Let me warn you up front: despite its title, this post isn’t going to be about Sandra Bullock, Mariah Carey, or So-and-So the Naughty Nurse. Rather, it’s devoted to a topic I’ve spent considerably more time contemplating over the past two decades, though what that says about me is an open question. The topic, you see, is fantasy football. And if I might be a wee bit obsessed with it, I’m certainly not alone. According to some sources, 75 million people played fantasy football last year. An industry-sponsored study found that the average player spends between two and three hours a week managing his team (despite efforts to make the pastime more female-friendly, the overwhelming majority of fantasy players are still male). A significant number of those people care more about their fantasy teams than they do about their local NFL teams. And if you’ve been in any public space on a recent fall Sunday afternoon, you know that’s saying something indeed.
I’ve been playing fantasy football in some incarnation since the mid-1990s. For the uninitiated, the game in its most basic form consists of choosing a squad composed of one or more NFL players from each of the offensive skill positions, plus placekickers and team defenses. Your players come from many different professional teams, but they score points for “your” team based on their individual game performance in a number of statistical categories. In the early years, I played a variation of the game where I could choose any players I wanted, provided that the total of their preassigned value ratings fell under the fantasy “salary cap”. The stats they accumulated each week were then rank-ordered against the lineups of 24 random strangers in my “division”, and beyond that against the lineups of everyone playing the game. It was a decidedly low-tech era: while the initial roster selection was done online, weekly standings arrived in the mail every Thursday (this was, of course, before games were regularly played on Thursday nights). When I wanted to change my lineup, I dialed a toll-free 800 number dedicated to that purpose, typed in the ID codes of the players I was changing, and then listened to a live operator repeat my transactions back to me. If I misread or mistyped a number and it came back that I was unintentionally starting, say, Scott Mitchell over Mark Brunell, I had to do the whole process over again. I learned the hard way not to wait until just before the games started on Sundays, when the lines were often busy, to make lineup changes. Yet although I had never played or coached football I found success fairly quickly in this format thanks to two key factors. The first key was finding “bargain” players who regularly outperformed their assigned numerical values. Of course, most semi-serious fans with an understanding of basic math could do that. The second and seemingly even more obvious key was simply paying attention. Sometimes players got hurt, or their NFL teams went on bye weeks, and their fantasy owners didn’t realize it. Remember, there were no smartphones- or even cell phones- back then, and dial-up internet service was cumbersome and unpredictable at the best of times. I wouldn’t have called myself obsessed, but I might have been more detail-oriented than most, and it paid off. I regularly finished in the top three spots in my divisions in those early years, which meant only that I made a little bit more money in prize payout than it had cost me to enter the league. I wasn’t giving up my day job by any means. But it feels good to be successful at anything in life, and although I didn’t share details of that success with many people, the same rule applied here.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, though, the fantasy landscape began to change, and not to my benefit. As the internet took off, it became much easier to keep tabs on your players. News items and injury updates even began to be posted on the game sites, right on your roster page. Now the lazy owners could do just a little bit of work and get significantly better results. The people I had been consistently beating suddenly became much tougher to beat. Soon the prize payouts slowed to a trickle. Then I sank closer to the bottom of my leagues than I was to the top. Not long after that, I stopped playing entirely, a fantasy football dinosaur brought to extinction by the impact of the information asteroid.
Eight years ago, though, I got back into fantasy through a league that a tennis friend started at my local club, Algonquin of Hooksett, NH. This league held a season-opening draft followed by weekly head-to-head matchups, with the top four- later the top six- of the ten competing teams reaching the playoffs. As a result, it was, shall we say, much more personal than my previous forays into fantasy. Most of the original league members were my USTA teammates, and all of them either were or had been competitive athletes of some kind, so trash talk was basically second nature. Now, understand a few things: I’m white. I’m over 40. I’m not particularly poetic or creative. So you’re not getting Hall of Fame-caliber trash talk here. But bragging rights of any kind, now matter how tame the bragging, are always welcome.
It probably didn’t hurt that I had just gotten divorced (a blessing in many ways, with the fantasy impact being the least of them) and thus had more time to scour the waiver wire for available players, but I took to the new league right away. As the years went by, the two-to-three-hour-per-week rule I cited in the opening paragraph came to be, well, a little low for me. I bought fantasy draft magazines (yes, there are such things….). I participated in mock drafts to get a feel for how to construct my roster. I ran proposed in-season trades through the “trade analyzer” to make sure they were favorable to me, but not so favorable that the other party would refuse to make the deal. I perused online fantasy columns (they weren’t hard to find: all of the major sports network sites now have fantasy sections) looking for advice about who to start each week. I even became a regular listener, and an even more regular downloader, of a daily ESPN fantasy podcast called “Fantasy Focus”. I commute a total of two hours to and from work every day, so this wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. The show’s resident expert, Matthew Berry, who is paid very handsomely to predict fantasy outcomes-how lucky is THAT guy?- is terrific at pointing out the fantasy impact of injuries and at telling you which players to add from the waiver wire. (He’s significantly less successful at predicting which players to start each week and which to sit, but given the courses NFL games sometimes take, Nostradamus himself might have difficulty there). The show’s host- first the fast-talking, data-driven Nate Ravitz and later the affably patrician Field Yates- adds his own takes, and former physical therapist Stephania Bell, who manages to approach the trifecta of brilliant, beautiful and self-effacing more closely than almost anyone in sports, gives her projections about the return of injured players to game action. All in all, I had a lot of good information coming my way.
But I still couldn’t win. Yes, I typically finished near the top of the league, only missing the playoffs once in eight years. Yet when the postseason came around, my teams pulled more choke jobs than baseball’s Texas Rangers. I made one final and a number of semifinals but just couldn’t get over the top. Along the way, I endured all-too-brief moments of elation and all-too-frequent moments of frustration. Former Jaguars wideout Mike Sims-Walker cost me a regular-season title when he broke curfew and became a healthy scratch who no one knew had been scratched until after the game ended. Former Texans RB Arian Foster drove me nuts with his repeated injuries: how on earth does a world-class athlete with 24/7 access to some of the most advanced training facilities on earth take two months to return from a sprained ankle? I put up with horrific play from former Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who essentially retired a year before he stopped receiving paychecks, and former Ravens RB Ray Rice (anyone who watched Rice “run” in his last NFL season knows the team didn’t cut him just because he was caught pummeling his fiancée on a hotel security camera, though that was certainly reason enough). Even the good players tended to let me down at the worst possible times: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, a mainstay of my fantasy teams, regularly came a cropper in Weeks 14-16, when most fantasy playoffs are held, only to bounce back and lead deep NFL playoff runs. And the one year I managed to get Patriots QB Tom Brady on my team, he played so horribly for the first four games that I actually cut him. Then he came back and led his NFL team to yet another Lombardi Trophy.
The trash talk that tended to flow in my direction every December was annoying but bearable. The success of some of the rival teams, however, was more difficult to stomach. One year the league was won by Eric, an owner so disengaged that he consistently left his starters in the lineup on their bye weeks (luckily for him, the bye weeks ended just before the fantasy playoffs began). Another year, “Ross” lifted the trophy, although he hadn’t actually done much of the heavy lifting: after having selected Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with his first two choices the previous fall, he blew off the draft entirely and let the computer pick what became a championship team. It was without a doubt the best managerial decision he ever made. And then there was my good friend and frequent USTA teammate Chris McCallum, who knows more about Australian Rules football than he does about its American cousin. Like the kid who doesn’t study and then pulls an A on a big test, Chris mispronounces the names of half the players on his team and rarely spends a dime of his allotted free-agent acquisition budget, yet somehow things always seem to work out in his favor. I twice lost league semifinals to him in heartbreaking fashion and then put up totals the following week which would have beaten the eventual champion. The first of those losses came by less than half a point and was decided when a field goal on the last play of the Monday-night game sailed agonizingly wide. Last year’s semifinal defeat was even more frustrating, since Chris’s star player, Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr, committed so many personal fouls against the defensive back covering him that the rules for mandatory ejection were changed shortly thereafter. Even under the rules in place at the time, the officials would later be reprimanded for not throwing him out, but Beckham somehow stayed in the game and scored two late touchdowns which gave Chris the edge in a close fantasy contest. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I was starting to feel like I had in 1986, or 2003. In a word, snakebitten.
When the 2016 season came around, I wasn’t feeling much more positive about my prospects. I was assigned the tenth and final first-round pick, the least desirable drafting position; although our league uses a snake draft, meaning I would have both the 10th and 11th picks, none of the can’t-miss superstars were likely to be available by the time I made my first selection. So while I had hoped to take wide receivers, who are less prone to injuries, with at least one of my two early picks, I ended up going with two running backs instead under the best-available-player theory: Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, who had run wild against my teams for years, and Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers, who would have been chosen much higher if he had not been suspended for the first three games of the season. I clearly wasn’t worried about character questions, having chosen a child abuser and a drug abuser, respectively, as my top two picks. I also drafted Drew Brees of the Saints as my main QB, Delanie Walker of the Titans as my tight end, and Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos to lead what looked to be a decidedly mediocre corps of receivers. It didn’t take long before my team’s outlook dimmed even further: my erstwhile star player, Peterson, blew out a knee in the second game of the season, having scored a grand total of five fantasy points. Somehow I still started out 3-1 as Brees had a couple of big games and Bell’s backup, DeAngelo Williams (in my lineup as a so-called “handcuff”, an image that was all too familiar to several of my players) put up some nice point totals in his absence.
Then things started to go badly wrong, and I lost six of my final nine games. Brees struggled on the road. Thomas struggled with drops, as he often had in past years. Peterson’s “handcuff”, Jerick McKinnon, struggled just about all the time, and the players I signed in many unsuccessful attempts to replace him (Dwayne Washington, Chris Ivory, Charcandrick West and the unfortunately-named Christine Michael, to name a few) were even less productive. Then one day Matthew Berry announced on his podcast that the Redskins’ starter, Matt Jones, who had not been particularly effective even when 100 percent healthy, had gotten hurt, and recommended his backup, Robert Kelley, as a smart add who might be able to retain the starting job long-term. Until that moment the only man by that name I had ever heard of was an R-and-B singer perhaps best known for having sex with underage girls. But I was so desperate I took Berry at his word. And while this R. Kelley was far from the world’s greatest running back, he did in fact become a starter at an important position whom I could count on for solid production with a high scoring “floor”. That was when my season finally started to take a turn for the better.
I didn’t sense it immediately, because for most of the fall my opponents seemed to play out of their skins every single week. It wasn’t just the Bradys and Rodgerses of the world, either. Mid-range players like Terrance West, Jeremy Hill, Jonathan Stewart and Jimmy Graham all put up huge fantasy numbers against me. Mark Ingram scored an otherworldly 34 points, then recorded a grand total of seven in his next two games combined. Even T.J. Yeldon reached double figures (although, to be fair, he did that in one of his other fifteen games, too). I ended up last in the league in “points allowed”, and the only other guy within fifty points of me in that category finished way out of contention. Even so, I managed to scrap my way 6-6 and seemed to have the fifth seed locked up, but then here came my nemesis McCallum, winning his week 12 matchup by the ridiculously low score of 62-61 thanks to two overtime field goals- how often does that happen?- the second of which bounced in off the upright as time expired. Then he came back again with a strong Monday-night showing to beat me in the regular-season finale and take fifth place. To get the sixth and last playoff spot, all I could do was hope Todd Cuthbert (5-7) beat Pete Brooke (6-6), which would enable me to squeak past both of them on the basis of most points scored. Thankfully Todd’s RB Jordan Howard put up huge numbers against the awful 49ers to “earn” me the ultimate backdoor playoff ticket.
I don’t know if it was the sight of the Cubs winning the World Series earlier in the fall, or perhaps just an irrational hope that my opponents would eventually see their point totals regress to the mean, but I actually went into the playoffs with an attitude approaching serenity. Even so, my postseason stay promised to be brief given my opening-round matchup against Brian, a high-school coaching rival who had won three of the last four fantasy championships. Only someone forgot to tell Le’Veon Bell he was on my fantasy team. On a snowy day in Buffalo which slowed the Steelers’ high-powered passing attack, Bell gained almost 300 total yards and scored three touchdowns, recording almost 50 fantasy points, the highest single-game total by any player in over two years. Brees was awful, and nobody else did a whole lot, but it didn’t matter: Bell would have won the game for me even if I had left the other eight positions open. Brian’s two big weapons, Seattle QB Russell Wilson and Arizona RB David Johnson, were more or less kept in check, his other guys did next to nothing, and I rolled to an unexpectedly easy 113-48 victory.
My semifinal round opponent was Mike, the league commissioner and another passionate player who had never won our league championship despite several high regular-season finishes. It was the Algonquin fantasy equivalent of Cubs vs. Indians, except that the winner of our matchup would still have plenty of time to get unlucky again in the finals. Truth be told, bad luck had started to hit Mike well before then. After putting together what was clearly the league’s best team and earning the top seed for the playoffs, he could only watch in agony as two of his top players, Cincinnati WR A.J. Green and San Diego RB Melvin Gordon, went down with injuries. There weren’t any more Rob Kelley’s available on the waiver wire by then, either. Mike ended up buying Gordon’s replacement, Kenneth Farrow, and the Buffalo defense, which was matched against winless Cleveland. For my part, I picked up Bears WR Alshon Jeffrey, who was returning from a PED suspension, and Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel, who was assuming a more prominent role after an injury sidelined Julio Jones, along with Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor, a dual-threat QB with a very favorable matchup. To give credit where it’s due, all were Fantasy Focus suggestions. Taking Berry’s advice, I actually sat Brees for Taylor only to see the Saints’ QB blow up on the road for the only time all season, throwing for nearly 400 yards and four TDs without an interception. Bad as that decision was, though, it didn’t end up costing me, because Gabriel, Kelley and Jeffrey all scored TDs and posted double-figure point totals, while Mike’s star QB, Tom Brady, was held in relative check by the Denver D, and his injury replacements weren’t as successful as he had hoped. After a 105-47 rout, I was into the finals, glass slipper fully intact.
My opponent there was Tim, a second-year player who had rocketed from last place in 2015 all the way to the second seed behind a team heavy on Patriots, never a bad strategy in the Belichick-Brady era. Like me, Tim had lost his top draft pick (in his case Rob Gronkowski), to a season-ending injury, but I took little comfort from that: he had beaten me during the regular season with five of his starters on their bye weeks, and this time his many remaining Patriots were facing the lowly Jets, whose effort had been conspicuously lacking for several weeks. I went back to Brees at QB (though Taylor would end up outscoring him significantly) and used Bell and Kelley at the RB spots, Thomas and Jeffrey at WR, Walker as the TE, and Matt Bryant of the high-powered Falcons as the kicker, along with two new additions, flex WR-RB Ty Montgomery of the Packers and the San Diego defense, which was facing Cleveland. Tim countered with a run-heavy team led by RBs DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore and Latavious Murray and QB Cam Newton, who had had a disappointing season but was coming off a big performance in the Monday-night game. With Christmas Day falling on a Sunday, most of the Week 16 games were played on Saturday afternoon, and Tim got off to a strong start in the early time slot, with TE Martellus Bennett and WR Julian Edelman having strong games as the Patriots predictably routed the Jets, while Redskins wideout Desean Jackson, whom I had cut earlier in the season due to the boom-or-bust nature of his play, came back to haunt me with 15-plus fantasy points. Only Newton’s struggles against the normally vulnerable Falcons defense kept my projected scores within striking distance. While nobody on my team had an outstanding day, with the exception of Bryant (20 pts), everyone chipped in something: 80 yards from Kelley, 95 from Jeffrey, even a garbage-time TD reception in a blowout loss from Walker, who had not caught a ball to that point in the game. I went to the 4 pm games with a slight lead in the projections, but had only Brees going there against two RBs, a defense and a kicker for Tim (I did have Bell and Thomas playing on Sunday, while Tim would have no one left). Here I got lucky for the third consecutive week, as none of the many touchdowns in the Colts-Raiders game were scored by Tim’s players. Then his Cardinals defense, impregnable for most of the first half in Seattle, began to crack, while Drew Brees, after a slow start, finally got going. When he hit Travaris Cadet for a long touchdown late in the game, I could finally, in the words of that other R. Kelly, “believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” A late-game Seahawks touchdown made it official: I would be three points ahead with two players in hand. 2016 was going to be my year after all.
I certainly won’t pretend that I’m now the Bill Belichick of fantasy football managers. My team wasn’t close to being the most talented team. My sit-or-start decisions were not especially prescient, and some went disastrously wrong. No, my fantasy success this year was mainly due to lots of luck (I had the fourth-and third-best point totals in my ten-team league over the last two playoff rounds, but kept advancing) and regression to the mean (my opponents averaged the ridiculously low total of 57 points in my three playoff games). If a field goal in a game I had no direct stake in had gone outside the uprights instead of inside them after hitting the goalpost, I may well have had a less favorable playoff draw and lost in the opening round. What I did do well, though, was persevere. Sometimes fantasy owners mail it in after losing their best player to injuries or dropping most of their early-season games. Other times they wouldn’t perceive themselves as mailing it in- they’ll still fill out a full lineup and even make the occasional trade- but they don’t really explore all avenues to keep improving their team. I kept turning over my roster until I began to find guys who could contribute, and by the end of the season I might have had the deepest team in the league. While Le’Veon Bell may be a Steeler, this New Englander is now a fan of his for life, and I’ll have a special appreciation for all the guys who contributed to my playoff run. Come next summer, I’ll once again be reading the draft magazines, listening to the preseason podcasts and preparing to win another championship. Because I love how that sounds, I’ll say it again: preparing to win ANOTHER championship! For now I’m going to enjoy eight months’ worth of bragging rights and get ready for the postseason Yahoo Tournament of Champions. Has there ever been a more unlikely entry in that distinguished competition? Perhaps not, but I’ve come to realize the most important rule in fantasy football is this one: you just never know! After the last three weeks, who knows what could happen next? Heck, I might almost believe I can fly.