I hate the series “Lost” – it was essentially television’s version of a Ponzi Scheme. But one thing I did always like about the show was the way it made Jack Shephard and John Locke its two de facto heroes even though they occupied opposite ends of the science vs. faith spectrum. I consider myself more of a Shephardian Man of Science, although every year leading up to fantasy football drafts, I have a Locke-ian crisis of faith. I tend to think that math and science are probably the way forward in terms of being able to understand the world we live in (and fantasy football is part of that world) except that there is a paradox that exists because of the way that humans act. Specifically, all of the best ideas will almost certainly seem like bad ideas to begin with. I believe this is true in fantasy football, and will explain that in a minute, but venture capitalist Paul Graham has written about this idea in a way that I can’t, so I’m going to quote him:
The two most important things to understand about startup investing, as a business, are (1) that effectively all the returns are concentrated in a few big winners, and (2) that the best ideas look initially like bad ideas…the best startup ideas seem at first like bad ideas. I’ve written about this before: if a good idea were obviously good, someone else would already have done it. So the most successful founders tend to work on ideas that few beside them realize are good. Which is not that far from a description of insanity, till you reach the point where you see results. The first time Peter Thiel spoke at YC he drew a Venn diagram that illustrates the situation perfectly. He drew two intersecting circles, one labelled “seems like a bad idea” and the other “is a good idea.” The intersection is the sweet spot for startups.
The same is true in fantasy football. All of the best values come from guys that initially seem like they have no value. Cam Newton finished the 2011 pre-season looking like he might not even start the entire season for the Panthers. The amount of value he provided as a waiver wire pickup (or the last pick in the draft) was incredible. Alfred Morris was a rookie on a team with a coach known for swapping out running backs randomly, so the value he returned to drafters was also incredible. From a more global point of view, going QB early last year seemed to a lot of people like it was settled strategy. Waiting on QB would have seemed like a bad idea after a year in which every single title team had one of the top four QBs. But the bad idea of waiting on QB turned out to be a good one (although it’s fair to point out that going QB early last year also didn’t doom any teams).
Last year when I was thinking about draft strategy, I believed – I didn’t know – that following the crowd chasing QBs early would be a losing proposition. But I also had a pretty strong crisis of faith surrounding that belief as well. It was the kind of thing that I believed to be true, but which fell pretty firmly in the belief camp and not in the science camp. My sim score projections showed a flatter QB slope, but the sim score projections are also trained on data that didn’t include very many 40+ touchdown seasons. So in a sense all I could do was look at the mad rush to draft QBs, feel like taking the opposite approach would be better, and then have faith.
I’m largely going through the same thing this year. I know that the logical thing to do would be to take RB/RB in the first two rounds. But there’s also such a mad rush to take RBs, that I can’t help but think that the value is being eroded. It’s possible to look at the situation and conclude that it doesn’t matter, that if you don’t take RB/RB, you’ll get shut out. But I tend to think that markets preclude that sort of thinking from working. Similar thinking in 2006 would have said that despite the housing market’s historic appreciation, you had to buy a house lest you get shut out and prices go even higher. But had you played the other side of that, you would have been right. There’s a bit of Aikido in that strategy as you’re essentially using the market’s hysteria against the market, in the same way that Aikido proposes to use an attacker’s momentum against the attacker.
I think that playing the other side of the RB/RB market this year would involve either going RB/WR every two rounds for the first 8 rounds of the draft, or doing the “upside down” draft that has been growing in popularity. But this goes to my point in writing this article – my science based approach and the faith based contrarian approach are at war right now. If I look at the drafts where I go RB/RB, they make more sense on paper and result in greater points being accumulated if I look at projections. If I deviate from RB/RB, I like the lineups less and in theory they result in fewer points. And yet I can’t help but think of the “all of the best ideas initially seem like bad ideas” concept and that there is something that I’m missing which would be counter-intuitive today, but that will seem obvious once the season has started.
Perhaps a tangential point to make is that Aaron Rodgers is also going in the 3rd rounds of some drafts now. That seems crazy to me. I never take a QB early, but that’s because it always costs a 1st round pick to get the best one. If you can get ARod in the 3rd round, you’re buying at essentially a 10 year low in price for the top QB. You have to go back to 2003 to find a year when the top QB didn’t go in the first round of drafts. It’s true that when the top QB gets pushed into the 3rd round, that all of the other top tier QBs will also get pushed back, but I also think there’s the potential that some of those other top QBs have value that is illusory. If Tom Brady doesn’t have Gronkowski, I don’t think he’s sniffing 35 touchdowns. If RGIII can’t run as much as he did last year, he’s throwing more, which makes life easier on defenses. Peyton Manning could take a hit and be out for his career. Matthew Stafford could turn in another 2012. I think QB is deep, but I also think that the deepness of the position is probably more tenuous than people think. I’ll be fine rolling with a late round QB strategy (I always do), but this is one year where there is a one time sale on the top QB, and I’m giving it a really hard look.
It might seem stupid to some people that being contrarian can sometimes mean being contrarian for its own sake – which is to say that you start out trying to figure out why the crowd is wrong, rather than holding a position that you just happen to disagree with the crowd about. But that goes back to the idea that in fantasy football, the very popularity of a strategy can doom it’s practitioners to a 7-7 season. It also goes back to the idea that all of the best ideas initially seem like bad ones. I don’t know how my Locke-ian crisis of faith will end this year, although it’s safe to say that I’m holding out hope that the light beneath the hatch door eventually turns on for me.