The Fantasy Football Historian: Teams and Trends
Previously on our Fantasy Historian series, we studied individual greats of the past; in this final entry, we examine how entire NFL franchises have fared in the fantasy landscape.
NFL Franchise Fantasy Performance
A natural place to start is the simple question “which NFL teams perform best in fantasy football?” To answer this, we can aggregate data from 2002 to measure both teams that scored the most and teams that allowed the most fantasy points.
In these charts, the blue bars represent the fantasy points scored by a team: the further right they reach, the more points scored. Red bars represent total points allowed: the further left they reach, the more points a team has given up. The chart on the left is sorted by points scored, the chart on the right by points allowed. The black dots are the ‘net’ score, or total points scored minus total points allowed.
- It’s probably no surprise that the Saints, Patriots, and Packers earn top honors in terms of scoring: their dynastic quarterbacks and, especially in New Orleans’ case, aggressive play-calling have been dominating the league for decades. On the flip side, the hapless Bears, Browns, and Jets have difficulty scoring fantasy points, although they have some exciting talent to turn to in the future.
- The Lions lead the league in fantasy points allowed, although – thanks to former QB Matthew Stafford – they finish respectably in terms of points scored. The AFC North has earned its reputation for tough defensive play, with the Ravens and Steelers representing the two stoutest fantasy defenses by far. Of course, this is partly a function of playing four games a year vs. the usually feckless Browns and Bengals…
We can also sort the above chart by ‘net’ points, or fantasy points scored minus fantasy points allowed:
- Because this sorting incorporates both offense and defense, it does a far better job tracking the teams that are successful in an NFL (not fantasy) capacity. My New England Patriots unsurprisingly sit atop the league, while the Browns, Raiders, and Lions fill out the bottom three. Perhaps surprising here is the 49ers, sitting fourth from the bottom. Despite recent improvements and historical greatness (thanks Joe Montana), this team has posted just five winning seasons since 2002; this is certainly at odds with my overall impression of the franchise.
- The Atlanta Falcons are a really fun team for fantasy purposes. They score a lot (11th since 2002) and get scored on a lot (3rd since 2002). You can see this in the chart above: both the bars are wider than the teams around them, and the black dot – net points – sits right near zero. We’ll explore the relationship between fantasy points scored and allowed coming up…
The charts above are useful in aggregate, but they don’t provide us with much of a sense of historical performances. We can break out fantasy scoring by year below:
- First off, there is an unmistakable upward trend: we’ve already seen in this series how more fantasy points are being scored in recent years.
- Kurt Warner’s ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ in St. Louis sticks out as the first ‘dynastic offense’ in this chart. The Rams saw a reversal of fortune 15 years later, finishing at the bottom in 2015 and 2016 (they tossed just 11 passing touchdowns under Nick Foles and Case Keenum in 2015).
- The New Orleans Saints, who we saw above are the highest-scoring team in this era, are visible among the top of the pile throughout. We will soon find out if this domination will continue in the post-Drew Brees era.
- Peyton Manning’s record-breaking year with Denver stands above some other sterling offensive seasons: the 16-0 Patriots, Patrick Mahomes‘ MVP campaign, and the 2011 Saints. On the other end, the 2005 San Francisco 49ers – featuring a 22-year old Frank Gore and a 21-year old Alex Smith (yes, Frank Gore is a year older than Alex Smith) – is the worst team fantasy performance in this dataset. They notched just eight passing touchdowns and eight rushing touchdowns all season.
We can visualize the same chart, but for points allowed:
- Poor Detroit! The toothless Lions are often found atop this heap and just set a high-watermark for points allowed in 2020. The rushing numbers are especially putrid: according to PFR, they surrendered 2,158 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground.
- The ‘Legion of Boom’ left their mark on this chart, with the Seattle Seahawks ranking as the stingiest fantasy defense for three straight years. You can see the Denver Broncos nearing the same defensive toughness in 2015, the year they stymied Cam Newton to win the Super Bowl.
- The 2019 Patriots, who started out the season as an indispensable fantasy asset at D/ST, were the toughest fantasy defense of the 2010s. Of course, we know how the back-half of the season went for Tom Brady‘s final year in New England.
- The Steelers and Ravens show up on the bottom of this chart a lot, especially in the 2000s. Specifically, Baltimore’s 2000 defense – which carried them to a Super Bowl title – marks as the strongest unit here. They shut out four regular-season opponents that year and allowed a total of 23 points over four playoff games in their championship run.
- In 2015, the Saints were a really fun team: they topped the league in fantasy scoring and points allowed! This isn’t a recipe for actual NFL success, and they missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record.
If you listen to The Fantasy Footballers Podcast, you probably are used to hearing Jason targeting players on NFL teams with bad defenses (as well as – and don’t hear what I’m not saying – players that were drafted to be great). This is not a myth: there is a positive relationship (correlation = 0.25) between allowing and scoring fantasy points:
- You can really see the impact of time in the chart above: most of the teams on the top right (score a lot + give up a lot) are relatively recent, while teams on the bottom left (score little + allow little) are mostly from the early 2000s.
- This is another look at just how good the 2007 Patriots were: despite scoring a ton of fantasy points, they were also surprisingly stingy on defense. Now I’m thinking about the David Tyree catch again. Sigh…
We see a similar trend when we consider team points scored by running backs (representing the rushing attack) vs. quarterbacks (representing the passing attack). The good news is that you don’t have to choose one or the other: historically, there is a positive relationship (correlation = .28) between rushing and passing performance.
- We again see the temporal impact: top right teams are generally recent teams, bottom left older teams. The 2000 Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf, is a notable outlier in this sense on the top right.
- The biggest outliers in both directions – 2019 Ravens and 2006 Chargers – are a product of LaDainian Tomlinson and Lamar Jackson. Both players won the MVP in these respective seasons.
- The Saints are pretty well-rounded, delivering impressive passing and rushing seasons. The 2011 Packers were very one-dimensional, tossing 51 passing touchdowns (6 from the ‘Matt Flynn game’) and running in just 12 (four of which came from Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn, and another four from John Kuhn).
- The 2006 Raiders were, to put it mildly, anemic on offense. They threw for 7 touchdowns against 24 INTs that year, adding 5 scores on the ground. Their defense was actually decent, but they – predictably – finished a league-worst 2-14. The vibes from that season carried over to their first pick, JaMarcus Russell, in 2007.
Let’s use some passing charts to visualize the difference between some of the best and worst NFL teams over the past year. This coordinate data is thanks to Ethan Douglas and Sarah Mallepalle et al. (you can find the data here), while the base code for the charts is from Thomas Mock.
First, let’s compare the 2020 Chiefs passing offense (specifically, completions) vs. Adam ‘#2’ Gase and the Jets. As expected, the Chiefs have far more success pushing the ball deeper down the field, as well as reaching to both sidelines. The ‘hot spots’ for Patrick Mahomes‘ offense are also much larger.
On the flip side, we can consider the completions against the Lions (one of the league’s worst defenses) and the Ravens (one of the best). Teams passed all over Detroit, with sections even deeper than the Chiefs offense. By contrast, the Ravens allow completions in (generally) a much smaller area. In addition, the Ravens’ chart is not symmetric: quarterbacks resort to favoring their right-handedness, probably because they are under more pressure and facing better coverage. Not so with the Lions: signal-callers toss it with ease on both sides of the yard.
Speaking of the Lions (sorry, Detroit fans!) we can close this article by looking at their points allowed by position over time (all other teams in light red). The 2008 winless season stands out in terms of rushing points allowed: 2754 yards and 31 TDs, according to PFR. As we’ve discussed, 2020 set a new record for points allowed: we can clearly see that both aerial and rushing attacks performed best against the Lions last year.
The good news? Detroit has been about average against Tight Ends!
Did I miss anything? See something that looks off? Curious about other team statistics? Message me on Twitter.