Are interceptions good for Fantasy Football Performance? The Jameis Winston Theory
Update: The Saints have named Taysom Hill as the starting QB instead of Jameis Winston.
This week brings the hope of seeing the "30 and 30 legend" Jameis Winston back into a starting role in the NFL. With the return of Jameis Winston comes a common refrain, that throwing interceptions, particularly an early interception or a pick-six, is good for Jameis and his receivers from a fantasy perspective. The argument is that these interceptions change the game script, putting the team in a hole that forces them to throw the ball more. Since fantasy football is based on counting stats, this switch of the game script should increase the opportunities of the QB and WRs to accumulate stats. But is this true? Do interceptions actually help fantasy performance? Today we will look into this.
How do interceptions correlate with total Fantasy Points?
Boxplots comparing how many fantasy points a QB scored on the week vs how many interceptions they threw. The first graph is raw fantasy points, the second graph is z-scored fantasy points relative to each player's average performance in a given season.
Looking at QB performance over the last 10 years (only including QBs who threw at least 5 passes in a game), we can see that more interceptions do not lead to more points. This makes sense at face value. Additionally, performance relative to each player's average does not improve with interceptions. However, bad quarterbacks throw more interceptions than good quarterbacks, so these teams may be unlikely to give the ball back to the QB if they don't have faith he can make up the difference.
We can start to look at this by breaking up our QBs into tiers. Based on their fantasy finish, let's let tier 1 be the top 10 fantasy QBs on the week, tier 2 be from QBs 11-20, and tier 3 be the rest.
Boxplots of Fantasy points vs the number of interceptions thrown broken by the fantasy QB tier
When we split players by tier, we don't see a difference from above. As the number of interceptions increases, the amount of fantasy points decreases. Interesting by breaking the group by tier the effect is lower within each tier. The tier 1 QBs' total fantasy points don't really change as the number of interceptions increases. Tier 2 only seems to drop off with the third interception while tier 3 drops of at the 2nd interception. While there are outliers, it's safe to say that interception totals do not lead to more points.
But wait, you said it was early interceptions that mattered
That's right. Part of the theory is that you need the interception to occur early in the game in order for it to be beneficial from a fantasy perspective. The logic goes that the early interception provides enough time for the altered game script to overcome the lost 2 points to the interception. A pick in the first quarter will provide more time in the shifted game script than a pick in the 4th. Below we compare the performance of QB only when they throw their first pick in the first quarter.
Boxplots of fantasy points scored by quarterbacks who didn't throw an interception vs qbs who there 1 or 2 interceptions with the first one being in the first quarter.
And again we don't see an effect. It looks like there is less of a drop from interceptions, particularly with tier 2 quarterbacks if they threw their interception in the first quarter, but still you'd rather them not throw interceptions.
But what about Jameis?
Finally, let's look at Jameis. Given that this theory is touted for him, do interceptions actually help Jameis Winston's fantasy performance historically? We have 67 games where Jameis threw at least 5 passes, which we can look into below.
Boxplot of Fantasy Points scored by Jameis Winston vs how many interceptions he threw. The number of games in each group shown across the top.
And to my surprise, it is actually better for Jameis to throw 1 interception than for him to throw none. Now, this may be due to a small sample and should not be treated as gospel. But at least it supports his legend.
What about other positions?
The idea of shifting the game script may still be true. It may just be that the QB, who does lose fantasy points for throwing an interception, does not benefit enough to overcome the interception. WRs though, who don't get directly penalized for an interception, maybe they can actually benefit?
Boxplots of fantasy points scored vs how many interceptions the QB threw. We see no relationship that would suggest that interceptions help WRs.
And in the end, there isn't an effect here either. The above graph is WR's who scored at least 5 fantasy points (to remove players who weren't going to benefit anyways) and who's QB either didn't throw an interception or threw an interception in the first quarter. As with QBs, the number of interceptions does not seem to have an impact on WR performance.
There are a couple of limitations to my analyses presented here. First, I didn't try to control for injuries or players getting pulled. Often times a bad quarterback will get pulled (artificially lowering their fantasy points). Relatedly, if a player gets injured (either QB or WR) that will lower their fantasy points. The tier breakdown at quarterback will start to look into this, but further analysis is needed to properly control for players not finishing the game.
Second, an understanding of team strengths would be beneficial here. For instance, a team like the Vikings this year would likely double down on the run in the face of an interception, in comparison a team like the buccaneers would continue to throw and likely throw more after an interception. Breaking apart these tendencies in some systematic way could lead to additional insights.
Finally, specifically with WRs, not having an idea of how they should have performed hurts us as we may be including players who received a bump to get above the 5 point threshold when they normally would not have without the interceptions.
Putting it all together, Despite what the Jameis Winston Theory states interceptions are not a good thing for your fantasy team. While Jameis may be able to put up more fantasy points after throwing 1 interception, on the whole, interceptions do not seem to help QBs or WRs in Fantasy Football.