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Why Football in 2020 Is Not A Fantasy

By Mike Davis | 6/19/20 |

Ezekiel Elliott

When you learned that Ezekiel Elliott had tested positive for COVID-19, how did you respond? Perhaps, like Dr. Jene Bramel of, you thought, “Well, it wasn’t statistically possible for us to get to the season--much less through it--without some players testing positive.” Perhaps, like anyone who owns Elliott in a keeper/dynasty format, you thought, “Hooray! This means he can self-isolate now instead of missing starts during the regular season.” But whatever you may have thought, it probably wasn’t, “I hope he finds a way to pull through”--because the reality is you have little reason to suppose a world class athlete in his 20s is in any danger from a virus that isn’t anywhere near as terrifying as Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College model led us to believe back in February.

We in the fantasy community are perhaps uniquely poised to appreciate the problems in Ferguson’s model and the silliness of the government officials and media spokespeople who continue (in June!) to cling to this deeply flawed projection that remains at odds with reality. Fantasy enthusiasts discard faulty projections every year. We might spend a few weeks attempting to ignore the evidence that we were wrong about Justice Hill fitting right into the Baltimore scheme or Cam Newton bouncing back from injury for a career year in 2019, but eventually, we must come to terms with reality and adjust our expectations. (Okay, maybe those were my mistakes, not yours--but you take my point).

Back in February, Ferguson’s team at Imperial College took a snapshot of data about COVID that made it look as dangerous as Sammy Watkins in Week 1 of the 2019 season, when he racked up 198 yards and 3 TDs. Ferguson’s extrapolations from this preliminary data were just as jaw-dropping as it was for owners of Watkins to extrapolate a 48 TD, 3200-yard season for the WR based on the snapshot from Week 1. But just as Watkins failed to deliver a single TD or to rack up even a third as much yardage in any regular season contest for the remainder of 2019, Ferguson’s exponential curve and massive death toll failed to materialize.

Unfortunately, people in the real world remain so impressed by Neil Ferguson’s model that some communities (my own city of Austin being one) are still following protocols based on the insane projections he issued in February even though we now have 4 months of real world data contradicting almost every assumption he made. This is exactly as boneheaded as using the projections from just before Labor Day to determine who won your fantasy championship in December. Why pay any attention to what happens in the actual games? We can just make our predictions, have our drafts, and immediately crown our winners because we apparently live in a world in which predictions trump reality.

But even if the world has lost its mind over COVID, there’s no point in discussing the matter unless the discussion can lead, in some way, to a solution. But what can we do to help? Perhaps the most helpful thing we can do is to encourage the world to stop overreacting to COVID, which should definitely involve a return of the NFL to business as usual in time for regular season kickoff for several reasons.

First, real world data tells us that COVID has a vanishingly small death rate and primarily affects people with comorbidities over the average age of mortality. The fatality rate is probably even lower than the latest .26% estimate from the CDC (which is already an order of magnitude lower than the CFR of Ferguson’s model). Nobel laureate Michael Levitt calculated a rate of no greater than .2% in February and tried to make Ferguson understand why his exponential curve was unrealistic, but Ferguson ignored him. The more we understand the limitations of our testing protocols, the more we understand the prevalence of asymptomatic responses.

Second, we can remind people that getting projections wrong is one of the easiest things in the world to do. No matter how carefully you thought about Kenyan Drake’s situation at the beginning of the 2019 season, you probably had no idea that he would end up 1) being traded to Arizona or 2) outperforming David Johnson as a Cardinal. Reality is full of curveballs that simply turn your projections into mush. It’s understandable that most of us projected certain numbers for Drake when we expected him to be in Miami; what’s not understandable is refusing to adjust those numbers after his departure for Arizona. (Our current panic about a rising number of “cases” even as deaths continue to diminish seems like a similar sort of hard-headedness to me.)

Third, we have to use our math skills to understand differences in context. We know that RBs who catch a lot of short passes are more useful in PPR leagues than in standard leagues, so we use that mathematical information to make intelligent choices. (With COVID, by contrast, even though we knew from the beginning that elderly people had a huge risk whereas schoolchildren had virtually no risk, we shut down the schools while forcing the elderly in certain states to congregate in nursing homes.)

Fourth, we should remind people about the importance of diving deep into a subject in order to get the most useful information. CNN and FOX may give you the scores and highlights from the games on Sunday afternoon, but most of that info will be worthless in terms of helping you prepare for the waiver wire. That’s what drives you to sources like FFToday for your news. Similarly, when it comes to COVID, you should know by now that you’re only going to get sensationalism and hysteria from the mainstream media. For real insights, you’ll need to consult specialty sources. Some of my favorites during COVID have been Ivor Cummins’ Fat Emperor podcast (here’s his interview with the aforementioned Levitt) and Freddie Sayers’ Unherd interviews (especially this one with Professor Sunetra Gupta). Other notable COVID skeptics include journalist Alex Berenson and Twitter denizen @EthicalSkeptic. When you dive into this data, you may be surprised at what you find. For instance, Neil Ferguson’s model suggested that 100,000 Swedes would die before May if the country didn’t lock down, whereas only 20,000 would die if it did. Sweden famously refused to lock down but somehow managed to lose fewer than 3,000 citizens (most of them in nursing homes, sadly) before May. Tragic as those deaths are, the total mortality rate in Sweden from June of ‘19 to May of ‘20 is actually lower than the average for the 12 years prior.

It’s a surprising graph, but you’ve seen more surprising graphs than that (such as D.J. Chark’s performance last year). We’re pretty good at analyzing numbers in fantasy; we need to start analyzing the data we have about COVID and being vocal about what it means. It won’t make anyone “safer” for the 2020 NFL season to be canceled, so if the season ends up getting canceled, it will be in part because we weren’t effective enough at using math and logic to help people see the truth about reality.

So what’s your best elevator pitch for convincing people that the 2020 NFL games should proceed on schedule? Please email me your thoughts or post them in the comment section below. You are also welcome to explain why you think we should continue hiding indoors until nobody ever dies again--your call.

Mike Davis has been writing about fantasy football since 1999--and playing video games even longer than that. His latest novel (concerning a gamer who gets trapped inside Nethack after eating too many shrooms) can be found here.

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