Beware of Thursday games

Tight ends, QBs see large declines, while defenses/special teams naturally thrive

Updated: October 9, 2013, 1:33 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

If you thought the Cleveland Browns' 37-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills this past Thursday night was unusual, you're not alone.

Unusual, in this case, doesn't refer merely to two mediocre teams outscoring their season-to-date averages by 23 points combined. Rather, it's acknowledgement of there being a high-scoring Thursday affair at all … and, well, we can toss in the added fact that it was the Bills and Browns who played it.

The Bills and Browns, neither of whom had a quarterback ranked among the top 18 at the position in fantasy points entering the week and both of whom had to call upon their backup quarterbacks in the same game, engaged in the fifth-highest-scoring Thursday game since the beginning of 2011; the only ones that featured more scoring were the three Thanksgiving 2012 games and Week 1 of this season (you'll remember that as Peyton Manning's 46-point masterpiece). The two teams also combined to score nearly 19 points more than the Thursday average from 2011 onward (42.3 points combined, including Week 5).

And yet, even with all those points on the scoreboard, Bills-Browns followed largely the same blueprint that other Thursday games in recent history did.

The same fantasy blueprint, that is.

You might have heard whispers of scoring being down in general on Thursday nights -- a point colleague Matthew Berry even made in his Sept. 26 "Love/Hate" -- but what you might not know is the impact of those lower point totals upon individual positions. There's a strange, strange phenomenon present on Thursday, and the best way to illustrate it is to take things position-by-position.

Quarterbacks

Here is the puzzling reality: Quarterbacks stink on Thursdays.

OK, that might be an extreme statement, considering we're only 32 days removed from Manning's aforementioned 46-point fantasy outburst -- that one the 11th-best single-game fantasy effort since 2000 and the fifth-best fantasy day by a quarterback since 1960 -- but let's not forget the important distinction between Manning's performance and the others: It was the season opener, not your traditional Thursday game with both teams playing on only three days' rest. The preseason schedule was completed seven days earlier, and besides, the players we label "fantasy superstars" rarely ever play much, if any, of their teams' fourth preseason games. For the purpose of this analysis, the Thursday games taken into consideration are only those in which the team in question played four days earlier on Sunday, and ones played between 2011 and 2013; and for the record, that means the only games excluded were the Thursday "NFL kickoff" games in 2011 and 2013.

OK, that might be an extreme statement Part 2: In fairness, not every quarterback out-and-out stunk on Thursday. For example, Tom Brady had a 30-point performance, tops among three-days-rest Thursday quarterbacks from 2011 to '13, last Thanksgiving. For some reason, Thanksgiving -- or perhaps merely Thanksgiving 2012 -- was seemingly an anomaly. But there will always be outliers to any study, and the evidence in support of the theory is overwhelmingly greater.

For your consideration, here are five notable fantasy quarterbacks, all of whom were selected among the top seven at the position this preseason, who have endured terribly disappointing Thursdays comparative to their 2011-13 per-game averages:

Aaron Rodgers: 10 FPTS (2012 Week 2), 22.8 FPTS per game 2011-13
Drew Brees: 3 FPTS (2012 Week 13), 22.5 FPTS per game 2011-13
Tom Brady: 11 FPTS (2012 Week 2), 20.2 FPTS per game 2011-13
Cam Newton: 9 FPTS (2012 Week 3), 20.1 FPTS per game 2011-13
Matt Ryan: 10 FPTS (2012 Week 13), 17.5 FPTS per game 2011-13

As an aside, this isn't necessarily just a "fantasy thing," either. Listed below are the Thursday averages comparative to other days; look specifically at how significant the difference in touchdown-to-interception ratio on that particular day.

Suddenly, Eli Manning's hope of correcting his interception issue and getting his New York Giants back into the win column Thursday in Chicago doesn't look so good.

Running Backs

This is the unexpected one: Running backs exhibited scarcely any change in fantasy production on Thursdays, and looking at the raw numbers in the table to the right, one could argue that they've actually performed better on Thursday.

Why this is -- and why quarterbacks struggle -- remains unclear, but one theory for running backs' fantasy success is that they might have been asked to shoulder more of the burden in scoring position on that day to compensate for their quarterbacks' passing inadequacies. To that point, teams have run the football 48.6 percent of the time in the red zone and 64.2 percent of the time within the opponent's 5-yard line on Thursdays from 2011 to '13; they have run the football 46.7 percent of the time in the red zone and 53.6 percent within the 5-yard line on all other days of the week.

In other words, fantasy owners shouldn't shy from their running backs during the short week, with the lone exceptions being those coming off injuries four days earlier.

Wide Receivers

Naturally, if quarterbacks suffer in terms of fantasy production on Thursday, it follows that so do wide receivers. The numbers support this, though wide receivers' diminished production is actually not as stark as that of their quarterbacks; wide receivers perform approximately 10 percent worse on Thursday than they do on all other days, while quarterbacks perform about 20 percent worse.

Tight Ends

This is the position that positively plummets on Thursday, as tight ends have performed more than 35 percent worse on that day compared to all others.

Want the startling reality? In 30 Thursday games since the beginning of 2011, the only tight end to score more than 13 fantasy points was Julius Thomas (23) … and again, that came in the Week 1 game this season during which he was fully rested.

Exactly four tight ends have even reached double-digit fantasy points on a "three days' rest" Thursday: Martellus Bennett (13, Week 3 of 2012), Dustin Keller (12, Week 12 of 2012), Tony Gonzalez (11, Week 13 of 2012) and Antonio Gates (10, Week 9 of 2012). Meanwhile, Jimmy Graham (5, Week 13 of 2012), Jordan Cameron (3, Week 5 of 2013), Tony Gonzalez (1, Week 15 of 2011), Jason Witten (4, Week 12 of 2011) and Vernon Davis (3, Week 12 of 2011, and 0, Week 7 of 2012) endured some of their worst fantasy games on a Thursday.

Turning to the on-field game, tight ends have garnered only 18.6 percent of their quarterbacks' targets in Thursday games; that percentage rises to 22.6 percent on all other days of the week.

Kickers

Who cares, they're kickers, right?

Right. Kicker is the one of these six fantasy positions that showed no discernible difference between Thursday and other-day performances. Their 6.9 average during the previous Sunday's games can be easily explained as statistical variance, considering kickers averaged exactly the same number of fantasy points in Thursday games on three days' rest as they did in any other game all year: 7.9.

Defenses/Special Teams

Ah, here is where we reap a particular advantage. Naturally, if scoring is down on Thursdays, that'd benefit fantasy defense/special teams units, but what you might not realize is the extent of that benefit.

Defense/special teams units have averaged 8.6 fantasy points during Thursday games since the beginning of the 2011 season, nearly three full points greater than their averages four days earlier on Sunday (5.9), and more than a point and a half greater than their averages the entire remainder of the year.

There are three significant statistical differences between defenses' performance on Thursday versus other days of the week:

Sacks: 2.95 per game on Thursdays, 2.32 on other days
Fumbles recovered: 0.85 per game on Thursdays, 0.62 on other days
D/ST touchdowns: 0.32 per game on Thursdays, 0.25 on other days

Understandably, ball control and offensive line performance appear to be down on Thursdays, and defenses have capitalized. Tuck that away, because it could mean very good things for the Chicago Bears, the aforementioned Eli Manning's next opponent.

It also means potential matchups opportunities for defenses like the Carolina Panthers (Week 8 at Tampa Bay), Washington Redskins (Week 10 at Minnesota) and Dallas Cowboys (Week 13 versus Oakland), in upcoming weeks.

Finally, the "sample size" question

It's a legitimate one, as Thursday games have accounted for only 5.3 percent of all scheduled games since the beginning of 2011. Statistical variance could therefore have influenced this study, meaning this shouldn't completely drive your decision-making: It would be ludicrous to bench Drew Brees during his Week 12 Thursday game at Atlanta simply because of the numbers above; the point is to temper his -- and any quarterback's -- projection accordingly. And if quarterbacks tend to suffer a 3-point drop in fantasy production on average on Thursday, applying that to Brees' 2011-13 average still results in a 19.5 score, which would've ranked him 11th, ninth, 10th, seventh and seventh at his position, going off weekly fantasy points by the position to date.

That still means a potential drop-off from must-start to barely start status, however, and it's precisely the lesson to glean from this Thursday analysis.

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