Updated: Jan 7, 2022
Changes that Need to happen to Fantasy Football
By: David Hartman
Daniel Jones getting sacked / https://www.chicagotribune.com
Another year of fantasy football has come to a close. The 2021 season was as frustrating, challenging, and bizarre as it gets for fantasy managers, and Antonio Brown’s striptease in the end zone of MetLife Stadium yesterday was somehow not surprising, and maybe a fitting way to say goodbye to him and the 2021 season. But before we turn out the lights on fantasy football for 2021, I’ve got a few things to get off my chest about the game we all love. I promised when I started writing my blog that a regular feature would be challenging conventional wisdom, where warranted. And that’s what I plan to do today as I examine some of the biggest flaws in fantasy football, and how to fix them.
Last summer, I ran a series focused on fixes for 3 of the dumbest things about season-long fantasy football. Well, I’m back for more and I’m starting to feel like a crusader, screaming from the top of a soap box in the park. I hope I’m not THAT guy. But the truth is that as someone who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about fantasy football, I’m constantly perplexed at how poorly thought out (yet broadly accepted) some of fantasy football’s standard rules and conventions are. If I can get just one league to adopt even one of my suggested changes, I’ll feel good about writing this column.
Fantasy football has been around for more than 3 of the NFL’s 10 decades. It’s grown into a billion-dollar industry, with tens of millions of people playing across a variety of daily and season-long formats. Over time, a fairly “standard” version of the season-long game has taken hold, and most players just accept the format and rules as a given. But the reality is that owners control their leagues and can change league rules and settings to suit them. Leagues that are willing to be thoughtful and creative can improve upon the standard setup, making it more fun, fair and rewarding for all. Many of the websites that host leagues can accommodate a variety of settings.
For more than 25 years, I’ve played in a 14-team redraft league that has a unique structure and set of rules that we’ve developed over time. We’ve tried to identify flaws and fix them, with goals of fairness and more merit-based results. The basic premise is very simple - questioning things that don’t make a lot of sense and replacing them with what does. And our league isn’t alone - I’m aware of plenty of other leagues that have devised rule and format changes aimed at improving the experience and making it more fun and more sensible, and I’m always interested in hearing about these variations. If your league has some unique rules or features, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resistance to change is natural. But hear me out. You’re playing a great game with some dumb rules. So, let’s get to it. I’m going to limit this article to the top 6 things I think need fixing (and my league has fixed all of them, thankfully).
1. Sacred Cow #1 - Get Rid of Head-to-Head Play
Yes, this is controversial, but please don’t stop reading! Playing head-to-head matchups each week might be the single biggest flaw in season-long fantasy football, because it’s a patently unfair way to keep score. The goal of fantasy football is to construct a team that can score consistent points in a series of weekly contests. But in a typical league, your team isn’t measured against that goal. Instead, it’s measured by pitting it against a random lineup of players each week - a highly subjective approach that makes little sense. How often does the 2nd or 3rd highest scoring team of the week get a loss? Too often. Week in and week out, your outcome is way too dependent on something you have zero control over - who your opponent is and how his or her collection of random NFL players happens to perform. And that’s just the beginning of the problems. Injuries, illnesses, suspensions, bye weeks and anything else that impacts player availability isn’t evenly distributed. That, plus the vagaries of the weekly NFL schedule, ultimately results in major differences in season-long strength of schedule across a fantasy league. Do you really want the first or second highest scoring team in your league to miss the playoffs? Why not make weekly success and failure as fair, objective and merit based as possible? Why not find a better way to reward roster construction and weekly lineup decisions?
There’s an easy fix. Let’s say you’ve got a 12-team league. Each week, the top 6-point scorers get a win, and the bottom 6 get a loss. In this system, every point counts, you’re playing against every team every week, and strength of schedule evens out. Over the course of a season, the best teams almost always end up with the best W-L records. Nobody gets jobbed by the schedule or by a random player having a career day. If you build a great team, you’ll have a great season. If your team is crappy, see you next year. Call me crazy, but when I’m in any kind of competition, that’s the kind of level playing field I want.
Maybe you don’t like this because you’re worried about losing the bragging rights/trash talking element of head-to-head play. Trust me, you won’t miss it like you think you will, and in some ways that aspect gets intensified when every team is competing against every other team each week. If people want to talk trash, make side bets, or fill up the message board, they will. And if you really want to keep head-to-head, you can at least make things a little fairer by using a hybrid approach where each team plays 2 games per week - one head-to-head against another team, and one using the top 6/bottom 6 concept.
2. Sacred Cow # 2 - Play the Full Season
The last few weeks have served as another reminder of how weird, challenging and unpredictable the final month of an NFL season can be. And yet, this stretch is when almost every fantasy league holds its playoffs and crowns its champion. Here’s another big flaw in the “standard” format that can be fixed.
In the standard format, Week 17 is the culmination of 3 weeks of playoffs after a 14 week “regular season”. Once you factor in the bye week, you’re drafting players for ONLY 13 games (plus playoffs if you’re fortunate). You’re leaving games on the table. Why do the first two thirds of the season matter so much more than the finish? A player you drafted could end up in the top ten (or better) in fantasy points at his position – but not for you, because you missed the playoffs, and he went nuts during the final few weeks of the regular season. Derrick Henry in 2019 comes to mind.
Folks, the game is called “season-long” – play the full season! Let your whole league enjoy a few more torturous Sundays and let the teams that prove to be best over the course of a full regular season emerge for a chance at the championship. It’s how the NFL does it, so why shouldn’t fantasy leagues follow suit? Who, other than our significant others, doesn’t want 4 more weeks of the highs and lows of fantasy football? Why should weeks 15-17 (when players are as banged up as they get, and some NFL teams have switched their focus to next season) count so much more than other weeks?
I know what you’re thinking – how can this idea work, and what do you then do about the playoffs? The answer sounds complicated, but in practice is easy, and as an added bonus it brings some great new elements to the game. Basically, you use the NFL playoff weeks as your fantasy playoffs and allow teams to “protect” players on their roster at the end of the regular season, with a modified snake draft used to fill out rosters each playoff round. In each playoff round, the top half of teams win and move on, and you structure it so that you finish with a head-to-head championship on Super Bowl Sunday. Imagine – a full extra month, or more, of fantasy football! Not to mention, a bunch of extra drafts. What fantasy player says no to this? For more on how this works, see: https://www.thepigskinpapers.com/posts-1/three-of-the-dumbest-things-about-fantasy-football-and-how-to-fix-them-part-iii-1 .
Jonathan Taylor / https://horseshoeheroes.com
3. No Snakes Allowed - Use an Auction Draft
Want Jonathan Taylor next year? Derrick Henry? Sure! Who wouldn’t? Well, if your league has 12 teams and uses a snake draft, you’ve got about a 15% chance of even having an opportunity to draft either one. That in and of itself is a major indictment of snake drafts, and it goes beyond the first 2 picks, as throughout the draft, there will be players that you won’t be able to consider taking without either majorly reaching or getting very lucky.
I get the appeal of a snake draft - it’s easy, fast, convenient, not very stressful, and players within a certain range just kind of fall to you each time it’s your turn. Yes, there’s plenty of strategy and some skill, but if you really want to enhance the experience, then an auction draft is the way to go.
The advantages of an auction draft are many, and since so many have written about it, I’ll be brief. Let’s just say that there’s more strategy and skill involved, it’s 100% egalitarian with no preset advantages or disadvantages based on draft slot, you’re never blocked from getting certain players like you are in a snake draft, it’s more fun, and it’s more gratifying if you’re able to construct a strong team. Draft night comes just once per year - why rush it? And if need be, it can of course also be done remotely, online. If you've never tried an auction draft, give it a shot next year. You’ll never go back.
4. Full Point PPR is Too Much PPR
One thing that’s changed in fantasy football over the years is the emergence of full or partial points per reception (PPR) scoring. When I started playing fantasy in the mid 90s, almost all leagues used standard scoring, with maybe some catch bonuses. But now, most leagues feature some form of PPR scoring. I’m not against the concept of PPR, but I think Full PPR awards too many points, which in turn skews skill position player scoring and impacts the fantasy values of some players by too large of a degree. Leagues usually don’t award any points for rushing attempts, which begs the question of why so many points are awarded for catches.
In today’s NFL, lots of teams use short passes and screens as a substitute for running. What’s more valuable to an NFL team - a 10-yard run, or a screen pass that gets snuffed out for no gain? Well, in Full PPR they count exactly the same (1 point). That makes little sense to me, and over the course of a season all those extra points for short and often meaningless catches add up, and account for too much of a scoring impact than they should. My league rewards a third of a point per catch and I’m fine with anything up to half a point.
5. Fix Waivers
I have literally no idea why the vast majority of fantasy leagues process waivers on Tuesday night at midnight. At that time, almost every NFL team hasn’t yet practiced and information about player availability for the upcoming week is very limited. Waivers should be no earlier than Wednesday midnight, but Thursday afternoon is even better. Why not give owners as much information as possible before they make decisions on drops and pickups? Seriously, I’m dying for someone to tell me why Tuesday waivers isn’t one of the dumbest things they’ve ever heard of. And while we’re here, any league that still allows open waivers on a first come-first served basis (before league-wide waivers are processed for everyone) should be shut down by the fantasy police. I’m not done - if you’re still using priority waivers, that’s dumb too, so get rid of that as well. OK, I might need to calm down and I’m pouring myself a drink. The best system, which many leagues now use, is a free agent acquisition budget (FAAB), where teams start the year with a set amount to spend on free agents for the season ($100 or $200 is typical) and blind bids are used to process weekly free agent claims. If you change nothing else, at least make the acquisition of free agents a fair process.
6. Play IDPs instead of a Team Defense
I don’t have a lot to say about this one except that it’s a lot less random and fluky, it’s consistent with the concept of starting specific offensive players, and it’s more fun because you've got more players in your lineup. A variety of scoring systems exist, but typically, players are divided into 3 positions (DL, LB, DB), you start anywhere from 3-5 players (usually with some positional requirements), and you get points for things like sacks, tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. I’d say more, but this column has run too long already, and I think my soap box is about to collapse. So now it's up to you, and yes, you can be the guy (or gal) who suggests some of these changes and makes your league better next season. It’s all about being willing to try.
To see more NFL and fantasy football articles by David Hartman, visit his blog, The Pigskin Papers, at: www.thepigskinpapers.com