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Gray Matters

It’s crunch time for playoff contenders and owners on the bubble. Every point counts, and you’re looking for trades to add strength and free agent prospects to add depth before the waiver deadline. You just have to pick the right ones.

Stats are as much about making good decisions as they are the numbers, and I’m a bit of a science buff and news junkie, so in this edition of the Stat Lab, we’ll take some lessons from those lab researchers whose game day jersey is a white coat. Here are five how-tos and how-not-tos in putting your brain to work towards fantasy football success:


# 1 Manage your investments

If you’re reading the Stat Lab, you’re probably a better than average fantasy owner, and better looking than most too. I don’t know this for sure, but there’s an excellent chance you agree with me. We tend to perceive those things and people we’re most invested in, including ourselves, as better than the rest. You find this in studies ranging from job performance [1] to children’s health [2] to online dating [3].

Apart from leading to untold numbers of blind date disappointments, you might find this “Better Than Average Effect” on your fantasy team. Can’t let go of Fred Taylor? Is Torry Holt still leading your WR corps? You paid well for them during the draft, but you may be overvaluing them now, and it’s long past time to move on. The opposite is true as well — many of us tend to see catastrophe where there’s only mild disappointment in our investments. Ask a Ladainian Tomlinson owner how his top back is doing and you would never know he was holding the 10th-ranked running back by average, only two points per game out of the Top 5 in PPR formats.

If you’re an avid college fan, or a student of football strategy, you may have heard of the A-11 offense. [4] This is the wacky formation with just two linemen around the center, one or more quarterbacks in the shotgun, and everybody else outside off the line. The outside players then wait until the last possible moment before eligible receivers in the play move into legal position. In the typical NFL offense formation, there are 36 possible combinations of eligible and ineligible receivers. In the A-11, there are over 16,000[5]. This is the strength of the formation. There are just too many possibilities for the defenders to anticipate the assignments, meaning they have to guess, or make an impossibly fast decision. Even the simplest decision can take the average person up to nearly half of a second to make, which is already half the time the offense needs to be stationary before the snap in the NFL. Deciding between 16,000 possibilities just can’t be done in time. [6]

For a related problem, let’s go to Sunday. You’re in a half-dozen leagues, watching your favorite team. Your opponent has your favorite team’s quarterback, while you’re starting your favorite team’s wide receiver — but in one league, you’re facing that same receiver, and in another, and another … Arrrgghhh! Like the A-11, there can be just too many possibilities to track while actually enjoying the game. By the time you’ve digested the result of the last play, and figured out the effect on all your fantasy teams, the next play could have already started.

The solution here is to simply not try. Always root for your favorite team, forget about who your opponents are starting, enjoy the good plays made by the guys on your rosters, and hope to get a good game in whatever you’re watching. If you feel the need to do some math to replace the points calculation, spend the commercials testing the average reaction time of your bartender to your raised empty glass. Repeat often for a good sample set, in the name of science.

#2 Think outside of your comfort zone

Without looking, rank these NFL teams by all-time franchise record, from best to worst:

Chiefs, Rams, Patriots, Buccaneers

If you said Buccaneers, Patriots, Rams, Chiefs, you have correctly ranked these teams according to the official league-wide standings at NFL.com. The teams actually were ranked by their all-time franchise record [15]. If you assumed today’s bottom dwellers couldn’t possibly have a stronger win history than these recent Super Bowl Champions, or that today’s best have always been on top, you’ve fallen victim to the information that happens to be most available and familiar.

My favorite example of this sort of bias comes from a study of the card catalog at a particular university library [7]. The researchers found they could predict an economic downturn based on the number of books about recession and economic downturns. Sounds like economic publishing genius, until you find the same phenomenon in other places, like books about diamond values preceding rises in the costs of diamonds, and so on. Note to self: Complete manuscript of “Super Bowls and Hall of Fame Quarterbacks of the

San Francisco 49ers” by Monday.

The more obvious bias is relying on what is most familiar, good or bad. This is why someone in your league probably reached past healthier but less familiar players for Marvin Harrison, looking for 1999 through 2006 performance without much mind to his knee that got refurbished in 2007. This also works the other way around. You’ll often hear things like “I’ll never draft this guy again,” where an owner who got burned by a player one year dismisses him the next for no good reason.

Even worse, a bad opinion can make you vulnerable to minor negative details, whether they’re true or not. It was recently demonstrated that people’s opinions can be swayed by false information that fit their views, even after being told the information was wrong![8] You might say they were told something they wanted to believe, and they still believed it even after being told it was untrue. This is why certain negative ad campaigns work so well and why it’s bad business to hold a grudge.

When you’re scouring the waiver wire, make sure you’re looking at prospects objectively and in the present. Look at his recent performance, what he’s capable of doing and his current situation. Forget about what he did or didn’t do on your team, set aside your ill will towards the Cowboys or the most-hated team of your choice and think about what that prospect can do for your team today.

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