Throw away your crutches

Updated: June 20, 2012, 11:18 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in July 2010. We are bringing it back in archive form for your convenience.

Crutch arguments are the special sauce of the 21st century.

They're everywhere. In an America of media overexposure, 24-hour news, talk radio and talking heads, everyone has an opinion but not everyone knows why. As Stephen Colbert would have it, there's a certain "truthiness" in the air. There isn't time for such antiquated practices as research or facts. It's easier to go with your gut, then come up with a retrofitted reason. That's how TV pundits on either side of the political spectrum can look at something like unemployment or immigration and come up with diametrically opposed prescriptions based on the same rough outlines. When you're a hammer, all you see is nails.

Fantasy football is not immune. We all find ourselves doing it. When ESPN's fantasy experts get together in May to decide on our initial group rankings, at one time or another, every one of us makes a sweeping statement of such breathtaking generality and utter uselessness that you would shudder, and we do it in defense of an opinion we hold not because we have proof but because we have "gut feelings" (and everyone else in the room will call us on this lack of specificity). Heck, for those of us who go on camera or on the radio, caveat-filled arguments are frowned upon. "Be brief, be conclusive, leave no wiggle room," is what we're told.

And so we hear ourselves using crutch arguments to make our points.

We like a particular quarterback. He has great physical gifts. His coach might let him sink or swim this year. There's a chance he could ascend to the elite, we feel it in our bones. But we don't really have any evidence per se. So we hear ourselves saying, "His team's defense is awful, so you know he'll throw a ton!" Or we hear ourselves saying, "There aren't any good runners on his team, so they'll have to let him throw!"

But is this actual proof? Even if the quarterback's defense or running game is dreadful, does it by definition follow that it helps said quarterback? In fact, can't you argue that the exact opposite is true? I'm quite sure you could rattle off several recent quarterbacks who were saddled with poor defenses and/or poor running games who not only didn't perform well but didn't even get very many opportunities to shine. These are, in short, retrofitted arguments of which you should be skeptical.

That's not to say they're never true. It's simply to say that sometimes they're accidentally true. My argument here is for nuance. Why is a particular quarterback's situation potentially improved by his poor defense? What compelling reasons can you give me, beyond just stating the argument as though it were incontrovertible substantiation?

Here, then, are four crutch arguments to beware of. When you see or hear them, be suspicious.

1. "Quarterback X has an advantage because he's always playing from behind. Running Back X is at a disadvantage because he's always playing from behind."

You understand the logic here. In general, the thought is that if you're losing, you're going to attempt more passes and fewer runs. More and faster points are urgently needed. There are no clock-eating drives, no taking the air out of the ball. Everything is vertical.

Sometimes, this is even true. The 2009 New York Giants are a pretty good example. Their secondary fell apart; their pass rush accordingly couldn't get to opposing quarterbacks; and they wound up allowing the third-most points of any NFL defense. After a 5-0 start, they allowed 40 or more points five times in their final 11 games. Not coincidentally, Eli Manning became a prolific downfield thrower, exceeding career highs in completions, yards, touchdowns and yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw (who were, it should be acknowledged, each limited by injury but who did play in 15 games apiece) failed to exceed 835 yards rushing, and, as a team, the Giants went from the top running team in the NFL in '08 to just 18th in '09.

Matt Cassel
John Rieger/US PresswireMatt Cassel completed just 55 percent of his passes in his first season with the Chiefs.
But look at the other terrible defenses from '09. The Lions, Rams and Chiefs were horrible defensively, but those struggles didn't result in fantasy excellence for their quarterbacks. The Titans allowed the fifth-most points in the NFL, and their most noteworthy fantasy player was Chris Johnson. The best fantasy quarterbacks of '09 came from teams with the seventh- (Aaron Rodgers), 20th- (Drew Brees), 10th- (Brett Favre), eighth- (Peyton Manning) and 17th- (Matt Schaub) best scoring defenses. And the league's worst scoring defenses were on teams that finished sixth (Lions), 16th (Rams), 17th (Giants), 18th (Chiefs) and 27th (Titans) in total pass attempts. The only pattern there is that there is no pattern. It's true that the team with the best scoring defense, the Jets, had Mark Sanchez under center, and Sanchez was nobody's idea of a fantasy stud in his rookie year, attempting just 24-plus passes per game. But the second-best scoring defense belonged to the Cowboys, and Tony Romo was terrific in '09 despite rarely needing to pile up points late because of big deficits (Romo attempted 34-plus passes per game).

In general, the best quarterbacks play for the best teams and the best teams are best because they have the best quarterbacks. That's the syllogistic logic you want to employ. It'll keep you from taking Josh Freeman to be your fantasy starter.

2. "You want Quarterback X because he plays for a team without a good running game. Those guys have to throw."

There are a few problems with this one. First, believing we know exactly which teams are and aren't "able" to run before the season starts is hubris. In '08, the Bengals ran for 95 yards per game, the fourth-worst mark in football, and 3.6 yards per carry, the third-worst mark. Based on this crutch argument, we'd have supposed Carson Palmer was in great shape for a huge fantasy season in '09. But last year, suddenly Cincy netted 128.5 yards per game on the ground, making it a top-10 rushing team, and Palmer finished as fantasy's 17th-best signal-caller.

Of course, this is a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Did Palmer's value plunge because the Bengals decided they were a running team, or did the Bengals decide they were a running team because Palmer's arm strength looked so diminished? The answer is probably a bit of both, the kind of nuance that makes for a better (and more complicated) argument. But to know this -- or to be able to locate it as an explanation for a team's ongoing in-season trends -- takes the hard work of watching the games and, like, explaining stuff in detail.

Next, this crutch argument ignores the possibility that sometimes offenses are just bad. I looked at the NFL's 10 worst rushing attacks (in terms of total rushing yards) the past three seasons, then also looked at where those teams ranked in terms of total passing yards:

Sure, the past couple of seasons, there's been some order at the extremes: The Colts aren't a good running team but are prolific via the air. But what I notice most here is that folks who believe bad run attacks are automatically buttressed by good pass attacks are mistaken. There's far more evidence here to indicate just the opposite: When an offense is bad, it's really kind of just bad.

Of course, that doesn't answer this crutch argument entirely. Perhaps at least these poor running teams actually produced a consistently high number of pass attempts, even if the quarterbacks in charge didn't necessarily produce success with them. Let's look at the same 30 bad running teams from the past three years and see what their pass attempts looked like:

There does seem to be more correlation here, though certainly not pure correlation (especially in '08). As we might expect, we do see stinkier running teams throwing it more. But as our first chart clearly indicated, that hasn't regularly resulted in tremendous passing outcomes.

3. "Team X finally got a serviceable second wideout. That means the incumbent top receiver will see less double coverage and his production will rise."

For lack of a better term, let's call this the Dez Bryant argument. When the Cowboys took Bryant in the first round of April's draft, I read some opinions that thought it was, by definition, the best thing for Miles Austin. Finally, went the argument, the Cowboys have a viable replacement for ineffective Roy Williams, a player who is a deep threat and can open the field for Austin and force defenses not to roll safeties his way. Although I'm not saying this is a purely specious argument, especially on a game-by-game basis, I just don't think the numbers automatically add up. It's also perfectly arguable that part of Austin's magic last season was that Tony Romo didn't have anyone else he truly trusted (other than Jason Witten, of course) and thus forced more targets Austin's way than he might have otherwise.

There's no way to entirely disprove either of these two arguments in a single case until the games actually start. Perhaps an offense will grow more pass-oriented because of a viable second receiver, creating a bigger pie for all the team's targets to share. Or perhaps the presence of a new player like Bryant makes a player like Austin's per-target efficiency much better, resulting in wide-open pass patterns in innumerable single-covered situations and many catch-and-run touchdowns. Perhaps. But it's also arguable that if the pie doesn't expand (or, really, even if it does), the established receiver actually could see a downturn in his targets.

I've done my best to come up with equivalent situations from the past five years, times when an established star fantasy receiver was joined by what seemed -- at least at the time -- like an obvious upgrade in the opposite starting-receiver position but also someone who would be a clear second fiddle to the established guy. (In other words, receivers about whom this particular crutch argument no doubt was made.) Here's my list:

This isn't an exact science. Some of the incoming players listed here are veteran free agents, and some are rookies. Some of the No. 1 wideouts are "established" in the same way that I'm "tan" (see: 2007's Reggie Brown, though Brown did score eight touchdowns in '06). And note that I didn't include situations such as when Terrell Owens headed to the Bills last year because, although Lee Evans was an established fantasy player, Owens wasn't expected to play a second-fiddle role and merely "open up the field" for Evans.

What happened to the production of these established wideouts? Nine of them saw their targets go up on a per-game basis the next season, and nine of them saw their targets-per-game go down. Also, seven of them saw their fantasy points per game go up the following season, and 11 of them saw their fantasy performance go down. I'm not ready to discount the idea that Dez Bryant is going to help Miles Austin in 2010. But I don't think it's anything close to a fait accompli, and it certainly wouldn't be anything close to a major supporting argument I would make for Austin or for players like Chad Ochocinco (who has T.O. newly in the fold) or Calvin Johnson (who has Nate Burleson).

4. "Don't draft Running Back X. He's not going to get any goal-line carries."

Once the season begins, a few starting running backs are going to find themselves on the sideline occasionally when their team reaches an opponent's goal line. And there's no question it will cause frustration among those rushers' fantasy owners. But there are a couple of things wrong with assessing players with this crutch argument before the season begins.

First, and less interestingly, it's inaccurate to say that any starting rusher always gets pulled on the goal line. That's not true. No NFL team circa 2009 that allowed a running back to carry the ball 10 times per game failed to let that back have at least one carry inside an opponent's 5-yard line. And the only running back with more than 200 carries in '09 who didn't get at least five carries inside the 5 was Cedric Benson, a player we don't think of as having a vulture stealing short touchdowns from him (and indeed, Benson had 16 carries inside the 10). However, I'll grant the notion that some running backs last year did wind up finding themselves in annoying short-yardage conundrums. Ray Rice had 254 carries but just seven inside the 5, and Willis McGahee had 11 such looks on 109 total totes. Beanie Wells had 176 carries but only six inside the 5, and Tim Hightower had 12 in 143 carries.

The problem is, we can't say with a high degree of certainty in July or August who those most-frustrating goal-line vultures will be. Remember when the major threat to Chris Johnson's value in '09 was going to be LenDale White stealing short touchdowns? Or when Le'Ron McClain was going to be the Ravens' touchdown maker from in close? Earnest Graham (Buccaneers), T.J. Duckett (Seahawks), Sammy Morris (Patriots) and Peyton Hillis (Broncos) were all supposed to be worrisome governors to your excitement about their respective teams' starting rushers. In total last season, 23 men got 10 or more carries inside an opponent's 5:

The only players on this list we could truthfully call non-starters (or at the very least non-fantasy-starters) when the season began are Maroney, Snelling, Ricky Williams, Mendenhall, Hightower, McGahee and Bell. Snelling and Williams got much of their close-in work because of injuries to starters Michael Turner and Ronnie Brown. Mendenhall replaced Willie Parker as the Steelers' No. 1 man early in the year, so he doesn't count as a vulture. That leaves us with Maroney, Hightower, McGahee and Bell. I suppose it's fair to say an astute fantasy owner could've seen the Cardinals' time-share coming and downgraded Beanie Wells as a result. And although few saw Bell's five-TD season in advance (four of those came from inside an opponent's 3-yard line), there were misgivings about Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush because of split carries. Still, these four "vultures" didn't sit near the top of any list of worries we had last summer. As I mentioned above, we were too busy questioning Chris Johnson.

In my judgment, heading into the '10 season, these are the potential goal-line vultures who are putting pits in the stomachs of drafters trying to decide whether to grab nominal starting running backs:

Which of these situations should we consider to be of the "threat level red" variety? In a couple of cases, I'm worried less about short-yardage carries and more about pure time-shares: Harrison/Hardesty and Jones/Barber. In other words, I'm not wringing my hands because I think Barber might take some touchdowns away from Jones; I'm wringing my hands because I think Barber might reclaim the No. 1 rushing job from Jones. In the case of Portis/Johnson, well, I really don't like either player much this year, so I'm not losing sleep over that one. And I can't get myself worked up over Greene/Tomlinson or Rice/McGahee; I know they're potential TD-stealing situations, but they don't make me (or, if ADP is an indicator, you) nervous about drafting the starters.

This year, that leaves Wells/Hightower, Charles/Jones, McCoy/Bell and Thomas/Hamilton (or Reggie Bush in Hamilton's place, if you're so inclined). Our current crutch argument would have you stay away from Wells, Charles, McCoy and Thomas because their values might be extremely limited by their respective vultures. Sorry, I'm not buying it. I love Charles this year. Jones has been a great story the past couple of seasons, but the Jamaal Charles I saw in the second half of '09 didn't get tackled inside the 5. He just ran 'em in from long distance. And I like Wells very much this season, too; it's just his second season, and I think he has just as much of a battering-ram body as Hightower does. I'm not sold that the Saints won't use Thomas close to the goal line in '10. And I'm not convinced Bell can make it through a full season healthy. If I'm picking one guy from this group of starters I downgrade just a bit, it probably is McCoy because the Eagles appear to have quite a few battering-ram options on their roster (Bell, Charles Scott, Leonard Weaver) and have struggled so badly in short yardage the past couple of years. But I don't severely lower McCoy; he's 18th on my running back list, definitely still a fantasy starter.

Doubting the validity of this -- or any other -- crutch argument doesn't mean I think fantasy rushers don't sometimes frustrate the living heck out of their owners by ceding touchdowns to bruising teammates, just as in certain situations quarterbacks can benefit from having poor defenses or running games and wide receivers can benefit from a competent running mate on the other side of the field. My overarching point here is that these arguments are not automatic. I don't believe you can use them as absolute reasons -- especially before a season begins -- to endorse or downgrade a player, although we hear and read folks doing so all the time. The devil is in the details. What is it about a particular running back that makes us worry about his touchdown potential (see: LeSean McCoy's situation)? What is it about a freshly minted wide receiver tandem that makes us think the production will be greater than the sum of its parts (see: Owens coming to Cincinnati, where I think he's too much of a duplication of Ochocinco -- minus the excellent hands -- to suddenly create an exponentially better pass offense)? When you hear these crutch arguments, beware. Be prepared to dig deeper.