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Week 5

Last Week's Question

In Week 3, I asked readers what to do with Week 17, when teams that have either locked up their spot in the playoffs or locked themselves out of playoff contention routinely opt to keep their superstars healthy by keeping them off the field. The responses I received were so varied and interesting that I decided to devote two columns to them. For the first set of answers, see my column for Week 4. For the remaining answers, keep reading.

A reader with the initials JMT spoke for a lot of those who will presumably be interested in this column:
I've been in the same league for 7 years, and it existed for 3-4 years prior to my joining. For most of that time, I've been trying to get our group to consider changing our approach—or non-approach—to the Week 17 issue. It's a 12-team, 3-division league with a 14-game regular season. The three division winners, along with the two best runners-up and the remaining high points team, make the playoffs. Seeds 1 and 2 have a first-round bye and things culminate with our championship game . . . you guessed it . . . in week 17.

My suggestions to change "the way things have always been done" have generally been met with a lack of interest. I've come to accept our system as just another of those uncontrollable vagaries of fantasy football—along with injuries, weather, and running back by committee. I'd love to see it change, though, and would like to hear from anyone that's been successful overhauling the way stubborn owners think.
Well JMT, I hope that some of the suggestions in this column (or last week's column) will sound attractive to the other owners in your league. Maybe they'll be receptive to what Scott's league does:
Our league is in its 9th year, and our solution to the Week 17 mess is this. We play a 14-week regular season and send 4 teams to the playoffs in Week 15 (Seed 1 vs. Seed 4 and Seed 2 vs. Seed 3).

The two winners advance to the Super Bowl, which is a 2-week game, with teams able to change their rosters at "halftime". That way, you can get the stats for your stars in week 16, and then you can start your lower-tier players in week 17 when the stars are resting. This arrangement makes for all kinds of interesting story lines if a team takes a big lead after Week 16 and then some who-dat goes for 153 yds & 3 TDs in a meaningless Week 17 game to secure the upset win!

That's an interesting solution, but we're just getting started. For instance, Randy's league has undergone a complex evolution in response to the problems caused by Week 17 and to the apathy that begins to plague owners who are out of contention by the end of the season:

In our league, we [used to be fairly conventional, with the] top four teams playing for the championship in weeks 15 and 16, since Week 17 can really kill a great team. It was no good for the teams who didn't make the playoffs, because the last three weeks were pointless for them, and nobody in the league had a stake in Week 17.

Last year I instituted a pool for Weeks 15-17, with the highest total point scorer for the three weeks combined getting some bucks. This year I am expanding on this. In addition to the pool for weeks 15-17, the eight teams who don't make the championship brackets will have a toilet bowl in weeks 15-17. Since it is not for the big money, playing Week 17 for the toilet bowl championship is no big deal, but it is enough to keep everyone active. Furthermore, in addition to the total points for Week 15-17 combined, we are also going to give $10 to the highest total each week (Weeks 15-17). Now there are plenty of reasons for everyone to field a lineup each and every week. Although I had to raise the entry fee this year to cover the extra stuff, nobody had a problem with it.
Gary's league also experienced a complex evolution in response to Week 17. Perhaps some readers can learn vicariously from him:
When my head-to-head league first started in 1999, our Super Bowl fell on Week 17, and the best owner that year lost because all of his "studs" were benched early, severely crippling any chance his team had. We changed for the 2000 season to a Week 16 championship, which works so much better, but at that time, I asked myself what could be done with Week 17 to use it in a beneficial manner.

In the 2001 season, I got my chance to try something out as commissioner. We used Week 17 as a Pro Bowl scenario. Our 12-team league had a 2-conference setup, and the highest-scoring individuals at each position within each conference were matched against each other. We had nothing at stake but bragging rights, but if I had to do it over again, I would have put a nominal amount of money from the pool toward the winning Pro Bowl contest, with each team owner receiving a set amount of money for each player he owned on the winning Pro Bowl roster, and a bonus going to the Pro Bowl MVP (the player scoring the most points).

Unfortunately, since that 2001 season we have not revisited the Pro Bowl scenario, since our league has expanded and each conference now picks from a separate pool of players, rendering the Pro Bowl useless (as both teams would now mirror each other--2 Priest Holmes, 2 Peyton Mannings, etc.). But it seems to me that for a league with a single pool of players, a Pro Bowl is a terrific way to finish out the year, with 2 "super-teams" dooking it out for league supremacy.
Another "Pro-Bowl" scenario comes from Neil:
In our 10-team, 2-conference league, we use week 17 as a Pro-Bowl, with a slight twist. The Pro-Bowl rosters are picked by the regular season conference champs, with a few provisions. They must select 1) at least one player from every team; and 2) be sure that each player selected has started at least 5 games for that team during the season.

Each owner belonging to the losing conference must contribute $10 at the following year's auction to be put to use towards pizza, chips and. . . . uhhh . . . soda . . . for everyone present to partake in.
Quite a few people wrote in to the effect that the problems experienced by leagues that try to have championships in Week 17 are clearly indicative of the flawed nature of head-to-head competitions. Scott's league has found a very elegant way of balancing head-to-head play with pure points competition. Their method leaves room for Week 17, but doesn't allow it to over-determine things in the league.
We've used the following method for the past 11 years, and it seems to work fine. Our league uses a head-to-head as well as a total points system. Head-to-head determines the playoff seeding and the Superbowl winner (using total points as tie-breakers). Total points determines next year's draft order. Let's also not forget about the prize money for weekly top score as well as at the end of the season. Anyway, we start our playoffs in week 14, ending with the Superbowl in week 16. In Week 17, each team still starts a lineup, but no head-to-head match-ups are held. There are no wins or losses in Week 17, but the points count towards the total point tally for the season.
Such hybrid scoring systems appear to be fairly common, as evidenced by Jeff's response:
I am commissioner of a league with 10-14 teams participating every year. I have found that to keep every coach interested to the end, there has to be an incentive. The incentive I use in my league is no playoffs and no championship game, but recognition for the best final record and total fantasy points. The overall champion is the one with the most total fantasy points for the season.

Let me further explain: End season payouts for my league are for best record and total fantasy points, plus a weekly payout for the team with the most fantasy points for that week. So I can have a team that has lost its last 3 games, but will still be in the hunt for the total points championship going into W17, or I can have a coach in the lead with a 12-4 record going into the last week, but need to win in W17 to ensure the best record payout.

Last year, in W17, I had 8 of 10 teams playing meaningful games—games that decided division titles, best record, total points, etc. And for the other 2 teams that were not in the running for an end-season payout, they still could make some cash if they posted the highest fantasy point total for the week. Thus, all coaches stayed involved to the very end. This way, payouts are based on consistency displayed in coaching their team the entire year, not just the luck they had in a couple of playoff games.
David's message is representative of those who favor pure points systems over head-to-head contests or hybrid arrangements:
Mike, there is obviously only one way to address the question of what do with Week 17 of the fantasy football season: set your league up as total points instead of head-to-head. It's incredible to me that more commissioners and leagues have not adopted this approach yet. As we all know from professional leagues, the best team does not always win the championship in a playoff type post-season structure. A good example is the 2001 Mariners team that won 116 games and lost to the Yankees in the AL league championship series. Granted, [a head-to-head playoff scenario] makes for great pressure and excitement and nail-biting, but to me the best team is the team that has proven it all year long. In a seven-game series, you hope that the best team pulls through, but in a two-game fantasy football playoff? There are just too many other variables, especially at the end of the long NFL season, that make that sort of championship hollow and irrelevant. . . . By simply making your league a 17-week, [all-out] brawl, the issue of what to do with Week 17 becomes moot. The best teams (not to mention the best managers who have made the best moves over the season) have risen to the top by that time, and probably have some cushion to absorb the blow of having their best players sit out a few games [at the end]. Last year in my 10-team redraft, total points league we had 2 teams that were head and shoulders above the pack, and they went into the last week separated by 1 point. It was still exciting, and the two best teams finished in the money, which is just as it should be.
This Week's Question
For this week's question, I want to ask you folks about the leagues with "training wheels." For those of you who don't know what I mean, I'll explain. My wife joined a fantasy football league in her office this year, but it doesn't sound like any league I ever heard of. I have heard of 14-team leagues, 12-team leagues, and 10-team leagues. I have even heard of 8-team leagues, which make a kind of sense in that at least the number of players is even. My wife, however, is in a 7-team league.

Now I don't want to stir up controversy about the "appropriate" number of teams for a fantasy league, but that's only the beginning of what weirds me out about her league. What's even stranger to me is that she had nothing whatsoever to do with the drafting of her team. It was all handled by a computer program (on Yahoo! or some such service). I'll say that again: she didn't select her players; they were assigned to her.

So I actually have a sort of a 2-part question. The first is, "What is the freaking point of a 7-team league in which you don't even draft your own players?" Can anyone explain to me how these leagues are good for anything? Do they actually expose people in any meaningful way to fantasy football—perhaps giving those who are new to the hobby a taste for something more challenging? My wife's league is free, but I have to wonder if there are others out there who actually put money on such leagues.

And the second point of my question is, "Do any of the people in the fantasy football community have any idea how inflated the numbers are concerning fantasy football participation?" It used to be that when I would hear the commentators on Fox or CBS talking about how many millions of people play fantasy football, I would think, "Wow." But now I have to wonder how many of those people are playing anything like the game that I think of when I think of fantasy football. To be in a league like my wife's, you don't even have to know what position Donovan McNabb plays—much less consider the consequences of drafting a tailback who is part of a running-back-by-committee. The computer will draft your team for you, select your lineup throughout the season for you, and then tell you at the end of the year whether you won. I'm left wondering whether people in the fantasy football community are generally comfortable referring to anyone who has a fantasy football team—whether he can name a single player on that team or not—as a fantasy football player.

LMS Picks for Week 5 (Courtesy of Matt)

Last week, Matt had this to say: "Mark this as the week that the Last Man Standing, or Survival Pools have their biggest attrition rate. So many games could go either way."

This week, he adds, "Little did I know that my picks would be the ones that could knock you out. If you went with the Eagles last week and had not picked them against the Giants in Week 1 like I had, you're still in it. That is why you need to be careful about what game you pick each week and when to use the better teams for your weekly pick."

Trap Game(s): Tampa Bay at New Orleans:
Tampa Bay is down, but not out—and New Orleans is struggling. This is one of my famous divisional matchups in which the teams also know each other. If New Orleans can find a balance in their offense, they should win this one, but the Bucs have a lot of pride and will give the Saints some trouble.

#3: Minnesota over Houston (2-2 This Season):
The Vikings are coming off their bye week and hoping to have a running game. Mewelde Moore might get the start with Williams and Bennett injured and Smith possibly serving out his suspension (don't look for the league to be lenient; they haven't in the past). Even so, the combination of Culpepper and Moss should be enough to do in the Texans who will probably be without their starting running back Davis for the second week in a row. Houston is at home looking for their 3rd in row. Don't expect the miracle and go with the Vikings.

#2: Arizona over San Francisco (3-1 This Season):
If you want to save some of the better teams for later in the season, this may be one of two weeks you might consider picking the Cardinals. Yes, I said the Cardinals. San Francisco has had trouble with bad defenses, i.e. the Rams, let alone matching up against a defense that feels that they can control almost any team these days. Emmitt Smith is running like a man 5 years younger and Denny Green has them believing that they can beat anyone. On the other side of the ball, you have a team that is trying to find its identity and is definitely rebuilding. The only other time I see the Cardinals as a potential lock later this season is when they face the 49ers at home, but by then, it just might be too late.

#1: Indianapolis over Oakland (3-1 This Season):
You can't pick the Patriots every week; otherwise, they would be my lock of the week, so instead I'm taking the high-flying Colts' offense in the dome against the Raiders. Even if this game becomes a shootout, the Colts should win it, but Tony Dungy is working on his defense and they should be able to hold the vertical passing attack of the Raiders at bay. And now that Manning has found an old buddy in Stokely, Marvin Harrison should be able to get in the end zone more often, since he is not the only receiving threat on the team.

For responses to this week's fantasy question or to share your LMS picks, please email me no later than 10 a.m. EST on Wednesdays during the football season.