Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson
Dec 8, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (84) gets tackled by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Josh Bynes (56) at M&T Bank Stadium. Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

By Renee Miller

People are by nature self-reinforcing. We behave in ways that are consistent with and shore up our underlying beliefs and values. I like the idea that you can learn a lot about a person from simply asking their favorite TV shows or movies. Many aspects of our personality are reflected in our media choices. I’m a neuroscientist, not a psychologist, so I’m not going to psychoanalyze anyone’s choices (mine are Breaking Bad, Modern Family, Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, and Survivor), but everyone can get a good feeling for a person’s sense of humor, how serious they are, etc. from this short list. However, there is at least one key element of personality that probably can’t be ascertained by this simple question: Are you a risk taker? Do you take chances in your life or do you take a safe, steady, and conservative path? We all fall somewhere on this risk continuum, but where? I propose that the answer lies in our fantasy football playoff rosters. How you approach the playoffs actually reflects not only your lifelong study of the game, analysis of the individual player and team statistics over the course of the season, or the amount of research time you’ve put in to this week’s matchups, but also your personality. In the end, many decisions about whom to start and whom to sit will come down to how comfortable you are with taking risks.

The fantasy playoffs are a time of high anxiety, where every decision is magnified because it could be your last of 2013. Our rosters and matchups are on our minds constantly. The pressure to make the right choices or go home empty handed affects our brains and our bodies, not unlike the pressure some of us feel before public speaking, but longer lasting. The main chemical that mediates the anxiety response in the brain is called norepinephrine (NE). It’s considered an arousal hormone or neurotransmitter for its ability to increase the sensitivity of the cells of the brain to input. The heightened awareness and perception caused by spikes in NE is manifest during everyday life through enhanced performance. A little bit of test anxiety or fear of public speaking–those butterflies in your stomach and sweaty palms–are the result of circulating NE and the more famous stress hormone, cortisol, and generally represent an adaptive response to help you succeed in your task. I discussed the role of NE in possibly enabling clutch performances, such as Tom Brady’s game winning extravaganza last weekend, a few weeks ago at It appears, after facing Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews in one league Thursday night, that I am in need of such a clutch performance.

In the fantasy playoffs, however, the anxiety isn’t transient. It can last weeks–at least we hope it does! This chronic fluctuating awareness that our whole season comes down to the decisions we make this weekend and next probably stimulates levels of NE and cortisol that exceed the optimal performance enhancing levels. No one has ever measured these chemicals in high stakes fantasy players but I’d bet on them being higher than normal this time of year. Unfortunately, at chronically high levels of these stress hormones, performance can actually decline. The brain is operating at such a highly tuned state that processes that were previously automatic (e.g. thought patterns as well as motor skills like throwing a ball) are second guessed. It’s like once you start to think hard about what it takes to ride a bike, you start wobbling all over the place. Some of us cruised to the playoffs pretty stress-free while some fought an uphill battle to squeak in at the very end. All of us are now over thinking and second guessing every decision we have to make. It’s the fantasy equivalent of choking, a term I’m not too fond of, but could be due to loss of automation in motor skills when high NE causes the executive part of the brain to take over. In an ironic twist, my quarterback in the aforementioned league is none other than Tony Romo.

I can see this high anxiety, over thinking mind-set play out through two different biases depending on your risk taking personality:

First, we can ignore high upside new guys like Ladarius Green, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Nick Foles in favor of old fantasy standbys like Jason Witten, Mike Wallace, and Tony Romo. This is the safe play. You go with experience, consistency (over many years, not necessarily this season), the guys that have been there and come through for their fantasy owners before. You know them.

Second, we can go the risky route and play the hot hand. We start the high upside, tantalizing new fantasy toys like L. Green and C. Patterson, leaving those standbys well, standing by. The thrill of knowing they could put up a zero, like Green did last week (and nearly did Thursday night), or 25 PPR fpts like  Patterson did, and betting on the 25 is why you play fantasy in the first place. You dig the possibilities.

It seems logical that we should simply be starting the best players at each position, regardless of how many years they’ve been among the best players at their position. We’ve all seen the blind Player A vs Player B scenarios that suggest Matt McGloin makes a better fantasy play than Drew Brees or something incredulous like that. Don’t worry, I’m not going there. I’m not interested in convincing you to start one guy or another. Instead what I did was plot players’ position rank over the last four weeks against the percent of leagues that started those players in week 14, the first week of the fantasy playoffs. This gives us an idea of how attached we as a fantasy community are to starting underperforming known quantities (safety bias) and how often well performing players are left on the bench in the playoffs.

(Notes on the analysis: The fantasy point totals are from a Yahoo PPR league I’m in. Although the week 14 points are included in the rank, you did not have these numbers when making your lineup decisions. I’m not sure the ranks change terribly significantly, but they would have been different heading into week 14. I used the last four weeks point totals because so much changes over the whole season due to injuries, etc. For QB and TE, I used the top 12 players, with a couple of others whose start percentage stuck out to me, that I’ll highlight below. For RB and WR, I selected guys from a large range of ranks. There were many top 20 players at these positions that are 100% started–it doesn’t really help our discussion to show that everyone starts Jamaal Charles or Calvin Johnson, so those kind of situations are not shown here. One more caveat with start % is that players may be rostered by teams not in the playoffs or on bye and therefore not making lineup adjustments. I’m guessing anyone ~85% started was started by everyone who owned him). 

Ideally, we should see a nice negatively sloped linear relationship between % started and rank, with the highest ranked players being started the most often. For WR this is generally the case. At TE, you see the nice correlation for the top 12 guys, it’s the two extra points I included that skew the line. For the other positions, particularly RB and QB it is definitely not ideal. In more detail…

(click on the graphs to open them in a new window)

Quarterback: The notable outliers here were that only 32% of people started Josh McCown, the number one fantasy quarterback over the past four weeks. Ben Rothlisberger, started in 27% of leagues, is the number three quarterback. Alex Smith, Ryan Tannehill, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, and Andrew Luck are all top 10 quarterbacks who were started in fewer than 50% of leagues last week. (Note: Nick Foles and Russell Wilson both had bye weeks during the total fantasy point calculation period, so they were not in the top 12 total, but were #5 and #10 respectively in average fantasy points over that period. Both were started in over 60 percent of leagues).