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NFL Week 1: Using Fantasy Football to Tell Us Something About the Real Game

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 12:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots passes during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on September 12, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Caleb GarlingCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2011

Something about this past weekend of NFL action just felt off. So I started poking around the numbers. It’s funny that in today’s sporting age, you can get way more descriptive stats and sorting tables about the game on fantasy sites than you can on real life sites.

And it proved to be an interesting lens to examine the game. We get so caught up in exactly what Player X did against Team Y that we don’t step back and realize that these massive databases are actually pretty powerful tools to look at the whole NFL.

Here were a couple of fun things I found.

Last year there were 35 kicks—punts or kickoffs—returned for touchdowns. That’s a little over two per week and, thinking back to last season’s SportsCenter highlights, that seems about right. Any good evening was punctuated by a couple runbacks and over-exaggerated head nodding.

So guess how many there were this week. If you watched any football, you’re probably thinking, “You know, there were a lot, weren’t there.”

Yes, seven of them. Seven kicks returned for touchdowns in one week. That’s ridiculous.

At first I thought, “Geez, the law of averages does shake out in a funny way occasionally.” But then I started thinking more about it and realized: here is a massive effect of the lockout. Anyone that’s played much backyard football knows that one of the easiest (and most fun) plays to score on is a kick run back.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 11:  Ted Ginn #19 of the San Francisco 49ers outruns Earl Thomas #29 and the rest of the Seattle Seahawks on his way to scoring a touchdown on a kickoff return during their season opener at Candlestick Park on September 11, 2
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Without a good kick coverage and proper lane assignments, you can string together enough haphazard blocks and juke moves to go the distance.

NFL teams are not that far removed, in a relative sense, from backyard football right now. Especially special teams. These are the most transient players in the league, the ones who play for four teams in five years.

They really don’t know their assignments.

But then I thought, “Okay, interesting enough, but what about other parts of the game.”

Well, start at the other end of the spectrum. This week we saw twelve quarterbacks throw for over 300 yards, three over 400 and one, Tom “Oh yeah, that’s right, you’re really good” Brady, going over 500 yards (which almost made me lose my fantasy game).

In Week 1 of last year? One 400 yard game and two 300 yard games. Everyone else was sub-300.

Only in Week 10 did we see more than eight 300-yard games and only one of those crested 400. In short, from the offensive side of the ball quarterbacks, early on at least, are preying on unorganized defenses. Again, going back to the backyard football analogy, if both sides are fairly discombobulated (it’s backyard football), it’s going to be a shootout.

Receivers can find a way to slide open and a decent quarterback will find them.

Will this continue? Who knows. Cam Newton is going to still disappoint a lot of people.

Pittsburgh didn’t switch defenses with Denver. Another 50-touchdown Tom Brady seems unlikely. Ted Ginn Jr is not Dante Hall.  

That’ll be a fascinating bit to watch as the season goes on: how quickly, if at all, will each facet of the game tighten up and resume last year’s form. We’ll keep using fantasy football to find out.

[Caleb writes for Wired and says other stuff at www.twitter.com/calebgarling]

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