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Mike Davis | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Where's Your Event Horizon?

The future is a black hole into which our predictions get pulled, never to be heard from again. Even light itself (which is faster than Darrelle Revis, though perhaps not as agile) can't escape from a black hole once it crosses the threshold known as the event horizon. The more time I spend playing fantasy football, the more I get a feel for the kinds of predictions I can make that are on my side (the visible side) of the event horizon. These are predictions worth making, predictions whose consequences will play out in the hazy and dim but nevertheless partially foreseeable future. But I also make useless predictions--the kind that don't even make sense after only a short interval.

Aaron Hernandez

Aaron Hernandez: Our predictions can change so quickly, it makes you wonder what predictions should we actually be making?

In my June column, I wrote about the Welker-Amendola transition in New England. My basic assessment was that Tom Brady will remain a top QB even if Amendola fails to fill Welker's shoes because Brady will spread the ball to other WRs and TEs. "But wait!" I could hear people objecting, "Rob Gronkowski is still injured and may miss substantial playing time." I brushed that objection aside with the argument that I didn't think Gronk would miss much time and that even if he did, Brady would just have to rely a little more on Aaron Hernandez.


When I originally wrote the section on Brady, Odin Lloyd was still alive and Hernandez seemed likely to contribute a great deal to the Patriots' upcoming season. Now, just one month later, it's hard to believe there was ever a time when anyone expected Hernandez to be on the New England roster in 2013. The most important question to me as I wrote my draft on June 16th was: "How much time is Gronkowski likely to miss?" It never occurred to me that I should have been asking, "Will that other tight end commit murder tomorrow?"

That's the thing about predictions: Sometimes we forget that we don't even know which questions we should be trying to predict the answers to.

That little epiphany was driven home for me by the single most perceptive response to my June column, which came from a reader named Michael. I'll get to the meat of his note in my August column, but for now I want to focus on his final paragraph:

[I'm] typically not a big handcuff guy, the fun of FFL is to grind on your roster each week. Parking a guy on the bench for weeks to protect a risky guy you drafted [suggests to me that] you shouldn’t have taken the guy you needed to provide a handcuff for.

That's a fairly provocative argument against handcuffing, but I understand where Michael is coming from. To be competitive in FF, you have to do all you can each and every week with the players you have on your roster. Compromising your flexibility by tying up slots with players who are only there "just in case" may be the quickest path to mediocrity. Although I think there are times when handcuffing makes sense, I tend to agree with the gist of Michael's argument.

Generally speaking, we need to ask ourselves, "How can I get the most out of this team right now?"--not "What will I do in case ________ happens?" Don't try to anticipate every possible ________. Just let _______ happen and deal with it then. That's why we have trades and the waiver wire.

I can illustrate this point with one change I've made in my drafting style since I started playing FF. My primary league requires everyone to draft two QBs, and years ago I used to be very careful about making sure that their bye weeks didn't overlap. If my QB1 had a bye in Week 11, I didn't even consider drafting a QB2 with a bye in Week 11. Now my attitude on that question is completely different. I want the best QB2 I can get; I don't care when his bye week is. I can always pick up a QB3 in an emergency.

Why the change in attitude? It's simple for anyone with a bit of experience.

For all I know, I might have decided to cut my QB1 before his bye week, as was the case for many Eli Manning owners last season. We all know Eli is capable of statistical greatness, and he made sense as a QB1 on a lot of teams last year. But he had a dismal stretch of games leading into the Giants' bye in Week 11 (zero TDs and a sub-60 passer rating in Weeks 8, 9, and 10), and it was hard to blame the owners who decided to cut him.

If you were one of the owners who cut Eli, I hope you replaced him with a QB who could offer you something more promising than the simple fact of being active in Week 11! Presumably you went for the most productive QB you could find, even if he wasn't on your radar during the draft.

The future is so difficult to predict that we tend to focus on whatever is easiest to foresee. Bye weeks are scheduled in advance, and during a draft, it's tempting to fixate on things that can pretty much be counted on, but letting the bye schedule determine your roster makeup is the FF equivalent of missing the forest for the trees.

Of course, it's possible to swing too far in the opposite direction--to focus so much on what we know right now that we are unwilling to make any predictions at all. That mentality leads to FFers who are in the habit of starting players the week after they have their best game of the year. Finding a balance is challenging, and I hope to hear from readers who have figured out how to distinguish the predictions that are worth making from those that aren't. Maybe someone out there has figured out exactly where the event horizon is for all FF-related prognostications. I'm interested to hear from anyone who has a strong sense of what we shouldn't attempt to anticipate, especially if they can formulate their warning as forcefully as Michael does with regard to handcuffs.

To get you thinking about this kind of question, I highly recommend looking at Doug Orth's preseason matchup analysis for the AFC and NFC East (released on the FFToday website earlier this week). If you haven't seen his article yet, you're in for a treat. Orth takes a refined approach to guesstimating the productivity of the important players from two divisions based on the defenses they will face in 2013. He then generates an intuitive color-coded chart to break their seasons down game by game.

For example, one quick glance at the line dedicated to Tom Brady tells us (based on what we know right now about the defenses the Patriots will face this year) that Brady should have three highly favorable matchups (in Weeks 4, 6, and 15), one very unfavorable matchup (in Week 3), and five challenging matchups (in Weeks 7, 9, 12, 13, and 16).

I love the chart and expect to refer to it frequently throughout the preseason. But I like the introduction to Orth's article even more than the numbers because he explains the difficulty of making these kinds of predictions so far in advance:

No method is foolproof or all-encompassing; for every Doug Martin, Arian Foster or Eric Decker breakout I get right, there will always the players like Cecil Shorts that go from third- or fourth-string on their team’s depth chart to fantasy stardom. . . . [Moreover,] one preseason injury to a key offensive player can cause a ripple effect to the entire team’s projections while an injury to a key defensive player can do the same to each of their opponents. While it sounds like a lot of work – and it is – it is necessary because those “ripple effects” are felt on the field as well.

Like Orth, I believe that matchups matter. The first article I ever wrote for FFToday was a critique of the tiresome mantra, "Always start your studs," which struck me as a coded way of saying, "I don't want to have to think about too many things at once, such as the teams my players are up against. I just want to keep starting the same guys over and over no matter what."

I had the chance to cover the AFC Central from 1998 to 2001, and for those of you who never figured out what Eddie George, Jamal Lewis, Jerome Bettis, and Fred Taylor had in common, it was four games each season against the doormat Bengals and Browns. You only have to watch particular running backs abuse particular defenses a few times before the pattern sinks in. A stud RB can have a great performance against any team on any day, but certain opponents tend to bring out the studliness of our stars.

The tricky thing about this kind of analysis is that many of the predictions we make now about the 2013 season will be challenged by Week 3 and out the window by Week 8. You can look at a team with a new offensive coordinator and do your research and conclude that since it took two years for him to fully install his system the first time he was an offensive coordinator, the same will be true this time around. But maybe it won't. Maybe now that he's proven himself, the skill players will buy into the system right away; maybe he will have learned how to install the system more quickly. Or maybe the players he was relying on to fill certain roles won't have the capabilities he imagined, and it will take three years to get the offense firing on all cylinders. There's no way to know for sure until the games get played.

We don't know for certain that two of the five worst rushing defenses of 2013 will be in the AFC South, but we saw it happen in 2012. The Colts gave up 137 yards per game on the ground, and the Jags gave up 141. You can argue that C. J. Spiller is a better running back than Arian Foster if you want, but Foster will play four games in 2013 against divisional opponents that failed to stop the run in 2012. Spiller's situation couldn't be more different. Buffalo was the only team in the AFC East to finish in the bottom five against the run in 2012, and Spiller is (oh so unfairly!) scheduled to play exactly zero games against his own team.

But here's the thing: Players who fail to perform get cut; and coaches who fail to help their players perform get demoted or fired. Most teams that were bad against the run in 2012 won't stay bad against the run for the whole of 2013. Will the Saints (the worst team in the league against the run last season) be abused by Spiller when he gets to face them in Week 8? I think so, but I'm not at all sure. And how about those soft Jaguars? Will they still be a sieve when they face Spiller in Week 16? I'm even less sure about that one.

As Orth points out, one key injury can have a ripple effect. The Bear defense of 2009 played differently without Brian Urlacher, and the Jet defense went into a tailspin without Revis in the lineup last year. It's impossible to predict the future of any one player in the NFL, much less whole offensive and defensive units (as my June column on the New England passing attack demonstrates).

But that doesn't mean Orth's chart lacks value. I find it highly valuable--especially for the beginning of the 2013 season. I already know that it will influence my draft strategy in August. Maybe the best way to pinpoint your own event horizon would be to figure out to what extent Orth's charts will influence your own draft strategy. I'm eager to hear from anyone who's willing to give that question a little thought.

Mike Davis has been writing about fantasy football since 1999. As a landlocked Oklahoman who longs for the sound of ocean waves, he also writes about ocean colonization under the pen name Studio Dongo. The latest installment in his science fiction series can be found here.