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Sunday was a waking nightmare for those who loathe to base their fantasy football decisions on narratives — stories that help our feeble brains comprehend a series of events.
Steve Smith, Sr., that diminutive, fiery receiver who had seen steady and alarming drops in per-snap and per-target efficiency since 2009, became the champion of the narrative world on Sunday as he tormented his former team, the Panthers, to the tune of seven catches, 139 yards, and two touchdowns. He’s now fantasy’s No. 4 wide receiver, 15 points ahead of Calvin Johnson.
Smith had already become something of a no-brainer fantasy starter in 12-team leagues — becoming a target hog in Gary Kubiak‘s offense — but the bullishness on his Week 4 prospects had nothing to do with matchup, and everything to do with the stories we tell each other. Carolina, when adjusted for strength of schedule, was the ninth best defense against receivers going into Week 4. Smith’s matchup was objectively awful.
Those who invested in the power of narrative did well this week, in re-draft or daily fantasy football, and point to Smith’s hate-filled, blood-and-guts covered obsession with his former employer as a reason for their bullishness. My worldview — and my belief in being as robotically objective as humanly possible — won’t let me buy into this, however.
I’ll never be able to beat down the power of narrative in one weekly column, but I’m going to offer two recent examples of when stories failed to deliver on their storybook promises.
There was Brett Favre, as his career came to an inglorious close, taking on his former team in Week 14 of his final NFL season. The old guy would be able to put up big numbers this one last time, the story went, against a Green Bay defense that hadn’t exactly been stout. Favre finished with 208 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception against the Packers.
Adrian Peterson, in the days after one of his sons was killed in October 2013, was widely expected to take out his anger and fury on the Panthers’ defense in a Week 6 matchup.
Twitter chatter about Peterson’s unimaginable loss revolved around bumping him up in the weekly rankings because, well, the narrative said he’d bulldoze the Carolina front seven in the wake of personal tragedy. It made sense if you believe real life emulates Hollywood. Peterson ran 10 times for 61 yards against Carolina that day.
Peyton Manning won one for the narrative advocates in last season’s showdown with his former team, the Colts. Manning torched Indy’s fledgling secondary for 323 yards and three scores that night.
While we’re never going to be able to explain everything that happens — or doesn’t happen — on the football field, I’m not going to let Smith’s nuclear Week 4 performance against his despised former mates sway me on the power of storytelling in fantasy football.
Evaluation of the here and now, trust in the power of matchups, use of innovative tools that help us better understand what numbers are trying to say, and an unerring faith that, over the long run, good decisions will trump the power of narrative, will remain my guiding lights.
“Many of these people feel that numbers lack nuance, that measurements lack emotions, that data lack drama, and most of all that numerical insight lacks human understanding. And they’ve got good reason to feel this way, because it’s in their DNA,” Fortune Magazine writer Douglas Alden Warshaw once wrote. “Narrative is not just how we discuss the world, it’s how we interpret it, how we bundle our neurological impulses and responses to make sense of our immediate environment, which has far too many data points for us to ever live solely by the numbers.”
Here are a few key lessons we learned in Week 4.
- Teddy Bridgewater put up superior numbers, but don’t look at Blake Bortles‘ first start as a sign of things to come. Bortles managed just 253 yards, one touchdown, and two picks against the Chargers — a decidedly unfriendly matchup for any quarterback, much less a rookie playing in a road game with a porous offensive line. Bortles posted the highest completion percentage of any rookie quarterback in their first career start, completing 81 percent of his passes against San Diego’s solid secondary. Bortles’ willingness to run is a big part of what makes me excited about his season-long prospects. He rushed five times for 25 yards yesterday, and now has 55 rushing yards through six quarters of play. Bortles could be part of the Konami Code set of quarterbacks.
- Only five receivers have more targets than Carolina rookie Kelvin Benjamin through four weeks. Probably you drafted him as your third or fourth wide receiver — maybe even fifth, depending on league depth. Well, he’s now either your first or second receiver, and needs to be started every week. Benjamin saved his day against the Ravens with a 28-yard touchdown, but it’s worth noting that he was still targeted nine times as shutdown cornerback Jimmy Smith shadowed him. Benjamin is becoming a target hog, a deep threat, and a red zone beast — the holy triumvirate for a fantasy pass catcher. Benjamin isn’t even being incredibly efficient with his opportunities, as 20 wideouts are scoring more fantasy points on a per-target basis. Even without efficiency, Benjamin is fantasy’s No. 7 receiver.
- There’s very little question remaining that we’re seeing a changing of the pass-catching guard in Houston. Andre Johnson continues to rack up targets, just as he always has, while DeAndre Hopkins is scoring all the points. Hopkins has 24 targets — seven fewer than old man Andre — and has still managed 17 more fantasy points through four games. There’s nothing in the numbers that says Hopkins can’t maintain his early-season pace. Hopkins is the NFL’s sixth-best deep threat, according to Pro Football Focus’ metric. If you have a league mate skeptical of Hopkins’ hot start, throw out a low-ball offer and scoop up Houston’s No. 1 receiver.
- Among the sentences I never thought I’d write at the end of September: LeSean McCoy is fantasy’s preeminent buy-low candidate if you’re lucky enough to spot a league mate in the grip of panic about Shady’s consecutive disastrous outings. Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly admitted that the Eagles’ injury-ravaged offensive line is being brutalized by opponents — a charge that was undeniable against the 49ers yesterday. McCoy, amazingly, has 29 carries for 39 yards over the past two weeks. You would’ve been better off starting Benny Cunningham, Bilal Powell or Denard Robinson during that span. Right tackle Lane Johnson will return in Week 5 and McCoy will get something of a soft schedule over the next month, with matchups against the Rams, Giants, and Texans. The one concern about McCoy that I can’t seem to shake: he’s no longer involved in the Eagles’ once-potent screen game. Shady hasn’t caught a single pass in two weeks, and has just 11 targets through four games.
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