Stat guys can be counted on to provide key fantasy boost

FANTASY FOOTBALL

Commentary

October 06, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Football has never been the first love of the statistically minded.

So many players have so many different jobs on any one play that it seems hard to measure who's contributing what. The easily recorded individual confrontations that form baseball's fabric are nowhere to be seen.

It's hardly surprising, then, that fantasy football is a simple game. Touchdowns, turnovers and yards. Those are the things we know how to measure in real football, so they're the meat of fantasy football.

But how do we know which players are going to get those yards and touchdowns in a given season?

Common sense tells you a lot. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander are young, they've always produced and unless they're injured, they will get the ball a lot.

But you won't gain much of an upper hand by drafting such proven quantities. Seasons are won and lost on the margins, where a first-time starter flowers into an All-Pro. If you can spot such values consistently, you'll do pretty well.

More sophisticated statistical analysis can help. Fortunately for consumers, such work becomes more widespread every year. Here are two outlets I'd recommend:

Doug Drinen, a math professor at the University of the South, Sewanee, is a godfather of the statistical movement. Drinen's work on Footballguys.com (subscription fee: $24.95 a season) has helped a generation of serious fantasy players learn cardinal rules of player assessment.

Drinen established age benchmarks after which players at each position decline significantly. The magic age at running back, for example, is 28.

In any given season, some veterans will perform exceptionally beyond those ages. But if you use Drinen's markers as a guide, you'll avoid bad picks more than you'll whiff on good ones.

Aaron Schatz did not start Footballoutsiders.com to serve fantasy players. He wanted to know how teams build Super Bowl contenders and to fill a void in football analysis that looked like a chasm compared to the statistical work done in baseball over the past 25 years.

But Schatz knows many readers will use his material for fantasy purposes. He and his group tailored their first book, "Pro Football Prospectus 2005," to the fantasy set.

"I love fantasy football as long as people understand fantasy is different than real football," Schatz said.

His Holy Grail statistic is called defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). It takes a player's performance on a play and compares it to others' performances on a season's worth of plays in similar situations.

The number accounts for game situations and the quality of opposing defenses. What it can't do is isolate a single player's performance. Jamal Lewis' DVOA, for example, really measures the combined performance of Lewis and the Ravens' offensive line.

In many cases, the number tells you what you already know. But it can help you find those hidden gems on the margins.

"I think that it identifies players who play well in secondary roles," Schatz said.

He noted Seattle Seahawks receiver Bobby Engram, who has been ranked well by DVOA for several years but didn't establish himself as a regular starter until this season. Fantasy owners who scooped up Engram now have a nice third option at receiver.

Schatz's Web site points out other useful trends such as teams struggling to cover secondary receivers. Against the New England Patriots, for example, primary receivers rarely thrive, but No. 2 guys often have good weeks -- useful information when you're deciding whom to start.

None of the stats guys have an automatic formula for winning fantasy championships. But if you play in a tough league, their stuff can help you find the slight advantages that are key to winning seasons.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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