Building the perfect back

Here are Edgerrin James' total yardage figures for the first two years of his career:
 Year   Games   Total Yards
 1999     16       2139
 2000     16       2303

Suppose you went into a coma this afternoon and woke up after the 2001 season. After exchanging a few pleasantries with your family, you'd probably head directly to the internet to see how some of your favorite players performed while you were snoozing. First stop: the Edge. Here's what you see:

 Year   Games   Total Yards
 2001     16      1838
That's almost a 500-yard drop from last year. What went wrong? You quickly call your friends, and as usual they're able to supply you with plenty of theories:

One or more of your friends might be right on the money. But there is a possibility they missed. Namely, plain old bad luck. I'm here to tell you that the same Edge -- with the same teammates, with the same coaching staff calling the same plays in the same stadiums against the same opponents -- can see his production drop by 500 yards for no reason at all. And that's a drop in the bucket compared to what can happen to the TDs, but more on that later.

Here's how I know: because I created a Robo-Edge and let him run for 200 years. Robo-Edge was programmed to play 16 games per year and his total yardage distribution was exactly what the real Edgerrin James' yardage distribution has been during his NFL career. [click here to learn exactly how Robo-Edge was programmed.] [Robo-Edge's career stats]

Anyway, in one of the 200 simulated years, Robo-Edge was only able to muster up 1838 yards. Robo-Edge didn't lose his competitive fire or start taking drugs. Robo-Edge didn't get hurt, and the Robo-Colts didn't change their offensive scheme. He just didn't get the yards. Bad luck.

On the plus side, he did rack up 2749 total yards in one of the seasons. He got a lot of lucky breaks that year. These were extreme cases. Most of the time, Robo-Edge produced right around 2100 - 2300 yards, just like the real Edge has done.

The point of the story is this: when a player has a season that is out of whack with the rest of his career, there may be an explanation, but there may not be. It might just be the breaks of the game. Luck is a much stronger force than most people realize.

Because TDs happen in relatively small quantities, the effect of luck on them is even more pronounced. The real Edge has produced 17 and 18 total TDs in his two NFL seasons. Robo-Edge had seasons with TD totals as high as 28 and as low as 6. A few different calls by Robo-Mora, a few robo-toes stepping an inch out of bounds and a few bad spots by the robo-refs can make Edge's TD totals fly all over the place. In one three-year stretch, Robo-Edge recorded TD totals of 12, 22, 9. Imagine the explanations you'd hear if this happened in real life. The real explanation, of course, is no explanation at all. These things happen.

Now, I need to say this loud and clear so no one misunderstands: when a player's stats change greatly from one year to the next, there very often is an explanation other than luck. I'm only pointing out that maybe there isn't one. So don't be too quick to assume you've figured out what caused the change and whether or not the change is real.

Eric Moulds' TD totals for the last three years: 9, 7, 5. Bad trend? Cause for concern? Not for me. To my eye, Moulds is the same receiver he's always been. Rod Smith's receiving yards for the last four years: 1180, 1222, 1020, 1602. Did Rod or his situation really change that much last year, or did he get at least a partial assist from lady luck? Time will tell, but my guess is that the 2001 edition of Rod Smith will look more like the 1997-1999 version than the 2000 model. You may have a good reason to believe differently, but don't insist on finding one. If you can't find one, maybe there isn't one.

The only thing we know for sure: the first pick in your dynasty league should be Robo-Edge. He's good for at least 200 solid seasons.

How Robo-Edge was programmed: the real Edgerrin has played 32 career games. Here's his total yardage breakdown:

Tot. Yard Range    Pct. of Edge's games
   80 -  89              15.6%     
   90 -  99               0.0%
  100 - 109               9.4%
  110 - 119               3.1%
  120 - 129              18.8% 
  130 - 139              12.5%
  140 - 149               6.3%
  150 - 159               9.4%
  160 - 169               6.3%
  170 - 179               0.0%
  180 - 189               3.1%
  190 - 199               6.3%
  200 - 209               6.3%
  210 - 219               0.0%
  220 - 229               3.1%
So a "game" for Robo-Edge is simply a random number between 0 and 100. If it falls below 15.6, then Robo-Edge has between 80 and 89 yards. If it falls between 15.6 and 25, then Robo-Edge has between 100 and 109, and so on. Once the range is determined (say 80-89), he was randomly assigned a value within that range. That's his yardage for the game. Repeat 16 times and add them up and you've got a season of Robo-Edge.