November 14, 2011
I have no personal stake in the Falcons or the Saints, but I want to thank Mike Smith for having cojones, for giving us something to think about, something to talk about, and something to write about. We need more like you, coach, and we can all learn something from your Week 10 decision.
You surely saw the critical call or have heard about it by now: Smith had his Falcons attempt a fourth-and-inches play in overtime Sunday. The Falcons were at their own 29-yard line at the time. Michael Turner's ensuing carry was stuffed, the Saints took over, and the game ended four snaps, 21 yards, and one field-goal later. And since then, Smith has been hammered in most (not all) media outlets.
I'm not going to take an emphatic mathematical stand on the Smith decision. There's a case to be made for his decision and there's a case to be made against it. I also don't accept that there is one unavoidable and clear equation that applies to the decision; football is a dynamic game and as I see it most decisions can't be definitively graded through some quick algebra on the back of an envelope. I'll merely accept that the value of going for it was close enough for Smith to consider it. You can argue for or against the actual decision if you like; that's not really of interest to me.
What I want to focus on is the general theory behind Smith's gutsy call, the mindset a head coach has to possess where these types of decisions can be made. I love that Smith took what he perceived to be a potential advantage when he saw it, and he didn't let potential criticism get in the way. He wasn't playing for the friendliest loss, and he wasn't looking merely to delay the outcome for as long as possible. Smith was locked into the percentages and merits of his choices, and he opted for what he felt gave his team the best chance to win. Screw conventional wisdom, screw how football was played in the 50s or 70s or 90s, screw what the common observer might think. Do your inner diligence, then put your team in what you view is the best position.
Fantasy owners should play the same way, but I know for a fact that we often don't. Let's examine some of the common mistakes that roto players make, errors that come simply because they're afraid to think outside the box. Mike Smith probably wouldn't fall into these traps, but you and I might, sometimes:
• Some fantasy owners will gut depth just to make lineup decisions easier. Don't misunderstand, it's an excellent idea to upgrade your starting lineup at this point of the year — we talked about that last week. But I've often seen fantasy owners who will just about give away a strong depth position because they dread making starting lineup decisions. There's a distinction here. The best players in the room aren't afraid of tricky lineup calls; the better you are at the game, the more likely you are to get those calls right.
• Some fantasy owners are obsessed with delaying the result. I know some very smart industry folks (and competitive readers) who will backload their starting lineups with Sunday night and Monday night players because they don't want to be eliminated too early. Bad business, amigos. Put your players in the best position to score points, no matter when the game is being played.
Consider the poker parallel here. A weak tournament player lives in fear of being eliminated early and won't take advantage of some risky but equitable situations in the opening orbits. The sharks in the room aren't locked into pre-slotted strategy; he or she will push the envelope when the situation calls for it. When you're handed a favorable situation, take advantage of it — don't let the game clock or the calendar mess you up. (Poker and roto are forever linked; it's all about the game theory. My friends Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson were discussing poker theory and "delaying the result" on their Monday radio show, as they are wont to do. They get it. I hope many of you were able to hear that segment, it was terrific.)
• Some fantasy owners marry themselves to sticker prices and name brands. I've heard respected fantasy analysts tell a caller or a reader "you have to play so and so, he was your first round pick." I'm sorry, but that's bogus. What we paid for a star player in August is irrelevant, especially this late in the season. The pittance we paid for a waiver-wire star doesn't matter if he keeps producing. A few months ago, we thought Reggie Wayne(notes) might be worth something and DeMarco Murray(notes) was an irrelevant player. Toss that stuff in the trash now.
And when someone says "always start your studs," what they're really telling you is "don't have the guts to make difficult decisions." There's a time and a place where anyone is potentially benchable, depending on the opponent, weather, injury situation, and team objective. Don't let rules of thumb get in the way of open-minded thinking.
• Some fantasy owners are petrified of making a mistake. If you want to ensure that you never go anywhere in fantasy sports, live in fear of transactions. Be petrified of cutting any of your August sleepers, be paranoid of the downside of any trade. And don't trust that shiny and new waiver commodity until he's proven it for several weeks. Mind you, by the time you're ready to pick up the now-proven waiver guy, he'll be on someone else's roster.
There's a difference between being selectively aggressive and outwardly crazy, of course. As you acquire experience, you learn how to tell the difference. I can tell you this, I fear a smart and aggressive opponent far more than I do the conventional and reluctant one. And I'm never going to avoid making a risky trade or pickup that I believe in simply because I might get criticized for it in public, be it here or elsewhere. You can't play that way.
• Some fantasy owners let superstition mess up their logic. Say there are 12 teams in your hometown league. One club will win the title next month, and the other 11 chaps will be left with a story, a bad beat of some sort, an excuse. Maybe injuries did you in. Maybe it was bad timing. Maybe you zigged on a free agent when you needed to zag. Maybe you spent your FAAB too early, maybe you waited too long.
But what a lot of gamers don't understand is that there's more bad luck floating out there than good luck. Only one team gets what they ultimately want at the end of it all, that championship. Everyone else doesn't win. In a competitive league, you're not supposed to win — the odds are against any single person winning the title at the beginning of the year. Given even odds, always take the field.
All you can do is give yourself the best chance, get into position, stay competitive, make the tournament, and hope for some luck and timing at the end. Be careful that you don't let past failures turn into mindless superstitions that cloud your thinking. Don't bench a sure starter because he let you down in 2009. Don't make a low-percentage call because you're afraid of your Monday night history. Don't start walking around with the mindset that it only rains on you, that a black cloud is following you around. No one wants to hang with that guy, drink with that guy, and compete with that guy.
It's not easy for NFL coaches to make controversial decisions because most of them have tenuous job security. You're not in that position. You don't have ownership looking down on you, a rabid fan base pressuring you, investors to please, a critical media that will cut up your every move. You have no excuse here, gamer. You can be selectively aggressive as you see fit. You can coach like a Mike Smith today.
Of course, I don't want you to heed any of this advice, not if you're in a league with me. The old-school thinkers are a lot easier to beat. And their entry fees are just as welcome as anyone else's, their checks deposit just fine, thank you.
While you digest all this game theory, here are a few bullets on the way out:
• If it were easy to simply kick away from Devin Hester(notes), most teams would do as such. It's not, of course. Just wait until some team gets paranoid with the idea and it starts handing away cushy field position on just about every boot. Trust me, we take punting for granted; it's a lot harder than it looks.
• I don't have any stake in the Washington backfield, but here's what I don't like about Roy Helu(notes) not starting at Miami: it basically tossed his solid Week 9 effort against the Niners into the garbage can. When you don't reward your players for coming through in a less-than-ideal matchup, what message are you really sending?
And how much proof do we need against Ryan Torain(notes) anyway? He went off against a Rams front seven that was in disarray back in Week 4, wonderful. Since then he has 32 carries for 53 yards, with no runs over six yards. You should be kicked off an active roster for performing like that.
• Here's a flimsy and limited surface stat that is nonetheless mildly interesting: the Patriots and Jets have both allowed exactly 200 points. You'd be foolish to pick New England's defensive personnel over New York's, and the Jets are obviously a lot better on a per-play basis, but it's an interesting stat, to me anyway.
• It frustrates me when some fantasy voices play with the context to make an easy point. Consider Reggie Bush(notes). Some scribes will rail on and on about how he can't be a true featured back and how it's a mistake to treat him as one, and I'd agree with all that. No one is expecting Bush to ever live up to his original draft-day clippings. But establishing that point is not a destination, it's not the end of the exercise. Tackling the straw man is easy to do, but it doesn't have much utility at the end of the day.
We need to accept the reality of Bush 2011: for most of this season he's been productive and consistent, and that's a handsome combination in today's world of platoon backfields. Bush has seen 10 carries or more in eight of nine games, and he's been notably effective since Miami's Week 5 bye. Add up the last five games and Bush stacks up nicely: 62 carries for 355 yards (that's 5.7 a pop), 15 catches for 82 yards (not much juice but the PPR players like it), three scores. Here's another case where we can dump the August sticker price and preconceived notions; it's important to accept what's happening in the here and now.
And if you watch the tape, Bush's production makes more sense. Tony Sparano is figuring out how to use No. 22, what packages play to Bush's strengths, what plays he fits and what plays he doesn't fit. The picture on the screen matches up to the production on the spreadsheet.
• Every week someone asks me a roster question along these lines: "I have (these two star players), I need to start just one, who should I trade?"
And every week I give the same framework of an answer: let your leaguemates decide. Put them both on the market, put them both in play. It doesn't even matter if you prefer one to another; just see what the other chaps think. You never know who they might overpay for. Untouchables should not exist in fantasy sports: there's a justifiable price for everyone. It's simply a matter of finding that price.
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Images courtesy of US Presswire (Smith, PHJ) and Associated Press (cat, Bush)