Fantasy football is often compared to poker — and specifically the game Texas hold ’em — with regard to how much of a player’s success or failure can be attributed to skill, and how much can be attributed to luck. Wisdom holds that luck might prevail in the short term, but skill perseveres over the long run.
An inferior poker player might be able to beat superior competition during a three-hour session at the table. But if an inferior player keeps coming back to a weekly game against highly skilled players, the inferior player is likely to lose money (probably a great deal of it) over a span of several months. An unskilled fantasy owner might be able to stumble into the playoffs or even back his way into a championship in a given year, but there’s little chance that he will be able to string together a series of successful seasons.
But there’s another way in which Texas hold ’em can be compared to fantasy football, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s talk about Dolphins WR Brian Hartline.
In the aftermath of Hartline’s 12-catch, 253-yard tour de force against the Cardinals in Week Four, a lot of fantasy owners have been asking themselves, “Why didn’t I see this coming?” No one sees a 253-yard game coming, of course. But many of us were slow to identify Hartline as a player who matters, even after he had turned in a nine-catch, 111-yard performance in Week Two. Hartline essentially had to club us over the head with a two-by-four to make the point that, yes, he does indeed matter.
Nothing in Hartline’s statistical history suggests that a breakout was coming. In his rookie year with the Dolphins in 2009, he caught 31 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns. He followed with seasons of 43-615-1 in ’10 and 35-549-1 in ’11. Entering this season, Hartline had played 44 games in the NFL and had averaged 2.48 receptions and 37.95 yards per contest, with six total touchdowns. Those numbers don’t exactly scream “impact player,” do they?
Hartline’s college numbers are no more enlightening. His best season at Ohio State came in 2007, when he produced a stat line of 52-694-6. Hartline trailed teammate Brian Robiskie in receptions, receiving yardage and TDs. In his final season at OSU (2008), Hartline had 21-479-4. He had exactly half as many receptions as Robiskie had that season.
But Hartline’s stat history is far less significant than his current circumstances. The rebuilding Dolphins have often found themselves trailing their opponents, so they’ve been throwing a lot (and will probably continue to throw a lot all season). They’re so thin at wide receiver behind Hartline and Davone Bess that they just signed the previously unemployed Jabar Gaffney to be their No. 3. The Dolphins’ new head coach, Joe Philbin, is a passing-game specialist who came to Miami from Green Bay, where he had helped turn Jordy Nelson into a burgeoning star. And the Dolphins’ rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, has been more competent than expected.
This isn’t to suggest that Hartline is ticketed for stardom — although there are some eerie statistical parallels between Hartline and early-career Wes Welker. But Hartline is now clearly relevant in fantasy football. He’s an asset worth owning. Few people felt this way about Hartline back in August, when they were preparing for their drafts and auctions.
But the ability to adapt to changing circumstances is critical to fantasy football success, and this is where we can draw another parallel between fantasy football and Texas hold ’em.
The two cards dealt to each player in Texas hold ’em can constitute a good starting hand or a bad one, but after the initial bets are made and three community cards are dealt on the flop, the complexion of your hand can change entirely. A strong hand can be rendered vulnerable. A mediocre hand can become powerful.
A pair of aces is the optimal starting hand in Texas hold ’em, but if the flop brings the 8, 9 and 10 of spades, your pocket aces will quite possibly be crushed by someone with a flush or a straight. A 9-5 is a lousy starting hand, but it becomes mighty if the flop delivers a 9 and two 5s. Preconceived notions of strength and weakness are rendered obsolete when those first three community cards hit the board. And there are two more community cards yet to come, so the circumstances can change yet again.
A lot of fantasy owners chain themselves to their own preconceived notions about player value. Admittedly, this is my own greatest weakness as an owner. With most players, I tend to be slow to change my original valuation, even in the face of mounting evidence that the valuation was flawed.
Fantasy owners tend to tether their expectations to draft/auction results. A player drafted in the third round is a third-round value. A player purchased for $9 is worth $9. But drafts and auctions are just starting points. Wherever Hartline was drafted, or whatever his auction price (if he was selected at all), he’s clearly more valuable now than he was back in August.
Maybe it was easy for a lot of fantasy owners to wave the white flag on Chris Johnson, a first-round pick in most of this year’s fantasy drafts, because Johnson already had shown signs of slippage before this season. But a lot of owners are still hoping to get a reasonable return on investment with early-round picks such as Ryan Mathews, Steven Jackson, Michael Vick, Dez Bryant and Michael Turner, even though early results suggest that a reasonable ROI is unlikely.
Not only are expectations tied to fantasy drafts, but also to the NFL draft. When the Patriots drafted Shane Vereen in the second round of the 2011 draft and Stevan Ridley a round later, most of us assumed that Vereen would be the more valuable fantasy commodity. Vereen may yet pan out, but at the moment he’s a less valuable fantasy commodity than teammate Brandon Bolden, an undrafted free agent who didn’t lead his team in rushing last year during his final college season at Ole Miss. Hartline was a fourth-round pick when he came out of the college ranks and thus drew no immediate attention. Justin Blackmon drew a ton of attention in fantasy drafts after being the fifth overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, but he has been irrelevant so far.
Victor Cruz helped a lot of people win leagues last year, including me. Despite his lack of pedigree — he was an undrafted free agent who had zero receptions in his rookie season — I liked what I saw of him early last season and spent a sizable amount of my free-agent budget on him, and there’s no way I would have won that league without him.
Don’t completely disregard statistical history, of course. A player’s stat history matters. But in most cases, current circumstances matter more. A roster full of strong historical performers can often get a big lift from one or two Johnny-come-latelys, so don’t be shy about ditching a deflated asset for a growth stock.
When circumstances change, adjust. Pay attention to the board cards and not just your starting hand. The flop could bring an ace of hearts … or an ace of Hartline.