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Why Preseason Games Matter 57.7% Of The Time

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We’ve just finished the second week of preseason and people are losing their minds when it comes to how players are performing and what that means for the regular season outlook.

I’ve seen people engage in the worst kind of confirmatory bias when it comes to players they like or players they think will bust. Tony Romo throws a pick and a touchdown and some focus on the touchdown while doubters emphasize the interception.

And heaven forbid if a guy scores a touchdown. Sprinkle some preseason hype on an actual preseason touchdown and this is what you’ll get:

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As you can tell, Brandin Cooks scored his touchdown on August 8, the same time his ADP skyrocketed past Marques Colston's.

The chances of Cooks being more fantasy relevant than Colston is slim. Based on a preseason game, combined with just the right amount of hype, Cooks leapfrogged Colston in mock drafts. It doesn’t make sense.

Preseason performance, like just about all other factors, should be considered one small piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, it’s not. Too many people give unwarranted weight to what a guy does in an August scrimmage to predict what will happen in a September game.

I’ve had arguments with people who say one, two or even five years worth of stats are too small of a sample size to project what a team and/or player would do in the upcoming year. Those same people don’t hesitate to announce how a guy will do in the regular season based off a quarter, series or even a single play in a preseason game.

Some call it the recency effect. I call it dysfunction-fantasy-football decision-making, and it's not wise to partake in it.

To see how much preseason games are a predictor of regular season performance, I went back and looked at the top rushers since 2009 (5 seasons) and compared their preseason performances with how they finished the year. I considered anything below 4.0 YPC to be a subpar preseason performance.

2009 Preseason/Season

Name                            Regular Season Stats           Preseason Stats                          
Chris Johnson                2,006 Yards — 5.6 YPC          25 att. - 77 yds - 3.1 YPC                          
Steven Jackson 1,416 Yards — 4.4 YPC 10 att. - 37 yds - 3.7 YPC
Thomas Jones 1,402 Yards — 4.2 YPC  31 att. - 77 yds - 2.5 YPC 
Maurice Jones-Drew  1,391 Yards — 4.5 YPC  10 att. - 29 yds - 2.9 YPC 
Adrian Peterson  1,383 Yards — 4.4 YPC  25 att. - 181 yds - 7.2 YPC (75 yd. run) 
Ray Rice  1,339 Yards — 5.3 YPC  23 att. - 83 yds - 3.6 YPC 
Ryan Grant  1,253 Yards — 4.4 YPC  21 att. - 93 yds - 4.4 YPC 
Cedric Benson  1,251 Yards — 4.2 YPC  25 att. - 108 yds - 4.3 YPC 
Jonathan Stewart  1,133 Yards — 5.1 YPC  no preseason stats 
Ricky Williams  1,121 Yards — 4.7 YPC  21 att. - 88 yds - 4.2 YPC 
Frank Gore  1,120 Yards — 4.9 YPC  7 att. - 26 yds - 3.7 YPC 

The top-4 running backs from 2009 turned in dismal preseason performances. They combined for a total of 76 rushes for 220 yards (2.89 YPC). I vividly remember people talking about how Chris Johnson was “off their radar” after his bleak 2009 preseason showing, then he went and rushed for 2,006 yards.


2010 Preseason/Season

Name                        Regular Season Stats                 Preseason Stats                 
Arian Foster 1,616 Yards — 4.9 YPC  28 att. - 169 yds - 6.0 YPC         
Jamaal Charles 1,467 Yards — 6.4 YPC 16 att. - 105 yds - 6.6 YPC
Michael Turner 1,371 Yards — 4.1 YPC 28 att. - 108 yds - 3.9 YPC
Chris Johnson 1,364 Yards — 4.3 YPC 19 att. - 39 yds - 2.1 YPC
Maurice Jones-Drew 1,324 Yards — 4.4 YPC 6 att. - -2 yds - -0.3 YPC
Adrian Peterson 1,298 Yards — 4.6 YPC 17 att. - 54 yds - 3.2 YPC
Rashard Mendenhall 1,273 Yards — 3.9 YPC 23 att. - 63 yds - 2.7 YPC
Steven Jackson 1,241 Yards — 3.8 YPC 9 att. - 42 yds - 4.7 YPC
Ahmad Bradshaw 1,235 Yards — 4.5 YPC 20 att. - 75 yds - 3.8 YPC
Ray Rice 1,220 Yards — 4.0 YPC 8 att. - 30 yds - 3.8 YPC
Peyton Hillis 1,177 Yards — 4.4 YPC 21 att. - 80 yds - 3.8 YPC

The 2010 preseason was incredibly deceiving. Of the top-11 regular season running backs, eight of them had subpar preseason performances. Maurice Jones-Drew even put up a negative YPC average, but finished as the fifth-best running back in terms of yards.


2011 Preseason/Season

Name                                Regular Season Stats                 Preseason Stats               
Maurice Jones-Drew          1,606 Yards — 4.7 YPC 5 att. - 14 yds - 2.8 YPC             
Ray Rice 1,364 Yards — 4.7 YPC 25 att. - 123 yds - 4.9 YPC
Michael Turner 1,340 Yards — 4.5 YPC 18 att. - 54 yds - 3.0 YPC
LeSean McCoy 1,309 Yards — 4.8 YPC 11 att. - 36 yds - 3.3 YPC
Arian Foster 1,224 Yards — 4.4 YPC 13 att. - 85 yds - 6.5 YPC
Frank Gore 1,211 Yards — 4.3 YPC 8 att. - 41 yds - 5.1 YPC
Marshawn Lynch 1,204 Yards — 4.2 YPC 6 att. - 10 yds - 1.7 YPC
Willis McGahee 1,199 Yards — 4.8 YPC 17 att. - 48 yds - 2.8 YPC
Steven Jackson 1,145 Yards — 4.4 YPC 24 att. - 89 yds - 3.7 YPC
Ryan Mathews 1,091 Yards — 4.9 YPC 24 att. - 187 yds - 7.8 YPC
Reggie Bush 1,086 Yards — 5.0 YPC 13 att. - 47 yds - 3.6 YPC

Things got a little better in 2011: instead of eight, only seven of the top-11 regular season rushers finished with subpar preseason performances. This marked the second time since 2009 that the rushing leader had a sub-4.0 YPC average in the preseason.


2012 Preseason/Season

Name                             Regular Season Stats                     Preseason Stats                       
Adrian Peterson                2,097 Yards — 6.0 YPC     No Preseason Stats     
Alfred Morris 1,613 Yards — 4.8 YPC 39 att. - 195 yds - 5.0 YPC
Marshawn Lynch 1,590 Yards — 5.0 YPC 5 att. - 32 yds - 6.4 YPC
Jamaal Charles 1,509 Yards — 5.3 YPC 15 att. 73 yds - 4.9 YPC
Doug Martin 1,454 Yards — 4.6 YPC 27 att. - 97 yds - 3.6 YPC
Arian Foster 1,424 Yards — 4.1 YPC 19 att. - 89 yds - 4.7 YPC
Steven Ridley 1,263 Yards — 4.4 YPC 34 att. - 152 yds - 4.5 YPC
C.J. Spiller 1,244 Yards — 6.0 YPC 12 att. - 36 yds - 3.0 YPC
Chris Johnson 1,243 Yards — 4.5 YPC 28 att. - 81 yds - 2.9 YPC
Frank Gore 1,214 Yards — 4.7 YPC 4 att. - 8 yds - 2.0 YPC

This was a banner year for running backs in the preseason—only four of the top-10 had sub-4.0 YPC averages in the preseason. But then again, you gotta kinda count Adrian Peterson because no one thought he'd return to form after his ACL surgery and no preseason. 


2013 Preseason/Season

Name                               Regular Season Stats                     Preseason Stats                        
LeSean McCoy         1,607 Yards — 5.1 YPC 13 att. - 56 yds - 4.3 YPC
Matt Forte 1,339 Yards — 4.6 YPC 15 att. - 149 yds - 9.9 YPC
Jamaal Charles 1,287 Yards — 5.0 YPC 12 att. - 23 yds - 1.9 YPC
Alfred Morris 1,275 Yards — 4.6 YPC 8 att. - 28 yds - 3.5 YPC
Adrian Peterson 1,266 Yards — 4.5 YPC No Preseason Stats
Marshawn Lynch 1,257 Yards — 4.2 YPC 5 att. - 9 yds - 1.8 YPC
Ryan Mathews 1,255 Yards — 4.4 YPC 26 att. - 121 yds - 4.7 YPC
Eddie Lacy 1,178 Yards — 4.1 YPC 18 att. - 36 yds - 2.0 YPC
Frank Gore 1,128 Yards — 4.1 YPC 4 att. - 56 yds - 14.0 YPC
DeMarco Murray 1,121 Yards — 5.2 YPC 19 att. - 73 yds - 3.8 YPC
Chris Johnson 1,077 Yards — 3.9 YPC 20 att. - 155 yds - 7.8 YPC

Last season, five of the top-9 rushers had a bad showing in preseason. And one of them not only spewed out a rancid 2.0 YPC in the preseason, he got fat too.

Chris Johnson pulled a fast one on fantasy owners. CJ?K shined in the preseason racking up 155 yards on just 20 carries (7.8 YPC) and looked like he was returning to his 2009 form. Of course, that wasn’t an indicator as to how he was going to do in the regular season (3.9 YPC and very frustrating to own).

Of the 52 running backs charted above, 57.7% (30) of them looked underwhelming in the preseason since 2009. That’s basically a coin-flip.

So when you see Rashad Jennings sporting a 9.0 YPC average or Matt Forte dragging around a -1.7 YPC average, don’t pay too much attention to it. Instead, try to focus on more relevant factors, such as Le’Veon Bell saying Blount is in an RBBC with him and how Blount will be the goal line back. And keep in mind that none of Bell's touchdowns came from outside the 10-yard-line.

Or Charles Sims getting injured and being out for 12-14 weeks and how that impacts Doug Martin. Those things matter, preseason performance rarely does.

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Cedric Hopkins

Cedric Hopkins Bio

Cedric Hopkins runs this sports law/fantasy football blog. If you have issues with it, it's all his fault. Cedric was an athlete-student at the University of New Mexico (Basketball - Go Lobos!). He then morphed into a student-athlete when he attended law school in San Diego. Age replaced athleticism and now he writes appellate briefs for criminals (alleged criminals, of course) in state and federal cases, including writing U.S. Supreme Court briefs.

For years Cedric has researched and written about legal issues but maintained a love for sports. With FieldandCourt.com, he's combining his two passions: researching and writing about sports. When he's not in court arguing a case before a judge (or writing about himself in the third person), he'll be doing the same with his articles on FieldandCourt.com. Follow me, er, him on Twitter (opens in a new window).

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Cedric Hopkins

Cedric Hopkins runs this sports law/fantasy football blog. If you have issues with it, it's all his fault. Cedric was an athlete-student at the University of New Mexico (Basketball - Go Lobos!). He then morphed into a student-athlete when he attended law school in San Diego. Age replaced athleticism and now he writes appellate briefs for criminals (alleged criminals, of course) in state and federal cases, including writing U.S. Supreme Court briefs.

For years Cedric has researched and written about legal issues but maintained a love for sports. With FieldandCourt.com, he's combining his two passions: researching and writing about sports. When he's not in court arguing a case before a judge (or writing about himself in the third person), he'll be doing the same with his articles on FieldandCourt.com. Follow me, er, him on Twitter (opens in a new window).