What Nick Foles' Performance Taught Us About Fantasy Football

Nick Foles threw more touchdowns on Sunday than Terrelle Pryor has all season long.

I tend to believe that, if you make rational, logical fantasy football decisions, you’ve already won.

Go ahead and roll your eyes, Mr. I Benched Nick Foles in Week 9. An hour before kickoff in Oakland, you were fine with Terrelle Pryor as your fantasy signal-caller. Though Foles threw seven touchdowns, you should still realize that an outlier – a data point in a set of results that’s much bigger or smaller than the next nearest point – is not easily predictable.

Will Nick Foles throw for seven touchdowns in an NFL game ever again? I’ll give that a nice, firm “negative”. But just because an outlier occurs, it doesn’t mean that we should write articles about how the NFL “doesn’t make any sense” and how “everything is so unpredictable.”

You mad bro?

Sure, professional football is difficult to predict and analyze. But if you’re unaware, that’s also what makes the game so popular. If not for performances like this one from Foles, the number of people sitting in front of their televisions and laptops on Sunday would be a fraction of what it was yesterday.

Parity is the name of the game in the NFL, and if you haven’t realized that, then, well, you’ve probably had a pretty rough fantasy football season. Weekly variance is a very normal thing with this game. Unfortunately, it takes a historic seven-touchdown performance from a backup quarterback for people to realize that.

If you’d rather throw your arms up and walk away from NFL spreadsheets, be my guest. For me, every week in the NFL is another learning experience, and Week 9 was no different. Especially when it came to backup quarterbacks and Nick Foles’ quarterbacking explosion.

Lesson 1: Backup Quarterbacks are Usable in Fantasy Football

Since Week 1, we’ve seen 17 instances where a backup quarterback – one who was a backup at some point during the NFL season – finished as a top-15 fantasy quarterback option. Nick Foles is obviously part of this group, but the rest of these instances are below as well:

PlayerWeekFantasy PointsOpponent
Brian HoyerWeek 320.6Minnesota Vikings
Matt CasselWeek 420.3Pittsburgh Steelers
Brian HoyerWeek 419.3Cincinnati Bengals
Ryan FitzpatrickWeek 522.8Kansas City Chiefs
Nick FolesWeek 515.9New York (Giants)
Nick FolesWeek 632.0Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Thad LewisWeek 624.3Buffalo Bills
Mike GlennonWeek 618.8Philadelphia Eagles
Mike GlennonWeek 719.5Atlanta Falcons
Josh McCownWeek 715.3Washington Redskins
Jason CampbellWeek 821.3Kansas City Chiefs
Christian PonderWeek 815.6Green Bay Packers
Mike GlennonWeek 815.2Carolina Panthers
Nick FolesWeek 949.6Oakland Raiders
Case KeenumWeek 932.6Indianapolis Colts
Jason CampbellWeek 924.4Baltimore Ravens
Mike GlennonWeek 915.9Seattle Seahawks

In total, 10 different signal-callers have seen the top-15, which is typically a score of 15 standard fantasy points or more.

We can credit this to a few things. First, if you look at the matchups, many of these passers had fairly easy ones. Kansas City makes an appearance on the list multiple times, but much of that has to do with the fact that they’ve seemed to be playing a backup each week.

Second, it’s time for more people to realize that it’s not just a passing league for elite quarterbacks. Backups are getting in on the volume game, too. Mike Glennon, for instance, is seeing over 40 attempts per game this year. Jason Campbell, in his two starts this season, has thrown a combined 71 passes. And before Campbell was starter in Cleveland, it was Brian Hoyer, who had 54 attempts against the Vikings and 38 against the Bengals.

When there’s opportunity to score in the real game, there’s opportunity to put up points in the fake one, too.

Why are teams so trusting of their backup quarterbacks? Why are they giving them so many attempts? Well, it’s not just a result of trust. It’s more of a result of game flow and the teams these guys play on.

The quarterbacks above represent the Browns, Bears, Vikings, Buccaneers, Eagles, Texans, Titans and Bills. When you look at each of these teams and adjust their defensive metrics – numberFire metrics – for strength of schedule, none of them have top-10 defensive units. Only the Titans, Bucs and Bills have defenses that ranked better than 17 entering Week 9. Chicago’s depleted D ranks 18th, and the rest – Cleveland, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Houston – rank no better than 22 on the defensive side of the ball when fixed for strength of opponent.

There’s a reason they’re throwing the ball a lot – their defenses are bad. When defenses are bad, you’re playing more catch-up. And when you’re behind in today’s NFL, padding stats isn’t difficult to do.

This is all to say that we shouldn’t assume a backup quarterback means bad news to fantasy football. It’s not like we’re looking at an Alex Smith replacement here – we’re dealing with teams that are poor on the defensive side of the ball, resulting in more opportunity for their passers.

What I learned from Nick Foles: Don't forget about backup quarterbacks. Though we shouldn't expect a seven-touchdown day, these players still hold plenty of value due to volume and honest performance thus far.

Lesson 2: Most Quarterbacks Are Replaceable

The inherent build of fantasy football lineups devalues the quarterback position. Most leagues only use one, so right away you find the demand for the position to be less than at running back or receiver. The supply, as you see above with backup quarterbacks, is plentiful, especially in 2013.

We love quarterbacks as football fans, so the valuing of the position is always going to be debated in fantasy football.

But if we use Nick Foles’ performance as our example for learning, we’re seeing that more and more obscure passers are finding their way into the elite weekly rankings. They’re not consistent like a Manning, Rodgers or Brees, but if a solid matchup arises, it’s not out of the question to think a player like Case Keenum can finish as a top-5 quarterback. Heck, we’re going to see that in Week 9.

Perhaps we’re moving towards an NFL with a higher quarterback ceiling for lesser-developed passers.

Keep in mind, this has nothing to do with real football. If you look at our metrics, teams that throw the ball efficiently – Denver, New Orleans, Green Bay, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Detroit, Seattle, Carolina – are all on a direct path to the playoffs.

But as we know, part of the fantasy football equation is opportunity. When that opportunity is there – in volume – there’s more output. And when there’s more output, fantasy quarterback become devalued and more replaceable than we’re used to.

Think of this idea of replaceability from a different angle. If you're in a standard league, the chance that you find a team in need of a quarterback is going to be slim. Why? Because the supply, right now, far outweighs the demand. Players like Nick Foles are the reason for this.

What I learned from Nick Foles: Even passers who appear as bad quarterbacks can have an elite fantasy day. That, and because there are so many quarterbacks available, having one is less important for fantasy success.

Lesson 3: Unpredictability Has No Favorites

We know the game is unpredictable, so let's plan for it. It's not time to do the opposite of what’s logical (though I've felt like I should at times), but rather it's time to take control of what we can accurately predict.

If you lived in an area where tornadoes were common, would you refuse to build some sort of shelter for a potential storm because the size, intensity and timing of the storm was unpredictable?

When a game like Foles' occurs, fantasy owners seem to think that planning for anything is almost completely black and white. But remember that there are still plenty of instances that remain constant and easy to project. In fact, one of the big oversights for fantasy owners is ignoring a weekly confidence interval, or some sort of consistency rating (which we provide with our projections, for the record). If you don't want to be surprised by goose eggs or high-scoring performances, the one thing that can help is acquiring players with less variance, and taking fewer risks.

That's not to say that the correct approach to fantasy football is a conservative one. If that's the case, then you'd never have Nick Foles for a Nick Foles Week 9 performance. But this idea of planning and understanding that you can predict a lot of the occurrences in the NFL often gets lost when outliers occur.

What I learned from Nick Foles: The number of "outliers" in Week 9 just shows that there are plenty of more angles to take when analyzing fantasy football. The game may not be any more or less unpredictable; perhaps fantasy analysts have become less thoughtful about their own projections.