Friday, September 25, 2009

Brian Billick's Book, Fantasy Innovations and More Lessons Learned

I don't read a ton of books, but when I pick one up, I usually plow through it. I just raced through Brian Billick's More Than A Game, an excellent look at everything NFL through the eyes of a head coach turned analyst. And no, I am not getting royalties for peddling the thing. But not to be confused with a literary op-ed, I'll tell you why the book mention is relevant here: Billick discusses the way the NFL has changed over the years, from personnel decisions to offensive and defensive schemes to the business of football. And changes in the NFL warp the landscape for fantasy football owners alike.

Any guy in his mid to late 20's who has been playing fantasy football for a while will tell you how it began: the least irresponsible and/or most trustworthy guy among a group of high school friends would collect everyone's roster written on loose-leaf paper on Friday afternoons. Then, on Monday morning he would come in with the sports section from the newspaper and tally the stats and everyone would rush to him to get the score of their game and see how everyone else fared. And that's all we knew. There were no message boards, no online player rankings and certainly no references to fantasy football by network TV analysts in the booth. We were just a bunch of guys in a crowded high-school hallway trying to see who would win $150 worth of beer money that we would spend on our friends anyway.

But as the NFL climate changed and companies figured out how to greater exploit this football obsession, everything changed for that group of guys in high school. Actually it's not just for the football-crazed guys anymore. And for a privileged few it's about a whole lot more than beer money. People that never had more than a passing interest in the NFL are now engaged thanks to fantasy football. Better yet, they're hooked, and the top-five fantasy innovations discussed below made it all possible (some of these might be better described as reasons rather than innovations, but you get the point).

5. Flex Spot, Individual Defensive Players and Defenses: although the least impactful innovation of the bunch, this cracked the list because it's important to recognize the way the game itself has been altered by some creative thinking. The addition of the flex spot has made the already football savvy fans have to consider the value of wide receivers, running backs and tight-ends compared against one another, not just against those at their own position. A subtle change but the added context gives a whole new dimension to the game.

Likewise, the addition of individual defensive players (IDPs) and Defenses (as well as special teams) has had a similar effect of boosting people's football IQ. Defenses and individual defenders that were formerly enemies of fantasy riches became part of the equation, and people in fantasy leagues using these set-ups can probably tell you now whether most teams play a 3-4 or 4-3 base defense.

4. Fantasy "Experts" and Rankings: Back in the day, all anyone had was a magazine in black and white print published sometime in June or July. And everyone usually had one or two of the same magazines. So really, no one was any wiser than the other. Now there's a whole industry of fantasy dorks who actually make a living giving constant analysis and updated week-to-week rankings online. There's mock drafts, colored charts and substantial analysis in dozens of different magazines too. All of the content has made their followers wiser (usually) and more engaged, and the range of content means that everyone doesn't go into a draft trying to get the same "sleeper."

3. Mainstream Acceptance: Money talks, and fantasy sports is now a billion dollar industry. There's even fantasy segments and coverage by the networks and cable shows. Basically, it's everywhere, and fantasy football has become a part of the mainstream, not just a hobby for guys obsessed with numbers. A lot of workplaces even have fantasy leagues. I'm sure there's even a handful of guys out there who are employed in part because they help an aloof boss win a high-stakes fantasy league. The point is, now that it's an "accepted" thing, it's a topic of conversation and more people play the game.

2. Unprecedented Access to Information: We're all getting smarter. In the box-score days, fans had no idea how many times a guy was "targeted" or thrown to. The box score didn't tell the whole story-- just receptions and yards. Now with all the access to online content and NFL blogs for example, people can follow position battles, depth charts, game breakdowns, track statistics and trends with more precision, read scouting reports, follow the status of injured players and beyond. It all makes for a more educated fan, and in turn, more scrutinized decisions with fantasy teams. It also gives girlfriends and wives of fantasy addicts a new gripe for therapy sessions.

1. Online Games and Live Scoring: Hands down the biggest advance in fantasy sports. The creation of a platform for rosters, scoring, trading, message boards and beyond has unified leagues and made more leagues possible. It's allowed guys to seamlessly make sister jokes and propose ridiculous trades. Live-scoring is just an extension of the innovation that allows fantasy players to follow their teams up to the minute. And now the industry has become so profitable that live scoring is free because they all want our traffic. For example, Yahoo! used to charge $10 for their live scoring feature, but it's free this year, presumably to keep people from migrating to ESPN which has never charged a fee for the service (or at least not for a while).

So there it is. What's next? Who knows. If Billick is right, maybe 3-D telecasts. If that happens, I'm sure there will be a legion of fantasy owners who take the opportunity to berate an under-performing LenDale White up close and personal.

Here is a couple of dilemmas that I toiled over this past week:

Decision #1: I had to choose my third wide-receiver between Devin Hester and Derrick Mason. Hester would face Pittsburgh last week and Mason and the Ravens were at San Diego. Pittsburgh lost Polamalu for a few weeks but that defense and the zone blitz is still a nightmare for any offense. Still, Hester can catch a bunch of short passes or screens to pile up receptions and possibly break one. But, Mason is still a decent starting WR for Baltimore and the Ravens have opened up the offense with Flacco this year. I played it conservative and took Mason.

The Aftermath: Didn't matter. They both had crappy games. Mason finished with three catches for 31 yards and Hester had four for 21 yards. Actually, it did matter, because in the 1/2 point-per-reception format Mason gave me an extra half point which allowed me to lose to my opponent by 0.07 as opposed to 0.57.

: All things being mostly equal, I decided to go with the guy playing the softer defense, but it just didn't matter in the end. Did I mention that I hate fantasy football?

Decision #2: I won't bore you with re-treads of the same decisions week to week, but in the early going when a team is still evaluating it's own division of labor in running back timeshares, this particular dilemma is worth revisiting. That said, I had to pick two of these five running backs (yes, two of these five): Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas, LenDale White, Jonathan Stewart and Ahmad Bradshaw (note that last week Pierre Thomas was listed as questionable but the early Sunday report indicated that he would suit up and see some action).

Also note that my running back stable on this team stinks. For all the virtues of the WR-WR draft strategy, I don't know if it's worth it if you end up having to scrape together a backfield. It's like choosing between caning and waterboarding every week-- yeah, you have options but you're screwed either way. It's probably not fair to compare those players to torture methods... I'll stop whining now. Stewart has been decent although banged up and Thomas is just getting healthy, so hopefully they can form a decent combo. But I chose White and Bradshaw last week.

The Aftermath: Besides Thomas who saw only limited action, I chose the two least productive of the bunch. I thought Bradshaw was poised for a big game against Dallas who got ripped for a ton of rushing yards the previous week by Tampa, and I thought LenDale White would get more than 6 carries against Houston (for 25 yards). Incorrect. Dallas largely contained the Giants rushing attack (but got ripped in the air), and Bradshaw finished with 9 rushes for 37. Elsewhere, Chris Johnson had a historic game and White basically was there to allow Johnson to catch his breath after touchdown runs of 57 and 91 yards and a 69 yard touchdown catch and run. I think he should start drinking Tequila again.

With Thomas returning from injury and the Saints backfield up in the air, against a good Philly defense (well, maybe not, they did give up 48 points), I wanted to avoid Bell. Of course Bell had 86 yards rushing and a touchdown. As for Stewart, he had 9 rushes for 65 yards and 3 catches for 14. On the road against a division foe (Atlanta), still banged up and in a supporting role to DeAngelo Williams, I didn't expect that much.

Verdict: I don't know anything anymore. Who knew that White would play such a small role? Injuries always throw a wrench into the equation, too. But things are starting to take shape and trends are developing, so I certainly won't be starting White anytime soon. I think the main lesson here is to make sure you have at least one no-brainer starter every week. That, and if you completely whiff on both of your running backs, make sure you have an adequate supply of beer in the fridge.

Good luck in week 3, and don't forget to stock your fridge.

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Anonymous said...

The WR-WR drafting strategy has never failed me, and it never will. Your running backs will get into gear eventually, it just takes patience. And if they don't, there is always the waive wire.