How To Approach Thursday Night Football
[caption id="attachment_77324" align="alignright" width="300"] <strong><em>Let's take the mystery out of it: the passing game is going to struggle on Thursday nights</em></strong>. <em><strong>Period</strong></em>. Photo: <a title="Saquan Stimpson" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/9892787@N05" target="_blank">Saquan Stimpson</a>[/caption]
Surprised that the Joe Flacco (166 pass yards) to Torrey Smith (1 catch for 10 yards) combination struggled against the Steelers in the first true Thursday night game of the season? Or that Ben Roethlisberger couldn't find the end zone and his top target in Antonio Brown hauled in just seven of the 13 passes thrown his way? You shouldn't be.
Football is a difficult game, and with the short work week, it certainly doesn't get any easier. Since the beginning of last year, it has become blatantly obvious that offenses are struggling to create an effective aerial game plan for these Thursday night games, thus relying on their standard run game to set the pace ... both for their offense and for Fantasy owners. While neither ground game was spectacular in the Ravens/Steelers game, the starting tailbacks combined for 155 yards on 33 carries (4.7 yards per carry) and were more effective than you might expect in a physical divisional rivalry being played on just three days rest.
But it's not just quality, it's also quantity. These two offenses recorded 32 percent fewer pass attempts and 10 percent more rush attempts than they did on the opening Sunday of this season. The same Ravens offense that fired 62 passes just four days ago dialed up seven more runs than throws on Thursday, continuing a trend that we saw all of last season. Argue all you want against these Thursday night games, but money talks and they aren't going anywhere, so you mine as well learn to adapt when it comes to setting your weekly lineup.
Before I unravel the findings, let me walk you through the process. Simply, I evaluated the Thursday night performance by position (QB, RB1, and WR1) and compared their points scored (ESPN standard scoring, but with fractional points in an effort to avoid generality) with the points you would expect that very player to score against that very defense. That “expected” point total came from averaging out the specific player’s other 14 games played and the defense’s other 14 games this season. For quarterbacks, this was pretty straight forward (although I chose not to include rookie quarterbacks because they are rarely started in standard leagues and experience great swings in production, regardless of week length), but running backs and receivers required a bit more. For running backs, I evaluated the defense based on number of points allowed to the opposing RB1, subtracting any production from other rushers. As for the running backs themselves, remember that I’m charting Thursday night statistics, so players like Daryl Richardson appear, even though he no longer is the starting running back. Players like this have an adjusted “expected” point total that was calculated based on the Fantasy points they were producing when they held the RB1 label. Also, I didn’t count teams that split carries (i.e Buffalo Bills), as the team could simply rest their lead back if he was struggling with stamina after the short week (thus skewing the data for bell cows who consistently carry the mail). For receivers, I took the team’s top wide receiver (tight ends were not included) and compared his Thursday night production to his standard production. For defenses, I took the average of the highest scoring receiver each week. For all positions, I added the average production for the player in question to the average production surrendered by his opponent to his position, and divided by two.
Lastly, all data collected is through Week 16, as Week 17 is a crapshoot when it comes to playing time and such. The Thursday night season opener between the Ravens and Broncos was not included in this study, they had all offseason to prepare for the game as opposed to a short week. OK, enough with the fine print mumbo jumbo. Let’s get into the findings and help you gain a leg up on the Fantasy competition. (Click on Table for a better view)
As you can see, the majority of quarterbacks (72 percent) suffered at least a minor dip in expected Fantasy production. On the whole, Fantasy owners experienced a seven percent drop off in Fantasy points; not a huge difference, but enough to affect which quarterback you choose to start should you have a close decision to make. That being said, if you subtract two outliers in Cam Newton (@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Robert Griffin III (@ Minnesota Vikings), the change in Thursday night production drops to 12 percent, the equivalent of 2.2 Fantasy points.
Nearly half of the studied quarterbacks (48 percent) experienced a decline of less than 10 percent or an increase, leaving every other Fantasy owner reasonably satisfied. Andy Dalton owners were the most disappointed, as he produced a mere 6.7 points (59 percent below his expected total) against the Dolphins. The Red Rifle was joined by Tom Brady, Alex Smith, Tony Romo, and Peyton Manning as quarterbacks that ranked inside the Top 11 in Fantasy points at their position that experienced at least a 20 percent decline. (Click on Table for a better view)
Looks pretty even, right? The majority of running backs (56.5 percent) saw their production actually improve on the short week. In fact, the average increase in production for those 13 backs was a very significant 41.1 percent (5.5 Fantasy points). In how many matchups could you have used an extra five or six points this season?
If you started a running back on Thursday night, you likely had a decent start to your week (65.2 percent managed to get within 10 percent of their expected value or better). Interestingly enough, the top three over-performers (Reggie Bush, Le’Veon Bell, and DeMarco Murray) all played on Thanksgiving Day. Also worth noting is the fact that two elite quarterbacks (Brady and Manning) saw their own production dip by at least 20 percent and their running back production drop by at least 63 percent. These future Hall of Famers have made their name based on their extreme preparation, making it possible that the short work week affects their offensive efficiency more than your average quarterback. (Click on Table for a better view)
The fact that WR1’s struggled on Thursday night isn’t surprising given what we learned about quarterbacks, but this much of a change? We had to wait until A.J. Green caught 11 passes for 128 yards in Week 9 to get our third WR1 that overachieved. Five of the eight receivers to surpass their expected value rank among top eight in total receptions this season. Only the elite of the elite made a Thursday night start worth your while, and even some of the best in the game (DeSean Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald, Marques Colston, Roddy White, and Demaryius Thomas) couldn’t reach their standards (they all fell at least 50 percent short of their projected value).
If you can, avoiding WR1’s that play on Thursday is the percentage play. Only 26.7 percent performed significantly better than the expected point total while 73.3 percent came up shy of the calculated number. It does appear, however, that pass catchers who did not have a consistent second receiver playing alongside him had a better chance at pleasing Fantasy owners (Anquan Boldin, for most of the season, in addition to A.J. Green, Pierre Garcon, Calvin Johnson, Torrey Smith, Andre Johnson, and Keenan Allen). Another trend that seems to have formed is the struggle of speed based WR1’s on Thursday night. With the exception of Torrey Smith, premier burners (DeSean Jackson, Tavon Austin, Josh Gordon, and Mike Wallace) disappointed by an average of 42.8 percent.
When all is said and done, we can see that the passing game suffers much more than the running game as a result of Thursday night football. The featured running back produced an average of 5 percent above his expected Fantasy value in ESPN Standard leagues, a seemingly small difference, but a positive difference nonetheless. Wide receivers, on the other hand, failed to meet expectations with regularity and disappointed owners by producing 27 percent fewer Fantasy points than what was statistically projected.
There are Fantasy points to be had on Thursday night, but knowing where to look for them can serve as a big time advantage. Good Fantasy owners draft competitive teams, but the great ones maximize their point totals on a weekly basis, leaving no stone unturned.
What a difference a day makes.
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