Are your fantasy quarterbacks doing more, yet you are enjoying it less? It might be because of the NFL's ever-increasing passing levels.
We all like to say things like "In today's pass-heavy NFL … " even though the NFL became pass heavy in 1978, before many who lament the days of smash-mouth football were even born. We all know that teams pass a lot. What we may not realize is how much more often teams pass now than they did three or four years ago, let alone 1994 or 1974.
The offensive ground is shifting beneath our feet, and fantasy gamers must either adjust or lose their balance. Last year's quarterbacks, or outdated quarterback strategies, could be killing your team. But today's numbers are so inflated that you hardly even notice.
Pumped-up Baselines. Andy Dalton threw for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns last year. Tony Romo threw for 3,828 yards and 31 touchdowns in 15 games. Neither player made the Pro Bowl. Dalton's yardage total would have led the NFL as recently as 2005. Romo's touchdowns would have tied for the league lead in 2006 and taken the crown in 2002. But in 2013, Dalton finished seventh in yards, Romo fifth in touchdowns, and both players were considered disappointments as real quarterbacks, if not fantasy quarterbacks.
Passing statistics are increasing at such an accelerated rate that it is difficult for even well-trained eyes to adjust to the new reality. Teams averaged 235 passing yards and 1.6 passing touchdowns per game in 2013. They averaged just 211 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game in 2008, and 204 yards and 1.3 yards per game in 2003. The combination of increased passing, innovations like spread offenses and receiver screens, and no-huddle tactics has added nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns per year to the average team's statistics in the last decade.
It can be hard to see how a few yards of passing per team affects fantasy statistics, so let's break things down to a game-by-game level. The following chart shows just how often quarterback fantasy "benchmarks" have been reached in every season since 2005. The chart lists four-plus touchdown games, 400-yard games, "Great Fantasy Games" (300+ yards and 3+ touchdowns) and "Quality Fantasy Games" (200+ yards and 2+ touchdown), with double-counting allowed. The graph shows a not-so-slowly rising tide across nearly a decade:
Great fantasy games -- games where your quarterback carries your team -- are roughly twice as common now as they were eight or nine years ago. There used to be one 400-yard passing game every two weeks or so: Not in the days of Howard Cosell and Dandy Don, mind you, but the days of Lost and MySpace. Now, there are about seven 400-yard games per month.
Quality fantasy games are also on the uptick, though again, it is hard to conceptualize the difference between 143 and 204 "pretty good" games. Broken down across a 17-week season, there were 7.8 Quality games per week in 2006. In 2013, there was an average of 12 Quality games per week. That means in 2006, four members of your 12-team fantasy league could expect a mediocre game in any given week. Last year, all 12 fellow gamers had reason to expect 200 yards and a couple of scores. And none of this data factors in the increase in designed quarterback rushing, which results in more yards and touchdowns for good passers (as opposed to rookies and oddballs).
So if you were chugging along with 225 yards and a touchdown or two per week last year, you may have thought you were doing well, when in fact you were not even doing average. In today's pass-happy NFL, you have to be getting more tastes of those 400 yard and 3-4 touchdown games your opponents are enjoying if you hope to thrive.
Rising With the Tide
The first thing all fantasy gamers should do pre-draft is stare at a quarterback leaderboard for a minute or two simply to adjust their eyes. It takes a moment to acclimate to the fact that mediocre fantasy quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill and Carson Palmer now produce nearly 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. Once your breathing is normalized, keep in mind what the new quarterback reality means for your draft strategy.
Be Sure to Pursue Sure Things. Of the 101 great fantasy games of the last two seasons, 68 of them were produced by 10 quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Andy Dalton, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, and Matthew Stafford. All of these quarterbacks have guaranteed starting jobs, good-to-excellent receiving corps, and coaches who like fast-paced, pass-heavy systems. All have question marks, too, from the ages of the Peyton-Brady-Brees triumvirate to Romo and Stafford's inconsistency to Dalton's daltonness. But fantasy gamers should think of these quarterbacks the way they think of the top franchise running backs: either grab one, or spend the rest of the draft compensating for not grabbing one.
Pursue Potential Carefully. The list above is thick with pocket passers but ignores all of the NFL's bright young up-and-comers and scramblers: Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and others like Tannehill, Alex Smith (not young) and Nick Foles (not a scrambler). Those seven quarterbacks combined for nine great games in the last two seasons. They add rushing value, of course, but in a league where passing touchdowns come by in dozens, it is foolish to reach for a few rushing touchdowns.
Rising stars like Luck and Robert Griffin may soon take their places among the top tier, but quarterbacks are not like running backs: Better to be a year late and catch high volume seasons by the likes of Romo or Rivers than be a year ahead and get stuck with a developmental season … or a Griffin-esque meltdown. Make the potential guys your second stringers. Play it safe with your starters.
Avoid the NFC West. Of those 101 Great fantasy games in the last two years, only six came against NFC West defenses. Of the 393 Quality games in the last two years, just 32 came against the NFC West. A quick look at the offseason transactions and the draft suggests that the NFC West defenses are getting better, not worse, so the whole division is fantasy poison. Keep Wilson and Kaepernick and their 17-14 final scores on your bench. Keep Sam Bradford and Carson Palmer on someone else's bench.
But the NFC West's fantasy impact goes beyond four quarterbacks. If your out-of-division starter is facing an NFC West team, particularly on the road, you should prepare for that week as if it is a second bye week. If Aaron Rodgers is your starter, be prepared to draft Nick Foles to face the Jaguars or Andrew Luck to shoot it out with Peyton in the season opener: avoiding the Seahawks in Seattle is worth it. Speaking of Peyton, he travels to Seattle in Week 3: Give me Luck against the Jaguars or Jay Cutler against the Jets instead that week, because I watched the Super Bowl.
Benching great quarterbacks against great defenses sounds like it could backfire, but it is better than settling for less. Waiting for a pair of passing touchdowns to fall into your lap is a 2007 strategy. These are boom times, and the only way to reap maximum rewards -- like a fantasy championship -- is to embrace a little risk.