This is the 171st 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.
Over the past couple of years we’ve written more than a few pieces that apply various paradoxes or philosophical quandaries to DFS.
There are more, but those are the ones I could find quickly.
In this piece I present the ancient philosophical debate about the ship of Theseus and apply it to the age-old sports question: “What gives an NFL team its identity?”
Who Is Theseus?
In Greek mythology, Theseus is basically the George Washington of Athens. He was a founding hero for the city-state, which in classical times was a center for philosophy. Both Plato and Aristotle had schools there. The capital of Greece and the country’s largest city, Athens is given such accolades as “the cradle of Western civilization” and “the birthplace of democracy.”
What did Theseus do that was so Washingtonian?
The Minotaur in the Labyrinth
Theseus was the son of Aegeus, the King of Athens. Every four years Athens hosted the Panathenaic Games. During the event, Androgeos (the son of King Mitos of Crete) was a Josh Gordon-esque force who dominated his competition. Filled with jealousy, some Athenian nobles assassinated him, which angered King Mitos. Think World War I.
As retribution, Minos gathered the Cretan fleet and attacked Athens, demanding that he be given his son’s assassins. Because Aegeus didn’t know the identity of the killers, he surrendered the entire city. Instead of destroying Athens, Minos instituted something like a classical version of the Hunger Games — except with no winners. Every seven or nine years (accounts vary), the seven most courageous boys and seven most beautiful girls of Athens would be sent via ship as a tribute to Crete, where Minos would feed them to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, just as Jabba the Hutt tries to feed Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca to the sarlacc in the Great Pit of Carkoon on Tatooine in Return of the Jedi.
That’s right, I just used the word “Labyrinth.” By the way, the Minotaur was a half-man, half-bull beast that apparently liked eating children, in much the same way that Shooter McGavin likes eating pieces of sh*t for breakfast. Anyway, Theseus eventually volunteered to go to Crete and kill the Minotaur for the benefit of Athens. He boarded a ship, sailed to the island, descended into the Labyrinth with a sword, yada yada yada, and he returned home a hero.
The Ship of Theseus
In honor of Theseus, the ship he used to sail to and return from Crete was kept in the Athenian harbor for hundreds of years. The ship had to be seaworthy since it was the official vessel of the state — basically the Grecian version of Air Force One — so whenever a piece of the wooden ship decayed it was replaced by new timber. Eventually, one piece of wood at a time over the course of many years, the entire ship had been replaced, at which point some philosophers asked the natural question.
“Should this actually be considered the ship of Theseus?”
You can see both sides of this problem. The ship in the harbor clearly is not the ship of Theseus. None of the original material remains, and Theseus himself (having been dead for years) is no longer using the ship. And yet the ship in the harbor looks exactly like Theseus’ ship, and the changes to it were so gradual and so well integrated that at no point in time would it ever have been reasonable for someone to say, “As of now, with this one alteration, this is no longer the ship of Theseus.”
Is the ship in the harbor actually Theseus’ ship? If not, when did it stop being his ship? Essentially, what is it that gives (or gave) the ship of Theseus its identity?
The Ship of Theseus Through the Ages
What’s intriguing about this philosophical problem is not what it says about a wooden ship but how it can be applied to almost anything in life that is made of separate and distinct parts.
What makes you who you are? The fact that you’ve had the same body your whole life? Actually, most of the cells in your body — your skin, your blood, etc. — are not nearly as old as you are, since much of the body regenerates.
What makes a company what it is? The name of the company? Does the name of a company matter in comparison to the people who run it and handle its daily affairs? But for companies that have been around for generations how important is any given individual? How much does one constituent part matter to the whole enterprise?
What makes a country what it is? Its borders? Its people? Its leadership? Its history?
Ultimately, what we’re asking is what makes something what it is.
The Giants Are No Longer a McAdoo-Coached Team: Does It Matter?
On Monday the Giants fired head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is serving as the interim HC, and Kevin Abrams is the interim GM. With these changes, should we expect the Giants suddenly to be something other than the sinking ship they’ve been to this point in the season?
Probably not. There might be some progression, and it’s possible that with some adjustments in scheme and personnel the Giants might play better to close the year, but at this point they’re basically who they are. They are still owned by the Mara family. Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan will presumably continue to call plays. They still have the same poor quarterback trio of Eli Manning, Geno Smith, and Davis Webb. They are still without starting wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall. The players who lost 14-24 to the Oakland Raiders in Week 13 are for the most part the ones who will take the field in Week 14.
The Giants opened as +6.0 home underdogs to the Cowboys. After McAdoo’s dismissal and the reinsertion of Eli into the starting lineup, they’re now +4.0 dogs. Eli, not McAdoo, is probably why the line moved. Although McAdoo was the team’s leader, at this point in the season the Vegas market has indicated that the difference between McAdoo as HC and Spags as interim HC is relatively small.
What makes the Giants who they are?
What Gives an NFL Team Its Identity?
Some teams take the identity of their cities: The Steelers could be from only the city of Pittsburgh. Some teams take the identity of their owners: The Cowboys are the NFL representation of Jerry Jones. They possess his strengths and weaknesses. And some teams take the identity of their coaches: The Patriots basically are Bill Belichick.
It makes sense that teams would be defined by their organizational leaders. Take John Fox and the Bears: Fox is a mediocre coach at best. He’s old school in the worst of ways, and if not for the incompetence of a couple other coaches his Bears would be last in NFL scoring with their 15.9 points per game (PPG). The Bears entered Week 13 with a 12-31 record under Fox: They are what he made them. Through The Action Network, we are partnered with Sports Insights, Bet Labs, and Sports Action, and with their tools we can see that before Week 13 the Bears were 0-6 against the spread as favorites with Fox. Last week they were -2.5 home favorites. Would you like to guess what happened?
It’s difficult to project what will happen in NFL games and how environments, coaches, and players will impact the performance of their teams and teammates — especially once original pieces of the team are removed and replaced — but when we are able to identify the essential components of a team (and they differ for each team) then the task is easier.
There’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to determining the importance any given player has to his team, but here are a few thoughts and numbers on some present situations.
The Patriots Without Gronk
As far as players go, quarterback Tom Brady gives the Patriots their identity. In New England’s four Deflategate-impacted games last year, they averaged 20.25 PPG with a +5.0 differential. In their 12 regular season games with Brady, they averaged 30.0 PPG and had a +14.25 differential. Brady makes the Pats what they are — but Brady is a lesser version of himself whenever tight end Rob Gronkwoski is unavailable. In 97 games with Gronk since 2010, Brady has 25.68 fantasy PPG on 292.0 yards and 2.23 touchdowns per game; in 23 games without Gronk, Brady has 22.1 fantasy PPG on 262.3 yards and 1.83 touchdowns per game. Non-quarterbacks normally don’t matter to team projections, but to the extent that Gronk matters to Brady he matters to the Pats.
Gronk is suspended for Week 14.
The Cowboys Without Zeke and Lee
The Cowboys are now four games into Ezekiel Elliott‘s six-game suspension. All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith also missed two of those games, so there’s some complicating multicollinearity at play, but without Zeke the Cowboys this year have averaged 15.0 PPG; with him, 28.25. I think the Cowboys made a massive mistake in drafting Zeke at No. 4 last year, but for better or worse they want to be a run-heavy ball-control team, and they’ve constructed their offensive unit around him. Even though backup running back Alfred Morris has been productive (64 carries, 307 yards) and efficient (4.8 yards per carry) in Zeke’s stead as the lead back, Zeke’s absence is negatively impacting the passing game: ALF isn’t the receiving threat Zeke is, and defenses are focusing more on the passing game without him on the field.
With Zeke, quarterback Dak Prescott this year has averaged 25.7 fantasy PPG on 225 yards and two touchdowns passing and 24.4 yards and 0.5 touchdowns rushing per game. Without Zeke, Dak has averaged 11.0 fantasy PPG on 150.5 yards and 0.5 touchdowns passing and 20 yards and 0.25 touchdowns rushing per game. I won’t go as far as to say that Zeke is more important to the Cowboys than Dak, but his absence has revealed the extent to which Dak — and by extension the team — benefits from him.
The Cowboys have also drastically missed All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring), who has missed five full games and all but eight snaps of a sixth game. In their six Lee-less contests, the Cowboys have allowed 29.3 PPG and 135.3 yards rushing. In six full games with Lee, the Cowboys have held opponents to 18 PPG and 80.3 yards rushing. The loss of any given defender typically doesn’t impact team performance this much — and doubtlessly Dallas’ recent defensive shortcomings are tied in part to the offense’s inability to extend drives and kill the clock — but Lee isn’t just any regular defender. He functions as the ‘quarterback’ of the Cowboys defense and is Pro Football Focus’ No. 9 linebacker. To the extent that a single player can imbue a unit with his personality, Lee is the identity of the Dallas defense.
Zeke returns from suspension in Week 16, but Lee is questionable for this week. If Lee is healthy enough to play, his presence will be a significant boon for the Cowboys and their playoff hopes.
The Saints Without Lattimore or Crawley
Entering the season, the Saints had been a bottom-five team in defensive scoring in four of the previous five years, allowing teams to score on them almost at will. They were particularly soft in the secondary. Last year they were 30th against the pass in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). In 2015, they were 32nd in pass defense DVOA, allowing an NFL-record 45 touchdowns receiving. This year, though, they’re tougher. They’ve held opponents below their implied Vegas totals in eight of 12 games. They’ve specifically gotten stronger in pass defense, jumping up to fifth in pass DVOA largely due to the exceptional play of their outside cornerback duo: Rookie first-rounder Marshon Lattimore and second-year undrafted free agent Ken Crawley. Lattimore is currently PFF’s No. 3 cover corner; Crawley, No. 17.
Lattimore played only six snaps in Week 11 before suffering an ankle injury that has kept him out since. Crawley missed week 12 with an abdomen injury before returning last week. Crawley also missed Weeks 1-2; Lattimore, Week 3. When both Lattimore and Crawley have played the majority of snaps, the Saints have held opponents to 14.5 PPG and 146.7 yards receiving. When either one of them has missed a game, they’ve allowed 26 PPG and 287.8 yards receiving. There’s some noise in these splits due to matchups, injuries at other positions, etc., so it’s doubtful that the Lattimore-Crawley tag team is actually worth 11.5 PPG — but their combined ability to cover both sides of the field has given the Saints their defense-driven identity for 2017.
Lattimore is questionable for the Thursday Night Football game between the Saints and Falcons. This all-important NFC South tilt leads the week with an over/under of 53.0 points, and the Falcons are implied for 26.0 in Atlanta. Although he’s just one piece of the unit, if Lattimore can’t play on Thursday the Saints may no longer have their defensive ship of Theseus.
“Diversity Is an Old, Old Wooden Ship”
There’s a diversity of ways to analyze professional sports teams, and the necessities of analysis vary sport to sport. With baseball, it’s easy to measure the impact a pitcher has on the Vegas lines or a batter has on his lineup. In basketball, you can use our On/Off Tool to measure the impact a player has on his teammates when he’s on or off the court. For football, it’s a lot harder to quantify the contributions individual players make to their teams. Qualitatively, in the absence of reliable and certain numbers, we should focus most on the players who define their teams in some way — the players without whom their teams would just be old wooden ships.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.76, 171
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.