This story appears in the 2019 Fantasy Football special issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Brace yourself. I am going to explain to you why you've been playing fantasy football wrong for ... well, however long you've been playing fantasy football. Though to understand how you got on this misbegotten track, you need a brief lesson on the early days of the game.
Back in the 1980s and '90s, when fantasy was just starting to catch on, players kept score by hand, on a piece of paper, often using a slim wooden device with graphite running down the middle, called a pencil (pronounced PEN-suhl). The mathematics involved—everything from addition to subtraction to even multiplication—limited participation in such leagues to an assortment of nerds, eggheads and other poindexters willing to handle such advanced calculations.
Around the turn of the millennium, CBS launched the first free online league manager site. (Its popularity was soon surpassed by Yahoo, after CBS decided that it wanted to be compensated for the service it was providing, which just doesn't fly on the World Wide Web.) Fantasy players no longer had to bother with math, which was a real selling point. But this automated system brought with it default settings for scoring, roster size and schedule that defined the way fantasy football is played. It's the schedule part that bothers me the most.
With little thought, players fell in line with the idea that the fantasy football playoffs would take place during the last few weeks of the NFL regular season. This was convenient. But grabbing a bunch of gas station hot dogs and presenting them to the kids as tonight's dinner can also be described as convenient. More apt terms: ill-conceived and lazy.
The drawbacks of holding the fantasy football postseason in Weeks 14, 15 and 16 of the NFL season (or, for some poor souls, Week 17) are threefold. First, as you might have noticed, NFL players often get hurt, and the injuries only pile up deeper into the season. (See: Gurley, Todd, in 2018.) Second, by December some NFL teams have clinched playoff spots while others have been mathematically eliminated, which often leads to starters being rested and younger reserve players assuming bigger roles. And third, do you celebrate a holiday in December? Many people do. Parties proliferate. Relatives visit. It's a popular time to travel. Yet this is when you're supposed to make the most important start-or-sit decisions of the season.
By now you are surely asking, How do I remedy this travesty? The simple solution: Have your fantasy regular season run the length of the NFL regular season. Make your playoffs their playoffs.
Here are the simple steps for doing this, assuming you're in a 12-, 14- or 16-team league. (If your league is smaller, just tweak this format. If your league is bigger, start penning some breakup emails because your league is too big.)
• The regular season runs through the first 16 weeks of the NFL season (with Week 17, when so many players rest, off). Your commissioner will need to hop on your hosting site and activate the "no playoffs" option. The top six teams at the end of 16 weeks advance to your playoffs.
• The top two finishers get byes. Your fantasy wild-card round will mirror that of the NFL wild-card round, with the No. 3 seed facing the No. 6 and the No. 4 seed facing the No. 5.
• At this point—and this is the fun part—you begin again with a new draft. No players carry over from the regular season to the postseason. Even wilder: No player carries over from one postseason round to the next. Each round is a self-contained competition, like a daily fantasy game.
• Structure the playoff drafts to reward the teams that did better in the regular season. Instead of a standard snake draft, in which whoever picks first in one round chooses last in the next and vice versa, the order stays the same in every round. So the top seed from the regular season picks first every time, while the lowest seed picks last. That's a big advantage.
• The wild-card round's victorious teams move on to the divisional round. Your fantasy league championship takes place during the NFL conference championships. You don't play fantasy football during the Super Bowl, because it's the Super Bowl and you're going to pay attention to the game anyway.
I know your main objection to all this. You don't want to begin the playoffs by disbanding the roster that got you there. You drafted these players, carefully combed the waiver wire to strengthen their ranks, and you formed a meaningful, emotional bond with the guys on your team that you just know will one day be reciprocated. But keep in mind that under this new system you still get to play the full regular season with those players you love so, which is the maximum number of weeks your relationship would have lasted under the old model. And if your heart still aches, you can mail a frame-worthy certificate of participation to every player on your team.
(If you're imagining a compromise system where you can carry players over from the regular season, it's not possible. That would mean trying to project not only the NFL teams that make the playoffs but also which ones get a first-round bye.)
So, yes, to win it all you can't just have one good draft. You need three or four of them. You'll have to work for that championship. C'mon, I know you're up for it.
Perhaps the biggest drawback is that, since the league manager sites have been flying on autopilot for the better part of two decades and are incapable of handling this bold new playoff format, you'll have to score your own playoff games. However, this is manageable if you advanced past the second grade, and it's even less of a problem if you have a basic knowledge of Microsoft Excel.
But keep in mind the benefit. What you'll end up with is a postseason format that a) more appropriately rewards regular-season performance, b) prevents a late-season injury from ruining your title chances, c) doesn't place the season's most important matchups during the most wonderful (or stressful) time of the year and, most important, d) means even more weeks of fantasy football. And if you don't want more fantasy football, why did you start playing in the first place?