Splitsville: Kill the kicker

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

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Justin Tucker delivered numerous bad beats in Week 15. (USAT)

Every movement has its moment and, in fantasy football, the moment has come, my fellow Americans, for "Kill The Kicker." So let’s start Splitsville here this week. I don’t think I need to detail the impact that Justin Tucker had on many leagues in our Week 15 playoffs, as it’s already bad-beat legend. And Tucker wasn’t even the highest scoring kicker last week (Dan Bailey).

Let’s take the arguments against killing the kicker on one by one.

“Kickers are a part of real football and we should be as much like real football as we can be.” Huh? This is fantasy football. Kickers are never a part of any football fantasy. No cheerleader has ever even fantasized about marrying a kicker, for cryin’ out loud. We have the power to make our fake game anyway we want. We can play with two quarterbacks, three running backs and, clearly, no kicker.

“We need kickers because we should play with as many players as possible. More is always better than less.” I’m not saying to get rid of kickers and not replace them with anything. Add another flex, a second QB, coach scoring (based on team wins and total points scored). The sharks who say this don’t really want more players played, they want usually meaningless kickers sucking up roster spots so the waiver wire is easier for them to mine. So they really want us to play less “real” players, not more. It’s a con.

“There is skill in picking kickers. So learn how to play the game better.” Yes, Tucker’s six field goals were totally projectable. The problem here is that none of us pick kickers because we think the kicker is so good. They’re all good (well, except Garrett Hartley, but he’ll be good again soon, I guarantee it). We try to pick the team that has an offense that’s good but not too good with a good defense and that plays close games. But even after all that, these Tucker days are totally random.

“We’ve always had kickers. It’s tradition.” We must evolve. Kickers are making 86.1% of all field goals now. They are making 65.1% of 50-plus yarders. So even penalizing misses doesn’t work. Distance bonuses only make things worse. Back when fantasy football was first popularized in 1990, teams made 74.4% of field goals and 36% of 50-plus yarders.

Another reasonable fantasy football complaint:  “Head-to-head play is too random.” The most important thing to have in our game is the best defense, which we obviously have no control over. I talked about that this week, and other fantasy football happenings, on the Wall Street Journal “Sports Retort” podcast. An alternative that doesn’t destroy head-to-head play is to play two games every week, a head-to-head game and a game against the league average point total. So if you have a great week but play a team that had a better week, you go 1-1 (not a disaster). And if you get lucky by playing a worse team on a dud week, you’re only going 1-1, too. There is no way around this come playoff time. But these leagues don’t have playoffs. The champion is just the team with the best record (but of course with twice as many games). If this is too complicated for you, since it requires manual work by the commissioner, you could simply award two of the six playoff spots based solely on points, which is the best barometer of fantasy football skill.

Garbage time is another complaint about fantasy football. If you played against Drew Brees this week, I feel for you. But is it overrated? Here are the leaders at QB, and WR in fantasy points scored when trailing by two scores or more in the fourth quarter. I understand this doesn’t necessarily mean garbage time, cough, Cowboys, cough. But we have to draw the line somewhere that’s aggressive enough to fully illustrate the point.

Quarterbacks:

Player - Fantasy Points
Totals - 667.6
Robert Griffin III - 47.9
Ben Roethlisberger - 40.1
Chad Henne - 32.0
Eli Manning - 31.3
Sam Bradford - 28.9
Andrew Luck - 26.8
Brandon Weeden - 25.9
Jay Cutler - 24.8
Matt Ryan - 24.7
Philip Rivers - 23.2
Carson Palmer - 21.0
Mike Glennon - 20.3
Joe Flacco - 20.0

Wide receivers:

Player - Points
Totals - 2248.0
Jerricho Cotchery - 49.7
Cecil Shorts - 47.2
Josh Gordon - 41.7
Brandon Myers - 38.0
Jordan Cameron - 31.8
Jeff Cumberland - 31.6
Keenan Allen - 31.6
Emmanuel Sanders - 31.4
Delanie Walker - 29.2
Harry Douglas - 29.1
Santana Moss - 27.2
Ace Sanders - 26.2
Pierre Garcon - 25.6
Jason Avant - 25.4
Antonio Brown - 25.4

Finally, let’s blow your mind with Tony Romo. The lesson here for fantasy football is the overarching theme of Splitsville and my work more generally: never trust what you think you know. Just know it! We all just know that Romo is the biggest choker ever when he’s trailing by a score late in games, right? No one actually even bothers to look it up, it’s so obvious. But, shocker, we all are completely wrong. He’s actually better than average and much better than Tom Brady (pick on Sunday in this situation), who has never been described as a choker (nor should he be).

Context is always important in any football analysis. We have to know how a player performs relative to others. Here are all quarterbacks in the last four minutes of games when trailing by seven points or less since 2009, sorted by passer rating but also noting their attempts.

Player - PAs/Rate
Aaron Rodgers - 54/110.8
Peyton Manning - 31/99.6
Robert Griffin III - 50/93.8
Christian Ponder - 33/93.6
Eli Manning - 70/85.4
Drew Brees - 67/85.0
Carson Palmer - 84/79.4
Matthew Stafford - 133/78.6
Matt Cassel - 64/76.9
Cam Newton - 59/75.4
Tony Romo - 124/75.1
Joe Flacco - 111/72.1
Ryan Tannehill - 65/69.7
Jay Cutler - 76/69.1
Ben Roethlisberger - 73/67.6
Jason Campbell - 58/65.5
Russell Wilson - 55/65.4
Matt Ryan - 116/65.0
Tom Brady - 113/64.0
Philip Rivers - 130/59.2
Alex Smith - 40/55.9
Ryan Fitzpatrick - 98/48.8
Andy Dalton - 37/41.8
Chad Henne - 82/25.2
Totals - 3289/68.5

And see the league average at the bottom? That 68.5 rating is terrible. So since failure is routine, if a player has a reputation for failing in these spots, he’s going to keep it regardless of how warranted it is. Defenses clearly have a big advantage. But we don’t think that because we never remember failed comebacks, only successful ones. That’s why we think prevent defenses “prevent you from winning” when, really, the opposite is true.

 

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