Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Smiles & Frowns: Win or Go Home

I’m a mellower manager these days, but it’s still painful to lose a game by only a narrow margin, especially a playoff game. Every point counts, obviously, and that point is magnified in the playoffs.

I lost a couple close games this past weekend; a season building team chemistry, overcoming draft busts, pretending my players were real, making gratuitous calls to friends to discuss trades I knew would not happen, begging Amani Toomer to throw a touchdown pass to himself—and now it’s all over. All you can really do is put yourself in the best position to win each game, and if that’s not enough, hope for the incredible. The incredible occasionally does happen, by the way:

A few years ago a friend of mine was in a very tight game where his only remaining player was Marvin Harrison, and the other owner had Peyton Manning and a narrow lead. The only realistic way to win was a Harrison rushing touchdown or for Harrison to catch a touchdown pass from someone other than Manning. Well, Manning dropped back and threw a screen (behind the line of scrimmage) to tight end Ken Dilger, who heaved the ball downfield to Marvin for a late forty-something yard touchdown pass. My friend’s head nearly exploded, and he went on to win.

The Marvin Harrison Affair was as gratifying as another friend’s tragedy involving Daunte Culpepper during his Viking days. A late Culpepper touchdown put my friend’s squad ahead by a tenth of a point. An absolute miracle, right? Wrong. The Vikings’ opponent tried to rally late only to turn the ball over, bringing Culpepper back on to the field to take a snap, then two steps backward and a knee—recorded as negative two rushing yards. My friend lost his game as a result. His head nearly exploded.

But it’s not always about the end; it’s about the ride. That, and winning. So really, it’s about winning. If you’re still in the dance, good luck this week.

A look back at a couple roster decisions from this past week:

Decision #1: K Matt Bryant or K Lawrence Tynes

Theory: Choosing a kicker is like making soup—choose the best ingredients

The Scenario: I know the “theory” sounds crazy, so let me explain: kickers are often overvalued in drafts, and overlooked once the season has begun. You have to pay attention to different variables week-to-week to determine which kicker is the best option. For example, consider: is the kicker playing in cold weather (ball is harder and doesn’t travel as well)? Warm weather (ball travels further)? In a dome? Will weather conditions be poor (footing)? Does the opposing team have a stingy defense? Does the opposing team have an average defense but a good red-zone defense (some defenses improve when the field is shorter, which leads to FG chances)? Is the offense without a key player that could cause the offense to sputter?

The possibilities are endless. So, you’ve got to put all the ingredients together, and make as rational a choice as possible. This past week I had to choose between the above kickers. Tampa would be playing in Houston, and Bryant has been getting plenty of field goal opportunities. And, Houston is towards the bottom of the league in points allowed. The Giants would face a tough divisional opponent—the Eagles—in Philadelphia. Weather conditions looked fair, but it’s certainly colder in Philly. I decided to go with Bryant.

The Aftermath: Gruden faked us all and Jeff Garcia didn’t play. Tampa’s offense looked unavoidably different with backup QB McCown, and Bryant never got a field goal attempt. Meanwhile, the Giants stalled three times in the red zone leading to field goals of 19, 23 and 23 yards.

Verdict: All you can do is pick the best ingredients. All things equal, I went for the kicker in warm weather and the team facing what I thought was a weaker opponent. Didn’t work out, obviously. The eight-point differential actually would have won the playoff game for me, too. I didn’t draft either of these kickers, I should note. Don’t draft them too high, or at all, but don’t overlook them.

Decision #2: WR Santana Moss or WR Sidney Rice

Theory: Don't worry about "missing out" on the points

The Scenario: Moss and the Redskins had a Thursday game this past week and I was torn between starting Moss and Rice. The Thursday game forced me to rush a decision. The Redskins were coming off an emotional week, and then they wouldn’t have much time to prepare for another game on Thursday.

When the players are close, I think that managers have a natural tendency to want to play the guy who will be going first, to avoid having that feeling of “I missed out” on the points. Then, the Thursday guy will be staring at you on the roster for two days, as you just hope the player starting Sunday will match the output. Of course it can work out the other way and you’re glad you didn’t let the timing issue influence the decision. I fell into the trap and I started Moss when my gut told me to start Rice.

The Aftermath: Both had underwhelming performances—Moss caught three for 29 yards and Rice had two for 21.

Verdict: I ignored my intuition and started Moss. In that regard, I screwed up. Moss hasn’t been healthy for some time and he was playing on three days rest. I should have started Rice. But, the points worked out in my favor.

***Please also see the comments to the Dec. 4 article discussing why you should sometimes err on the side of caution instead of guessing between two running backs in a committee.

Good luck this week.

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