I don’t think there’s really any doubt that people behave differently given various forms of motivation. I didn’t get out of bed until 10am today—I’m actually still in bed as I type this right now—because I didn’t have anything due in the morning and I was tired. I would have not been such a lazy piece of garbage if I had something motivating me, but I didn’t.
Motivation drives a lot of narratives in the NFL, too. There’s the “revenge-game narrative” in which a player “should” perform better against an old team. There’s the “hometown narrative,” when players who return to the area in which they grew up are supposedly likely to show up big. And we can’t forget about the “contract-year narrative”—one which I think the evidence suggests doesn’t hold water.
Our job as fantasy owners is more or less to confirm or debunk narratives to uncover the truth so that we can make more accurate predictions. One motivation-based narrative that has always interested me is the “playoff-motivation narrative.” That is, do teams that are motivated at the end of the season to make the playoffs actually perform much better than those that aren’t motivated?
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I think the key to determining the value of certain motivators is figuring out how much effect they have over other motivators. Certainly every player in the NFL is motivated to perform on some level, even if it’s just for pride. The question is how much extra motivation a player might get from a “revenge game,” for example, as opposed to his baseline motivation, and then how that extra motivation, if there is any, would be reflected in on-field production.
To test out the playoff motivation idea, I looked at the average points scored and allowed for playoff teams in the first three-quarters of the season (Games 1-12) versus the final month. This isn’t a perfect method by any means, but I think points scored/allowed is a decent proxy for both motivation and fantasy production.
If a team is indeed motivated to play better in certain games, we’d expect them to either score more points or allow fewer points. If neither of those things occur, then it’s going to be difficult to buy into the idea of teams getting motivated based on their place in the standings. Motivation should affect on-field production in some manner, and if it doesn’t, then who cares about it?
Here’s a look at the average points scored and allowed for playoff and non-playoff teams since 2000.
It looks like there’s an effect here, albeit one that could be quite small. Since 2000, teams that made the playoffs have scored 0.18 points per game more in the final four games than in the first 12. They’ve also allowed 0.36 fewer points per game, meaning there’s a net differential of 0.54 points per game for “motivated” teams late in the season.
Meanwhile, non-playoff teams perform worse in both areas, scoring 0.14 fewer points and allowing 0.21 more, for a total difference of 0.35 points. Teams that make the playoffs do indeed perform better in the final month of the season (relative to their previous performance) than those that miss the playoffs.
That’s not the end of the story, of course. I analyzed playoff versus non-playoff teams, but it’s not like those two always face off against one another; sometimes non-playoff teams play other non-playoff teams, for example. So I took a look solely at games between playoff and non-playoff squads.
These are weird results because playoff teams score more points than normal over the final month when playing non-playoff teams, but they also allow more points, too. The fact that these results aren’t stronger than the overall numbers suggests that perhaps the “playoff-motivation narrative” exists, but isn’t particularly strong.
So does motivation matter?
I actually do believe that teams perform better when they’re trying to make the playoffs, which ultimately results in more fantasy points. However, the effect appears to be pretty minimal. If we use points scored as a proxy for fantasy production, we might expect something like two or three percent more fantasy scoring for motivated teams.
However, I think it’s going to be really difficult to determine which teams are more motivated than normal and which aren’t. Certainly we wouldn’t expect every non-playoff team to lack motivation, so how do we differentiate between them? We could use recent performances, but there will be a lot of variance in those results.
It’s kind of like injury-proneness. Some players are probably more injury-prone than others, but it’s challenging to accurately identify injury-proneness (since lots of injuries are just random), then use it in a predictive manner.
With playoff motivation, I think the effect is minor, tough to identify and difficult to use in a predictive way. In terms of how playoff motivation affects fantasy production, I think we’re better off focusing our attention elsewhere.