Commentary

FBO: Week 4 Quick Reads

The "real" Steve Smith may now be the one playing at the Meadowlands

Originally Published: October 5, 2009
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

Football can be a confusing sport at times, even for the educated viewer. Anything beyond the most cursory analysis of what went right (or wrong) on a play requires multiple viewings. Ask your favorite NFL analyst if you don't believe us.

It gets even more confusing, though, when things like fantasy football are introduced. Now, don't get us wrong -- while some purists hate fantasy football, we're huge supporters. Anything that makes a Cleveland Browns tilt in Week 17 worth watching is good by us. But the problematic side of fantasy is that it colors the way we view and understand the game.

In particular, fantasy football distorts the true value of running backs and running plays. In the majority of fantasy football leagues, a 1-yard touchdown plunge is worth just as many points as a 69-yard run that gets bounced out of bounds at the 1-foot line. Of course, that 69-yard run is far more difficult than the plunge; running backs pick up that 1-yard TD on 55.9 percent of attempts.

That's an extreme example, but it points to the fetishization of touchdowns in most fantasy leagues, and that creeps into evaluations of how NFL players perform. Players like Marion Barber and Tim Hightower are said to have noses for the end zone because they accrue high touchdown totals, when the truth is that they really don't perform any better close to the goal line than an average back does.

Around the league this week, there were players who scored touchdowns, but contributed far more to fantasy teams than their own squads. Matt Cassel threw for two scores, but they came with the Chiefs down 24 points in the fourth quarter and in the middle of a game where Cassel took five sacks and completed less than 50 percent of his passes while averaging four yards an attempt. Nate Washington caught seven passes for 66 yards and a score, but they came on 12 attempts (one of which was an interception), and included three empty completions that didn't help the team whatsoever.

The topper, though, was Kevin Smith. The Lions running back scored twice on Sunday, converting from the 1-yard line and the 3-yard line. Valuable plays, sure, but not exactly hard work. He also had an 11-yard run. On his other 16 carries, he accrued a total of 15 yards. On the opening drive, his two carries went for -3 yards; the only reason he got to run the ball in from the 1-yard line to end the drive was because Chicago committed two penalties that gave the Lions a first down. All in all, eight of Smith's 19 carries went for no gain or negative yardage. That's an awful day, regardless of the work Smith did inside the 5-yard line. Smith did something valuable by scoring on those two plays, but his poor performance on the team's other drives far outweighs the touchdowns, because scoring from inside the 5 isn't particularly hard to do. That's why he had -14 DYAR on Sunday, even though he earned his fantasy owners 17 points.

The lessons to learn: Don't mistake a good day in fantasy football for a good day in the real stuff. And don't confuse something that's important for something that's difficult.

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Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.