Fantasy Football: Stop Targeting Quarterbacks in Negative Game Scripts

Garbage time: the part of a football game where anything that happens doesn't matter. Except it does if you play fantasy football.

And, let me tell you, fantasy footballers love themselves some garbage time. Especially as it relates to their quarterback.

It may seem logical to actively want your fantasy quarterback to be trailing big late in a game. When his offense is down, he's likely throwing the ball more. And if he's throwing the ball more, then more fantasy points are going to be scored.

That reasoning ignores the bigger picture, though. We know quarterbacks control so much of a football game, so why pinpoint and target the end of football games when analyzing a quarterback's situation? Why care so much about the final 5 or 10 minutes when a full game has 60?

That basic idea is why quarterbacks who are likely to be in negative game scripts -- quarterbacks who are likely to be trailing, or quarterbacks who are likely to play in garbage time -- shouldn't get preferential treatment when a fantasy manager is making a start-sit decision on Sunday morning.

Focus on the Bigger Picture

When it comes to quarterbacks in fantasy football -- and, really, any position in fantasy football -- it's important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. To look at not just the individual level, but the team level as well.

Since 2012, or over the last six NFL seasons, team single-game point totals have seen a decent correlation to quarterback scoring in fantasy football. For the math nerds out there, the R-Squared between the number of points a team scored in a game and fantasy points scored by that team's quarterback (as long as the quarterback saw a minimum of 20 pass attempts) has been 46% over the last six years. To put that another way, the number of points a team scores in an actual NFL game can help explain 46% of the variation seen in a quarterback's fantasy point total.

Honestly, this makes sense. If teams score a lot of points, then the quarterback likely has a lot to do with that. In turn, he's scoring fantasy points.

This is helpful knowledge when trying to understand the impact a negative game script has on a quarterback. Because it's not as if quarterbacks are less productive in negative game scripts, per se. At least from a fantasy football perspective. It's that focusing solely on what happens when a quarterback is faced with a negative game script ignores any occurrence that went down prior to the quarterback's team trailing.

This is why we see very little correlation between pass attempts thrown and fantasy points scored by a quarterback on a game-by-game basis. (Again, this is being analyzed among quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts thrown in a game over the last six years in order to not skew our data.) And it's also why implied team totals set by oddsmakers show twice as strong of a correlation -- albeit, it's still a weak one -- to fantasy points scored versus what we see with a game's spread.

Variable 1 Variable 2 R-Squared
Pass Attempts Fantasy Points Scored 0.05
Implied Team Total Fantasy Points Scored 0.09
Point Spread Fantasy Points Scored 0.04

What's interesting about the correlation between a game's point spread and the number of fantasy points a quarterback scores is that it does appear stronger at the extremes. But not in the way that you'd think.

The sample we're working with includes 3,242 quarterback games. There have been 3,242 instances between Weeks 1 and 16 over the last six years where a quarterback threw the ball 20 or more times.

The top 10th percentile in terms of point spread among this group consists of all games where a quarterback's team was favored by 7.5 or more points. We'll call this group Favorites. The bottom 10th percentile includes games where the passer's team was an underdog by 7.5 points. We'll call them Underdogs.

Quarterbacks in the Favorites group averaged 19.3 points per game, while the Underdogs averaged 13.3. But there's a sample bias here: good quarterbacks are generally favorites, while bad signal-callers are underdogs. So it's not shocking to see the Favorites group average more points per game.

When you compare these rates to a quarterback's season-long average, though, you'll find that the Favorites are adding roughly 0.70 more points per game to their average when compared to the Underdogs.

In other words, if you're focused heavily on game script when making a quarterback decision in fantasy football, you're actually better off looking toward a quarterback who's a big favorite rather than a big underdog.

And it's likely because big favorites are posting a lot of points. We've already seen that points scored by a team correlates nicely to fantasy points scored by a quarterback, and there's some noise when looking at margin of victory as well.

Variable 1Variable 2R-Squared
Actual TotalFantasy Points Scored0.46
Margin of VictoryFantasy Points Scored0.18

This tells us that, as the margin of victory in a game goes up, so does the number of fantasy points scored by a quarterback. Or, at the very least given the correlation isn't super strong, you can't make the opposite claim.

First and Foremost, Winning Matters

This isn't to say that you should never target and use a quarterback who's likely to trail in a game. There will be plenty of scenarios in the upcoming NFL season where an underdog makes sense to use. Especially when that game projects to be a shootout. Remember, the more points scored by an offense, the better.

That should be your focus.

Looking at things from a bird's-eye view before focusing on one specific portion of a football game is always the right approach. Before analyzing what's likely to happen in garbage time, don't lose sight of what'll happen across the first three quarters of a game.

Because, more than likely, the quarterback had to give a garbage performance to produce that garbage time in the first place.