The Fantasy Football Historian: Legends of the Game

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Fantasy football is a forward-looking game. It doesn’t behoove you to dwell on past losses, or rest on the laurels of bygone victory. As a fantasy manager, it is critical to keep an eye on what is coming next.

Making decisions in the face of an uncertain future lies at the crux of fantasy sports. However, that doesn’t mean managers can’t learn from experience: bona fide experts are steeped in the history of the sport. As Mark Twain (kind of) said, “history rhymes but doesn’t repeat.”

The offseason is an ideal time to brush up on the annals of fantasy. A rich understanding of the history of the game facilitates trend-detection, hones discernment of fantasy value, and builds general manager expertise.

Without further ado, then, we introduce this series as a companion to the ‘Fantasy Football Historian’. In this first entry, we reminisce about the positional greats of the past two decades (thanks to nflfastR for the data).

Each dot on this chart represents the weekly #1 overall performance (Half-PPR scoring) at the position, and includes only players with three or more #1 overall games (so, for example, New England Patriots‘ one-hit-wonder Jonas Gray doesn’t make the list). The chart is sorted vertically by when a player had their first #1 overall performance. Let’s start with signal-callers:

Quarterbacks

  • This chart is dominated by a few long branches: the longevity of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers is clear. Dark, overlapping bubbles (i.e., stretches of multiple overall QB1 performances) show the 16-0 New England Patriots in 2007, Rodgers’ two MVP awards in the early 2010s, and Peyton’s resurgence with the Denver Broncos.
  • Cam Newton was ascendant during the 2015 season: he was the QB1 five times over the back half of the year. This was largely thanks to his output on the ground (636 yards and 10 touchdowns).In context, these were some pretty special numbers, since the ‘running revolution’ hadn’t yet occurred for fantasy QBs. Super Cam’s rushing yardage and touchdown total led all quarterbacks, and it wasn’t particularly close: Tyrod Taylor had 568 yards on the ground, while rookie Jameis Winston found the end zone 6 times with his legs. In contrast, Lamar Jackson eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and six different quarterbacks had 7 rushing touchdowns or more this past year.

  • ‘P. River’, despite being known for never scoring above 30 fantasy points in his career, still managed a couple of games as the top-scoring weekly QB.
Running Backs

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  • Compared to other positions, the shape of this chart is striking. The ‘narrow staircase’ seen here lends credence to the extremely short shelf-life of running backs: it’s difficult to stay atop the position for long.
  • LaDainian Tomlinson was a force of nature in the 2000s. He had 1,815 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns (!!) in 2006 alone and averaged 17.5 rushing touchdowns a year from 2002 – 2007.
  • Adrian Peterson‘s longevity sticks out; his line looks like it belongs on the QB chart. Still, although ‘All Day’ has been around for a while, his last weekly overall RB1 performance came in 2015.
  • Ricky Williams and Deangelo Williams both demonstrate ‘book-end’ shapes: a few dots early on, many years absent from the list, and a few final ‘curtain call’ RB1 performances at the end of their careers.
Wide Receivers

  • Terrell Owens was pretty much unstoppable in the 2000s; he averaged 1147 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns per year from 2000 to 2010. The visual is striking when we compare T.O.’s yearly receiving yards to the average receiver: Owens’ usually surpasses the average by hundreds of yards. The Philadelphia Eagles suspended T.O. in 2005 and he still eclipsed the average in just seven games played.

Surprisingly, Randy Moss had no WR1 performances when he hauled in 23 TDs and nearly 1500 yards for the 2007 New England Patriots. He was certainly close, finishing as the WR2 three times as another receiver narrowly edged him out.  For example, on Moss’ best game of the season – four touchdowns and 128 yards against the Buffalo Bills – Terrell Owens put up four touchdowns of his own against Washington to claim top honors.

Besides T.O., Larry Fitzgerald – unsurprisingly – sticks out in terms of longevity. Most of the players around Larry in the graph (Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmandzadeh) have long since retired.

Tight Ends

  • Outside of the major dynastic quarterbacks, Tony Gonzalez has the longest line among all players. His final TE1 performance came in 2013, many years after most of his contemporary tight ends had retired.
  • The darkest ‘cluster’ belongs to Rob Gronkowski, who posted 1327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011. For reference, Travis Kelce‘s highest season-long touchdown total is 11. Gronk was able to squeak out the TE1 performance in Week 10 last year (with just 51 yards and a touchdown on two catches) to cement his impressive longevity.
  • Overall, TEs have a similar chart shape as QBs: a couple of legends (Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates and Gronk) dominate the picture.
Invincible Lineups

Overall, let’s define the combined weekly QB1, RB1, RB2, WR1, WR2, and TE1 performances as the invincible lineupInvincible is an apt name because simply put, these lineups can’t be beaten! If you start these five players, you are scoring the maximum amount of points (at those positions) in a given week.

Over the past few decades, the average performance of these ‘invincible lineups’ has been steadily increasing. Quarterbacks, with the increased running output discussed above, have mostly driven this change. Stay tuned for the next article in this series; we’ll dive deeper into some of these incredible historical combinations.

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Hopefully, you enjoyed these visuals as much as I did. Of course, there is always useful fantasy advice to be gleaned: note how quickly running backs fall off, and how concerted the staying power of elite quarterbacks and tight ends can be. Check out this article for more on tracking player value over time.

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