The Alternative Title

I almost titled this piece something like “Hi, My Name’s Jonathan Bales, I’m a Cowboys Fan From Philadelphia Because #Contrarianism, Now Let Me Tell You Why the Cowboys Will Lose in the Playoffs” — but I decided that title worked better as a paragraph.

It probably doesn’t matter that I’m not Jonathan Bales.

What This Piece Is About

Sorry, I just ended with a preposition right there. I hate doing that, but I’m trying to write this piece quickly, so that’s where we’re at. D*mmit, did it again.

This piece is primarily about two interrelated ideas:

  1. The overvaluation of prized assets
  2. The summary rejection of alternate possibilities

Let’s proceed.

Some Paragraphs About Some Book

I like to pretend to read books. It makes me seem smarter than I am. Literature is to me what architecture is to George Costanza: An opportunity to dispense bullshit.

Right now I’m pretending to read a book called How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. It was first brought to my attention by RotoViz’s Anthony Amico.

In the book is a story about American World War II planes.

The planes that survived combat were premium assets. Researchers looked at these prized planes, amassed data on the locations of all the bullet holes in the planes, and then analyzed the data in order to decide how best to armor the planes so that more planes would survive combat in the future.

Some researchers thought that they should add armor to the parts of the plane that had the most bullet holes. That seems reasonable, but one guy (Abraham Wald) had a better idea: Let’s consider an alternate possibility.

His logic went something like this:

It’s possible that instead of seeking to protect better the prized planes that survived, we should focus on the planes that didn’t survive. We know that the surviving planes can survive with a lot of bullet holes in the fuselage and the rest of the plane — but we see relatively few bullet holes in the engines of our surviving planes. Maybe this means that if we better protected the engines of all our planes then more planes would survive.

And he was right.

While others were over-relying on the data of the prized planes and not considering alternatives, Wald was actually thinking in a way that would result in the manufacturing of better planes.

A (Not So) Brief Tangent on the Cowboys

I write about the Cowboys because I love/hate them and because perhaps no organization in all of professional sports is so rife rich with questionable teachable decision-making moments.

I’m afraid that the Cowboys are going to lose in the playoffs. I’m a Cowboys fan, so this fear is natural. (By the way, I promise you that I’ll make a point about daily fantasy sports eventually.)

If/when the Cowboys lose, we’re going to hear a lot of talk about their premium assets, how great this season was, and how bright the future is.

The Cowboys will talk about how great it was that their first-round running back and their rookie quarterback took them so far.

On the one hand, that will be true.

On the other hand, that will completely ignore the possibility that the Cowboys will have lost because they overvalued their premium assets and undervalued alternative options.


RB Ezekiel Elliott has been great as a rookie. The Cowboys also have three All-Pro offensive lineman who probably have something to do with Eazy-E’s success.

I’m probably always going to think that it was a mistake to select Zeke at No. 4 — especially when cornerback Jalen Ramsey was available in the first round, RB Derrick Henry in the second, and RB Jordan Howard even later than that.

Can we really say for sure that, based on what they did on a per-touch basis this season, Henry and Howard wouldn’t have been comparable to Zeke if they had been playing behind his offensive line?

2016 Rookie RBs

It’s my contention that Zeke, even though he’s a premium asset and great player, is a part of the Cowboys’ problem.

  1. The Cowboys have a problem.
  2. Zeke isn’t commonly seen as a part of the problem.

In the 2017 draft, the team overvalued the RB position in general and Zeke in particular. Right now, a shutdown CB is worth more than a RB, especially when arbitrage versions of that RB were available in the draft.

If the Cowboys make the Super Bowl this year, Zeke will be part of the reason. If they don’t win the Super Bowl, Zeke will be part of the reason. In overvaluing him, the Cowboys prevented themselves from building a team better equipped to survive in the playoffs.

Dak Attack

I love QB Dak Prescott. The Cowboys were inordinately lucky to draft him and have him become a strong starter right away. If the Cowboys don’t win a Super Bowl with him while he’s on his original (cheap) contract, they will have squandered a rare opportunity.

But no rookie QB has won a Super Bowl before. No rookie QB has even made it to a Super Bowl before. Ben Roethlisberger (2004-05), Joe Flacco (2009-10), and Mark Sanchez (2010-11) all made it to the AFC Conference Championship. None of them completed even 60 percent of their passes in that game, and all of their teams lost by more than a touchdown.

I admit that there are issues with the sample of QBs who start as rookies and don’t make it to the Super Bowl in their first season — but the fact is that in 50 years no rookie QB has started that game while last year a broken/half-dead Peyton Manning ‘led’ his team to a Super Bowl victory.

It’s too bad that the Cowboys don’t have on their roster — aren’t paying $8.5 million to — a veteran leader who just two years ago had arguably the best campaign of any QB that season. You know, someone who has actual playoff experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of the offensive system. Someone who is familiar with a variety of NFL defenses and opponent tendencies. Maybe someone like Tony Romo?

Dak could win a Super Bowl eventually — I hope he does — and it would be wonderful if he did so as a rookie. I would love for the Cowboys to do something unprecedented that doesn’t have to do with sucking.

But I don’t project, expect, or hope for the unprecedented.

If the Cowboys make the Super Bowl this year, Dak will be part of the reason. If they don’t win the Super Bowl, Dak will be part of the reason. In committing themselves to Dak and benching Romo, it’s very possible that the Cowboys have overvalued their most valuable asset.

There Might Be Something to Do With DFS in Our Future

If the Cowboys don’t make the Super Bowl, it will be easy for them to look at Zeke and Dak and not see that they are part of the 2016-17 problem — just as it was easy for researchers to consider only the WWII planes that survived and not the planes that were shot down. (Another preposition, f*ck my life.)

It’s easy for DFS players to make those general mistakes. If they even take the time to evaluate roster decisions after a slate is over — the best players always do lineup reviews — too many DFS players overvalue the players who do well.

For instance, on wild card weekend Antonio Brown had a big performance, turning nine targets into five receptions, 124 yards, and two TDs, good for 32.40 DraftKings points. He had an +11.75 Plus/Minus. All of that is great.

Of course, he was also the most expensive wide receiver at $9,400 — and within the context of the slate he was overvalued. If you go into our Player Models and experiment with our Lineup Builder, you’ll see that Antonio and any cheap WR did not equal the productive output on wild card weekend of Doug Baldwin ($7,000, 31.0 DK pts., +15.85 Plus/Minus) and Davante Adams ($5,600, 29.5 DK pts., +17.56 Plus/Minus).  

This isn’t revisionist analysis. In the WR Breakdown for wild card weekend, I wrote this about Davante:

Like Jordy Nelson, Adams has had fewer than six targets in a game only twice. He trails only Jordy with his 12 TDs receiving, and he’s top-10 in the league with his 10 targets inside the 10-yard line. He’s cheaper than Jordy, projected for less ownership, and in possession of comparable TD upside.

I also wrote this about Baldwin:

This week the Seahawks are eight-point home favorites implied to score 25.75 points against the Lions, who are dead last in pass DVOA. Not only that, but the lions are also last in pass DVOA against “supplementary WRs” — and since Baldwin is the rare No. 1 WR who plays the supermajority of his snaps in the slot he probably classifies as a supplementary WR through a Football Outsiders loophole.

With CB Asa Jackson (ankle) now on Injured Reserve, we’re expecting Baldwin to run most of his routes against special-teamer Johnson Bademosi, who (unsurprisingly) has a poor PFF coverage grade of 62.5 and has played only 179 pass coverage snaps this year.

Think about this: Baldwin is actually about to face an injury fill-in whose surname begins with the letters BAD.

And on the NFL Daily Fantasy Flex pod we talked about Adams and Baldwin as players to roster.

Big picture: Most people would look at a losing roster with a 32.40-point Antonio and think, “OK, at least I got that decision right.” Maybe — but maybe not.

It’s possible that Antonio — even with his big game — was the player who kept your lineup from winning on wild card weekend.

A Conclusion?

Don’t overvalue your premium assets.

Don’t discount the other options or the possibility that other options could’ve been superior.

Don’t flood me on Twitter if the Cowboys win a Super Bowl this season.


The Labyrinthian: 2017.3, 98

This is the 98th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation. Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page.