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Fantasy Football: When Does Consistency Matter?

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By Jonathan Bales

A lot of fantasy football owners focus on week-to-week consistency when making differentiations between similar players.  Why is Tony Romo perhaps a better option than Jay Cutler?  Romo is steady in putting up respectable numbers, while Cutler’s week-to-week play is a roller coaster.

But is this sort of consistency important in winning a fantasy championship?  In my experience, yes and no.  Of course, the numbers, and not my experience, are what matter, so let’s take a look at some of the stats.

In a Pro-Football-Reference article on quarterback/wide receiver combinations, statistics showed that poor fantasy football teams could benefit from being inconsistent.  This is because inconsistent teams, from time to time, can score a ton of points.  If Players A, B, and C each have a 40 percent chance of putting up top-five numbers in a given week, for example, then there is a 6.4 percent chance that all three will score big.

Now, a more consistent team might average more points, but does it really matter if that average is well below the league mean?  A consistently poor team might have a near-zero percent chance of taking down the top dog in their league, while an inconsistent one would have an excellent shot of doing so about 6.4 percent of the time (using the example above).

Thus, dynasty league owners with currently poor squads might want to pair a quarterback with his wide receiver (or tight end), as this creates a more inconsistent team (with much higher upside).  They may also want to load up on “inconsistent” players such as Jay Cutler and Chad Ochocinco.  Get better by becoming inconsistent?  What a novel idea.

Top-tier teams, on the other hand, would be smart to minimize their downside.  Pairing quarterbacks with receivers is a “no-no” for good fantasy teams, while drafting “sure things,” such as Tony Romo and Wes Welker, is optimal.

A quick side note related to consistency: don’t worry about bye weeks! Every year, owners select very specific players so their bye weeks are spread out, but studies have shown again and again that bye week spacing does not matter.  This is more evidence that drafting players based on week-to-week consistency is generally a poor idea.

VORP, represented in the graph above, is irrelevant without predictable seasonal consistency.

Consistency does have its place in fantasy football, however.  Year-to-year consistency (as opposed t0 in-season consistency) is vital to properly drafting your team.

In the past, I’ve explained how utilizing VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) is imperative to securing maximum value (you can read about VORP in my article on why you should draft a quarterback early in 2010 and in my post on how to use your opponent’s beliefs against them). In short, VORP is the extra value garnered by selecting a player at a specific position as opposed to waiting a set number of rounds.  VORP is the base of fantasy football tiers.

A hidden assumption of VORP (and one I have not previously discussed), however, is consistency.  For example, let’s assume (for argument’s sake) that the top defense each year scores 300 points, with the rest under 200.  Securing that top defense is obviously crucial to winning your league, so you should attempt to do so as early as possible, correct?  After all, the VORP (over 100 points) is greater than at any other position.

The answer is no.  Each year, defenses are erratic (both week-to-week and season-to-season).  In fact, a good defense from last year is no more likely to be good this year than a poor one from last year.  Thus, although the VORP is greatest between the No. 1 and No. 2 defense each season (in my hypothetical league), this is a non-issue in regards to draft strategy due to the incredibly weak strength of correlation (basically zero).

Of course, there’s also the possibility that weekly consistency, ironically, is not very consistent.  That is, predicting a player’s future consistency from his past consistency is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  In much the same way that the inherent difficulty in predicting year-to-year production of defenses necessitates bypassing them in the early rounds of a draft, the complexity involved in projecting week-to-week production among all positions makes consistency, at least in the short-term, irrelevant.

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