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Q&A - Exploring the Efficiency of Procrastination

Where was Ricky Williams ranked on your cheatsheet in June of 2004? How much time did you spend moving him around in your rankings before he made his drug-related retirement official in August? In the summer of 2008, what statistics did you point to when you were trying to figure out whether Tom Brady could repeat his stellar performance in 2007? Did any of those statistics matter after an injury brought Brady’s 2008 season to an abrupt (and unpredictable) conclusion in Week 1?

Fantasy football is about making predictions. We build teams based on hunches (some more informed than others)—and then create elaborate scoring systems to determine whether Owner A’s bundle of predictions is more or less accurate than Owner B’s bundle of predictions. At the end of the season, the person whose crystal ball turned out to be the clearest is declared the winner.

Most of the prognosticating that we do in fantasy football is fun; otherwise we wouldn’t do it. But sometimes the fun can be soured in retrospect by developments that shatter our crystal ball like stray bullets. How many owners in keeper leagues overpaid for Michael Vick before his legal troubles? They gave up draft picks or salary cap room for him knowing that his statistical productivity would be uneven—but telling themselves that at the very least he would be fun to watch on Sundays. And then they learned that even the worst-case scenario (which they imagined to be an occasional game of scrambling for negative yards and completing zero passes to wide receivers) was not as bad as things could really get.

FFers do not need very much experience to conclude that we can only realistically predict general trends. As our predictions become more particular and precise, they demand increasing amounts of wasted energy. I used to cover the old AFC Central in the years when neither Ohio team could defend the run at all. It was easy to predict reasonable productivity from the primary running backs for Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee because they all had four contests against Cleveland and Cincinnati. It was not easy to predict which of those four games would be the best matchup for particular running backs. One can focus on the home-vs.-away distinction and forget about the mud on the field—or think about the weather conditions and overlook an injury. At first, it may seem that the way to make more accurate predictions is to become increasingly comprehensive in our approach. If we can think about injuries and field conditions and the effect of the cheers and jeers of the crowd; if we can account for the fact that this defensive tackle is three inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than any DT the running back has seen all year; if we can remember that the opposing team will only attempt field goals over 45 yards if the wind is to the kicker’s back; if we factor in this head coach’s trouble with clock management; if we pay attention to the tendency of this officiating crew to call holding on linemen who can get away with much worse under less scrutinizing eyes—if only we could take all of the relevant factors into account (so goes this line of thinking), then we would make particular predictions with accuracy.

Not so.

Perhaps I am over-generalizing from my own experience. Perhaps I have simply had bad luck. Perhaps I am simply not smart enough to keep a handle on the everything-all-at-once approach to making predictions. But I find that beyond a certain threshold, the energy that I put into making predictions is counterproductive.

The more comprehensive and precise we try to make our predictions, the less good they do us. I am particularly skeptical of “accretive” predictions. These are the predictions built out of layers upon layers of good points that are only tangentially related to the main point. I remember evaluating a receiver one year and thinking about the fact that his team was very good at returning kicks and punts, which meant that they usually had good field position, which meant that he was unlikely to score long touchdowns, which I rashly construed to mean that he was unlikely to earn bonus points for me in one of my leagues. I then started looking for receivers on teams with poor return units. I was minutes into this task before I remembered the obvious fact that the greats (Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss, etc.) are great because of their ability to make catches and outmaneuver defenders—not because of how often their offenses start on the 20. I chuckled as I imagined Jerry Rice making a speech at the Hall of Fame about how his best games all came down to the offense’s starting field position.

I try to keep the lesson of that chuckle in mind as I read about developments in the NFL in June and July. It is good to know what is going on—but dangerous (and largely pointless) to try to make predictions for a season that begins in September based on whatever newsworthy tidbits come our way in the early summer. This attitude may sound like laziness, but it genuinely feels like wisdom.

Things That Make You Go Hmmm . . . .

Fantasy football rewards certain habits of mind. Some of us are instinctively critical thinkers; others learn through bitter experience that there are costs associated with blindly accepting the claims of purported experts. Most of the FFers who are at all likely to be reading an article like this in June go through the same mental process when they see a link to an article about the top 10 quarterbacks in the upcoming season. We don’t sit idly while the page is loading. We generate lists in our own minds to have something to measure the writer’s opinions against. We aren’t interested in why the writer agrees with us about the top three choices, but we want to know why our 6th pick isn’t on his list at all. We do not simply absorb information over the summer. We wrestle with it; most of us can’t help ourselves.

The impulse to do that kind of wrestling is laudable, but the wrestling itself probably isn’t as useful as we imagine. The season may very well show us that Writer X’s top 10 QB list from June was off base—but our reasons for disagreeing with the writer in June will probably turn out to have been off base too. Instead of deciding whether I agree or disagree with the things I read or watch or hear over the summer, I am getting better and better about saying, “Hmmm”—and leaving matters there (for the time being at least). I will be critical of the information eventually. But each year I procrastinate more and more about making the switch from passively absorbing information to actively wrestling with it.

If this approach seems lazy to you and you cannot help thinking about examples from your experience that illustrate the benefits of a critical engagement with information from the NFL in June and July, you can send those examples to me instead of posting them on your league’s website under the heading “Reasons why Mike Davis is an idiot.” I also invite readers who are taking the “Hmmm” approach to send me any FF-related claims that they have read (online or in print) that strike them as premature at this point in the off-season. If you are making a point of procrastinating about formalizing your rankings, I am curious to know why. And if you are convinced that such procrastination is simply laziness and that there are substantive rewards for thinking long and hard about September in June, then I will be happy to give you a fair hearing in July’s column.

For responses to this month's fantasy question please email me.