deactivated Red Rifle. You can look for backups forced into the starting lineup due to injury and rotate the "hot hand" on the worst running back committees in the league. You have a lot more week-to-week freedom than you had in past years, which should in turn lead to lower overall scores.
Also, remember that this is a best-ball format. You're picking 10 players each week (2 QB, 3 RB, 3 WR, 2 K), but the highest-scoring player at each position will be dropped. You can make some riskier, boom-or-bust picks, knowing that if one of them misses, you won't be penalized. And if you're going for the weekly prizes, that's likely going to be the necessary strategy. To come in first, you need to take some risks in search of the low-scoring players that other people pass by; taking the same picks as everyone else isn't going to give you much wiggle room to pass them in the standings.
If you're focusing on the grand prize, week-to-week consistency is the key. There are no bonus points for winning a week or finishing in the top 10; it's strictly a matter of your overall season score. Dodging penalties will likely be more important than squeezing an extra point or two out of your running backs, even if it means you're less likely to win the week.
While you'll be picking a new lineup every week, it's important to know what sorts of players tend to be consistently good options—to know how deep you can go on a depth chart before you start running into potential penalties. Besides, if you forget to set a roster for a week, you'll still get to play with the roster you had from the week before, so sticking a few evergreen poor performances in your lineup certainly can't hurt. Obviously, "select all the players who are really bad" will get you most of the way there, but not all bad football players are built the same. Some are more Loserly than others, and being able to tell a true Loser from a run-of-the-mill poor Joe will do you well.
Try to guess the worst passers from last season—the ones who most frequently turned up in the bottom 10 in terms of weekly Loser League points. Sam Darnold and Alex Smith probably came to mind very quickly; Smith's arm was dead and Darnold was toiling in the worst offense in the league. They finished second and third worst in passing DYAR; they racked up plenty of single-digit Loser League days. But the worst passer in terms of DYAR, Carson Wentz? Typically not a very good Loser League pick, surprisingly enough. Wentz had exceptional volume, averaging 36.4 pass attempts per game compared to Darnold's 30.3. And he had five rushing touchdowns—an unusual number for him historically, but rushing attempts can kill a players' value in a contest like this. Wentz only had three days among the top 10 Loser League finishers a year ago.
Instead, it was Baker Mayfield who found himself popping to the top of the Loser hill more often than not. Mayfield had six days in the top 10 Loser picks last season because of a lack of volume. Mayfield was often held under 25 pass attempts as the Browns sat on leads and rode Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt early and often. An alternative to taking a terrible quarterback is to pick an average passer on a run-heavy team that is going to win a lot of football games. Jimmy Garoppolo, for example, is a great high-floor play; he had seven bottom-10 finishes in 2019. Should Trey Lance start, his rushing ability will likely kill his Loser value even if he struggles as a rookie, but Garoppolo is a safe choice not to blow up your scoreboard.
And speaking of Lance, last year was an odd season in that none of the highly drafted rookies ended up having great Loser seasons. That is definitely not normally the case. 2019 saw consistently poor seasons from Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins, and the last five years have seen Mitchell Trubisky, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Sam Darnold, and the Joshes Rosen and Allen appear regularly among the best Loser picks of the week in their first seasons. Of this year's class, Lance and Justin Fields will likely have too much rushing value to regularly appear on these lists, Mac Jones has too much talent around him, and Trevor Lawrence will likely to have too much volume. Zach Wilson would thus be my guess for rookie most likely to have the whiff of Loserdom about him.
The best running back you could have had last year was Frank Gore; an aging, inefficient vet being run out there out of … stubbornness? Spite? An utter lack of creativity? Take your choice to describe Adam Gase's 2020 offense. There's really no one Gore-esque out there in 2021, though Myles Gaskin might be your best choice as a week-in, week-out Loser candidate. Gaskin is the clear leader in Miami's backfield, but he could see Malcolm Brown stealing his red zone touches. And since the Loser League isn't a PPR competition, Gaskin's receiving talent won't hurt as much as it would otherwise.
But because there are weekly lineups this year, a new strategy is emerging—running back by committee. All the players after Gore with the most top-10 finishes in 2020 were halves of crowded backfields: Latavius Murray, Devin Singletary, Gus Edwards, Kareem Hunt, and Philip Lindsay. Each of them scored single-digit Loser League points at least seven times last season, and they did so in games where their teams went a combined 25-12. We're talking fourth-quarter clock-eating runs, smashing into loaded boxes because time management becomes more valuable than efficient yardage at that point. In previous years, taking those players would be a death sentence, as they'd and tank your score by taking the penalty more as often than not. But if you can play the matchups right, you can find games where a team is expected to win big and bank some points from a running back squeaking just above the eight-carry minimum. It's playing with fire, and sometimes you'll get burned, but the risk may well be worth the reward. Singletary, AJ Dillon, Chase Edmonds, your choice of the Leonard Fournette/Ronald Jones duo in Tampa Bay; these are the sorts of players who will do just enough to dodge the penalty during big wins and run up your score.
It's very rare for receivers to hit negative points, but it's relatively simple for them to hit zero—put up less than 10 yards and you join the weekly Goose Egg Brigade. Last year, A.J. Green led all receivers with four Goose Egg games, but there was an average of five players a week getting blanks in 2020. At quarterback, you're just hoping for single digits. A score of under five for running backs is a pretty good day. For a receiver? You're looking for nul points.
Taking any receiver on a bad passing team is going to work here, and there may be no worse combination of quarterback talent and receiver talent then in Houston, where Chris Conley, Keke Coutee, and Nico Collins all seem viable picks most weeks. Teams where tight ends are going to take up a huge share of passing targets are another place to start looking—both Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne are likely to get fewer targets than your average second or third receivers due to the Hunter Henry/Jonnu Smith combination in New England. I also like, for a flyer, Khalif Raymond in Detroit. Raymond is pretty much solely a deep threat, which means a lower catch percentage, which means a higher chance for Goose Eggs. And Jared Goff does not throw the world's prettiest deep ball. It may be a mismatch made in heaven.
Just … pick the team you think is going to have the most struggles on offense and grab their kickers. Chasing the doink is a good way to go insane. Remember, you don't get the 12-point penalty just because your kicker doesn't make an attempt; you get the penalty if they don't make an attempt but a different kicker does.
Week 1 Picks
Yes, yes, all that general strategy is all well and good, but what, specifically, should you do in Week 1? Each week, I'll pick some players I feel are particularly likely to put up terrible numbers based on that week's specific matchups.
Look no further than the Jets-Panthers opener, a surefire barn-burner if I've ever seen one. This may be Sam Darnold's revenge game against his old team, and perhaps Darnold will be rejuvenated and reinvigorated getting swept away from Adam Gase and into the welcoming arms of Joe Brady's Carolina offense. I just have to say that I need to see more than two pass attempts from Darnold before I'm ready to declare him the next Ryan Tannehill, and that all of his performances in the past three years can be blamed on everyone but Sammy D. Darnold is, by far, the passer with the worst track record starting in Week 1; there are worse places to look for Loserdom.
But across the field from him, Zach Wilson has faced just one prospective Week 1 defensive starter to this point (Packers inside linebacker Krys Barnes), so take his early preseason performance with massive clumps of salt. Meanwhile, the Jets have trotted out every offensive starter they could spare to give Wilson as much help as they could muster. I'm more concerned about his up-and-down reports in training camp, and I expect some growing pains in his first game against live opposition. Besides, Mike LaFleur comes straight out of a run-heavy scheme, so I expect a healthy diet of Tevin Coleman and La'Mical Perine to keep Wilson comfortable in his first pro game. That'll limit how much damage Wilson can do if he's better than expected right off the bat.
Other promising picks: Andy Dalton (v. LAR), Baker Mayfield (v. KC)
Melvin Gordon (v. NYG) is still nursing a minor groin injury, which has given second-round pick Javonte Williams an open window to try to clinch Denver's Week 1 starting duties. It may well be the ideal sort of injury for Loser League lovers—bad enough to give other players the opportunity to cut into his work, lingering enough that it may limit his explosiveness right off the bat, but not so bad as to keep him sidelined entirely. Gordon was a fairly solid pick all of last year, averaging 7.3 points per week and only earning the penalty once. If the emergence of Williams turns Gordon from a player who gets 12 to 15 carries a game to one who gets 10 or 12, so much the better.
David Montgomery (v. LAR) had a fantastic finish to his 2020 season from a fantasy perspective, averaging 20.8 Loser points over his last six weeks. That came against a tissue-soft schedule from a fantasy perspective, however, and I think he's going to come back down to Earth. Damien Williams should eat into Montgomery's passing-down snaps, Tarik Cohen is working his way back, and, oh yeah, the Bears are starting Andy Dalton. So expect loaded boxes and tough sledding, unless you're one of those types who doesn't think Aaron Donald can play the run.
Najee Harris (v. BUF) is more of a situational pick rather than specifically being down on the rookie, who I think does have significant fantasy upside in Year 1. I'm tremendously concerned about the state of his offensive line, which is made out of Swiss cheese, shoestrings, and hope. Harris is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry in the preseason, despite some great film; he's getting lots of yards after contact, but that contact is coming very early. I'm also worried about the state of his quarterback's arm. I could see opposing defenses loading the box all year long and daring Ben Roethlisberger to go deep. What I'm not concerned with is Harris' workload. I think he won't be in danger of taking the penalty too much this year. I could see some long, frustrating days for Harris in the future.
Other promising picks: Leonard Fournette (@DAL), Damien Harris (@MIA), Josh Jacobs (@BAL)
For Robby Anderson (@NYJ), see the Sam Darnold paragraph and realize that if the quarterback struggles, his receivers are going to find it hard to gain tons of value. You can stack Losers just like you can stack regular fantasy players, and a Darnold/Anderson stack isn't the worst option on the board in Week 1.
KJ Hamler (v. NYG) is hurt by Teddy Bridgewater being named the Broncos' starter over Drew Lock; Lock was more willing and able to throw downfield than Bridgewater, so a deep threat like Hamler is going to see his usage drop compared to a Jerry Jeudy type. Hamler only averaged 4.3 targets per game last year, but avoided the penalty in all but three of the games he was active; he even pulled off a Goose Egg despite playing 77% of the snaps against Buffalo. Bridgwater throws a more catchable ball, but since those balls are likely to be caught much shallower than Lock's, that limits the damage Hamler can do.
Parris Campbell (v. SEA) looked like he was ready to be the Colts' primary slot receiver last season before going down with injury, which is great! His quarterback is also Carson Wentz, which is less great. And that quarterback is coming off of foot surgery, which is less less great. And that quarterback was one of just five qualified passers to have negative DYAR throwing to the slot, which is less less less great. In short, I'm pumping the brakes on a Campbell break-out season, at least in September.
Other promising picks: Keke Coutee (@JAX), A.J. Green (v. TEN), Albert Wilson (v. NE)
I've already heavily implied that I expect the Jets-Panthers game to not exactly produce a zillion points in Week 1. Matt Ammendola and Joey Slye will have better chances on better days to put up points.
Other promising picks: Michael Badgley (v. WAS), Jake Elliott (v. ATL)