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Kicking the Kicking Habit: Some Modest Proposals

I’ve written in the past about how my friends who work in the worlds of finance and the stock market love the lessons on valuation that fantasy football teaches. The kinds of light bulbs that go off over the heads of fantasy players are useful for understanding some fairly important macroeconomic and microeconomic principles.

I think the first such light bulb that goes off for most fantasy participants is that even though winners claim their victories by earning more points than their opponents, it is unforgivably reductive to assume that the player who earns the most fantasy points in a season is the most valuable player in the league.

I know this is painfully obvious to experienced FFers. Most of us feel something close to certain that Peyton Manning will earn more fantasy points than Larry Johnson this year, but we also know that there are far more Tom Bradys, Carson Palmers, Matt Hasselbecks, and Donovan McNabbs breathing down Manning’s neck than there are LaDainian Tomlinsons and Shaun Alexanders to challenge Johnson. If you were to travel back in time from January of 2007 to tell me that Manning will outscore Johnson in the 2006 season, that wouldn’t have any impact on my preference for Johnson. Fantasy football isn’t, in the final analysis, about projecting points for players. It’s about finding gaps and disparities within and between certain positions, understanding the laws of supply and demand, and exploiting those gaps and disparities as advantageously as our positions in drafts or the funds available to us in an auction will allow.

With this fundamental lesson of fantasy football in mind, I think we’re in a position to appreciate a problem presented by kickers. There are still a few elite kickers, to be sure. But the tier below the elite is so flooded with talent as to make the use of kickers statistically problematic for most 12- to 14-team leagues.

According to one preseason publication (Fantasy Football Index):
The kicker position in fantasy leagues would be more interesting if teams were required to start two each week. As things stand now (at least in most leagues), too many good kickers go undrafted, and are easily available on waiver wires. . . . Kickers today are better than they’ve ever been. They collectively converted a record 81 percent of their field goals last year, and they averaged 107 points—No. 2 all-time. In fantasy leagues, maybe the best way to counter this growing supply is to alter the demand. Either require teams to start two kickers, or perhaps eliminate waiver moves at this position, meaning that fantasy teams would be stuck for the entire season with the players they selected on draft night. Without some kind of rules change there’s little incentive to make selecting a kicker a priority. (2006 Draft Guide, p. 134)

If you want to take issue with the premise of this argument, I’ll be happy to consider posting your critique in next month’s column. Of course, you don’t have to be very bold to challenge the assertions of the Index these days, since the staff is still trying to live down last year’s “Tatum Bell is the key to your draft” claim. Nevertheless, I’ve encountered this sort of logic from several sources, and I think it’s fairly compelling.

The first objection I would expect to hear in fantasy football circles would take the final sentence of the above quotation to task: “Without some kind of rules change there’s little incentive to make selecting a kicker a priority.” I can hear readers all over the country muttering their responses impatiently to themselves, “So what? Kickers always have been an afterthought in our league, and our league works fine. If we consistently revised the rules of the league to take statistical deviations in the NFL into account, then no one could keep up with the rules. Besides, you have to do something in those final rounds, so why not dedicate them to kickers?”

As I’ve written before, I am largely sympathetic to arguments such as this one. As long as everyone in the league is playing by the same rules, I don’t see any reason to get hung up on the details of scoring and drafting. Games are sets of arbitrary conventions, and one of the most widely observed conventions in fantasy football is to pay little attention to kickers on draft day. So if your response to the quoted passage above is to shrug your shoulders and say, “We’ve got a fine thing going. Why mess it up with special rules for kickers?”, I can’t fault you.

However, I’m also sympathetic to attempts to introduce as much strategy as possible into the game of fantasy football. And I know from personal experience that there is something to the Index’s argument. In one league, I went through 8 kickers last season—not because they were bad, but because they were all roughly as good as each other. I dumped one for another on the basis of upcoming matchups against poor defenses. It was easy and fun and effective for me, but if I were to take a step back from the league and look at things objectively, I would have to concede that it was imbalanced. Because I got off to a very strong start and felt assured of a playoff appearance very early in the season, I had the incentive to keep spending transaction fees on kickers week after week. My opponents who got off to slow starts didn’t have that same incentive, so they stuck with whichever kickers they had on hand from the draft (often despite extremely unfavorable matchups).

Another disparity created by the depth of kicker talent concerned one of the trickiest things to handle in this league, which is a roster limited to just 14 players. Such a small roster makes it difficult to keep much talent on your bench. It’s particularly difficult to play defense with personnel against other teams in the league by depriving them of whichever player they might be most interested in. For the sake of illustration, let’s say that I have 3 healthy running backs and can only start 2. I notice that my upcoming opponent has 3 running backs on his roster as well, but one was just injured, another is on a bye, and the third will be sharing time in a RBBC situation. If I had the space on my roster, I would love nothing better than to nab one or two of the hottest RB prospects on the waiver wire—not so much to use them myself as to make my opponent’s pool of talent even shallower than it already is. But it’s difficult to do that with so little roster space . . . unless I’m willing to go without a kicker until the minute before the game starts. That’s right, talented kickers were so plentiful last year that it was often beneficial for me to cut my only kicker simply to make room for whatever players I wanted to keep my opponent from getting. Then, in the seconds before kickoff, I would cut the player that I never wanted in the first place and go to the waiver wire for the kicker with the most favorable matchup. I was never disappointed—and usually delighted—by the choices available.

Based on that experience, I’m going to agree with the Index. Talented kickers are so plentiful as to make our traditional handling of the position a source of imbalance in most leagues. But what are we supposed to do about it?

Option 1: Okay, so it’s an imbalance. But since exploiting imbalances is what fantasy football is about, embrace it.

Option 2: The first solution proposed by the Index is to force all teams to play 2 kickers every week. This would certainly bring out the distinction between the many good kickers and the few duds in the NFL. Each week, a 14-team league would have to start 28 kickers. With 4 teams on byes, that would mean every kicker would accounted for. There might not be much difference between the production of the 5th kicker and the 15th, but there would be a heck of a difference between the 5th and the 25th. One problem with this arrangement is that in leagues that pride themselves on small roster sizes, tying up 2 spots with kickers for the entire season would leave most owners bitter. I suspect there are some other problems as well.

Option 3: The second solution proposed by the Index is to force all teams to keep the kickers they draft for the entire season. But what sort of exceptions would be made for injury? In 2004, we saw a spate of kickers lost for the better part of the season. If your owners are forbidden from acquiring kickers during the season, do you simply say “Tough luck” to those who lose one or conceivably two kickers to injury? I could understand requiring players to select two kickers during the draft and making no special provisions for them if they lose one kicker (since injuries are part of the game), but if a team lost both kickers, would it have to go for the rest of the season without a kicker, or do you turn the bad luck into good luck by letting the plagued owner pick up the surprise kicker that has taken the NFL by storm and that the other owners are forbidden from acquiring simply because their own kickers stayed healthy?

Option 4: Here I’ll solicit readers for modifications that they might propose to options 2 & 3.

Option 5: Here I’ll invite readers to suggest entirely different solutions to the problem of kicker supply far exceeding kicker demand.

Option 6: Here I’ll remind readers that they are welcome to dispute the premise of the argument. (You might want to contend that there’s a glut of TE talent all of a sudden and that no one is proposing that we alter the way TEs are used. That’s a difficult case to prove, since I simply haven’t seen serviceable TEs languishing on the waiver wire to the extent that I have seen serviceable kickers there. But maybe you have a different, better argument.)

I’ll report back with my findings in August.

For responses to this fantasy question please email Mike Davis. Readers who want to have their fantasy questions answered live, on the air, by Mike Davis are invited to tune into FFEXradio on Friday afternoons at 5:00 p.m. EST. Archived programs are also available.