This is the 176th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge 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.
One of the first books I read in college was Niccolò Machiavelli’s Prince, which was pretty much a how-to guide for people who wanted to be the Renaissance version of Michael Corleone. It contains such aphoristic wisdom as . . .
If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.
Or as Mike Ehrmantraut puts it: “No more half measures, Walter.” Here’s why I’m bringing this up: Rams first-year head coach Sean McVay might be the modern-day NFL equivalent of the ideal Machiavellian prince. Then again, he might not.
The Coach of the Year
As I’m writing this I can’t find odds for NFL Coach of the Year on any online sportsbook, but about a week ago McVay was the odds-on favorite to win the award at -300. The NFL loves — loves — first-time head coaches who take previously losing teams to the playoffs. Here are some recent rookie Coach of the Year recipients.
- 2012 – Bruce Arians, Colts: 11-5 after 2-14
- 2011 – Jim Harbaugh, 49ers: 13-3 after 6-10
- 2008 – Mike Smith, Falcons: 11-5 after 4-12
- 2006 – Sean Payton, Saints: 10-6 after 3-13
The list goes on. McVay isn’t a stone-cold lock to win the award, but based on how it has been given in years past he is the clear frontrunner and has been a revelation in Los Angeles. He’s helped quarterback Jared Goff progress in his second year, and he exhibited great wisdom in hiring Wade Phillips to coordinate what has been a revitalized defense. At the age of 31, McVay could have a long future in the league. Overseeing the team that leads the NFL with 31 points per game and a +6.85 Vegas Plus/Minus, McVay has looked like a young grandmaster-in-training.
And that’s why I think he was maybe telling a Machiavellian lie when he told beat reporters on Wednesday that several Rams starters would not play in Week 17.
The Rams in Week 17
Although they can’t earn a first-round bye, the Rams still have motivation this week to win. Even so, McVay has indicated that Goff and the following players (and probably more) will not take the field on Sunday.
- Running back Todd Gurley
- Defensive tackle Aaron Donald
- Left tackle Andrew Whitworth
- Center John Sullivan
McVay is probably telling the truth: It could be unwise for a coach to use the local beat reporters to disseminate a lie, and the theoretical edge the Rams could gain by misleading the 49ers is relatively small, especially when one considers that the Rams opened as -6.5 home favorites and have seemingly little to gain even if they win.
What’s going on here?
Health > Seeding
The straightforward answer is that McVay has determined that it’s more important for the team to reduce its risk of injury and to improve the health of the starters in Week 17 than it is to be the No. 3 seed.
The Rams Could Win Anyway
It’s possible McVay thinks the Rams can have their healthy cake and eat it too by beating the 49ers without Goff & Co. McVay worked under 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan for four years (2010-13) in Washington before succeeding him as the Redskins offensive coordinator. With McVay’s knowledge of Shanny’s system, it’s possible that Phillips could concoct a defensive game plan effective enough to hand 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo his first loss even if the Rams rest many of their players.
Live Snaps for Backups
Maybe McVay wants to give some non-practice repetitions to the backups in case any of them are pushed into duty in the playoffs. If Goff were to suffer a postseason injury, McVay would probably be glad that he had given live reps to backup quarterback Sean Mannion. It would be less than ideal for his first sustained NFL action to come in the playoffs.
The No. 4 Seed
Maybe McVay wants the No. 4 seed because (assuming the No. 3 seed wins in the Wild Card Round) he’d rather face the Eagles as the No. 1 seed without quarterback Carson Wentz in the Divisional Round than either the Vikings or Panthers as the No. 2 seed.
But here’s the thing: All of this analysis overlooks the obvious.
No. 3 Seed > No. 4 Seed
Regardless of the theoretical matchups, the No. 3 seed — even if just slightly — is worth more than the No. 4 seed because of the enhanced home-field equity it has in the Conference Championship. We’ve had the current playoff structure for the past 15 years, and in that time only twice (in 30 instances) has a team other than the No. 1 or 2 seed hosted the game. Historically, that’s a rate of 6.67 percent, which isn’t great, but it’s something. It’s not impossible for the No. 3 seed to host the Conference Championship. It’s happened before. It’s thinkable.
Let’s assume that the Vikings win this week: They’re -13.0 home favorites against a Bears team that has zero motivation. Now ask yourself this question: If before the season started I had told you that quarterbacks Nick Foles and Case Keenum would be playing in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, how quickly would you have wanted to bet against them?
Foles probably isn’t as bad as many fans think, and Keenum has been a solid injury fill-in for Sam Bradford, but the Bayesian priors for both suggest they’re not players any team would want to start in high-leverage situations. Neither one is a franchise quarterback. It’s easy to imagine both Foles and Keenum losing in the Divisional Round: The Rams would eliminate one, and the other would be eliminated by Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, or Russell Wilson — all of whom have, you know, been to the Super Bowl.
If ever there were a year for a non-bye team to fight for the No. 3 seed, this is it — which leads back to the primary question: Is McVay a McMachiavelli?
Have We Given McVay Too Much Credit?
I like McVay and think his audible maneuver (which he stole from Shanny) is delicious, but he’s probably not being Machiavellian when it comes to Week 17 — and that’s a mistake. This year the No. 3 seed is worth significantly more than the No. 4 seed, and it probably outweighs the benefits gained from resting starters for a week.
Maybe McVay is operating under the assumption that the No. 3 seed is unimportant to the Rams because their home-field advantage in Los Angeles isn’t worth much — but I doubt that thought has crossed his mind: It’s certainly better to play with minimal home-field advantage than to play on another’s team field. That should be apparent.
Here’s a thought: It’s probably too easy to assume that first-year coaches with good records (or really any coaches who run hot for a season) are better than they are or deserve too much credit for the success of their teams. Mike Smith won Coach of the Year in his first HC season: Now he’s a failed DC for the Bucs. Lovie Smith won the award in 2005: He’s entirely out of the league. In 2004 Marty Schottenheimer won the award: Two years later he was fired — after a 14-2 season.
It’s possible that McVay has gotten too much credit for his team’s turnaround. Can we say definitively that in three years he won’t look like an offensive version of Eric Mangini? Remember, Mangenius took a 10-6 Jets team to the playoffs just one year after it finished 4-12. Not all young coaches with initial success are actually good coaches.
If McVay concedes the No. 3 seed, that might be the biggest strategic mistake of the season. It’s not the type of thing a shrewd and scheming Machiavellian would do.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.81, 176
Matthew Freedman is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs. He has a dog and sometimes a British accent. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he’s known only as The Labyrinthian. Previous installments of the series can be accessed via the series archive.
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