Is Fantasy Football Ruining the Way We Value NFL Players?
I know I’ve said this somewhere on SpreeGoogs, but let me make something clear: there are five major sports in America, and the most important of those is fantasy football (2 is the NCAA Tournament brackets and the rest are actual sports). It’s entirely changed how we follow sports and in my extremely educated opinion, is more valuable to the sports universe than the actual NFL football at the center of it.
But just like the NBA lockout, fantasy football has unintended consequences. It’s a game played purely on paper and involves only stats. Sure, I’m a guy who loves math and numbers, but I’m afraid that fantasy football is seriously ruining the way we evaluate the not-computerized game. I’ll be using one particular player to make a point for the majority of this post, but there are probably a bunch of examples.
We’ve more or less just gotten over the halfway hump of the NFL regular season and apparently everyone think Cam Newton is a lock to win the Rookie of the Year award this year. Literally. Everyone. (ESPN, Bleacher Report, SBNation) Not only did I not think Cam was the front-runner for this award, but I’d probably rank him third among rookies right now.
Let me start by saying that I believe in stats. I believe in numbers being an objective way to measure athletes. I don’t believe heavily in “intangibles.” For the most part, fantasy football uses numbers to tell us how good players are and how they rank among each other. I should like that. But I don’t. Actually, I think fantasy football may be ruining the way we value players. Specifically quarterbacks. Specifically Cam Newton.
There are several problems with using fantasy football to evaluate a real quarterback. For starters, most fantasy leagues award one point per 10 rushing yards while also awarding the same one point for 30 passing yards. Sure, this makes sense in fantasy, because otherwise quarterbacks would be the only position that mattered. But in real life, whether you run or throw for 10 yards, you’re still only moving the ball 10 yards. You don’t have to score three passing touchdowns to receive as many points as one rushing touchdown. It’s a fairly common understanding that the fantasy game rewards running quarterbacks in this way.
Another big flaw with using the fantasy scoring system to evaluate real players is that turnovers are underweighted compared to touchdowns. In most fantasy leagues, a player will get six points for a passing touchdown and will lose two for an interception or lost fumble. In a real game, these things are equally valuable. In a fantasy game, a quarterback who throws a pick-six loses two points (one-third of a touchdown). In a real game, a quarterback who throws a pick-six loses a lot more. Turnovers are the equivalents of touchdowns for the opposing defense, and in real life they are weighted way more than in the fantasy game.
The fantasy game also significantly over-weights touchdowns. Anyone who has played fantasy football knows that a guy who “vultures” touchdowns can often be worth a lot more than the workhorses that move the ball into the red zone in the first place. The goal-line backs who run for short touchdowns are a valuable member of a team, but that one yard run is not six times more important to the team than a ten-yard run or 30-yard pass that sets it up.
Finally, the most important stat is real sports is wins. While it’s statistically inaccurate to say that a guy “is a winner,” it is accurate to say a player “has won X number of games.” Anyway, let me use those point to describe how fantasy football is leading us to significantly over-rate Cam Newton and miss out on the actual best rookies of this season.
Let me flesh out the comparison between Cam and the player I think should be the front-runner for ROY, Andy Dalton.
To start, Both the Bengals (2-14) and the Panthers (4-12) were horrible last year. This year, the Panthers, with Cam Newton at the helm, are 2-8, and still in last place in their division. The Bengals are 6-3 and within a half game of the lead in their division, one of the best in the NFL. It’s not just Dalton winning those games, but can you name another player on the Bengals? His supporting cast is just as bad as Newton’s. Dalton destroys Newton in getting the W and that is the most important thing that matters in actual sports.
In terms of touchdowns, Andy Dalton has thrown for 14 in nine games this season. Cam has thrown for 11s TDs in ten games. To his credit, he’s also run for 7 to Dalton’s 1. As far as overall scoring goes, it’s a dead heat. That said, several of Newton’s scores are one-yard plunges that he takes because Carolina has decided to use him that way. he still scores, but there are a lot more players on a roster that can run for one yard than there are players that can throw. Carolina uses Cam in those situations, but it’s not like he’s generating those scores single-handedly.
Dalton has 10 turnovers to Newton’s 13, a slight edge for the ginger.
If you’re into quarterback ratings, they are identical, so don’t even try it.
Cam definitely has an edge in yards, 2,605 passing to Dalton’s 1,866; and 374 rushing to Dalton’s 26. But it’s also commonly known that losing teams throw the ball more late in the game and winning teams keep the ball on the ground. Cam loses, Dalton wins, it’s easy to see the discrepancy in yards. Dalton’s stats take a hit late in games because he’s good early in games. Cam gets statistically rewarded with buckets of prevent-defense garbage yards at the end of games because he’s bad early. When you factor in the passing attempts (327 to 287), Cam’s numbers are even less impressive. And as bad as the Panthers receiving corps is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the Bengals’ receivers, who are led by rookie A.J. Green and fall off a cliff after that.
In all seriousness, how is Cam Newton distinctively better than Andy Dalton? I don’t think he is. I don’t think he’s better than Denver’s Von Miller either. Miller has 9.5 sacks already and is the middle linebacker on one of the more impressive defenses in the NFL. If you didn’t see the Jets-Broncos game last night, you might think that Tim Tebow won it with his magic legs. If you did see the game, you’ll know that the Broncos defense was the game-changer and Miller (9 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble) was the best player on that unit.
The point is that Cam Newton is not outstandingly better than the other rookies this year. He’s not even better than the other rookie quarterbacks in this class. But in my fantasy league, Cam Newton has scored the fourth most points among quarterbacks. And Dalton is 16th. This is why people think Cam Newton is so great. It has nothing to do with what happens in the actual games. Fantasy scoring rewards exactly the type of player that Cam newton is, but post-season awards shouldn’t.