We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
Correlation doesn’t imply causation; just because two things are related doesn’t mean one is causing the other to act the way it does. Just because I’m an excellent fly swatter and eat steak whenever possible doesn’t mean I’m an excellent fly swatter because I eat steak whenever possible.
This idea is a staple of fantasy football analysis. The glorious American pastime known as football inherently lends itself to randomness due to the chaotic nature of any given play. There are more than a few issues including: 1.) seasons are limited to just 17 (!) games, 2.) referees aren’t perfect, and 3.) there are more than double the number of players on the field for any given play compared to other sports like baseball, basketball and hockey.
There will always be mistakes made in properly assigning cause and effect relationships in football. One such example from 2020 was when there was concern about Josh Allen’s potential to finish the season strong after John Brown was sent to the injured reserve. Ultimately, no quarterback scored more fantasy points than Allen in the ensuing six games; the sample size of *three games* and a closer look at the competition at hand were the dead giveaways.
Of course, one of the more trendy debates to this day is whether or not Baker Mayfield could potentially be better with Odell Beckham after the former No. 1 overall pick finished 2020 on a blistering pace. The more likely scenario is that Mayfield was simply more willing to work within the confines of the offense without feeling as if he needed to force-feed an individual player.
Overall, Mayfield targeted his first read on just 58% of his dropbacks in 22 games with Beckham over the past two seasons, compared to 63% without him. Only Aaron Rodgers posted a better PFF passing grade than Mayfield when targeting the first read after Week 7. It’s tough to stop Mayfield when he identifies an open receiver in rhythm, and the truth is that the best version of this Browns offense would consist of this mindset with a coverage-shifting talent like Beckham making things even easier for the passing game’s complementary options.
I mean c’mon, who wouldn’t want to have this guy on the field.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 3, 2021
If we really want to be jerks about the Mayfield-OBJ dilemma, why stop there? Drew Lock improved most of his numbers in 2020, even though Courtland Sutton was limited to just 31 snaps. Russell Wilson was better in most efficiency statistics in 2018 compared to 2019 and 2020… right when D.K. Metcalf came on board. Big corp doesn’t want you to know Kirk Cousins just averaged a career-high 8.3 yards per attempt in 2020, which just so happens to be after Stefon Diggs was sent to Buffalo. Are these tongue in cheek examples absurd? Absolutely; so is the idea that Beckham is anything other than someone that all 32 NFL teams would want starting at wide receiver.
And yet, maybe there’s a case that removing a target hog from an offense at times could be a good thing. Bill Simmons famously coined the “Ewing Theory” back in the 90s when his friend was convinced that Patrick Ewing’s teams inexplicably played better when Ewing was sidelined. Perhaps the surrounding team could play better without a target hog involved because, theoretically, defenses wouldn’t be able to key as easily on the star player.
Let’s settle it: What present-day NFL quarterbacks are better or worse without their No. 1 pass-game option? Of course, there are plenty of limitations to this study. There are only a few teams that truly have applicable examples to consider when requiring a sample size of five missed games since the combo has been together: