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Fantasy Football: Is Handcuffing Your Running Backs a Prudent Strategy?

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By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy football is increasingly becoming a game of mathematics and game theory.  Yes, football knowledge is important, but I would be willing to bet I could develop a computer program which could overtake 95 percent of fantasy owners over the long haul.

Thus far in my fantasy football articles, I’ve spoken about how to predict a running backs’ yards-per-carry, how to use tiers to garner maximum value, and why 2010 is the year to draft a quarterback in the first round.

Today, I will talk about the act of “handcuffing” your top running backs, i.e. drafting their backup as insurance. Handcuffing isn’t a particularly new strategy, but it is one that hasn’t been questioned much.  The primary reason owners handcuff their top running backs is to limit the downside of an injury.  Frank Gore owners who draft Glen Coffee, for example, can just plug him in if Gore goes down.

I have never been a fan of handcuffing.  While it does limit the downside of losing a player to injury, it also limits a team’s upside.  Being an intelligent fantasy football owner means invoking a combination of both: limiting downside while maximizing upside.

In game theory, this term is called “minimax.”  In short, it is an attempt to maximize the minimum gain.  Its fantasy football equivalent is VORP:

In a nutshell, VORP means selecting not the player with the most projected points, but the player with the largest disparity of projected points compared to the next player at the same position who you could secure in a later round.

Ultimately, the question we must ask (regarding handcuffing your running backs) is whether or not the minimization of downside outweighs the loss of possible upside.  Let’s take a look at a real-life example, displayed on the chart below.

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Suppose you are a Frank Gore owner and are looking to handcuff him with Glen Coffee.  The players listed at the top of the chart represent a running back/wide receiver combination one could expect if Coffee is selected, and one if he is not.

Notice that Jeremy Maclin is a better option than Johnny Knox (3.0 more points/game) because owners who handcuff must select that backup player earlier than normal to ensure they do not lose him.  Thus, the initial “cost” of handcuffing Gore is the loss in wide receiver points.

The VORP category lists the amount of “extra” points the combination would gain (or lose) in certain situations.  For example, the Coffee/Knox combination would only be suitable to the Maclin/Scott combination if Gore gets injured.  But what are the chances of that?  5 percent?  10 percent?

Even if we assume Gore has a 20 percent chance of getting injured in any particular game, the statistics still show handcuffing is a poor strategy.  The reason?  Whether or not Gore gets injured, Team B is securing more value from the wide receiver spot.

Perhaps I should use more conservative numbers.  Instead of assuming wide receiver B (Maclin) would score three points more per game than wide receiver A (Knox), let’s assume it is just one point.  Further, let’s raise the likelihood of Gore getting injured to 15 percent.

In that situation, Team A would hold a total VORP of +0.65 (-1.0*0.75+10.0*0.1-1.0*0.1).  Team B would hold a total VORP of +1.0 (1.0*0.75+1.0*0.15+1.0*0.1).  Thus, even with incredibly generous assumptions, handcuffing (at least in the middle rounds) appears to be a poor strategy.

The reason handcuffing is such a suboptimal strategy is the low injury rate.  Even NFL running backs aren’t that likely to get injured.  Further, I have been doing my simulations as if the injuries occurred immediately.  If Gore got injured mid-season, the VORP of Team A would be cut nearly in half.

So, is there ever a time when handcuffing is a sound strategy?  Yes.  In my previous example, the VORP of the wide receivers was realized at all times because I assumed Maclin and Knox were approximately No. 3 wide receivers (and thus starters in most leagues).  On the other hand, Coffee’s VORP was only realized during a Gore injury, as that is likely the only time he would be started.  Scott’s VORP was non-existent because he is not a handcuff in that scenario and would probably never be started.

If the selection of the handcuff comes at a time after all positional starters are filled and no significant VORP can be acquired, however, then it may be a prudent strategy.  However, at this period of your draft, there is no way to secure any of the top “handcuffs”–Darren Sproles or Tim Hightower, for example.

Instead, the Steven Jackson owners of the world should be targeting Chris Ogbonnaya.  He can be drafted in one of the last rounds and the potential upside of another player is probably not as “great” as the limited downside which comes with Ogbonnaya’s selection.

As a general rule of thumb, don’t look at handcuffing your players until at least Round 14 or so.  Up until then, game theory dictates you bypass the ability to limit your downside by securing high-upside players.

Besides, you don’t win fantasy football championships by being conservative.

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Fantasy Football Mailbag 6/29/10: Wide Receivers in Rounds One AND Two?

Q:  You said 2010 is the year to draft a quarterback in the first round.  Which players would you select ahead of the No. 1 QB?  Would you still pick a quarterback that high in leagues that reward a point per reception?

Mark Clancy, Warren, MI

A: There are currently only four players I would select ahead of my top-rated quarterback (Aaron Rodgers)–Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and Maurice Jones-Drew (in that order).

Incredibly, the numbers work out in this way whether the league is PPR (point-per-reception) or not.  Also, this is only for leagues that start one quarterback.  In two quarterback leagues, I might think about taking Rodgers as high as the second overall selection.

You can read more about why I will be selecting quarterbacks so high in 2010.

Q:  I have the last selection in a 12-man redraft league that rewards a point for receptions (standard starting requirements).  I am expecting the top running backs, a few of the top receivers, and one or two quarterbacks to be off the board.  Who would you suggest taking?

Bruce Pelligrini, Doylestown, PA

A: It really depends on which direction you see the other owners going in rounds two and three.  If you expect there to be a run on quarterbacks, you may want to be sure to grab a top signal-caller early (either Rodgers, Brees, or Manning should be available).

If you think the other owners will select primarily running backs and wide receivers in rounds two and three, I would bypass the quarterback position and select two stud wide receivers.  Two players out of this group should be available: Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, Miles Austin.

I had a ton of success going WR/WR with a late draft pick last year.  The VORP (explained here) adds up in your favor, and with the nature of the running backs position changing and the stud RBs off the board, it makes sense.  Wide receivers, while inconsistent from week to week, are generally fairly consistent over the course of a season.

Plus, you can get a quarterback of comparable value to Brees or Manning at the end of the third/start of the fourth.  I currently have Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, and Jay Cutler all in that same tier.  Here’s a post on how to use tiers to gain maximum value.

Again, you must use game theory to determine what will be available for you later (here is an excellent article on how to use your opponents’ beliefs in your favor), but I would most likely go WR-WR-QB-RB.  Be sure to stack up on running backs in the middle rounds, of  course.

Q:  I am in a 12-man dynasty league (standard scoring/starters) and have been offered Reggie Wayne for Jamaal Charles.  I know Charles has a lot of upside, but Wayne is a sure thing.  Should I pull the trigger?

Troy Barnett, Dallas, TX

A: It really depends on the rest of your roster.  Are you loaded at the running back position?  If you have a replacement player of comparable value to Charles, then it might be in your best interest to make the trade.

Ultimately, the math has to work out in your favor.  Here’s how to use mathematics to ensure you are receiving good value in a fantasy football trade.

Of course, the fact that you are in a dynasty league complicates matters.  Charles is obviously the better long-term player, so the numbers really have to work out for you to make the deal.

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Be sure to check out our 2010 Fantasy Football Subscription!  You’ll receive my personal projections/rankings, cheat sheets, players to target/avoid, mock drafts, and more.

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Fantasy Football: Learn How to Predict Running Backs’ Yards-Per-Carry

– Jonathan Bales

If you missed it (which is likely since we have yet to talk about it), we recently launched our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.  It is a collection of everything I use to dominate fantasy football leagues each year, including my personal projections, rankings, draft plans, players to target, and so on.  You can read more about the service by following the link above.

I understand it is a risk to take another person’s advice on a subject as serious (<— is that a joke?) as fantasy football, so I think it is important to detail the methodologies I implement to arrive at my final projections.

In my bio on this site, I wrote:

I have always been fascinated by the way mathematics and statistics, if used properly, can thoroughly explain seemingly complex phenomena.  Like the motion of the planets or the path of an ant, I truly believe football can be perfectly represented by numbers (the difficult part is determining which numbers are significant and why). . .I implemented the same sort of approach to playing (and winning) fantasy football.  Fantasy football is nothing more than risk analysis; like playing the stock market, a sound use of game theory can work wonders for your team.

This particular article is a sample of how I implement statistical analysis to determine future performance.

Running Backs’ Yards-Per-Carry

I recently visited New York City and passed a “psychic” in Times Square.  She told me she could tell me anything about the future that I wanted to know (for $99, of course).  I asked her if she could tell me how likely it is that Chris Johnson will repeat his stellar 2009 yards-per-carry (YPC).  She walked away, and I never got my answer.

Nonetheless, I think statistical analysis and film study will give me a far more accurate prediction of Chris Johnson’s YPC than any psychic.  Predicting the future isn’t about knowing conclusively what will happen, but rather deciphering the chances that a particular event will occur.  Not to get too philosophical (hey, it’s what I do), but if the universe runs not through deterministic events, but rather random happenings, then it is impossible to “know” the future.

Stats gathered from Pro-Football-Reference.com

That doesn’t mean accurate predictions cannot be made, however.  Weathermen often get a bad rap, but they are generally very good at what they do.  Weather systems don’t function in a deterministic manner, such as balls on a pool table, but through random occurrences.  Likewise, the 2010 YPC for each running back in the NFL is not somehow “determined” beforehand–but the probabilities of certain averages for particular players, I believe, are already written in stone.

So how are we to determine these probabilities?  While they may “just come” to the New York psychic, I, unfortunately, have to do a lot more work.  My methodology includes statistical analysis, so let’s take a look at some numbers.

First, we must note that the league-wide yards-per-carry average has skyrocketed in the past 13 years.  After remaining relatively steady from 1974 to 1996, the yards-per-carry average has increased .2 yards since–a 5.11% increase.  That number might not appear large, but it is rather staggering for a sample size of carries as large as the entirety of NFL running backs over an extended period of time.

Thus, there is a difference in YPC among eras, meaning if we are going to use the statistics from prior eras to broaden our sample size, we must account for this disparity.  After correcting the YPC of “the old-timers” to more appropriately relate to the league-wide averages during their eras, we see that there is a rather significant correlation between a player’s YPC in year N and his YPC in year N+1 (the next season).

To see this formula and continue reading, please visit page 2 of 2.

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Fantasy Football: Using Tiers to Garner Maximum Value on Draft Day

Frequently forgotten or dismissed, the act of creating tiers on your fantasy football draft board is essential to your success.  Many fantasy football owners simply rank players according to their positions, possibly intertwining these positional rankings into an all-inclusive big board.  While this is the strategy we recommend, the additional implementation of tiers within each position is an absolute must.

Many naive football fans believe that, in the real NFL draft, teams have a big board of player rankings and always stick to that board.  This is simply not the case.  While teams often stray from their board because of positional needs, there are other reasons that these digressions may take place.  The most important of these, and the one which can greatly help you succeed as a fantasy football owner, involves positional value.

The best way to illustrate this point is to use an example.  Suppose you are entering round five of your fantasy draft, and you have already picked up two running backs and two wide receivers.  The top players left on your draft board are Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, and Darren Sproles.  You have all three quarterbacks rated ahead of Sproles, projecting each with right around 100 more fantasy points than the San Diego running back.  However, after Sproles, there is a large drop-off at the running back position.  You have the next running back after Sproles with 50 less projected points.

In this situation, a lack of tiers would lead you to pick your top-rated player–Matt Ryan.  This decision, however, would be a huge mistake.  The fact that Sproles is so far ahead of your next running back makes him the last running back left in his tier.

Meanwhile, Flacco and Cutler are of comparable value to Ryan.  The fact that you can probably get one of these two quarterbacks a round or two later means that Sproles is the correct selection, even though he is listed lower on your draft board and projects to 100 less points than the QBs.

The math of the situation supports this decision. Suppose you have Ryan at 270 projected points, Flacco at 265, Cutler at 255, and Sproles at 155.  This means that your next running back is projected at just 105 fantasy points.  If you did not have your players ranked into tiers, you would end up with Ryan and, at least eventually, a running back who projects to around 105 fantasy points.  This would leave you with 385 total points.

If you had your players ranked into tiers, however, you would end up with Sproles and, at worst, Jay Cutler in round six.  This would give you 410 total points, a 25 point increase over the other combination and approximately a 5-10% better chance of making the playoffs.  Combine a few of these sly maneuvers in one draft, and all of a sudden you’ve increased your chance of making the playoffs by 50% even before the season starts.

Whether it is a trade or draft strategy, winning in fantasy football is all about maximizing value.

This situation is actually eerily similar to one we previously discussed involving trades, found here.  In that post, we featured a chart displaying how to obtain maximum value during a trade (shown to the right).  Drafting through tiers is similar in that you are simply trying to maximize value.

In the trade, you maximize value by yielding a few projected points at one position in order to gain a lot more at another.  During the draft, you are temporarily passing on maximum points in round five, knowing it will allow you to ultimately attain the highest projected points later.

Thus, before your fantasy draft, be sure to project players’ points (according to your scoring system) and then rank the players within each position into tiers. In a way, you can imagine all the players within the same tier as equal, i.e. don’t worry about names–simply acquire as many players in as high of tiers as possible, and you will have maximized the value of your fantasy team.

This strategy will allow you to, in a way, “buy low and sell high”–the same methodology which maximizes value in the stock market, business transaction, and, yes, even fantasy football.

Sample Running Back Board With Tiers

Note:  This is not our actual board and is simply for explanatory purposes.

Tier 1

1.  Chris Johnson- 280 projected points

2.  Adrian Peterson- 275 projected points

Tier 2

3.  Ray Rice- 250 projected points

4.  Steven Jackson- 245 projected points

5.  Maurice Jones-Drew- 243 projected points

Tier 3

6.  Jonathan Stewart- 218 projected points

7.  Michael Turner- 216 projected points

8.  Rashard Mendenhall- 214 projected points

9.  DeAngelo Williams- 210 projected points

10.  Jamaal Charles- 208 projected points

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Fantasy Football: Point-Per-Reception (PPR) Scoring

PPR vs. Non-PPR:  Weighing the Advantages and Disadvantages of Point-Per-Reception Scoring in Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

With the recent vast upswing in fantasy football popularity has come a tremendous diversity in the way the game is played.  There are draft leagues, keeper leagues, dynasty leagues, auction leagues, salary cap leagues and so on.  Leagues differ in the number of teams, the starting requirements, and the scoring systems. 

In this article, I will take a look at one aspect of scoring:  the implementation of a point for each reception and the effects it can have on your squad.

Switching your league from a standard scoring league to a PPR scoring league creates drastic differences in the manner in which one goes about building their team.  Wide receivers instantly gain more value, and running backs who catch the ball out of the backfield (Ray Rice, Reggie Bush, Maurice Jones-Drew) see their value skyrocket when compared to those running backs who do not catch many balls (Michael Turner, Adrian Peterson). 

The value of quarterbacks, which was never great in fantasy football, diminishes even further in a PPR system.  In fact, the top quarterbacks in a PPR draft often do not go until the end of round three.

This dynamic that a PPR scoring system creates (devaluing quarterbacks and increasing the value of top pass-catching backs even further) has led some to dismiss it entirely.  They argue that no owner should be rewarded when Reggie Bush catches a pass for -5 yards.

While these are legitimate concerns, I argue that, if utilized correctly, a PPR scoring system creates fast-paced, high-scoring leagues where the value of each position, unlike in standard scoring leagues, is relatively even.  The equalization of positional value makes drafts, waiver wire pick-ups, and even flex position plays more interesting. 

So how can one create this sort of PPR league?  The starting requirements are most important.  The decrease in quarterback value is the biggest drawback of nearly all PPR leagues, but this negative consequence can be alleviated by requiring either two starting quarterbacks, or inserting a flex position where a quarterback can be started.  Thus, the dramatic increase in value that wide receivers and pass-catching running backs see is minimized by the suddenly sensational importance each owner must place on the quarterback position. 

In a league that requires two starting quarterbacks, 24 of the 32 quarterbacks starting in the NFL each week (and 24 of only 26 during some bye weeks) must be started in a 12-man league.  The dramatic disparity between quarterback value in a 1-QB league and a 2-QB league is obvious here. 

Some may contend that a two-quarterback league places too much of an emphasis on quarterbacks, such that one’s draft may just be a mad scramble to fill the position.  In this case, the best solution is to replace one starting quarterback spot with a flex spot where a quarterback can be started, but need not be. 

Whether or not you choose to start two quarterbacks or a quarterback-at-flex option should be a determining factor in the amount of points you reward for passing touchdowns and yards.  In two-QB leagues, scoring just three points for a passing TD and one point per 25 yards passing would be ideal, whereas rewarding four points per passing TD is more suitable for a league where you can start a quarterback at flex. 

Finally, if you do decide to start just one quarterback, I would advise giving six points per passing touchdown and one point per 20 yards passing to aid in salvaging some quarterback value. 

Another hot issue surrounding the PPR debate is the extraordinary value of pass-catching running backs.  While PPR does tend to equalize the value of wide receivers and most running backs, the stud pass-catching running backs see their worth soar to new heights.  Thus, point-per-reception scoring, whose original purpose was to limit the importance of top-flight players, has ironically created monster-backs whose value is seemingly entirely uninhibited.  Imagine holding LaDainian Tomlinson a few years ago in a PPR league, for example. 

Having such mega-scorers is a true concern for fantasy owners, as it places unnecessary importance on being near the top of the draft order.  There are methods that can be employed, however, to restore the sanctity of draft positions. 

First, require just two starting running backs as compared to three starting receivers.  Immediately, wide receivers’ worth becomes comparable to running backs. 

A second option, albeit a more controversial one, is to reward just .75 points per reception for running backs.  This helps to limit the worth of some of the “cheap” receptions a running back may garner, such as on screens or check downs.  Do not lower it too much, however, as many wide receivers also obtain these sort of less impressive receptions on smoke and bubble screens, for example, meaning the overall relational value is generally restored.  

A final concern for PPR leagues is the diminished role of the tight end.  Although in most PPR leagues tight ends do receive one point for each catch, they still generally haul in less receptions than wide receivers, and even some running backs.  Thus, they are still losing ground in this manner. 

This problem, I believe, can be alleviated by rewarding 1.25 points per tight end reception.  This increases their value, but does not alter it so much as to create a situation where tight ends are the crux of a fantasy team.  Remember, our goal is to create a league that is as similar to the NFL as possible, and although tight ends are important, they are generally considered less crucial (particularly in the area of statistics) than the other skill positions. 

It is always important to back up your words with numbers, and a test I have devised to determine the value of each position, regardless of scoring system, is to calculate the percentage of NFL starters at each position that your fantasy league mandates be started.  In a two-quarterback league, for example, 75% of all NFL starters (24 of 32) must be played in a 12-man league.

Determining NFL starters nowadays can be tricky due to multiple personnel packages, but for the sake of argument, we will say each NFL team starts one quarterback, 1.75 running backs (the two backup ball carriers, for most teams, generally receive three-quarters the touches of the top RB, and thus are worth 3/4 the value), 2.5 wide receivers (teams differ greatly here, but on average, they use three-receiver sets roughly 50% of the time, and #4 wide receivers’ stats tend to be negligible), and 1.2 tight ends (slightly more than one due to the minority of teams which employ two legitimate pass-catching tight ends, such as the Saints).  Thus, during each non-bye week, NFL teams start a combined 32 usable quarterbacks, 56 running backs, 80 wide receivers, and 38 tight ends

The starting requirements and scoring system I propose for a PPR scoring league are listed below.  Based on the aforementioned arguments and percentages, I believe these requirements create the most exciting, level playing field one could hope for in a fantasy league. 

Scoring:

Passing:  1 pt per 25 yards, 4 pts per TD

Rushing:  1 pt per 10 yards, 6 pts per TD

Receiving:  1 pt per 10 yards, 6 pts per TD, 1 pt per WR reception, .75 per RB reception, 1.25 per TE reception

Starters:

QB: 1

RB: 2

WR: 3

TE: 1

QB/WR: 1

RB/WR/TE: 1

This system would create a total “starting value” of 1.5 QB’s, 2.3 RB’s, 3.8 WR’s, and 1.3 TE’s.  In a 12-man league, this would equate to 18 total quarterbacks, 28 running backs, 46 wide receivers, and 20 tight ends. 

When comparing these figures with the NFL starting values listed above, we see that the fantasy league would start 18/32 QB’s (56%), 28/56 RB’s (50%), 46/80 WR’s (57.5%), and 16 of 38 TE’s (42%)

These percentages are all relatively even.  The abundance of pass-catching running backs makes up for the 7.5% less fantasy/NFL starting percentage as compared to wide receivers, and the lower tight end percentage is made up for by the fact that they receive a higher point total for each reception than the other positions. 

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to switch to a PPR scoring system is a more complicated issue than it may first appear.  If you create a situation through your starting requirements and scoring system where positional value is equalized, however, a point-per-reception league can become the most exciting, NFL-comparable form of fantasy football today.

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Fantasy Football: The Myth of Overworked Running Backs

Jonathan Bales

Which "fantasy" football do you prefer--analytical, stat-driven research as it relates to the NFL, or "Fantasy Girl" and "The Blonde Side" author Amber Leigh? Luckily, we have both for you.

Note:  This is a two-page entry.

Every year during my fantasy drafts (I would say the exact number of leagues in which I participated last year if I wasn’t so embarrassed about the number–hint: I can’t even count them all with my fingers and toes), I hear a variety of fantasy football “truisms” thrown out following the selection of certain players.

“Wide receivers always break out in their third year.”

“Don’t draft a kicker until the last round.”

And perhaps most frequently, “Running backs are never the same the year following a season of 370 (or any other arbitrary number) touches.”

It is this last notion which will be the subject of this post.  There have already been some informative studies produced on the decline of running backs following a season of heavy work, not the least interesting of which can be found here.

Before delving into the results, it is critical to once again rehash the importance of the correlation/causation distinction.  In our article on the importance (or lack thereof) of offseason workouts, we wrote:

Both of these notions–running the ball and having a good coach–are onlycorrelated to winning.  Correlation does not equate to causation. For example, intelligence is rather strongly correlated to shoe size.  Does possessing big feet make you smarter?  Of course not, but people with big feet are generally older, and older people tend to be more intelligent than children (although that is unfortunately not always the case).

Nonetheless, we only notice the presence of these characteristics when it is too late–they have no predictive power.

With the distinction between correlation and causation in the back of our minds, let’s examine the stats regarding a running back’s touches and his performance the following season.

Football Outsiders (a terrific site, by the way) completed a study on the workload of running backs and summed up their results as follows:

A running back with 370 or more carries during the regular season will usually suffer either a major injury or a loss of effectiveness the following year, unless he is named Eric Dickerson.

Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson, and Edgerrin James all blew out their knees.  Earl Campbell, Jamal Lewis, and Eddie George went from legendary powerhouses to plodding, replacement-level players.  Shaun Alexander struggled with foot injuries, and Curtis Martin had to retire.  This is what happens when a running back is overworked to the point of having at least 370 carries during the regular season.

Is 370 carries really a magical number by which we can judge the future effectiveness of a running back?  It is certainly true that a running back coming off of a season with a heavy workload is more likely to be less effective and more likely to get injured than was the case in the prior season–but is this truly the result of the high number of touches, or is it due to something else?

The truth is that, while the statistics do point to a decrease in effectiveness and an increase in rate of injury following a heavy-workload season, these numbers are both insignificant and irrelevant.

It is easy to gather "significant" results if cut-off points are chosen after reviewing the results. The mark of a good theory, however, is its predictive power. Using a player's workload from the previous season (particularly when an arbitrary number of carries is chosen after the fact) has little predictive power as it relates to his production the following season.

The key is in a statistical term known as ‘regression toward the mean.’ Mathematics is a beautiful thing.  Given a large enough sample size, numbers always win.  Flip a coin 10 times, for example, and the number of heads you obtain could realistically be anywhere from one to 10.  Flip it 100 times, though, and you are very unlikely to acquire more than 70% of either heads or tails.  Flip it 1,000 times, and it is a virtual certainty that you will have flipped no more than 60% of heads or tails (and much more likely, less than 55%).

This predictability through which the universe manifests itself is not irrelevant to football.  Two-point conversion rates and onside kick recovery percentages, for example, remain relatively stable from year to year.  There may be blips in the data from time to time, but the overall statistics always (always!) regress back toward the mean.