Imagine that you’re in a casino. As you glance over your shoulder, you see a roulette table where something unusual has happened; black has come up 20 times in a row. Now, would you want to trot over there and slap a few chips on red? I know that I’d be tempted. On that next spin, it would feel like red almost has to show up. And it’d seem as though the odds are backing that assumption.
A similar rationale is sometimes applied to fantasy football projections. Tom Brady is coming off a season in which he threw 50 touchdown passes in 16 regular season games. That was a freak occurrence. There doesn’t seem to be much chance that he can keep up that pace. Again, in making that assessment, it feels like the odds are with you.
Unfortunately, this particular brand of intuitive reasoning is inherently flawed. At a roulette table, after black has come up 20 times in a row, there is only a 50% chance that red will turn up next. If black comes up 40 times in a row, there is still only a 50/50 shot that red will show up next. Every individual spin is a completely random event, governed by it’s own set of circumstances. Probability theory can’t help us. We just have no idea where that little ball will land.
In the topsy-turvy world of fantasy football, probability theory is every bit as useless. In no way do past numbers dictate what will happen in the upcoming season. We only think that they do. This is an illusion. Like at the roulette table.
All right, it’s time to apply what we’ve learned. Let’s say that you have to place a bet on Tom Brady’s 2008 TD total. You have 2 choices:
1) Brady throws for 50+ TD’s
2) Brady throws for less than 50 TD’s.
You’d still want to lay your money on option #2, right? Maybe you’re convinced that there is something more to this situation. That could be true. Let’s examine what the prognosticators have been saying.
Here are the basic points that are used to support the “Tom Brady won’t throw 50 TD’s” argument:
- History is against Brady
- Statistics show that Brady won’t be able to duplicate his 2007 numbers
- It’s silly to think that Brady will come close to the 50 TD mark this year
Then, following these claims, a few bones are usually thrown at us. We get the stat lines upon which these assumptions have been based:
- Peyton Manning threw 49 TD passes in 2004, but he had only 28 TD’s in 2005. This constituted a 43% drop in his TD production.
- Dan Marino had 48 TD’s in 1984, but only 30 in 1985 – a 37% drop.
- Kurt Warner had 41 TD’s in 1999, but only 21 in 2000 – a 49% drop.
** Note: Warner missed 5 games in 2000, so his TD total for that year is skewed. But, since I’ve heard his name mentioned in this context, I’ve included him on the list. **
This looks like convincing stuff, but there is something missing. If you listen to the dialogue surrounding Tom Brady’s 2008 fantasy potential, you don’t hear any complicated player analyses. Nor do you hear that New England’s schedule has been carefully examined or that the various match-ups have been scrutinized.
The predictions are based solely on numbers. Or rather, they’re based on the assumption that the numbers – the odds – are against Brady.
This logic is paper-thin. As I’ve already mentioned, probability (the odds) has absolutely nothing to do with fantasy football. On the gridiron, as in any situation outside of a computer model, things happen for actual reasons. Numbers, in and of themselves, mean precisely zilch.
Does that statement bother you? You might think that statistics are the best predictive tool that we have. Well, not quite.
Reasoning is the best predictive tool that we have. The statistics only point to trends, which then have to be explored. During this exploration process it’s possible to develop an argument,
the statistics themselves should never be taken
as the argument.
In other words, if someone is going to put forth the idea that Brady will put up fewer than 35 TD’s this year, it has to be supported by more than just numbers. I mean, we’re taking about a quarterback who is surrounded by the same players and coaches as he was in 2007. There have to be reasons – football related causes – that he’ll see such a decrease in his production. Or do you think that you’ll be sitting around next year saying, “I knew it. Brady just couldn’t compete with history. Those pesky numbers kept holding him back.”.
I’m not saying that the statistics of Manning, Marino and Warner should be kept out of this. It’s just that they have to be extrapolated. It could be that, after a season of throwing so many touchdowns, all 3 guys had their interception total rise significantly. This might suggest that they were so intent on duplicating their TD total, their play suffered. Or maybe, each quarterback took more sacks the following year; perhaps defenses started to blitz more in order to throw these QB’s off their rhythm. Whatever. If statistics are presented, there have to be some suggestions as to why those numbers came about and what bearing this might have on the current situation. Otherwise we are just being force-fed the idea that history and probability are somehow dictating (or limiting) player production. Which is complete nonsense.
At this point you might be wondering if I’m going to try to convince you that Tom Brady will throw 50 TD passes this year. Well, I’m not. I’m not trying to persuade you one way or the other. I’m just saying that you should be careful of the line of reasoning that you’ve bought in to.
If you’ve decided that you won’t be taking Brady in the first round this year, you might want to reexamine the reasons why.