Thanksgiving Games, Fantasy Football decade in review
Updated: Aug 23
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, hands down. It is all about the 3 F's. Family, Food, and Football (and not necessarily in that order). This year, I wanted to get a sense of what thanksgiving fantasy football looks like. Do players perform better or worse on turkey day? who were the best turkey day performers? And my favorite, who cemented their name in fantasy football glory on turkey day, and weren't heard from again?
To explore this, I collected the stats of all QBs, RBs, WRs, and TEs over the last 10 years (using the nflgame python package) and calculated their fantasy performance (based on standard, non-PPR, scoring).
Do players put up more points on thanksgiving?
To start off, we'll look at whether there is a thanksgiving bump. Does the honor or thrill of playing on thanksgiving may give them a bump? I calculated the z-score of each player's thanksgiving performance vs all of their fantasy performance that year. I also only included players that averaged at least 5 fantasy points on the season in an attempt to only look at fantasy-relevant players. The results are below:
The first graph includes boxplots of relative fantasy performance broken up by year. The second graph includes violin plots of relative fantasy performance broken up by position. In both graphs, the red line represents the average performance of the player on the year.
We can see that in most years, players perform slightly worse than their league average. Outside of the 2 outlier years, 2011 (below average) and 2012 (above average), where performance was significantly different than average, most players seem to perform close to their season-long average. If anything, the consistency in underperforming suggests that thanksgiving is more like any other Thursday night game (which may produce fewer fantasy points due to less preparation time) than any primetime game bump.
Looking at the positional breakdown, it would appear the underperformance is driven by RBs and TEs. This is frankly a little surprising given the consistent RB and TE performance from Dallas, who has had a top option at RB and TE with players like Demarco Murray, Zeke, and Jason Witten over this span. I know it is only 1 team, but a little surprised none the less.
What is the ultimate Thanksgiving Fantasy Team?
Another question we can explore with this data is what is the All-Decade Thanksgiving fantasy football team? Using the same settings as before we can find the players that produced the most Fantasy Points on any single Thanksgiving. I give you the Ultimate Thanksgiving team:
QB: Matthew Stafford, Det, 2015 - 34.78
RB: Demarco Murray, Dal, 2013 - 28.2
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Dal, 2016 - 24
WR: Amari Cooper, Dal, 2018 - 30
WR: Calvin Johnson, Det, 2015 - 27.3
TE: Jordan Reed, Was, 2016 - 21.5
Flex: Antonio Brown, Pit, 2016 - 27.1
With a total score of 192.68 (not including defense or kicker), the thanksgiving all-star team puts up a formidable showing, though probably not the best possible showing compared to other groupings. There's no 40 point game and frankly having Zeke with 24 making the team is surprising.
You can also see the bias towards Lions and Cowboys players. This is to be expected since they play every thanksgiving and therefore get a shot at making the team every year. Additionally, you can start to see the differences in team styles in how Dallas has the 2 top RB slots whereas Detroit's Stafford to Calvin Johnson stack shows up.
What about the ultimate one-offs?
Another fun team would be the one-hit wonders? Which players blew out their normal game to shine on thanksgiving, before returning to their season average. To figure this out, we can use the player's z-score rather than their total points. I'm only including players that finished as starters on the week in a standard 10 team league (otherwise you get fullbacks who ran for 40 yards which blow out their average of 5 yards a game, even though they didn't make a fantasy impact)
QB: Phillip Rivers, LAC, 2017 - 28.86
RB: LeGarrette Blount, Det, 2018 - 22.3
RB: Justin Forsett, Hou, 2012 - 14.7
WR: Brad Smith, NYJ, 2010 - 13.8
WR: Jamison Crowder, NYJ, 2017 - 20.1
TE: Kyle Rudolph, Min, 2017 - 18.3
Flex: Robert Turbin, Sea, 2014 - 11.5
I'll be honest and say I am disappointed with this list. Outside of Brad Smith, most of these players went on to have fantasy relevant years at some point. The disappointment really comes from the fact that there were some true wild cards that were just slightly lower down the list. Players like Niles Paul (2nd best one-off TE) and Keiland Williams (the 5th best one-off RB) would have been a lot more fun, but c'est la vie.
What will happen this year?
With 6 teams playing on Thanksgiving this year, maybe someone new will make this list. Could Marquise Brown break out and earn a spot on the one-hit wonders list? Could Antonio Gibson have a big game to earn a spot on the all-star team? Who knows? But I will be watching to find out.