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Football Fantasy! In week 7, rumors of an NFL parity problem are greatly exaggerated

The Bad News Bears’ good fumble fortune, Packers with their head cut off, Carson Wentz continues to hoodwink America and the Oakland coaching staff deserves Derek Carr

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Note: If you came looking for fantasy football recommendations, I don’t have anything for you. This season, Football Fantasy! here at Field Gulls will offer a recurring daydream considering the weekly football schedule from a perspective of entertaining narratives and wished-for results across the non-Seattle Seahawks landscape. Here, we welcome storylines and silliness to topple other interests from week to week as we deliver the lowdown on the rest of the league from the land of make believe. For more detailed explanation of the picks, look here.

If I had a thesis for all my football articles since August, it would have to be: Stop reacting to every data point! I am becoming an old man maybe in 2017 but I find it quite wild how every blog I look folks seem to be observing the present as if the world did not have a direction beyond now. Once upon a time Aaron Rodgers advised Green Bay Packers fans to R-E-L-A-X but relax implies maybe too comfortable a satisfaction and so is not the right prescription when in a violent sport the next thing you know you might have a broken collarbone. However, what’s certain is change is coming for all teams, and the league. Instability is coming.

Indeed, instability is already here.

When you hear the latest rash of analysts you trust cry Pro Football Parity as if these are dirty words, you can either stop trusting them or begin to understand the gadfly game of shaking people for attention—or you can panic. Don’t panic though. There is quite simply no proper evidence the NFL is on a death spiral toward the End of History.

The league’s balance of power may look flat now but there are only six possible combinations of records after six games—excluding ties, and there were only seven tie games out of 3,840 regular season games between 2002 and 2016. Simple probability suggests the great majority of those records will be +/- one game of dead even: 2-4, 3-3 or 4-2, as indeed right now 27 of 32 teams are (or something in between for teams already with byes). The exact distribution at this moment might be slightly unusual but not particularly statistically unlikely. A quite different distribution happened only two years ago, when many teams were still undefeated, but at the time it too was treated as an enigma. Even then, a big bunch (20 teams) remained within the margin of error of .500, and indeed the same is more or less true for all midseason weeks in all seasons until at least weeks 12 or 13, when more than a few teams start getting eliminated and playoff pictures comes into focus.

But a purely chance distribution is the same thing as total parity, you may say. What could be even more convincing than the limited range of records after six weeks is a lack of extremity of general team strengths—Football Outsiders measures the Kansas City Chiefs the fifth-lowest rated top team after six weeks of the last 30 years. Yet some year has gotta be fifth, while the lowest of those was 10 years ago, and the next-lowest 20 years before that. Is that a trend? Frequent readers of Football Outsiders’ DVOA column will recognize that early-season anomalies are actually the norm: When so much history is charted that even less extremity counts as a disturbance, in nearly every early week there’s always some outlier in some figure that is more or less extreme than ever before, and usually by season’s end that outlying team has regressed within the boundaries of reason.

That’s the nature of the way minds process patterns and exceptions. Writers leap to the unexpected results rather than the fat bell of the data heap because that’s what makes news and news makes fun. Even data driven analysts have linguistic brains that automatically find the edges of patterns, the long tails, and make narratives to communicate them. But data and probability should teach us that narrative is not necessarily the same as meaning. The tail does not actually wag the dog. In the end math makes fun of us all.

So Kevin Clark in his bombshell Ringer article about the dangers of parity this week justifies his claim that excellence is dead instead by highlighting an 0-5 New York Giants squad beating the previously-3-1 Denver Broncos on the road, and citing a rise in upsets according to sports books. However, football is a game of matchups, or sometimes will or desperation among professionals—and chaos is not the same as parity.

Clark also supplies a plausible explanation for what does look different from 10 or 30 years ago: that most organizations fail to efficiently manage their salaries and roster development under the recent collective bargaining agreement, leading to weaker depth and sloppier play. In other words, more chaos.

He might be right—I’m inclined to agree most NFL teams are poorly run and overcommit to marginal stars. But even if this is true in the short term and has the described effect on relative team mediocrity, it doesn’t necessarily indicate an endless drift toward league-wide stagnation. For one thing, the 2011 CBA expires at the end of this decade (or sooner if Colin Kaepernick’s lawsuit results in a finding the league violated that agreement), perhaps leading to a more favorable environment for teambuilding. But his measure of Super Bowl winners with balanced rosters against Super Bowl losers with imbalanced ones is arbitrary—if parity really behaved as it should, any team good enough to reach the title game should have as good a chance to win it. Either way smarter front offices will come along to break the equilibrium, discover how to take advantage of the current or new constraints and initiate fads toward different models of roster construction.

Pro football seasons often begin with upstarts that shock predictions before arcing back into projected performance. When they don’t, hindsight reconciles with results so that early upsets no longer astonish. Late season narratives fold with early season ones in a dialectic interweaving. If any of the surprises we’re witnessing now hold that might already mean a transition to a different shape of league power, but either way it’s too soon to tell—and pretending otherwise is just pettifogging the issue.

Beside, we are so enamored with underdogs here at Football Fantasy! that, were caprice really in command of the league, it should be propelling my choices beyond the veil of unreality into the surface world. Instead the league in aggregate still fits the curve of our original hypothesis: “The ‘fantasy’ outcomes will do poorly, and the touted picks will be close to break-even.” Don’t believe the hype.

Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders

Why in the world wide web did Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing call just 17 runs by running backs and 32 pass plays against the Los Angeles Chargers last week when Marshawn Lynch averaged 4.8 yards per carry on the afternoon, L.A. has the 28th-ranked run defense DVOA, Derek Carr was throwing to the tune of 3.0 ANY/A and Oakland led for 47 minutes and only trailed for two and a half minutes last week? The Raiders lost by one point with no time on the clock. They deserve Carr.

My choice: Raiders

Sharp pick: Kansas City (-3)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Buffalo Bills

Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston have identical career completion rates (59.7 percent) and each averages one interception per game, so it’s not clear why the difference at quarterback should bring enough uncertainty to this contest that Vegas can’t differentiate a point spread.

Tampa committed a crime against the Seahawks by winning a Super Bowl first despite years of deplorable performance compared to Seattle’s general superiority, and committed a crime against the rest of football by doing so without their awesome orange-sherbet uniforms. The Bills have won no Super Bowls, so the choice here is easy.

My choice: Bills

Sharp pick: n/a (no line)

Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears

Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz noted this week that Chicago, which is 2-4 with the fourth-worst DVOA, has won surprises against the top-12 Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens “in part thanks to great fumble recovery luck.” In the Pittsburgh game in week 3, for example, the Bears recovered four of that matchup’s six fumbles, including two by their own team in Chicago territory within the final two minutes, which might have been disastrous otherwise in a tied game that went to overtime.

This narrative suits a FO principle that “fumble recovery is a major reason why the general public overestimates or underestimates certain teams,” because such recoveries are mostly random even though they can sometimes have outsized influence over wins and losses. Indeed, in the “Football Outsiders basics” guide on that web site the Bears are even the textbook example:

“In [Lovie] Smith’s first three seasons as head coach … their rate of fumble recovery on defense went from a league-best 76 percent in 2004 to a league-worst 33 percent in 2005, then back to 67 percent in 2006.

“Fumble recovery is equally erratic on offense. In 2008, [Chicago] fumbled 12 times on offense and recovered only three of them. In 2009, the Bears fumbled 18 times on offense, but recovered 13 of them.”

In general I agree with all this. However, like most of Football Outsiders’ rules of thumb, this is a principle best applied over a whole season or other large sample of data—and it hardly applies to these wins by Chicago. If fumble recoveries are even chance, you expect an equal distribution, but a deviation by one fumble more or less among five or six is not particularly unlikely, nor is it “great fumble luck”. Against Baltimore the Bears fumbled four times and recovered two of them—exactly as expected. Ravens tight end Maxx Williams also fumbled, and Chicago got that one too, but winning one coin flip out of a series of coin flips is ordinary chance not great luck.

That Williams fumble at the Bears’ 20-yard line probably prevented a Baltimore score, a big difference in another game that went to extra time. But Chicago did nothing with the possession, punting after a three-and-out, and more consequential in the game was Joe Flacco’s interception five plays later that the Bears converted into a touchdown from their own 20.

Likewise, two of Chicago’s fumbles versus the Steelers were mishandled snaps by Mike Glennon, and while other kinds of fumble recoveries are more unpredictable these scenarios are likely to be recovered by the offense about 75 percent of the time. Instead the most decisive fumble in the game didn’t get recovered by anybody: It was batted through the back of the end zone on a topsy turvy field-goal block return by Marcus Cooper.

Schatz’s guidelines say fumble luck is misleading because fumbles produce “huge, turning-point plays that dramatically impact wins and losses”. That one play yielded a six-point swing that probably changed the outcome for the Bears thanks to the huge shift in field position owing to the block and return. But it could have been 10 points if not for the fumble, or had Chicago been luckier and recovered it in the end zone. So while it’s fair to say the Bears have been fortunate to overcome fumbling nine times in their two wins, and Chicago’s recovery rate across those games is indeed better than average, the degree of that luck as a determining factor has been more greatly exaggerated than really great.

My choice: Bears

Sharp pick: Carolina (-3)

Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns

Kyrie Irving doesn’t play in Cleveland anymore, but if we needed any more proof the Earth is round we could look at how the Browns’ outlook as a young team stuffed with talent bursting to cohere has wrapped all the way past the horizon, around the whole planet and returned at 0-6 as an underachieving overrated bunch of busts that need to be broken up and given a fresh start.

My choice: Titans

Sharp pick: Tennessee (-6)

New Orleans Saints at Green Bay Packers

I don’t feel bad for wishing a season-ending injury on Aaron Rodgers two weeks ago, because I know I was joking and the performance of my desired outcomes in this column clearly shows they have no effect on the real world play of the NFL. However, the Packers still have the same number of losses as Seattle and the tiebreaker in hand for now so I’ll welcome continuing to cheer against them.

The Saints look like a real football team again instead of the cart with two broken wheels that gave up 1,025 yards in the first two weeks. But forcing nine turnovers in the past three games can’t be sustainable and Green Bay wouldn’t shock me to appear to still have life for a few weeks like a dead bird before it headless scratching catches up to it. If I’m wrong, at least the houngans of New Orleans know what to do with their bloody carcass.

My choice: Saints

Sharp pick: Green Bay (+4.5)

Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts

I don’t know if Jacksonville is good or bad and with competition like two more games against the Colts and two more against the bottom of the AFC North upcoming I doubt any of us will know better before the Seahawks visit Florida in December.

My choice: Jaguars

Sharp pick: Jacksonville (-3.5)

Arizona Cardinals vs Los Angeles Rams (in London)

I know the Rams are already anointed the only genuine challenger to Seattle’s NFC West crown in 2017, but with Arizona looking solid for the first time last week it makes most sense to keep the division a two-team heat for now. If the Cardinals and Seahawks both win Sunday Seattle will be alone in first for now at 4-2 but that that also puts Arizona in second with a huge leg up over Los Angeles with a tiebreaker and a 2-0 to 1-2 division record (with road games still to come against both Seattle and the Cardinals). Better to keep the devil in its hole.

My choice: Rams

Sharp pick: Los Angeles (-3.5)

New York Jets at Miami Dolphins

I’m not really sure how either of these teams has three wins already, but I’m a lot more sour on Miami than the Jets from what I’ve seen and that’s a corner turn for me since I didn’t expect New York to win this many games all year.

My choice: Jets

Sharp pick: New York (+3)

Baltimore Ravens at Minnesota Vikings

I don’t hate either of these teams’ uniforms alone but together? Even Prince and Dan Deacon would revolt.

My choice: Ravens

Sharp pick: Baltimore (+5.5)

Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers

When I grew up this game was the event of the season every year. Goodness I am old.

My choice: 49ers

Sharp pick: San Francisco (+6.5)

Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers

L.A. should have won this game at the beginning of the year, but the Broncos blocked Younghoe Koo’s kick on the final play. The disaster short-circuited the electrifying Koo, so the Chargers swapped him for the decidedly less energetic Nick Novak two weeks ago. Nevertheless Novak gave L.A. a needed jolt when he hit the game winner over Oakland. Now it’s Denver’s Brandon McManus who is struggling, having already missed five of 13 kicks—matching his career season high in just five games—including three in the last two weeks and one blocked Sunday against the Giants. In a related story, these teams are ranked 30th and 32nd in special teams DVOA.

My choice: Chargers

Sharp pick: n/a (no line)

Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers

Cincinnati hasn’t allowed 300 yards to any opponent except an Aaron Rodgers-led Packers group in overtime and is coming off a bye while Pittsburgh continues to look vulnerable despite knocking off the undefeated Chiefs last week. Few things butter my bread like watching Ben Roethlisberger lose to the Bengals so I’m going to do my best not to overplay the hand here.

My choice: Bengals

Sharp pick: Pittsburgh (-5.5)

Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots

I’ll say it right here. I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl. I wasn’t bummed about Seattle not making it or anything I just got stuck at a brewery with some friends who definitely didn’t care and I didn’t have the car keys. Anything interesting happen?

My choice: Falcons

Sharp pick: Atlanta (+3.5)

Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles

You can tell the world is not aligned to my point of view when Carson Wentz has the best odds to win NFL MVP, but isn’t anybody paying attention to how bad this kid is? Yes Wentz had three touchdowns last week. He also started consecutive drives at the Panthers’ 12- and 17-yard lines after Rasul Douglas and Patrick Robinson intercepted Cam Newton twice. Wentz also took three sacks and lost a fumble and the Eagles would have lost if Ron Rivera remembered Carolina was allowed to run the ball with anybody beside Newton. Philly has LeGarrette Blount and a defense to be a playoff team, but the Eagles are not a Super Bowl contender. Washington isn’t going anywhere either, so let’s come together as a country on Monday and stop this fake news from spreading.

My choice: Redskins

Sharp pick: Washington (+4.5)

On the year:

My choices (straight up): 32-54 (6-8 last week)

Sharp picks (against the spread): 42-38 (5-7 last week)