This is the 163rd 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.
I don’t know know much about football. For instance, if you asked me to identify the A gap, I’d probably make a joke about pornography. If you asked me about the B gap . . . again, a porn joke. As I said, I don’t know much about football, but I do know that many NFL coaches don’t know as much as they think they do.
Example: In Week 10, the Jaguars were -5.0 home favorites against the Chargers, whose defense came into the game ninth against the pass but 26th against the run in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles had a subpar career mark of 6.6 adjusted yards per attempt, and the Jags were first in the league with a 52.9 percent rush rate. With the return of stud rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who hadn’t played since Week 6, the Jags did exactly what you’d expect: They ran the ball 27 times — four of which were quarterback scrambles, one of which was a quarterback kneel, and one of which was a fake punt — and Bortles threw 51 pass attempts even though the Jags never trailed by more than eight points. Phrased differently: The Jags didn’t do what any rational person would expect them to do. They’re incredibly lucky they didn’t lose.
Why did Jags head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett call so many pass plays? Why did the Jags not attack the Chargers defense where it’s weakest?
As Bryan Mears noted in his Week 10 piece on funnel defenses, often offenses fail to attack defenses at points of weakness. Why do many NFL coaches not create game plans geared toward their opponents? I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but I have a couple of ideas.
Why NFL Coaches Suck
Here are two potential reasons some NFL coaches call plays in suboptimal ways.
Fancy Play Syndrome (FPS)
Somewhere on the scale between game theory optimal (GTO) and WTF resides FPS. Example: A coach knows he should attack a weak secondary, but he also knows the opposing coach 1) expects that course of action and 2) will perhaps attempt to compensate for the weak secondary by dropping more players back in coverage, alternating between man and zone, blitzing more often and more players, etc. To counteract an opponent’s future assumed strategies to cover up a weakness, the FPS coach thus chooses not to exploit the weakness, believing the benefit of catching the opposition off guard will outweigh the benefit attacking the defense where it has previously been vulnerable.
In other words, the FPS NFL coach out-thinks himself. He’s the NFL’s version of the DFS player who tries too hard to be contrarian. He attacks opposing units where he shouldn’t and doesn’t attack them where he should. He desires to match strength on strength instead of strength on weakness. His motto is something like this: Why win easily when you can lose barely?
“A Tedious Old Fool”
“To thine own self be true.” People often attribute that sentence to William Shakespeare, thinking that it must be wise and true because Shakespeare wrote it — but that sentence doesn’t belong to Shakespeare: It belongs to Polonius, a character from Hamlet. There’s a difference between Shakespeare and Polonius. Shakespeare was a DFS genius. Polonius is an unoriginal dispenser of weak-minded conventional wisdom, and his bad advice and judgment eventually put him in a position to get killed in a way he doesn’t anticipate — and he gets killed. Polonius dies precisely because he is unable to be anything other (or better) than what he is.
Too many NFL coaches are Poloniuses — or, more appropriately, Polonii. They don’t care about their opponents’ tendencies or capabilities. They’re focused on being true to themselves, perfecting the plays they run, and having game plans built around their teams instead of their matchups. They’re the NFL equivalent of DFS players who focus more on production projections and their own perceived strengths than on ownership projections and the potential weaknesses of a slate. Like DFS players who don’t take a holistic view, the NFL Polonii tend not to survive.
Getting to 270 Wins
With his 41-16 victory over the Broncos, Bill Belichick in Week 10 tied Tom Landry for third all time with 270 career wins (including postseason). Belichick is the anti-FPS Polonius. It’s not a coincidence that he’s the most successful NFL coach of the last 18 years: In facing opponents Belichick searches for weaknesses, and once he’s discovered them he devises methods to exploit them relentlessly. Last year the Falcons during the regular season allowed the most targets (141), receptions (109), receiving yards (870), and receiving touchdowns (six) to running backs. Because the Patriots were just as focused on the Falcons’ weaknesses as their own strengths, running back James White in the Super Bowl had a career- and game-high 16 targets and 14 receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown receiving.
Belichick is great because he focuses on context. In DFS, too many players fail to take into account the other players against whom they compete. They don’t consider context. Don’t be one of those Polonii.
Be Belichick, not Marronius.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.68, 163
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.