Commentary

Throwing rocks in fantasy football pool

Originally Published: August 6, 2010
By Bill Simmons | ESPN.com

Dear fellow fantasy football junkies,

The looming NFL Season That Might Not Be gives me chills, even as I keep asking myself, "Wait a second, these guys can't possibly be THIS dumb, right?" I hate the owners, the players' union, everybody. We need those Sundays. We need those Monday nights. We need those crappy Thursday night games on the NFL Network that only half the country can see. We need the bonding. We need gambling and picks pools. We definitely need fantasy. The thought of Rich Eisen glumly staring into the camera 14 months from now with a "DAY 39" graphic makes me want to commit an unnecessary-roughness penalty on myself.

Flying back to the East Coast this week, as I halfheartedly flipped through the USA Today Sports Weekly fantasy issue searching for sleepers, I couldn't help thinking, "Wow, I might not be doing this next August."

My next two thoughts: "If fantasy went away for one year, would this be a bad thing? Would it cause us to reevaluate everything and make it better?"

Now …

I've been a fantasy football owner since 1991, back when our commissioner (our buddy Camp) bought Monday's USA Today, added up our weekly scores by hand, Xeroxed copies, then mailed them off in an envelope with a stamp. (Did we even have airplanes back then? Were the letters delivered by a guy on a horse? I can't remember.) Over the past 10 years, the fantasy train has transformed from "maligned semi-underground fad" to "accepted mainstream multibillion-dollar cash cow," but that blossoming overshadowed every budding issue along the way. Compare fantasy football in 2000 to fantasy football in 2010, ignoring cosmetic differences (better websites, more information and live scoring), and you can't help but notice: We do things pretty much exactly the same way.

Time to bring in the Switek & Zito Corollary. "Miami Vice" was the coolest show of the 1980s, but it ran out of steam in four years and died in five. The reason was simple: They never changed the cast. In Season 1, they had Tubbs and Crockett (the stars); Lieutenant Castillo; detectives Switek and Zito (comic relief, although they were rarely funny); and detectives Gina and Trudy (who stuck around mainly so that, every season, one of them could get sexually assaulted and either Crockett or Tubbs could make the angry "I'm gonna get that guy" face). They never added a new cast member. Not once.

In Season 4, Zito was murdered in an emotional two-part episode that saw Don Johnson break out his patented "I'm trying not to cry, so I'll just bulge my eyes and look like I'm passing a kidney stone" face that only Tom Cruise ever matched. Did they replace Zito? No! By the fifth season, thanks to a cast that had interacted in every conceivable way short of having a bisexual swingers party, Sonny briefly became an amnesiac hit man for a drug cartel -- an awesome idea, especially since he grew a ponytail and never had charges filed against him for multiple murders once he snapped out of it -- and when even that gimmick didn't rejuvenate ratings, NBC canceled the show.

In retrospect, it should have been so easy. Dump Gina and Trudy in Season 3 and replace them with two better-looking honeys, one of whom gets sexual tension going with Crockett and Tubbs and starts a possible love triangle with them. Kill Switek AND Zito in Season 4 and bring in two brash rivals for Crockett and Tubbs. Have Castillo get fired and replaced with a new lieutenant in Season 4 -- maybe a blonde cougar who seduces Crockett and turns out to be a plant from a Cuban drug dealer. By the end of Season 5 -- with all due respect to Philip Michael Thomas and his contributions to the show, society and the Unintentional Comedy Hall of Fame -- Tubbs should have been brutally murdered so Crockett could have a new partner AND spend the next season seeking revenge. I mean, these were easy moves. Layups. They could have doubled the length of that show. Instead, poor Don Johnson had to become Nash Bridges. WE COULD HAVE STOPPED THIS!

There's some good news: Every future drama learned from "Vice" and took chances with its cast, whether it was "ER," "NYPD Blue," "Law and Order," the various "CSI" shows, you name it. New blood equals new life. You even see this in basketball. I hated the Lakers' decision to swap Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest, but in retrospect, there was a certain genius to that gamble: Artest gave them a different energy (not necessarily better or worse, just different), provided a new strength (a lockdown defender for scoring forwards, which helped in the Oklahoma City and Boston series), played with a fearlessness they needed (as evidenced by his series-clinching shot in Game 7) and celebrated big moments so joyously that one of my readers coined the term "Ron Artest Happy." It's never good to fall into a comfortable routine, whether you're a sports team, a couple, an artist or a sports network that makes two billion dollars a year. Every so often, you need to throw a rock into the pool. Just make sure it's a rock and not a boulder.

I thought Artest would be a boulder; he turned out to be a rock. And he did help the 2010 Lakers. Anyway, that's what I'm trying to do here. Let's throw a rock into the fantasy football pool. Yeah, it's working, it's a part of our lives, and the thought of not having it in 2011 sucks all kinds of suck. But that doesn't mean we have to stop working to make it better.

Before I get to my suggestions, let's look at six subtle changes from 2000 to 2010 (in no particular order):

1. We all realized the "90 percent" (for 10-man leagues) or "91.67 percent" (for 12-man leagues) rules. Namely, you have either a 90 percent or a 91.67 percent chance to feel unhappy, pissed off, frustrated and/or completely inadequate after every fantasy season. If I said to you "Let's go to dinner tonight -- there's an 8.33 percent chance you'll have a good time," would you go? What if I said "Let's go to Vegas -- there's a 10 percent chance we're going to win money?" In the old days, you could talk yourself into those odds by saying "I know more than these idiots, I have some tricks up my sleeve, I'm gonna outwit them!"

Now? We all have the same tricks up the same sleeves. We all read the same magazines, columnists and information sites. We listen to the same radio shows and watch the same "SportsCenter" segments. We know the same information and hear the same breaking news. There are no more fantasy tricks. Ten years ago, how many owners knew to handcuff their best running back with his team's backup at the end of a draft? How many looked at opposing defenses for every potential starter before picking a lineup? How many would have been afraid to draft Normally First-Round Running Back X after he carried the ball 390-plus times the previous season? We've gained a collective sophistication that did not exist in 2000. Which means that, more and more, winning a fantasy league comes down to luck and that's it.

2. In 2010, the NFL suddenly cares about concussions. Why? You better sit down for this one: As it turns out, it's not a great thing to get knocked unconscious. Who knew? Even fans have changed their feelings about guys getting clocked. I remember seeing Troy Aikman getting revived during Cowboys games with 40-pound ammonia packets and thinking "He'll shake it off," then laughing at the dumb look on his face. (In fact, "The Aikman Concussion Face" was what spawned the Faces Hall of Fame.) Now when I see someone concussed, I think, "Uh-oh, better shelve that guy for a while." And so do you. Over the past five years, exhaustive research changed the way we considered concussions, to the point that some wonder if football will even exist 25 years from now in its current form.

How did this impact fantasy? It's an extra wrinkle for a sport already getting bigger/faster/stronger and losing too many good players to injuries. For fantasy, when you're trying to peak in Weeks 14, 15 and 16, it's a disaster. Backups and lucky waiver pickups (Jamaal Charles or Miles Austin, anyone?) routinely decide fantasy titles. Between that and the heightened sophistication, again, it's starting to feel like a yearly crapshoot.

3. Our drafts changed in one specific way: Thanks to injuries, concussions and Shanahan Syndrome (platoons), we never have more than three or four sure-thing running backs anymore. In the old days, running back was the most important position -- if you didn't land two good ones on draft day, you couldn't win. Now? It's the opposite. You might get quality backs in middle rounds, late rounds, even on the waiver wire. Doesn't matter. During years when only four backs stand out -- like this year: Johnson, MJD, Peterson and Rice -- if you don't have a top-four pick, you're forced to bone up on QBs and receivers (and address backs later). A huge advantage for the top four teams. And we're terrified to address it. (Hold this thought: I have an idea for later.)

4. Fantasy's jump to the mainstream made it -- let's be honest -- a little less palatable. Everything feels like a cliché at this point: Friends overreacting in a crowded room every time CBS throws it to New York for a highlight; aging media guys awkwardly throwing out fantasy jokes to seem hip (so annoying, especially when the mainstream media treated fantasy with such contempt once upon a time); Hollywood typically botching the boom with FX's show about an eight-team league (seriously, do you know ANYONE in an eight-team league???); and, of course, more and more women playing fantasy football and, in some cases, integrating all-male leagues.

I hate the last trend for about 656 reasons, but mainly this one: If you asked any guy in 2000 what stereotypical things were unique to us -- things we had for ourselves, partly because we liked them and partly because guys just need to do things with other guys sometimes, and that's just the way it is -- they may have mentioned sports, fantasy, strip joints, Vegas, bad action movies, golf trips, urinals and/or long car trips in which one person keeps farting and bumming out everyone else in the car while laughing hysterically. That was the top-eight "Just F---ing Let Us Be Cavemen For Old Times' Sake" list in some order.

Well, this turned out to be the decade when we lost Vegas -- you're just as likely to see flocks of female friends moving in packs now, only they're drunker, louder and clumsier -- and lost exclusivity over the fantasy domain as well. Pretty soon, we're only going to have golf, farting and urinals. (Note: That easily could have been the title for Adam Carolla's upcoming book; he went with "In Fifty Years, We'll All Be Chicks" instead.) I just wish we had better delineation. If women want to play fantasy football, fine. Just start your own leagues. Give us that one day or night when we sit around a table for five hours, fart, burp, drink, eat gross food, bust balls and say inappropriate things. Let us give our teams names like "Premature Pitinos" without wondering if we might offend you. Give us four months of e-mail chains in which we rip on each other -- and occasionally flip out and get pissed off -- without worrying about offending the opposite sex. I swear, we don't ask for much. And don't turn it into a freaking discrimination thing. This isn't discrimination. Not letting you play at Augusta -- that's discrimination. Nobody said you couldn't start your own league. Knock yourselves out. But let us breathe. Let us bond. Let us have our all-male leagues without giving us crap about it. For the love of God. Or else in 50 years we WILL all be chicks.

5. The growing number of fantasy owners also led to another growing number: People who wantonly ignore the memo that "Hey, dicko, the only person interested in the day-to-day goings-on of your fantasy football team is the person who owns that team."

Here's the definition of a boring fantasy story that should conclude with the person being tasered for telling it: "I lost by three points last week. Craziest story -- I went into Monday night knowing I needed 11 points from Gates. He has 65 yards with two minutes to go. San Diego is on the 4-yard line, they throw it to him over the middle … TACKLED ON THE 1! Can you believe that?"

Here's when I zoned out: right after "I lost by three points last week."

You're not gonna believe this, but when you play fantasy football, occasionally you might lose by three points. Keep it to yourself unless it's a one-of-a-kind defeat, like DeSean Jackson spiking a Monday night touchdown on the 1-yard line and costing every owner six points (and then they lose by five or less, which of course, happened to me, which is the only reason I remember that story). Or Westbrook turtling on the 1-yard line and costing someone a million-dollar Rich Guy league. (Yes, I know someone who lost a million dollars because of that play.) Even the sidebar to the right -- an emotional fantasy story that recently happened to me -- was written carefully; has a beginning, middle and end; has context and manages to be unique … and it's STILL not that interesting. Subjecting people to fantasy tales is like showing them Facebook photos. Yeah, they might be nodding, but they don't care. They don't.

6. For a nation that claims to be obsessed with fantasy football, it's crazy how many people don't care that …

A. Auctions are between three and 20 times more fun than a round-by-round draft;

B. We've never been able to agree on one set of rules;

C. Fantasy war stories might be a little more tolerable (repeat: just a little) if they didn't include the one-minute prologue every time in which the guy droning on has to explain the rules of his league; and

D. Even though it's a 21-week NFL season (17 regular-season weeks, four playoff weeks), we use only two-thirds of it for our fantasy regular season and ignore Week 17 and the playoffs completely.

You know what? That's a great segue to Part 2: addressing those subtle changes from 2000-10. I have seven recommendations, one that involves a ménage à trois. No, really. But first, four ideas that missed the cut …

• Dumping individual running backs and just drafting team running games. That solves the platoon issue, solves the never-ending injury/concussion threat and reduces some of the yearly crapshootiness. (Example: instead of taking Chris Johnson first, you'd take Tennessee's running game first.) Anyway, I thought about it and thought about it … it's just too radical. We'd have to reconfigure point thresholds. We'd lose any keeper wrinkle. It would be weird to say, "I'll take the San Diego running game." Too many cons, not enough pros.

• Pick three games against the spread; every correct game is worth three extra fantasy points. I thought this would be fun until I remembered that I have a gambling problem. So scratch that.

• Every week Matthew Berry, Nate Ravitz and the rest of ESPN's fantasy team make a pact to intentionally give one piece of bad advice without us knowing it. You know, just to keep us on our toes. On Tuesdays, they'd reveal what the bum steer was in a segment called "The Tums Bum Steer." So each week, we'd have to guess what was genuine advice and what might be the Bum Steer. In the end, a little too gimmicky. To say the least. Although I did like the thought of trying to read Berry's face at 12:14 on ESPN2 and thinking, "He just told me to bench McNabb … is this the Tums Bum Steer?"

• After every draft or auction, have a two-round "farm system" draft. Do it in snake fashion, with the worst team from last year picking first. Then each team drafts two college players they can "keep" for their first two NFL seasons (and trade as prospects if they want. I gotta say … I love this idea. Love it. Love it. LOVE IT. But it's too radical and it opens the Pandora's box of having to do college homework as well. It's an idea for 2020. Remind me when we get there. Actually, if I'm still writing this column in 2020, shoot me in the forehead.

All right, time for the big recommendations …

Recommendation No. 1: Everyone agrees on a Universal Fantasy System
I carved out a blueprint four years ago in ESPN The Magazine. My readers loved it. Nothing happened. I stand by every idea in the column, particularly an auction and the playoff wrinkle. But really, there's only one way we can get traction for the auction/playoffs combo: If President Obama designates a sports czar who can get it done. I've been pushing for this job for two years as something of a lark; then I found out recently that North Korea actually has its own sports minister. You know what? That sounds even better than "Sports Czar." The Sports Minister! Count me in. I'll leave ESPN tomorrow.

Recommendation No. 2: Everyone switches to an auction format
Why? Because nobody in the history of mankind has ever NOT had fun during an auction. Because it spares us from the missionary-position feel of a round-by-round draft; auctions can go in any direction. (You never know who might run out of money too soon, you never know which bargains will be lurking at the end and you can't predict anyone else's game plan. In a round-by-round draft, I can see who's picking No. 2 and guess "He's going to do this, this and this" and probably be right. In an auction? No way.) Because simmering tensions can bubble to the surface, usually when two dudes who secretly don't like each other suddenly get into a rooster-swinging contest over some random QB. Because nothing's more fun than bidding someone else up, and nothing's less fun than getting stuck with that player if the other owner backs off. Because it's always fun to make fun of the one guy who outsmarted himself and got stuck with $20-$25 he can't use. And best of all, because someone like Chris Johnson goes to the highest bidder instead of someone who just lucked out by pulling an ace from a deck of cards.

(Put it this way: I have never, not once, talked to someone who did a fantasy auction, then decided afterward, "Nahhhhh, I still like round-by-round more." Also, some leagues have an auction until every team acquires eight or 10 players, then they go round-by-round after that. Or, as I'd like to christen this idea right now, "The Surf and Turf." I like this wrinkle. Best of both worlds.)

Recommendation No. 3: Keepers.
You get more attached to keepers. They become YOUR guys. (See the Santana sidebar above.) In fantasy football, you never get attached for more than four months. I've heard some quality round-by-round keeper ideas that I'm not passing along because, again, round-by-round drafts are for unimaginative, stubborn wimps. For auction keepers, here's what I recommend: Keep up to four players per season; keep any player for up to four years; anyone you drafted in 2010 can be kept for an extra $10 in 2011, then you have the right to sign them for TWO extra years for $15 more (Year 3) and another $5 (Year 4). But you have to decide after Year 2 whether you're giving him two more years or letting him go.

For example, let's say you drafted Miles Austin for $1 last year. You get him for $11 in 2010. That's done. After 2010, you can either let him go or sign him for two more years ($26 in Year 3, $31 in Year 4.) But here's the catch: Let's say he gets hurt in Year 3, goes in the tank, whatever. You're stuck with him in Year 4. You signed him to a two-year deal! Even if you waive him, that $31 stays on your cap. So really, you're dealing with the same cap risks as a real NFL team. I love this idea. Personally, I wouldn't keep anyone past that second year unless I struck gold with someone like Peterson … but you never know.

Here's where that keeper wrinkle goes to another level: Let's say I steal Ben Tate for $6 because everyone else runs out of money. Tate goes bonkers in Houston and passes 1,000 rushing yards by Week 8. I'm fighting for the title with two other owners and need to swing a blockbuster deal for a stud QB because my Matt Leinart/Jay Cutler combo isn't quite cutting it. My buddy Sal (1-7 and headed for last place) has Brees and Rice, so I offer him Tate and Cutler for Brees and Rice. For me, Rice matches Tate's numbers and I get the massive Brees upgrade. For Sal, he gets a fantastic keeper (Tate at $16 in 2011). Everyone wins. Any idea that promotes continuity, encourages trading and/or keeps crappy fantasy owners engaged is a good one … right?

(P.S.: You know how it's sneaky-boring to hear about any fantasy trade someone else made? Tell me you weren't riveted by that Tate/Cutler for Brees/Rice trade scenario. All that thing needed was Adam Schefter reporting it. That reminds me … )

Recommendation No. 4: Safe words
I finally figured out a way to save each other from boring fantasy stories: We need to create a universal safe word, like how S&M partners alert each other that they're going too far. Don't put the whip there … KNAPSACK! If you're ever trapped by an interminably long fantasy story, just start screaming, "KNAPSACK! KNAPSACK!" Eventually someone will come rescue you. Let's just try this for four months and see if it works.

Recommendation No. 5: Ménage À Trois Week
I'm suggesting this begrudgingly -- because I know that, sadly, not everyone will adopt my playoff rules until Obama hires a sports minister -- as something of a stopgap while we're stuck with 16-week leagues. But in 12-team leagues with a 14-week regular season, as you know, everyone plays each other once (11 weeks), then plays three teams a second time. Instead of those rematches, I present to you … Ménage À Trois Week!

Three times during the season (Week 4, Week 8 and Week 12), your league schedules four three-team matchups instead of the conventional six head-to-head matchups. The big catch: For every ménage à trois matchup, only one team can win (the other two get losses). Imagine the trash-talking! Imagine the tension! Imagine it coming down to Monday night with all three teams still in the mix! Imagine the satisfaction of being one of four owners who won the first Ménage À Trois Week! Imagine the playoff implications for the teams that go 3-0 in Ménage À Trois Week! And really, how can you be against anything called Ménage À Trois Week???

Recommendation No. 6: The Backgammon Cube
Of all the goofy ideas I've thrown out in this space since 2001, this might be my favorite. Or at least in the top 300. I almost don't want to put it in print. I want to travel America and tell each and every person individually just so I can see the look on their face. I love it that much.

OK …

So two weekends ago, my buddy Daniel and I were playing backgammon for money. Little-known fact about me: I'm either the Jordan, Magic, Russell or Bird of backgammon. Nobody should ever play me for money. It should be illegal. Needless to say, Daniel loves putting money on anything and everything, and needless to say, I was working him like a speedbag. We were playing $20 a game and using the backgammon cube. (That's the oversized, white, dice-like cube that has the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 on it.) That cube can escalate things pretty quickly at $20 a game. As Daniel found out. I now own his house. Just kidding. Kind of.

Here's how it works: if I have an advantage (or if I think I have an advantage), I offer the cube to Daniel at "2" (doubling the worth of the game). He can accept; he can "beaver" it to "4" (which means you're immediately redoubling it and keeping the cube, but again, you have to do it immediately); or he can reject it. If he rejects it, the game ends and I win the original wager ($20). So there's some gamesmanship, and if he beavers it and eventually gains the upper hand, he can offer me the cube back on "8" (eight times the worth of the game). Once it maxes out at "64" (64 times the worth of the game), you're done. So conceivably, we could have played a game worth $20 x 64 ($1,280). That means every backgammon cube offer should be considered carefully; you never know when it might spiral out of control.

Well, I love the backgammon cube. It's like a game of dare. You have to trust your abilities, know how to read the game and know your limitations. The dumbest thing you can do is get macho and say, "Things are looking bleak; screw it, I'll take my chances, I accept!" Yet that's what most guys do when we're offered the cube. We hate admitting defeat. Well, unless we're LeBron James.

So let's translate the backgammon cube to fantasy football and say that, other than our league entry fee, weekly matchups are worth $10 head-to-head for whomever wants in. (Important note: Nobody HAS to do it. We're not putting a gun to anyone's head. Both sides have to be game.) At halftime of the early games Sunday, and only then, the backgammon cube goes live. Let's say you just had two big touchdowns. You have an early lead. You like your chances.

You e-mail or text your opponent, "CUBE X 2."

He has 10 minutes to respond. If he doesn't respond, you call him. If he doesn't answer the call, cube rules are nullified for that week, he owes you the original $10, and it reverts back to weekly rules. (Note: I'm including this wrinkle just for those Sundays when someone has spotty cell reception, they're incapacitated, or whatever.) But let's say he hits you right back, and not only does he respond, he types back: "Beaver."

Now the matchup is worth $40. Here we go.

An hour later, he gets a long passing TD and quickly hits you again: "CUBE X 8." If you accept, it's suddenly an $80 matchup. If you accept AND beaver it, it's a $160 matchup. If you decline, the matchup is over and you're out $160. Gulp.

The big wrinkle: Cube rules also translate to that week's standings. Once you concede, you don't just lose money, you lose the fantasy week as well. So let's say you concede the cube (and the week), then your team roars back and passes your opponent by Monday night. Doesn't matter. You already waved the white flag. Yeah, you get to keep the points for your overall season total … but you get an "L" for the fantasy week. And, on top of that, you get taunted by your opponent because he made you walk away from a victory.

Not to go Dierdorf on you, but you're telling me the cube wouldn't add a little tension to every fantasy week? You're telling me you wouldn't be on pins and needles dreading that "CUBE X 2" text (if things were going badly), or that you wouldn't be frantically upping the stakes as soon as things swung in your favor? When I say it's 2010 and we need to start throwing some rocks in the fantasy pool, that's what I mean. We need a backgammon cube. We need keepers. We need auctions. We need the real playoffs. We need universal rules. We even need Ménage À Trois Week. We need to keep moving forward. Rock, meet pool.

Sincerely,
Your Future Sports Minister

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.