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Mike Davis | Archive | Email  
Staff Writer

Q & A - Week 10: Maintaining Parity while Sustaining Rivalry

Last Week's Question: Are positional quotas still popular?

In my Week 9 column, I shared Matthew's concern about the possibility that his league is "too strict" because of "roster limitations" that require every team to carry a certain number of players at each position. Clearly the FF community has evolved in response to this practice over the course of the last decade.

Back at the turn of the millennium, when I first started writing this column, I remember hearing from commissioners who argued that requiring owners to carry two kickers on their rosters was an important part of keeping teams competitive even when the owners became apathetic.

"What?" you ask. "How does keeping a kicker on the bench make a team more competitive?"

It should not surprise anyone to learn that apathy (especially on the part of owners eliminated from playoff contention by the middle of the season) has always been a major concern for commissioners in fantasy football.

As an example, let's say the owner of the Oaktown Haters is 1-7 after the games in Week 8.

He is supposed to log into his league's website no later than Thursday afternoon to submit his lineup for Week 9, but he decides to watch "Honey Badger" clips on YouTube instead. Why should he bother to designate a starting tight end when it is so much more amusing to hear Randall chirp, "Honey badger don't care"?

There's nothing the Oaktown Haters can do to salvage the fantasy season, and by Week 10, the owner will claim that he cannot even remember what password he needs to use to log into his league's website. The Haters are now on auto-pilot.

Receivers on IR stay in the lineup.

The quarterback on a bye in Week 11 puts up a big shiny ZERO.

In Week 12, two running backs who are about equal in terms of productivity are matched up against the best and worst rushing defenses in the NFL. The one playing against the most porous defense stays on the bench. The one playing against the stingiest defense remains in the lineup because he was the last one the owner started before checking out.

The Oaktown Haters are now giving out free wins to opponents week after week--until the playoffs finally begin. The owner won't bother to follow the playoffs. He doesn't care who wins. All he knows is that it won't be him. The upside (for him) is that if he loses enough games in the final stretch, he will probably get the top pick in next year's draft. The downside (for the commissioner) is that the owners who had to make an effort to beat the Oaktown Haters when they were being actively managed are complaining that their competitors are now simply coasting to victory over a shell of a team.

But wait! The commissioner has planned for this contingency. He required all the owners to draft enough players at every position to cover lineup shortfalls caused by injuries and bye weeks. The owner of the Oaktown Haters may be MIA, but the commissioner can make sure that the team fills out its roster with active players every week. If Kicker A is on a bye, Kicker B is manually plugged into the lineup by the commissioner to make sure that the Haters remain competitive.

That is one defense of positional quotas that I remember reading when I started writing this column. I don't think it would go over as well in 2012 as it might have in 2002. Back then, I received notes from various FFers who told me that they had to drive back to their offices on Thursday evening to submit changes to their lineups because they did not have internet connections in their homes. These days, I suspect that most lineup changes are made with smartphones.

Matthew offers a much more compelling defense of positional quotas by pointing out that when all owners are required to tie up roster spots with extra kickers, tight ends, defenses, and QBs, the waiver wire for running backs and receivers remains attractive all season long.

I certainly remember that being the case in the league that I first joined (which enforced strict roster requirements). There always seemed to be serviceable RBs available on waivers because it was impossible for owners to hoard them. I recall that handcuffing backups to starters was really tricky when the second- and third-string backups were dealing with injuries of their own. If you wanted to draft a star running back and two backups from the same team in case of injury, you knew that you would have to cut one of them before the bye week because it's impossible to start two RBs every week of the season when you can only have four on your roster and three of them have the same bye.

As I have written before, it's very difficult for me to understand why anyone would carry two kickers on their roster unless they were required to do so. When I am attached to a kicker (and I was high on David Akers for a few years), then I will consider carrying an extra kicker for exactly one week (my main kicker's bye). But as soon as the bye is over, I will cut the extra kicker.

Usually, however, I don't even do that. When my kicker's bye week comes up, I cut him. Welcome aboard, Mr. Replacement. The job is yours for the rest of the season.

Having just one kicker on my team means freeing up a slot for an extra WR or RB. And I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Almost everyone thinks this way, with the result that lots of owners streamline at certain positions (especially kickers and defenses, but often at tight end, and sometimes at QB as well).

When everybody's extra kicker slot and extra defense slot and extra tight end slot ends up being used for RB depth, it's quite possible to end up seeing a waiver wire with no RBs available who are likely to see significant action in the upcoming game. I agree with Matthew about that difference.

Of course, that is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of owners like being able to carry 7 RBs or WRs if they want to. NFL owners may have to trim their rosters to 53 men, but Roger Goodell does not require a set number of punt returners or middle linebackers. And in the end, shouldn't owners have as much flexibility as possible? Shouldn't we let them make their own choices and deal with the consequences?

I tend to think so, but I also know that playing with positional quotas introduced certain strategic wrinkles into FF that were fun to try to work around. As I said last week, I miss the league that required me to carry exactly 4 RBs. I think I'll look around next year for one. But that's just a matter of personal preference, as Brian points out:

I think it’s safe to say that one thing we’ve all learned through the years is that there is no one correct way to run a fantasy league. It all depends on how you want to play and getting everyone to buy into it.

We have always and still use same roster limitations for all 8 owners in our league (2 QBs, 4 RBs, 4 WRs, 2 TEs, 2 Ks, 2 Ds….1/2 of which gets started weekly). We have been running our league since 1993 with just about the same guys, so we're not into making too many changes to throw off our history. We use a coaching % (starting weekly points vs. possible points) as one of our end-of-year prizes. This would get skewed if roster sizes were different.

My guess is that most leagues that still require positional quotas are, like Brian's, at least fifteen years old. Donovan's league (which has many similarities) has been around for almost a quarter century:

This is our league’s 24th season, and we’ve used very strict roster limitations from the beginning. We use only five bench spots, but two of them must be a K and a D/ST, leaving a mere three for the skill positions.

While all drafts are important, our league’s roster rules put much more emphasis on what happens afterwards. Smaller rosters emphasize each owner’s weekly decision making, especially when it comes to navigating the bye weeks. Our league obviously has better players available on the waiver wire than most; however, choosing who (or if) to drop from a smaller roster is often difficult. Fantasy football has enough luck involved already; our goal is to keep as much of the game in the hands of the owners as possible.

I’ve always thought one of the best arguments FOR our system is that the 2-3 owners in our league that rarely make the playoffs want to change it, by increasing our roster sizes “to make it easier”. There is little doubt that bigger rosters make in-season team management much easier. So, I’d recommend reducing the roster size for serious leagues, but recreational leagues should probably not go down the limited roster road.

A well-structured waiver system goes hand-in-hand with smaller rosters. Getting new players can’t be a race, so we use a closed-bid auction on Wednesday nights instead.

Donovan doesn't try to glamorize positional quotas in this note. He simply tells us what he and some of his fellow owners like about the system they use. He even admits that some of the owners would like to move away from roster regimentation (reminding us of Matthew's concerns about whether positional quotas are "too strict").

However, even the owners in Donovan's league who dislike the regimented (and daringly shallow) rosters seem to be sticking around. I'd say 24 years is fairly impressive longevity in the world of FF leagues.

This Week's Question: How can commissioners maintain parity while sustaining rivalry?

Before I get to Kenneth's question, I want to remind everyone that the parity we take for granted in the NFL is not easy to come by. In a world of huge salaries and awesome stakes, the temptation for owners to manipulate the rules into favoring their own teams must be omni-present.

But even if we have teams that emerge as short-lived dynasties (the Steelers of the 70s, the 49ers of the 80s, the Cowboys of the 90s, and the Patriots of the 00s), we always see new talent bubbling up in new places.

Some people watch the NFL for the hits. Some watch for the acrobatic grace. Some watch because they have money riding on the outcome. But most of us watch because there is simply no telling what will happen between any two teams on any given Sunday.

After a dismal preseason, how many of us expected the Jets to put up 48 points against the Bills in Week 1? And how many of us expected them to lose to the Dolphins 30-9 in Week 8?

It's fun and exciting to watch NFL games because there is no telling how they will play out.

And for many of us, fantasy football is fun for the same reason. Winning is fun. Winning money is even more fun. But for a lot of us, the emotional roller coaster ride of rooting against a an opposing tight end or cheering for an unexpected pick-6 by our defense--that experience is enjoyable because every step of the path that we take to victory or defeat is uncharted before the games are played.

Fantasy leagues that value fun should also value parity and the unpredictability that it brings. People would lose interest in the NFL if the Giants won the Super Bowl every year. And people will lose interest in your fantasy league if the same guy takes home the trophy over and over.

The point of this long prelude to Kenneth's question is that I think it would be a mistake for a commissioner to start focusing on rivalry if his league has not yet achieved parity, but if parity is not a problem for you, then maybe it is time to start thinking about ways to encourage rivalry.

And now for Kenneth's question:

Our league consists of 12 teams broken into 3 divisions of 4 teams each. Division winners all advance to the playoffs along with 1 wildcard team (based on points, not record, which is a whole different argument that I don't want to get into).

Our top division, the Champs, is made up of whichever 4 teams reached the playoffs in the previous season.

The teams with the next four highest point totals end up in our second division, the Chimps.

The teams with the four lowest point totals go into our bottom division, the Chumps.

Obviously, we think it's important to give a leg up to the teams that struggle. A couple of the owners think we give the weak teams too much of an advantage, but most of us like the idea that one of the worst four teams in 2011 will definitely go to the playoffs in 2012.

The problem is that with the divisions changing every year, we can't really build up the kinds of rivalries that most of us have seen in other leagues. We play the teams in our own division twice (just like the NFL), but you never know who is going to be in your division from one season to the next.

I like the way the league challenges the winners and beefs up the losers, but some of us are pretty serious smack talkers, and we would like to be in our own division just so that we can play each other twice every year.

Do you think it's worth changing the way our league works just to give a few of us an excuse to send each other abusive emails more frequently each season? Maybe it sounds silly, but I think it might be worth it.

Smacky the Bear says, "Only you can properly determine the value of smack talk in your league," but Kenneth has posed a complicated question that I'm not sure how to answer.

I'm interested in hearing what readers might have to say to him about the importance of rivalry, but I am equally interested in hearing about any and all measures that fantasy leagues take in order to create a sense of parity.

Last Man Standing - Week 10 (Courtesy of Matthew Schiff)

Trap Game: Detroit at Minnesota (5-4, Wash, CLE, TB, Den, ATL, SF, NYG, NO, MIA):
The Detroit Lions were ranked 5th in total offense at this time last year, and Megatron was more than halfway to his 16 touchdowns. This year he and Matthew Stafford have hooked up for just one lonely touchdown through the first 9 weeks. While the Minnesota defense hasn’t been shutting everyone down of late, they might just overcome their slight “underdog” status for this week’s game against a divisional foe at home. Look for a healthy dose of Adrian Peterson against a defense that gives up more points than yards in proportion to other teams. With so many other good games to choose from, you should only consider the favored Lions on the road in this game if you have already used one of the three “juicy” favorites listed below.

#3: New England over Buffalo (8-1: PHI, TB, CHI, AZ, HOU, BAL, GB, SF, SD):
The last time these two teams met in upstate New York, New England came away a winner in a high-scoring affair, 52-38. Buffalo’s 31st-ranked defense hasn’t gotten any better since their meeting back in Week 4, and without a snow storm to slow down Tom Brady and company, there is no reason to think that they cannot repeat their prior performance. Despite all of the promise of a revamped defense in Buffalo, the Bills have languished at the bottom of the league while the Pats have quietly improved their pass coverage since some early-season shortfalls.

#2: Baltimore over Oakland (6-3: CHI, Wash, NO, HOU, SF, PIT, MIN, NE, ATL):
Oakland was completely dismantled by Doug Martin and Josh Freeman last week at home. This week those same Raiders visit Ray Rice and his Baltimore Ravens. Do you think that Joe Flacco looks forward to handing the ball off as he watches film of the Raiders? You bet! Doug Martin amassed the 2nd most all time yardage in a single game by ANY running back with 250 yards against the Raiders, so Rice is presumably salivating.

#1: Pittsburgh over Kansas City (8-1: HOU, SF, IND, BAL, NYG, ATL, NE, CHI, GB):
The Steelers kept their composure against an extremely solid Giants team in Week 9. With Rashard Mendenhall injured for most of the season, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have combined for three straight 100-yard games against their opponents. But if the Chiefs stay true to form, this game will not be about what the Steelers do on offense; it will be about how many times the Chiefs hand the ball over. The Chiefs lead the NFL in turnovers (with ten more than the next closest team). The bad news for the butterfingered Chiefs is that the ferocious Steeler defense has historically been very opportunistic. If you haven’t used the Steel Curtain yet this year, this may be your best chance.

For responses to this month's fantasy question please email me.