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Week 12

Last Week's Question

Every now and then, one of my columns touches a nerve in the fantasy community. Last week's column apparently touched several nerves, as the responses I received were all over the place. I usually like to start my columns by telling readers what the "consensus" response was to the question posed in the previous column, but there was nothing approaching a consensus in reponse to my query about whether technological changes in the way fantasy football is played are in fact reducing the amount of skill (and increasing the amount of luck) involved in the game. Some folks endorsed my hypothesis; others took it further than I was willing to go; others disagreed completely; and still others took my argument in completely unexpected directions. Many of the responses were quite long, so I will apologize in advance to those whose remarks were shortened drastically in the interest of keeping the column digestible for most readers. I'll also confess in advance that it's going to be impossible for me to provide adequate representation of all perspectives in a single column, so a number of responses will just have to wait until next week, as I know from experience that there's no point in overwhelming readers with too much information in a single sitting.

And now for Part One in a survey of what readers had to say in response to my observation that since information about fantasy football is ridiculously easy to come by, it's harder for those who really do their homework to separate themselves from those who simply skim the latest player updates (supplied automatically, in many cases, by league-hosting services). I'll start with a fairly balanced response from Eric:

A large part of fantasy success is based [not on research, but] on your own gut feeling. Take, for example, my receivers: J. Galloway, B. Engram, K. Curtis, J. Jurevicius. They were all acquired on waivers because people did not want them and no FF literature projected Galloway as a top 5 receiver--or even a top 50 receiver. I think that even with all this new FF info, you could compile a team of waiver wire pickups that could beat half of the already assembled teams. Not based on luck, but based on good sound judgment.
Another reader named Eric is also unwilling to buy into the luck argument even with all of the fantasy information available to everyone who plays:
I'm a frequent reader, but a first-time emailer. I was compelled to write when, after rolling my eyes at my sister-in-law's habit of spending precious money on the lottery instead of food, my wife countered with, "Well, you do fantasy football. It's the same thing." I don't believe that's the case at all. Despite the "luck" factor (evidenced this year by my inability to know whether Corey Dillon's gonna sit or play despite the injury report), there is a still a level of "skill" or savvy involved in having a successful ff season. You have the draft (where everyone comes in with very similar cheatsheets anyway), in-season trades and WW activity, and sit/start decisions that all allow for better players to ultimately do well. I wouldn't play fantasy football if it were indeed just a crapshoot.
Some readers may recall that part of my question concerned the possibility that if fantasy football is to decline, it may well be as a result of a perception on the part of youngsters that luck plays a greater role than skill in the game (which would make the older generation of players look like a bunch of seniors in a bingo tournament). Brian addressed this part of my question by discussing the appeal of fantasy football to his son:
I believe luck plays less of a role than people believe. This is still a game of skill, and always will be...otherwise why do we play? When I see my 12-year-old son fired up about his team and rooting against my players (even though we are not in the same league) I am inspired that the youth of today understand what fantasy football is really about: Fans, Fun and Competition.
Evan is a bit less confident about the appeal that fantasy football will have for future generations, but he relates that appeal less to the luck and skill question than to the evolution of sports:
I think fantasy football is far from a game of pure luck. Of course, there's always the element of chance. I had Dante Culpepper and T.O. say bye bye in the same week. But the fact that I can scramble around, make trades, pick up free-agents, and still somehow be in the thick of the playoff race says something about my abilities as a FF player. I also play big money games and consistently finish near the top of my leagues. This has been a good money maker for me over the years, as well as a great hobby.

As for the decline of FF because of the luck factor...I don't know. I do think it's possible it's at the peak of its popularity, but the decline may be due to other factors. I think young people today are a little less interested in football than the kids of my generation. They have a bigger array of sports to choose from like the extreme sports that didn't really exist when I was a kid, and certainly didn't get any tv coverage. I also think that the current form of tv coverage does little to engage the short attention span of today's kids. There's a commercial break every 5 minutes or so, and I can see kids not wanting to sit around and wait through commercial break after commercial break. I think the popularity of football in general will begin to fall in time.
Andrew is another reader who is inclined to take a "long view" of fantasy football as it connects itself to general interest in the phenomenon of American football:
I'm not sure that we can go from what we have today to 'an exercise in technological futility' in a short period of time. Even if FF is going to disappear one day, it has a long way to go. I'll cite a couple of reasons:
  1. The Evolution is Not Complete: The traditional league formatl begat the keeper league begat the IDP league begat the dynasty league begat the salary cap league. What's next? I'm not sure, but I can tell you that we have a long way to go. As long as changes are made to the system, the strategy is not immediately obvious and you still have an element of interest preserved simply by the fresh details. For example, I'd say it's a given that we will have more 'real time' FF games for both weekly fantasy matchups and pre season player allocation. We're also going to see offensive line and punter stats in there at some point so that you can draft a complete team.

  2. People Like Gambling: No matter how much we simplify FF, it will still be a more complex, less predictable system than (for example) card games. As long as we can find new and interesting ways to gamble on fantasy football, it will exist in some form. The only thing that could kill this would be some sort of force in the game itself that causes gambling to cease of its own accord (i.e. rampant 'fixing' or dominance to the point that outcomes are known with a high degree of certainty in advance). We all know that the NFL owes much of its popularity to the gambling community, so they are working for us to make sure that part of the game stays pristine.

  3. It Won't Get That Big: Your 'perfect storm' whereby so many people play that the strategies become obvious, foolproof, and widely known would require a massive rate of participation. In order for the fantasy community to reduce the entire exercise to an easily understood system that leaves only chance as a variable we'd need the whole damn continent working on it. Let's face it, at this point we are a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters. We've got some time before we write the Great American Novel.
No, we won't figure FF out and make it useless that way. If FF disappears, it will be a result of widespread apathy for football in particular or sports in general. 50 years ago things like extreme poverty and war were a reality that a good many Americans (and Canadians) had to deal with. While sports were still a pleasant distraction, they weren't viewed as life and death the way they are today. Your mind has less time to pursue the silly things that preoccupy us today if your survival or the future you are building for your kids are in question. Today we have manufactured an obsession that borders on the lunatic for something that in the grand scheme of things doesn't matter. That's a luxury that we won't always have. One day we'll have to worry about something 'important'.
I found Andrew's arguments extremely compelling, and I might have bought them hook, line and sinker if not for a brilliant counterpoint made by a reader named Barry. His note should do a fair job of reminding us that it's precisely when we have more "important" things to worry about that we can turn to sports for solace. But even if Barry's response serves to complicate Andrew's concluding contention, it also serves as a perfect illustration of the evolution that Andrew details:
First, thanks for a great job every week. I'm in the Air Force and currently in Baghdad, and Fantasy Football is the lone thing that keeps me going through this deployment. The site is great...keep up the good work.

This week's question is one of great importance for current fantasy football geeks like ourselves. For this hobby to fall by the wayside like the hula hoop or the slinky would be tragic; however, these seemingly ancient novelties may give us a clue to a solution. Very few material things in life can stay true to their original form and continue to appeal to the masses. There is always the quest to find the next big thing or to improve upon what is already great for something spectacular. We see it everywhere around us, and I fully expect Fantasy Football to follow suit.

Let me use my current league as an example of this evolution. Back in the mid-90s in Las Vegas, a few of us gathered for our first ever Fantasy Football draft. It was the typical 8-man re-draft league in which most of us played during sometime over the past decade. Well, this 8-man re-draft league eventually expanded to 12 owners. About 4 years ago we decided to try a keeper league. We protected five players each year and even incorporated a basic website into the mix. Honestly, this was a watershed moment for our particular situation. I along with two other original owners decided we had to have more, so after a few more years of keeper play, we dove head-first into the dynasty league abyss.

We now run a 16-team dynasty league that is 180 degrees from the original 8-man re-draft league from 1996. We sign players to contracts; we have a salary cap and franchise players; we have unrestricted and restricted free agency; we use Individual Defensive Players instead of team defenses; we have our own web forum for transactions and smack talk; we have a few owners (including me) write weekly previews and reviews of match-ups; we have a 5-round rookie draft every spring. In other words, we are engrossed in fantasy football 365 days a year.

This league format, however, is not for everyone. I think as long as the NFL remains "America's New Passtime," fantasy football will be around. The basic "free league" will be available for the casual fan much like the weekly office pools, but I really think we'll see this hobby continue to mature much like Atari has transformed into XBox 360 over the years. Things that are this good find a way to stay good.
A reader whose email address identifies him only as "Washtest" contributed to this line of thinking by pointing out a similar evolutionary trajectory. His response stands out, however, in that he acknowledges that luck is on the upswing and seems to regard that as a positive development:
I agree that luck has become more of a factor because of the increased availability of information. But I also believe that's a good thing. In the past, I was able to play in yahoo public leagues and could basically win the league on draft day. Most fantasy leaguers were either big-time homers or just picked up players they wanted to watch.

With the rise of information, the classic (re-draft 1QB, 2RB, 2WR, 1 TE, 1K, 1 Def) 8 or 10 team league has become almost unplayable. In these types of leagues, especially with savvy owners, luck is more of a factor because even with injuries there are still quality players on the waiver wire. In this format, it's very hard to trade because everyone has a competitive team and to get the smallest of upgrades you usually have to overpay.

As in all markets, the rise of information has caused the fantasy football world to change. Some changes to combat the free flow of information:

1) 2QB league - in a 12 team set-up - where do you draft that second QB? do you take a 3rd QB or just bite the bullett and go without a QB on the bye week? do you draft that 2nd QB early instead of the 2nd or 3rd receiver or even instead of the 2nd RB?

2) PPR league - because everyone knows that RBs dominate the fantasy landscape - PPR was introduced to level the playing field. In the 2nd round, do you still choose that 2nd RB or go for your first receiver?

3) IDP league - not as much information about defenders out there as there is about skill positions.

4) In your past Q&A, you mentioned a league that gave a player first rights to the back-up if the starter got injured - that lessens the "bad luck" of getting a player injured.

5) double-header leagues - too reduce the, "man, I scored the 2nd most points this week but still lost complaints."

6) expanded rosters - namely the use of 1 or 2 flex postions so you have to dig deeper for players.

7) changing the prize distribution so you get money for total points as well as winning in the play-offs.

Luck will always be a doubt about that. With the rise of information, there will always be changes. One last thing, before this year there was a huge question as to where to draft Peyton Manning. [Even when information is abundant, you still have to figure out] whose information is correct. Do you trust the website that says pick him 1st, the magazine that says, pick him 3rd, or the newspaper that says don't even pick him in the 1st round?
I think that's really about as good an answer as I could have hoped for if the objective is to put the luck question to bed. It's true that no matter how much information we have available and no matter how effortlessly that information is to come by, players still have to make their own decisions about what to do with the information. Michael elaborates on this point:
I realize that with the volume of information available, even the worst owner today is much better prepared and more knowledgeable than the "bad" owners were just a few years ago. However, the fact that there is a lot more information available to fantasy owners doesn't mean that skill "goes away" as a factor. Much of the "new information" is just plain noise - misleading, hasty, and sometimes even wrong. Every news service out there wants to be the first to hype some unproven player before he blows up. The owner who overreacts to this kind of news and lets go of, or passes on, a proven producer loses. The savvy fantasy owner, who knows to ignore most of the hype, scoops up the solid producer, and most often he/she comes out ahead. It takes skill to make use of all the data, to apply it correctly to your particular league's scoring system, to scope out schedules, and to build your team for a deep run through your league's playoffs. I place a huge emphasis on that last bit of information, and have ridden it to 5 straight league championship appearances (3 wins) in our 12-team league. Luck will equal out over the long haul, and always plays a bit of a factor. However, I would argue that skill still overrides luck in the long run.
Doak goes even further than Michael by contending not simply that skill trumps luck, but that current technological trends make luck LESS of a factor than it has been in the past:
There is no doubt in my mind that luck plays apart in FF, but the Internet has helped reduce the amount of luck, not increase it. In the "old days", deadbeat owners would account for many victories, and if by chance your team met up with a deadbeat owner during the bye weeks and his team was at the beach, you would come out with a lucky win. However, those owners that had to play that same deadbeat owner during the non bye weeks weren't so lucky. I went to many playoffs with weaker teams than I have today, simply by default of the deadbeat owners. My teams today must be stronger, and my choices have to be quicker and smarter than they were just a couple of years ago. Today, team owners are exposed to the same infomation regarding injuries, back-up players, match-ups, etc. so they can make informed decisions as to which players to drop and pick up.
It's strange how responses that represent such a wide array of opinions can weave themselves into and out of each other in such unexpected ways, but Doak's argument provides us with a fairly coherent breaking point. In next week's column, I'll review the responses of those who see technology as threatening to overwhelm fantasy football with luck (along with a number of competing responses that tie into those arguments in some fairly unpredictable ways).

This Week's Question:

I won't be getting to this question until Week 14, but I'll ask it now and repeat it in next week's column. Do FFers believe there is a right or wrong way to handle double-headers in head-to-head leagues? I know that many leagues like to have a 16-game season, just like the NFL. But since fantasy playoffs usually occur in the final weeks of the NFL season, the only way to arrange for a 16-game fantasy season is to have occasional double weeks (weeks when teams play two head-to-head matchups instead of one). The only problem with this arrangment is that teams that perform at unrepresentatively high or low levels in these double weeks can come out with records that seem undeserved. A great team that has only 3 poor games all season can miss the playoffs just because those 3 poor games translate to 6 losses if they occur on the right (or "wrong") weeks. This issue can get particularly sticky during bye weeks. What measures do teams that use double weeks take to minimize the problems caused by this approach?

Last Man Standing (Courtesy of Matt)

Trap Game: Chicago at Tampa Bay:

The Bucs are favored by 3 in this game but don't have a fantastic offense. Cadillac Williams won't find a lot of running room against a team that has allowed one rushing TD all season in the Bears. Meanwhile Kyle Orton might not light up the score board, but Mushin Muhammed has may be open enough to sneak a victory against a team that he is very familiar with. In all likelihood, this game will be decided by special teams and field position in a very quiet, low-scoring contest.

#3: Oakland over Miami (8-2 Season):

Miami is vulnerable. Last week the Browns' Reuben Droughns rushed over 150 yards against the vaunted Dolphins defense, and with Zack Thomas out, Lamont Jordon and company should have a very big day in the city by the bay. Sage Rosenfels should not see the field this week, which bodes well for the Dolphin receivers, but if you look at the Raiders' losses, all of them are against playoff teams except for Philadelphia (and they have just fallen apart lately).

#2: Tennessee over San Francisco (6-4 Season):

I was going to list this as my trap game because the Titans are a seven-point favorite against the 49ers. Understand, the Titans' offense doesn't scare anyone, especially the 49ers after almost pulling off the victory against their division mates. But the Titans are not a team that the 49ers know well, and because of that, the chance of them pulling off the upset is severely reduced. Chris Brown is running the ball rather soundly and Drew Bennett returned last week after surgery on his thumb. While his numbers last week were not fantastic, he should have a pretty good day against an average secondary. It's probably safe to take the Titans straight up, but against the spread, the 49ers should cover.

#1: Cincinnati over Baltimore (8-2 Season):

The Ravens' defense is definitely not what it used to be, and the Bengals are not the Bengals of old. That combination allows for the selection of the Bengals at home against an old rival who used to have their number. With Rudi Johnson balancing the passing attack of Palmer to Chad Johnson, the two-headed offense should cause the Ravens to be more off-balance than they were last week against the limited offense of the Steelers. Barring a letdown as the Bengals get prepared for their showdown with the Steelers next week, they should go into that game looking to clinch the AFC North.

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.

Readers who want to have their fantasy questions answered live, on the air, by Mike Davis are invited to tune into FFEXradio on Friday afternoons at 5:00 p.m. EST. Archived programs are also available.