How Does the Award Curse Affect Fantasy Football?

Heisman Award Curse

The Award Curse is the increased likelihood for a player to have a down year after winning a big award like MVP or Rookie of the Year. Actually, “award curse” is a bad way to refer to it, because that implies it isn’t a real trend with logical roots. In fact, the only reason I called it an “award curse” is because it makes for a lot catchier title than “How Does the Award Trend with Logical Roots Affect Fantasy Football” isn’t going to get a lot of clicks.

The world is a lie, sorry you had to learn it from me, first.

But what’s not a lie is that in order to win a major award things have to line up juuust right. Just as an example, I was nominated for the Fantasy Sports Writers’ Association award for Best 2019 Fantasy Football Article (my father’s obituary) and, well…

fswa award curse
fswa award curse

Now does this mean I’m more likely to win the 2020 Article of the Year award, perhaps for a not-so-lighthearted piece about curses?

I’m going to tell you right here: I am NOT going to win the 2020 Article of the Year award.

The reason has nothing to do with my opinion on the quality of this article (I think it’s great) or even my assessment of the quality of my writing (I think it’s great but also sometimes atrocious). It’s because in order to win the 2019 award I had to have a lot of unlikely things happen. Those things happening again in 2020 are just as unlikely or, in some cases, even more unlikely. For instance, I don’t think the odds are very good that my dad is going to die a second time (hey, I warned you that this piece was going to be “not-so-lighthearted.”)

Now take this and apply it to the NFL: These are all world-class athletes, so to stand out as better than all of them, a player has to have talent and have a few more things break their way. The odds of that repeating aren’t great, which is why MVPs and Rookies of the Year often disappoint in their follow up seasons:

Rookie of the Year and Fantasy Football Finish
Rookie of the Year Positional Rank, Rookie Year Positional Rank, Sophomore Year Change
Saquon Barkley 2nd 10th -8
Alvin Kamara 3rd 4th -1
Dak Prescott 6th 11th -5
Todd Gurley 5th 20th -15
Odell Beckham, Jr. 5th 5th 0
Eddie Lacy 6th 6th 0
Robert Griffin III 5th 18th -13
Cam Newton 3rd 4th -1
Sam Bradford 20th 32nd -12
Percy Harvin 24th 21st 3
MVP and Fantasy Football Finish
MVP Positional Rank, MVP Year Positional Rank, Next Year Change
Patrick Mahomes 1st 10th -9
Tom Brady 3rd 12th -9
Matt Ryan 3rd 14th -11
Cam Newton 1st 15th -14
Aaron Rodgers 2nd 11th -9
Peyton Manning 1st 4th -3
Adrian Peterson 1st 8th -7
Aaron Rodgers 2nd 2nd 0
Tom Brady 6th 4th 2
Peyton Manning 4th 3rd 1
So What Does This Mean For Fantasy Football?

For Rookie of the Year, we have to go all the way back ten seasons to find a player who improved their fantasy performance after their rookie season. It turned out it was Percy Harvin’s amazingly impressive feat of moving up from WR24 to WR21. Seven of the other nine years, the players fell in the ranks, and in five of the ten, they fell five or more spots.

For MVP, we also have to go back a while (nine years) to find someone who improved. Also note that for the past five seasons, the MVP fell five or more spots. Spending a second or third-round pick (or $40+ auction dollars) on Lamar Jackson has a risk/reward ratio worse than my Twitter ratio that one time I posted about Bill O’Brien’s genius.

Does this mean Lamar Jackson won’t have a top-three finish or that Kyler Murray’s ceiling is seventh (his 2019 finish)? For Lamar Jackson, I’d say the odds are against it, and he’s a horrible investment where he’s currently going in fantasy drafts. Kyler Murray, however, is a tricky one. His team traded for one of the best wide receivers in the league, and they should let Murray air it out more. That means he will have more than the 20 passing touchdowns he threw last year. I’d get him, but I wouldn’t overpay.

Rookies are always difficult to evaluate, so I wondered if this trend applied to major college award winners:

Heisman Trophy and Fantasy Football Finish
Heisman Winner Positional Rank, Rookie  Year Won Rookie of the Year?
Kyler Murray 7th Yes
Baker Mayfield 16th No
Lamar Jackson 29th No
Derrick Henry 43rd No
Marcus Mariota 23rd No
Jameis Winston 13th No
Johnny Manziel LOL No
Robert Griffin III 7th Yes
Cam Newton 3rd Yes
Mark Ingram, Jr. 45th No

I’m not holding out hope that Joe Burrow will be fantasy relevant, but he’s usually going for so little draft capital that it isn’t really big risk. He is, however, the leader in Rookie of the Year odds. Second place sometimes has odds more than three times worse than Burrow’s, which I think both history and the Bengals’ offensive line will show to be a mistake. This mostly tells me that there is little to no correlation between Heisman Trophies and either Rookie of the Year victories, or useful rookie fantasy football seasons.

So Who Wins Rookie of the Year?
SBD’s NFL Rookie of the Year odds has Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB of the Chiefs within the top-three with a chance of +500 of earning the title. Is he the best bet for Offensive Rookie of the Year? Yes and here’s why: Remember when I said things have to line up juuust right in order to win a major award like MVP, or Rookie of the Year, or Most Debonair Fantasy Football Writer? Well, as that SBD link shows, Clyde Edwards-Helaire has had the most staggering leap in odds of winning since the NFL draft, going from +2000 before to +500 after the Chiefs picked him. The situation is right for success, which is why I and a lot of fantasy analysts don’t mind picking up Edwards-Helaire for a third-rounder or $40/$200 auction bucks.
Net takeaway: Opportunity and major awards are directly opposed when it comes to indicating immediate fantasy football production.
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