“If thou are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thine own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Men are not moved by things, but the views which they take of them.” – Epictetus
These quotes express the notion that something reported as impactful may not truly be substantive. Rather, what matters is one thing – you. This message relates to a principle of Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy, attempting to understand the meaning of meaning. From Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective, these are considered “superficial” meanings. Whether your name is Marcus, Epictetus, Aaron, or Sigmund, the story is the same. We are driven by our own perception of what is meaningful. Therefore, we can choose the information on which we base our processes to then guide our decisions. So, let’s talk about narrative.
Narrative can be defined as information, conversation, viewpoints, and suggestions, that are based on unstable, non-factual evidence that culminates into something perceived as fact. We frequently thirst for information to develop into prediction-based storylines, especially in the offseason. This concept of narrative is not novel, as many have identified narratives retrospectively. However, with the week of the 2019 NFL Draft upon us, it is important to identify narrative and be wary of its influence as it is occurring. During last year’s draft season, we heard for months that the Browns were deliberating between Sam Darnold or Josh Allen and Saquon Barkley just afterward. We considered what should be done with Cleveland skill position players as a result of these narrative expectations. The media was convinced the Browns already had their direction, eliminating all other possibilities. Then, against all perceived odds, the narrative proved false as the ghost of Sashi Brown allowed for Baker Mayfield to hear his name called first. Did this mean we should have known it would be Baker all along? No. It means that we should not have assumed the narrative was factual, or even meaningful.
This year, what does the Kyler Murray narrative mean? The fact is, we do not fully know, and this is okay. There are certainly impending impacts to the dynasty landscape, so it is interesting to follow; however, you should not make decisions that are in misalignment with your process as a result. If you like the prospect profile of players that are being devalued because of a changing situation, then absolutely target them. Personally, I like Josh Rosen as a prospect and have continuously viewed him as a strong buy throughout the offseason, regardless of the constant negative narrative and even a possible team change. I also like David Johnson and Christian Kirk as players, but I caution the purchase of them assuming they will benefit from Murray’s addition, which is based in presumptive narrative.
Additionally, this may be a nice time to buy low on a narrative-influenced player like Derek Carr in super-flex leagues. As gross as that sounds, the narrative that Jon Gruden cannot resist drafting a quarterback, and Carr has just one more year starting for the Raiders, has driven his price down. Also pushing aside positive “franchise quarterback” narrative from Gruden and new general manager, Mike Mayock, we return to the facts. Carr is a starting quarterback for an offense which has added new wide receiver options (notably Antonio Brown), comes off his most accurate year as a passer, and remains fairly young at 28 years old. Without adding other positive narrative based on mock drafts adding more offensive talent, these facts seem to be undervalued and overshadowed by the possibility of a replacement being drafted. Even a player like Courtland Sutton is an intriguing buy despite the negativity surrounding the instability of Denver’s quarterback situation with Joe Flacco or polarizing and oft-mocked, Drew Lock. Factually, we cannot predict what will happen, and the situation can change much quicker than we expect. It remains a distinct possibility that Denver could select an offensive lineman or linebacker with the 10th overall pick. You could build a contrasting narrative that the team may also be fairly mediocre once again, resulting in a draft position within reach of one of the top quarterbacks in next year’s class. You can imagine how the narrative would quickly shift the value of Sutton at that point. I suggest assessing both the positive and negative narratives that can be created as equally tentative and unhelpful. In the end, despite some early career inefficiency, Sutton’s prospect profile remains an intriguing investment. These two examples provide opportunities where you can identify hypothetical negative narrative around players, viewing them as buying opportunities.
I would like to present another escalating narrative, built up by podcasts and numerous discussions of draft season over the offseason. Has anyone heard anything about how amazing the 2020 rookie running back class is going to be? Unless you are a bearded Tom Hanks fresh off watching Wilson tragically float away, then you have likely heard this narrative spanning the dynasty community. Don’t worry, I’m not going to attack the pedigree of that class, as I’ll let a contrarian voice die on that hill. While that is a narrative itself, it can be somewhat supported by collegiate metrics (e.g., the consistent, youthful production of a number of running backs). Instead, I would like to dissect the ensuing clock ticking on disappointing, high draft capital running backs heading into their second year – Rashaad Penny and Ronald Jones. While this sentiment may ultimately be correct, (I may even agree in the case of Jones because I did not believe in him as a prospect), shouldn’t we also extend this same clock-ticking narrative to fellow draft class running backs like Derrius Guice, Kerryon Johnson, and Royce Freeman? Rather, I have heard each of these labeled as potential “breakout” candidates. Is it unlikely that Washington, Detroit, or Denver spends an early pick in the next two years on a running back? Yes, of course. Does that mean it won’t happen? Anything is possible with unpredictable performance, injuries, and front office or coaching changes. While I think it is smart to have targets to acquire or move, I think we should be cautious of building narrative to fit what we want to happen. What becomes even more dangerous and potentially detrimental to your dynasty decision-making, is when the narrative comes from many voices. Continual exposure from a variety of analysts results in quickly solidifying “facts” before revealing themselves to be baseless predictions when subsequent drafts ensue.
While some of these narratives are developed gradually over time, a single new blurb can work in isolation as what I would call a “micro-narrative.” The isolated updates can trigger our automatic thoughts (another aspect of cognitive therapy) and quickly alter our perception on a player. There have been countless times where I receive a player update notification with an ensuing trade offer for the player in my inbox. We see this almost all the time with injured players and updates of workout videos. Jerick McKinnon received a momentary value reminder after a report surfaced about him working out with fellow brother of the ACL fraternity, Jimmy Garoppolo. Seeing each player looking healthy is nice, but should a micro-narrative really develop and inflate their value when these injury recoveries are like clockwork? Following this storyline to the combine at the end of February, Kyle Shanahan opened a press conference talking about McKinnon taking the lead role in San Francisco as planned prior to the injury. This transformed from a beat report tweet to a fantasy blurb, and that micro-narrative likely caused a few trade offers to circulate. At the start of free agency, there were reports that San Francisco attempted to sign Le’Veon Bell, which then shifted the narrative around in the other direction. Did this indicate they were going to sign Tevin Coleman? Maybe. Piecing together a post-hoc argument may reveal a missed opportunity to sell McKinnon, but I caution against this hindsight analysis. You may have felt whiplash, disappointment, or regret as a McKinnon owner over the past few months. You may have made a great or poor decision based on how a micro-narrative impacted your trade decision in selling, pursuing, buying or simply abstaining on either side of ownership. Tracking the succession of various McKinnon-like micro-narratives results in a fluctuating dynasty value graph resembling a heart rate EKG.
Even after all of these updates, what do we know about Jerick McKinnon this offseason? I challenge you to ignore the tempting interpretations that Shanahan loves Coleman because of their time in Atlanta, McKinnon has lost his job, or concern over McKinnon’s recovery. Narrowing your focus to more factual evidence will help find meaning within the oscillation. I believe the only additional facts revealed over the past few months are that McKinnon appears to be progressing from his injury and that Coleman has been signed to a fairly inexpensive contract. Do we know who is the best asset heading into the season? Probably not. Do we know who will score the most points this season? Nope. My advice here is to temper your reflexive reactions when encountering a new piece of information. Always return to your process, and error on the side of your player evaluation over the momentary desire for immediate trade action.
Narrative can also trigger our past experience with a player by creating surface level comparisons to other players. You may have ridden (…or are still riding) the Josh Gordon rollercoaster, resulting in future avoidance of any player with off-field concerns. Your past experience may even extend caution to players like D.K. Metcalf because he is eerily reminiscent of a Westworld milk casting from the Gordon physical mold. By allowing your past experience to seep in and drive your perception of a new player, you may create a micro-narrative of predicted career brevity. Metcalf certainly has agility, injury, and production concerns of his own. However, that should be the justification in your process rather than a comparison narrative with Gordon. A process that identifies and devalues players with off-field concerns, minimal production, and significant injury histories may be a sound one. My caution is the inadvertent creation of narrative shaped solely by past heartbreak.
In general, labels can be troubling. They are hard to avoid because they are ingrained in our narrative-driven conversations. Terms such as youth, veteran, upside, floor, risky, safe, injury-prone, bellcow back, third down back, breakout, bust, long-term starter, your [insert position] of the future, or even opportunity, are subjective attempts at categorizing optimistically predictive characteristics. Are these labels even meaningful? Understand that as humans, the basis of most of our decisions is not fact, but rather our perception. We are driven by narratives around players, teams, and our beliefs that lead us astray more often than they benefit us.
I urge you to be reflective while scrolling through Twitter, halting yourself from rash decisions after becoming swallowed by enticing Schefterian news. Instead, take a moment to dichotomize potentially important information into “fact” or “narrative.” Making this simple distinction early on can limit narrative’s influence, restoring trust in your perception and the power to overcome seduction.
As suggested in my first article, I would like you to practice using this brief exercise. The result will be an on-going log of the instances in which you pause to determine fact or narrative, as well as the number of micro-narratives or narratives you identify. The running tally can be assessed on a daily or weekly basis depending on your addiction to the news cycle. This basic self-monitoring strategy is often used in initial stages of therapy to help raise awareness of thoughts and behaviors. After repeated use of this technique, you should see an increase in the number of narratives identified, as you develop a filter for baseless “news.” Tempering your reaction to incoming information reemphasizes a reliance on your developing process, enabling engagement in more rational, fact-driven decisions.