5 Real Lessons of Fantasy Football

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Though the NFL grinds on, fantasy football has wound down for the season. I played for the first time this year, and improbably came out on top. My league was admittedly not the most competitive—we didn't even stake any money on the outcome, sadly—but the level of emotional involvement was high. Pride was on the line, and as my team emerged as a title contender I found my mental life almost taken over by the fortunes of my players. And I couldn't help but come out of this 16-week ordeal feeling like I'd learned something, even though the grander claims for the game's real-life relevance seem dubious.

The parallels with stock picking in particular are obvious, and the case has been made that one can teach us important lessons about the other—that fantasy football is really an investing game.

I'm not so sure: while corporate scandals or economic headwinds can come out of nowhere to suddenly devalue a company, Wall Street can't match the NFL for unpredictability: a top-notch player can suddenly be wrenched from the season, while a backup quarterback throws seven touchdown passes in a game. So without suggesting any particular applications for these lessons, I offer what I've learned on any given Thursday, Sunday and Monday these past four months.

What's past is prologue, nothing more.

It felt great when I landed, as my opening draft pick, last year's second best fantasy player, Houston RB Arian Foster. Anyone who follows the NFL knows how this ended: Foster made more headlines on the operating table than on the football field, undergoing season-ending back surgery after scoring just two TDs in seven weeks. He even made his exit during the first quarter of a game, leaving owners in the lurch with 1.10 points on the board from their RB1.

That Foster of all NFL stars should have such a disappointing 2013 is of interest to Wall Street watchers: just three days before Foster's season went bust, startup company Fantex Holdings announced plans to take him public by offering stock tied to his future earnings. It must have seemed like a brilliant choice for a first athlete IPO, given Foster's prior production and sphinx-like charm (just what advertisers seem to like these days). But there's perhaps a good reason why football players' careers have not yet been securitized by our relentlessly assimilative financial sector: the injury machine of the NFL spares no one. (Emphasizing consistency and reliability, Jim Cramer likened Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers to $SBUX right before the season began. And Rodgers put up pretty good numbers until week nine, when he got sacked so hard his collarbone broke, ending his fantasy season.)

Football is a tumult of rising and falling; more important than preparing for the draft is tracking performances during the season, because you are going to need replacements, for bye weeks certainly and probably for injuries. After losing Arian Foster, I picked up Le'Veon Bell, a rookie Pittsburgh Steeler who proved his mettle on Thanksgiving against the Baltimore Ravens, putting up nearly 20 fantasy points despite being robbed of a TD when a spear tackle dislodged his helmet as he entered the end zone. And it's obviously more fun to feel like you've discovered someone than to jump on a bandwagon.

 

There is limited room for sentimentality.

My affection for Wes Welker, a puckish slot receiver of tragic dimensions (5'9", 185 lbs.), was a target of derision among football-watching acquaintances. But No. 83's fearlessness and gumption were what got me interested in the game, so I was determined to have him on my team. I used my fourth pick of the draft on Welker, despite having already selected another Broncos wideout, Demaryius Thomas (thereby violating the dictum to diversify one's holdings). And I was rewarded for that fidelity: five weeks into the season, Welker led the league in TD receptions.

 

There's something to be said for emotional investment. You pay keener attention when you actually care, and good results are compounded with a spiritual satisfaction. But the danger is obvious: sentimental attachment can prevent you from moving on when a player's value is spent. By November, Welker was slowing down, which wasn't surprising: he's 32 years old, playing a brutal game in an especially brutal way—running across the middle to catch short passes—and the Broncos are lousy with good receivers. So when I had the chance to trade Welker for Eagles QB Nick Foles, I should have said yes—especially since my own quarterback was faltering, while Foles had just metamorphosed into an elite passer. But I couldn't part with Wes. Welker went TD-less over his next three games, then suffered his second concussion in three weeks.

There is of course an actual tragedy here, beyond the frustrations of fantasy "owners": at this rate, Welker faces the prospect of serious mental debilitation from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). I should have overcome my fondness for Welker and given him away; he should set aside his evident love of the sport and retire to protect his brain. You have to wonder whether a team that let him back into a game after he was concussed cares much more about Welker's safety than your average fantasy owner does.

No asset is an island.

This is an obvious insight, but I wasn't aware of it as I assembled my lineup; the star system of the NFL can blind the uninitiated to the extent of a player's dependency on his team.

Drafting a quarterback, as I would learn, is a vote of confidence in his offensive line. After thinking for several rounds that I'd picked up Peyton Manning, who was actually taken by someone else, I was glad to escape the draft with Andrew Luck, the number one pick in the actual draft of 2012. But as good as Luck can be, he was temporarily buried beneath a blizzard of hits when the Colts' pass protection disintegrated midway through the season. Desperate greed for QB points led me to Alex Smith of Kansas City, setting up an agonizing pre-game decision as he and Luck took turns putting up good numbers.

Of course, the interconnectedness of players' performances can also be to your advantage. I didn't get Manning, but drafting Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker gave me exposure to the Sheriff's record-setting season. Although each pass to Eric Decker and Julius Thomas did sting like a personal slight.

The competition is against oneself.

Like tennis, fantasy football is really a solitary game. Of course you have an opponent, whose play contributes to the outcome, but at a certain level the struggle is simply to maximize your own performance, to field the best team possible and leave no points on the bench. As the playoffs approached I began to pay less attention during games to the matchup than to my roster. The other team's performance had nothing to do with me; I was concerned with the point differentials between players I'd started and players I'd benched.

It's a difficult focus: the best case scenario is a lack of acute regret, rather than any real feeling of triumph. And I think I lost the battle to avoid psyching myself out over whom to start as often as I won. A stupid last-minute QB substitution in the final matchup (Smith for Luck!) basically left me feeling like an undeserving champion.

It's not what you read, it's how you read it.

There's a flood of fantasy football advice online, from sources high (The New York Times) and low (Sports Blog Nation). Although sites like fantasypros.com offer expert accuracy rankings, I'm not sure whether the quality follows any obvious logic of reputability or prestige. And just one badly mistaken call can discredit a forecaster in an owner's eyes, forever associating that source with resentment and uncertainty. (Not good hobby feelings, obviously.)

Rather than trying to find some Delphic fantasy oracle — given the game's uncertainty, I don't think there is one — a better approach is to survey a range of opinions, looking for useful nuggets in the general avalanche. Experts emphasize different factors; the key to feeling confident in your starting lineup, like you've done everything you can to win, is to figure out which metrics matter in your experience and to make decisions based on those. Signal-to-noise ratio and all that.

—Written by Eamon Murphy for MainStreet

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