The Four Noble Truths Of Fantasy Football
Strip your psyche to the bare bones of spontaneous process, and you give yourself one chance in a thousand to make the Pass. – William S. Burroughs
At Rotoviz we consistently strive to give you actionable information, both short and long form pieces, that will actually help you win your leagues. However, I know that when I read the words of my coworkers, I get innately curious about how they developed the thoughts that lead them to conclusion. If you are reading this piece, you have probably read some of my other stuff and processed that particular information within the sphere of that piece. What you don’t know from simply reading an article about running back usage or my advocacy of a particular player is the evolution of thought that lead me to that line of thinking. What follows is not exactly an actionable piece. This is a partial distillation of not only how I think about football, but how I think about life, and how that influences the arguments that I make (that you in turn consume).
These 4 truths about the nature of fantasy football are adapted from the 4 noble truths of Buddhism. If you are curious about those, there is short write up here. Feel free to contact me on Twitter to ask questions. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know the four noble truths to understand this article or the concepts involved.
Fantasy Football Inherently Involves Suffering and Failure
I’m sorry friends, but if you wanted to get into a game that was easy, where hard work was guaranteed to make you a winner always, this is the wrong hobby. We can all tell bad beat stories about how we missed the playoffs despite scoring the most total points, or about how Arian Foster’s heart scare or Aaron Rodgers’ concussion cost us a championship. The fact of the matter is that fantasy football players are in the business of handicapping thousands of tiny interactions amongst 22 men on a 120 yard long, 53.5 yard wide, imperfect grass field with big yellow posts at opposite ends. To intimate that any human is capable of projecting exactly what will happen, not just on any given play, but in a given week or given season, is hubris to the highest degree.
You will be wrong. I will be wrong. Your favorite and most trusted fantasy football experts will consistently be wrong. The sample size invoked by the NFL regular season simply is not large enough to guarantee any result. Compare traditional fantasy football to the traditional format of rotisserie baseball. Rotisserie scoring (overview here) is vastly superior to the head to head format that most fantasy football leagues use. A classic fantasy baseball league will have all positions weighted relatively equally, with 10 scoring categories, all with equal value, in which to acquire points. Baseball players can score points in many ways, whereas fantasy football is distilled to yards and touchdowns (and catches, for most of you). Over the course of 162 games, it is much more likely the superior fantasy baseball player will make a sequence of correct decisions than an average player, and the scoring format rewards that. There are literally thousands of decisions involved, and still, the ‘best’ or most talented fantasy baseball manager won’t win 100% of the time. Fantasy football is played differently, to mirror the actual NFL game. Players are instead pitted against each other in head to head matchups that are subject to wild variance. In most leagues, the playoffs start in week 14, meaning that you have only 13 opportunities to get the 8 or so wins that are needed for the playoffs. The sample size comparison is just unfair at that point, but even at the point of playoffs, there is no guarantee that the ‘best’ team will win (there are ways to lower the variance, though none are foolproof. Check the Rotoviz Dynasty League rules).
Actions such as increasing roster size, transitioning to a dynasty or keeper format, starting additional offensive players, or adding IDP scoring to a fantasy league can all help reduce the luck factor and reward, but none of these actions totally remove luck. Unfortunately, good process doesn’t always lead to good results. When the good process and decisions aren’t rewarded, we can effectively guarantee failure at some level. Plain and simple, there is no way to solve for the sample size problem. Before you go petitioning Roger Goddell to expand the season to 50 games, let me explain further.
Effectively, this results in a simple truth: You can’t always get what you want, and it’s silly to let that influence your decision making.
The Cause Of Much Fantasy Football Suffering Is Attachment
Given the amount of thought and energy put in to consistently making the correct decisions, we all inevitably become attached to players. Lest you think I am some guru typing away at his Macbook on top of a mountain somewhere, I have personal examples.
- Ever since week 15 of the 2012 season, I pimped DuJuan Harris HARD. I must have written at least 10 pieces about the guy on my blog and several other sites. When you google DuJuan Harris fantasy, you get a whole lot of Davis Mattek posts (I’m not even going to hyperlink you. It was too painful to keep typing his name). What did the Packers do in the 2013 NFL Draft? They selected Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to complement a runner, Alex Green, that Rotoviz writer Shawn Siegele believes has superstar potential. The DuJuan Dream is dead, friends, and my attachment caused me to have a reaction to that.
- More recently, I’ve become enamored with Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns, whom I wrote about extensively. Then, Gordon gets suspended two games for a drug violation, which directly impacts his fantasy ceiling.
The offseason process causes us to desire results. When we analyze a player, we become attached to a player, we want them to perform well, and that influences our decision making process negatively. I am far more likely to select Gordon much earlier in a redraft league, not just because I believe that he will do well, but also because I DESIRE him to do well. We all have our guys; one only needs to spend a few hours minutes on twitter before someone plants their flag on a player’s potential success or failure. It is human nature to have likes and dislikes, and that translates to fantasy football as much as it does to life in general. When we desire a result to happen, it is intuitive to behave as if that result is inherently likely. In fantasy football, that’s just bad process.
The grand Rotoviz experiment is about limiting that bad process. We are about trying to make correct decisions, based on reliable data. Rather than rely on our eyes alone, we all heavily incorporate the usage of statistics to help us formulate our opinions. As the topnotch football statistician Chase Stuart noted in his On The Couch appearance with the great Sigmund Bloom and Matt Waldman, football will always have an intuitive element that just cannot be quantified. The question with that intuitive mystery is how we try and deal with it. While I believe that there is some inherent value in familiarizing yourself with a player by watching film, it is of crucial importance to be careful. Some of our greatest attachments can come from being too amazed by watching something that we don’t fully understand. Watch these Dorin Dickerson highlights and tell me how he never became a faster version of Jimmy Graham. We all have our favorite players to watch; some work out, some don’t. Not every guy who looks amazing in a uniform is amazing at football.
The fact is, our eyes fail us. Research published in the Journal Of Usability Studies found in their specific case study that during discussions, involving their control group, people omitted important details of intricate systems 47% of the time during an explanatory process. Think of how troubling that is in relation to football film study. While it may be possible to recognize 50% of what is going on, there are just too many plays to watch from too many angles with too many individual processes at work to believe that we can form a fully representative opinion from simply watching tape. Some of the greatest studies about how our eyes and human memory are radically inaccurate come from the legal system, in relation to the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The American Bar Association writes that “decades of research show that memory is neither precise nor fixed”, and Farhan Sarwar, a Swedish professor, wrote in his doctoral dissertation on eyewitness testimony that his “results showed that…confidence tends to increase when a person asserts the same statement many times”. In relation to fantasy football, Sarwar’s findings are particularly troubling. Essentially, the more times that we state that we believe something to be true, the more confident we are that we are positing a fact. That sort of staunch belief is precisely the type of attachment that leads directly to bad process.
The Cessation Of Fantasy Football Suffering Is Attainable
I told you to stick with me! It’s not all bad news, bros. I’m treading on the turf of Rotoviz Alum C.D Carter (His real name is Craig. Make sure to tell him that you know that on Twitter), but this section can be distilled pretty simply. When we stop desiring an outcome and merely make the best possible decision with the available information, it is possible to cease bad process. The results will never match up 100% with the best possible process. As NBA writer Ethan Sherwood Strauss joked on twitter after the Miami Heat won the 2013 NBA Finals “I wish there was a team named Process and a team named Results.”
However, just because the positive outcome isn’t always going to occur, good decision making makes that outcome more likely. The purest way for this to happen would be to have a spreadsheet where players were not identified by names, but rather by some dis-associative form of identification, with just their statistics and projections. That entirely ascetic approach can never work because it doesn’t include team situation or opportunity, but it isn’t a wholly insane idea.
The smartest way to approach fantasy football is through opportunity cost and tiered rankings, where the differentiation between players is based solely on performance grades, not individuality. Who you select in a fantasy draft is not as important as who you forgo with each selection (a point made by the Brilliant J.J Zachariason on his Living The Stream Podcast). By not targeting specific players, but rather adapting to a draft and a season as it comes and approaching each selection intelligently, it’s possible to make the best decision at each given opportunity. This sort of fluid approach will naturally be a turn off to some, as it certainly eliminates a human element from the game; but in the end, the concept of winning at a game based on the physical efforts of others is inherently inhumane. If we are willing to admit some moral hazard to our hobby, and then admit that winning at said hobby is important to us, then why not do everything needed to win?
The Cessation Of Bad Process
The philosophy that this article is adapted from contains 8 steps; while slightly different from our subject material, they are a great guideline to decision making. The point of this philosophy is to establish a correct way to make each individual decision. As I’ve mentioned for what I’m sure is the 100th time, it’s impossible to always be right, but it is not impossible to always make the correct decision based on available information.
The first step is having the Right View. To make winning decisions, we have to see and understand things for what they really are; to be without clouded judgment is to be in the right frame of mind. For fantasy football, this means to not place our expectations onto a player or situation. Unfounded expectations are the quickest way to ruining process.
Secondly, it is of the utmost importance to have the Right Intention. When I make the decision to draft Josh Gordon in the 8th round, am I doing it because I honestly believe that is where he will begin to provide value, or am I doing it because I’ve spent an offseason advocating for him there and I want to take credit for his success, should he end up having it? Projecting our unfounded beliefs is a quick way to overvalue or undervalue a player. These are the sort of questions that we have to ask ourselves before a decision is made, to ensure that it is indeed, the correct decision to make.
Many of the next points from the original Buddhist philosophy deal with ethics; as someone who recently sent out a buy low offer on Aaron Hernandez, I can safely say that we don’t have time for ethics in the fantasy football arena.
This next part isn’t for the dude who picks up the fantasy magazine on the way to his auction draft (I’m willing to bet that guy doesn’t have a Rotoviz subscription). It sucks, because I’m lazy, but we all have to practice the Right Effort. Making correct decisions is never going to come without trying. This doesn’t mean monitoring twitter and trolling people who think differently than you, but instead trying to understand why you disagree with someone’s player evaluation on a meaningful level. That means creating your own projections for upcoming redraft seasons (luckily for you guys, the Rotoviz Similarity Score apps are pretty helpful there), and for dynasty leagues, coming up with your own player evaluations. Practicing the right effort for fantasy football is not for the faint of heart, but it is rewarding. More than anything, this means having your own well-informed opinion about each and every fantasy relevant player and situation. It’s not enough to agree with someone else’s position, but we all need to know why we feel a certain way about a player.
Creating an individual cognitive process is what this is really all about. Finding a way to arrive at a conclusion is just as important as the conclusion reached. From the first spark of thought, through the research process, to the conclusion and reconsideration of a previously held belief, having Right Mindfulness ensures that we are consistently thinking about the game appropriately. Being of the Right Mind allows us to be acutely conscious of how and why we make our decisions. There is no way that I am confident in telling you that I have the secret to always finding the correct fantasy outcome, but I do feel confident telling you that being emotionally detached, data driven, and of the proper mind will lead the correct decision more often than not.
Finally; it is as simple as concentrating our efforts correctly. When making a decision, determining what matters is just as important as determining what doesn’t. Sometimes, a variable like new offensive lineman or a new head coach will matter drastically to a player’s fantasy output; on other occasions, these new variables will have little impact on the range of possible fantasy point outcomes. Having the Right Concentration is the final step to ensuring the end of bad decision making and the implementation of correct process.
If you have made it this far, thank you for indulging me. As always, I will respond to any comments and take any questions on twitter, @davismattek. I hope this was informative and helps you guys understand how I think about fantasy football, and maybe opened your eyes to some deficiencies in your game.