To start or not to start? That is the question
Posted: Sunday September 5, 2004 12:50AM; Updated: Sunday September 5, 2004 10:16PM
By Kirk "Dr. Football" Bouyelas, Special to SI.com
While your fantasy draft is the single biggest event of your season, it's not necessarily the most important. I know from previous discussions that about half of you just hit the floor. Approximately 25 percent are clutching their hearts and gasping for air. Those unaffected are shaking their heads in agreement and laughing at the guys laying on the floor. Please help them up, ask them to take a few deep breaths and then read on. They should fully recover after reading a few more paragraphs.
I know to some my previous statement may sound like fantasy football heresy, but it is actually grounded in truth. Very seldom does a team drafted in August resemble the team that finishes the season. Injuries, trades and free-agent acquisitions can and will change the physical makeup of your roster. Poor performance will affect who you bench and who you play. These and other factors will dramatically affect the composition of your fantasy team throughout the season.
I can almost guarantee that Quincy Carter, Domanick Davis, Anquan Boldin and Boo Williams were not drafted in your league last year. Yet, each of those players made a dramatic impact for the owners who picked them up on the waiver wire. More importantly, while players like Donovan McNabb, Rich Gannon and Eric Moulds were sucking wind, Trent Green, Matt Hasselbeck, Jon Kitna, Moe Williams and Steve Smith were consistently performing better than their preseason rankings. If drafting was an exact science as some suppose, why do we see this paradox each year?
Plainly put, mediocre drafts can be overcome and great drafts can be squandered. With the amount of fantasy draft material in print, there is little chance that an owner will make any catastrophic mistakes in his draft, which might cost him the season. Need more proof? Take a look at the following lineups and see which one you would have selected at the start of last year.
If you are honest with yourself, you would reluctantly admit that Team A was by far the best choice before the season started. In reality though, Team A would have lost to Team B in Week 1. To add insult to injury, Team B performed better than Team A, when comparing year end statistics as well. This is often the case with fantasy drafts.
Now that I have you thinking a bit, let's look at my original statement again. While your fantasy draft is likely the single biggest event of your season, it's not necessarily the most important. Hopefully you now realize that statement is based in fact. As such, the following question begs to be answered: What is the most important decision you will make during your season? The answer: Who you choose to start each week. That is the question that will decide whether your team wins or loses on a more consistent basis than who you draft.
Have you ever agonized over which quarterback to start? Ever decided your flex player by a flip of a coin? Don't laugh -- you know that it has been done before. So how do you determine your starters each week? Is it by their draft order or last week's performance? Do you base it on a preseason cheat sheet or their cumulative performance? If so, you are making some disastrous mistakes, which will certainly cause you to lose games. Choosing your starters is a crucial decision that should not be taken lightly. If you've ever had your bench score more points than your starters, you know quite well how important this concept can be. Yes, that has happened to several fantasy owners. And yes, it is painful.
Over my years in fantasy football, I have seen very few articles that addressed the strategy of deciding who to start each week. Material on picking weekly starters is dwarfed by draft information, yet it is equally important. To be honest, it is probably one of the most asked questions on message boards all across the Internet during the season. To Start or Not to Start? That is the Question. Now let's find a few answers to that question.
While I'm certain that fantasy owners check defensive statistics, many fail to break them down correctly. I would offer that it's probably the most common mistake made when deciding who to start. The fact that a particular team is ranked 11th in total defense means nothing to a fantasy owner looking for an advantage in deciding which running back to start. Look deeper into the stats. Where is the defense ranked versus the run? Where is the defense ranked versus the pass? These are the critical areas when identifying areas to exploit.
Here is a perfect illustration. Last year, the Tennessee Titans finished the season ranked 12th in total defense. That is certainly a respectable defensive ranking. However, if you dig a little deeper into the statistics, you'll find that the Titans were ranked No. 1 versus the run and 30th against the pass. Quite a disparity that can be taken advantage of by an astute fantasy owner. Given the fact that the Titans allowed a paltry 80.9 rushing yards per game could be cause for you to think twice about which running back you start against Tennessee. But, given their ranking versus the pass, you might want to look at that matchup as one to exploit with your receivers or quarterback.
Another good indicator often overlooked by owners is touchdowns allowed, both versus the run and versus the pass. Does a particular team give up an inordinate number of touchdowns versus yards per game? Possibly, a team defense is stingy in the red zone, but allows the opposition to march down the field at will.
An example is provided to us by the 2003 Minnesota Vikings. Last year, the Vikings were tied for sixth in passing touchdowns allowed, yet ranked 26th in passing yards allowed. By digging a little deeper into the statistics, a fantasy owner can determine that the Vikings defense allowed opposing teams to move the ball down the field but not necessarily score through the air. That can also be helpful when making decisions on who to start each week.
Give me just three weeks
While stats can be a great indicator of a particular player's productivity, they can also be misleading to a novice owner. When crunching player stats, be wary of looking at the overall picture, or a year's worth of statistics. Look instead at a three-week window of statistical performance. This will give you a better indicator of how the player is really doing. A player who started off the season strong could be fading away over the last few games. By looking at only the yearly totals, you could be misled to believe that he was playing well in recent weeks.
For example, Ike Hilliard performed fairly well over the first five games of the season, scoring three touchdowns and averaging six receptions per game. He would have been a great addition to your lineup as a third wide receiver. However, starting in about Week 10, Hilliard hit the skids and his production plummeted. Between Weeks 10 and 14, Hilliard averaged less than three receptions per game and failed to score even one touchdown. Hilliard's overall stats were skewed by his performance early in the season. By taking a three-week picture of Hilliard's statistics, an astute owner would leave Hilliard on the bench and look elsewhere for a starter.
History can teach us something
It has been said, "If we don't learn from history, we are doomed." Believe it or not, this life lesson can also be applied to fantasy football. Teams and players alike often perform remarkably consistently against certain opponents over the course of time. Identifying those trends can be very useful to a fantasy owner. Here are a few keys to look at:
Owners should determine whether a particular player or team has a history of performing well against their opposition. If the player in question is a wide receiver, does his quarterback have a history of performing well or poorly against the opposing team? If the player is a running back, how has he performed over the last five or six games against that week's opponent? Does a particular team rush or pass the football at a higher than normal percentage, when competing against certain teams?
Let's take a snippet from last year and see how historical trends can be applied to fantasy football. It's week 14 and the Philadelphia Eagles are playing the Dallas Cowboys. History has shown us that since 2000, the Eagles are 25-5 overall during November and December. Additionally, the Eagles had won nine of their past 10 games. More importantly though, the Eagles won six of their past seven meetings versus the Cowboys. In the past four games against the Cowboys, Donovan McNabb had eight touchdown passes and only one interception. McNabb also had a 100-plus quarterback rating in three of his past five games.
Did history repeat itself? You tell me. Versus the Cowboys, McNabb had a combined 271 yards passing/rushing and threw for three touchdowns. McNabb was not intercepted and finished with a 100-plus quarterback rating in the game. Scary, huh?
Check the spread
The professional oddsmakers can be very helpful in looking at matchups. Generally on Thursdays, the spread on the upcoming games will be released. Take a look at the odds, but pay particular attention to the over/under on the games. The over/under will tell you which games will be low-scoring duds and which games will be high-scoring affairs.
Now you may be asking why that is important. If the Ravens are playing the Bears and the over/under on the game is 20 points, you would be wise to think twice about starting any players in this game. The oddsmakers are telling you that this game will be a defensive battle and/or offensive nightmare. A low-scoring game means little chance of scoring fantasy points.
If, however, the over/under on the Rams versus Saints game is 50 points, you would want to start any players on those teams. The professionals in Vegas have determined that this game will be a high-scoring gem, which a fantasy owner should take advantage of regarding his starters.
Many fantasy leagues allow teams to start what is termed a "flex" player. Generally speaking, this can be a running back, wide receiver or tight end. Because this is generally a player who is deeper on your roster, deciding which one to play can cause a great deal of anxiety for owners. Factor in bye weeks and your talent pool can be watered down even further, making the decision more difficult.
While most fantasy owners seem to favor a receiver in this situation, it's actually better to look to your running backs as a "flex" player option. As a rule of thumb, a running back will touch the football more than a receiver. More touches means more opportunities for yards and touchdowns.
Now be careful here. I'm not saying to start a back that may touch the ball two times a game. However, if the decision is between a back who carries the ball an average of 12 times a game and a receiver who averages three receptions a game, go with the running back. Even better yet, go with a running back who is also used as a receiver. This is especially helpful in situations where points are awarded per reception. Remember, more touches means more opportunities for yards and touchdowns.
Injuries can hurt
Wow, this one sounds so basic. I would never start a guy who was hurt. Really? What about a player who is questionable? What about a player who is probable?
Starting an injured player can be disastrous, depending on the injury and the player who is injured -- even if he is listed as probable.
Now I will admit that some guys are throw-back players who would play with a broken leg or worse. Steve McNair and Joe Horn are both guys who come to mind. McNair and Horn have consistently played through injuries and performed surprisingly well. Unfortunately though, the vast majority of players do not perform well when injured.
Torn ACL, turf toe, deep thigh bruise, high ankle sprain, pulled hamstring, tweaked groin -- what do these injuries mean to a fantasy owner? An injury such as a torn ACL will sideline a player for the season. Nagging injuries such as a pulled hamstring or tweaked groin will keep players out of the lineup for several weeks. The key for fantasy owners is to determine whether the injury will sideline their player.
The NFL releases weekly injury reports for all injured players. But did you know that the information comes from the teams, through the NFL? It's the ultimate honor system. Certain teams will use the injury report to take advantage of their situation. They may report a minor injury as more serious and vice versa. Their opposition will be left guessing whether the player actually will play in the game. Guess what? Fantasy owners are also left guessing.
What does doubtful, questionable and probable really mean? Owners might be surprised to know that players listed as "questionable" play in games over 60 percent of the time. Here's another bit of misinformation: Some players listed as "probable" don't play in the game at all. When dealing with injury reports, it's much better to know the exact type of injury and whether or not the player is practicing. If a player is not practicing on Thursday and Friday, I would be very wary of the injury no matter the classification. Here are a few things I can almost guarantee you did not know about football injuries:
a. Moderate sprains are actually ligament tears. Think about that the next time your running back is listed as questionable in the injury report.
b. Turf toe is not a mild injury at all, but rather a ligament tear in the ball of the foot. Think about where almost every skill player makes his cuts before you select your starters.
c. High ankle sprains are generally more incapacitating than "regular" angle sprains. Be very careful of this type injury. Players can often aggravate the injury and be rendered useless.
d. There is practically no such thing as a "mild" shoulder injury for a quarterback. If the injury is to the quarterback's throwing arm, it will definitely affect his performance.
e. There is absolutely no such thing as a "mildly" or "moderately" torn labrum. This injury should be avoided like the plague.
Don't stop with the offensive injuries. It would also be wise to check defensive injuries as well. These injuries can shed some light on areas for your offensive players to exploit. Not convinced? If the two starting corners for an opposing team were out injured, what effect would it likely have on the quarterback and/or receivers playing against them? Always look at the big picture.
Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow
Weather reports can be a useful tool in deciding your starters. Rain, sleet, snow and high winds can all affect the playing conditions and therefore a player's performance.
Rain and sleet will cause sloppy conditions that will assuredly increase turnovers. High winds can hinder the kicking game. Winds will also play havoc with a quarterback's accuracy and ability to throw the deep ball.
Generally speaking, inclimate weather will lend itself to lower scoring games. As any owner knows, low scoring affairs are not always the best opportunity for fantasy points. Of course, all bets are off when the game is played in a dome stadium.
A Stud is a Stud
Everyone knows there are exceptions to every rule. While not foolproof, I will offer the following exception to every rule in this article. No matter what, do not bench your studs! I repeat, always start your studs.
Obviously, you did not draft Priest Holmes or LaDainian Tomlinson to sit on your bench. They are every-game starters, regardless of the stats, matchups or trends. Sure they will have a few poor games. However, they will have far more great games than poor ones. Deciding to sit your stud will ultimately come back to bite you on the butt. Been there, learned from it, and got the t-shirt.
stud \ noun \ a: Players who consistently produce mega fantasy points b: players drafted in the first round of your draft c: any player with the last name of Holmes, Tomlinson, Portis, Harrison, Moss or Owens.
The more the better
When deciding on your weekly lineup, I would suggest that you use all of these factors to determine who you start. Sure, one area may prove accurate by itself. However, taking more factors into consideration will ultimately give you a better chance of success. Look at the big picture and use more than one factor to evaluate your potential starters. Remember that it's not always who you draft, but who you start.
Kirk "Dr.Football" Bouyelas is a co-owner of Fantasy Asylum, a member of the Professional Football Writers of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers of America trade associations, and has been writing about fantasy football since 1997. You can now hear Kirk on The Three Egos radio show every Thursday night at 10:05 pm ET on FFRadio.com.