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The Commish's Court: Same playoff questions, different year

12/3/2007

This column was supposed to write itself. Every season after Week 13, the message boards and my ESPN mailbox are flooded with the same questions over and over again, year in, year out. It takes on different forms, and every so often there's a new spin that pops up and surprises me, but essentially, I know what to expect ...

"We're about to start our playoffs next week. How do we decide which teams make it?"

"At the beginning of the season, we decided to have the tie-breaker be X, but now several owners want it to be Y. What should I do?"

"We have six teams in the playoffs, but there are five teams tied for the final spot. How do I figure out who gets to play?"

And they go on and on, pouring in from all corners of the nation. When I first started writing this column, I was amazed and astounded that anyone could run a fantasy football league, intend on having playoffs and not realize until the first week of December that he or she might have to come up with some sort of structure for it. I was equally amazed at the enormous number of people who would write asking me what their playoff tie-breakers were ... not what they should be, mind you ... but what their league rules actually were. As if I would have some sort of access to their league rules that they didn't have.

I usually would go off on a rant and compare it to buying a plane ticket for an amazing vacation, but you didn't know which airline you were flying with, the airport from which the plane was departing, nor what your final location was going to be. But you had the ticket, useless to you as it may be. It's the same thing for a fantasy football owner who drafts a team, wins more games than he loses and then sits there waiting for someone to tell him if he is still playing this week. I simply would not believe that these questions just occurred to them this week and they did not try to figure things out sooner.

But this is 2007, and I am no longer floored by the letters I get on this topic. I've learned to expect them. And I no longer get angry with the writers for their naïveté or their shortsightedness. Why should I expect anyone who has grown up in today's sports environment to have any idea how to properly determine which team is better than another? After all, if the finest educational institutions of the country can't figure out how to do it, why should I expect the average fan to crack the code?

Why common sense isn't used is what gets me. Say you're about to start your fantasy football playoffs in a 12-team league and have all agreed that six teams make it to the postseason. Your commissioner says that after Week 13, all the owners will vote on who gets to make the playoffs, and that it doesn't matter who has the best record. Would you ever see this as fair? Of course not. You'd demand that the teams with the best records make the playoffs.

Ah, but you say, that your league has three divisions in it, and clearly not everyone has played the same strength of schedule. That means the third-place team from the toughest division may have a worse record than the winner of a weaker division, but is still clearly the better team, because they have scored more fantasy points. They should get into the playoffs instead. Then why have divisions at all? Why have head-to-head at all? Just start a lineup each week and at the end of the year pick the highest-scoring teams. If there's no value to wins and losses, why keep track at all?

The point is this: If you're not able to come up with some objective criteria for who is going to make the playoffs before the season starts, it is too late to figure it out now. As soon as you're sitting there with a three-team tie and one team swept the other two, and another team has scored the most points, and another played the toughest schedule, and you have to figure out today which tie-breaking system to use, you're no better than a Bowl Championship Series voter who rigs his ballot so that the team he wants to play in the title game is sitting at No. 1, even though just a week earlier, he thought that team was only No. 7.


Any system for determining playoff teams, whether it's a firm list of tie-breakers or a computerized power ranking, only has merit if it is completely unbiased and takes the human element out of the equation. If the commissioner of your league can adjust the system so that his best friend suddenly earns the last playoff spot, there's a problem. Let's go back to the BCS for a moment. The reason this whole cockamamie system was born in the first place was because the human polls were too untrustworthy. The computers were brought in to give an unbiased view of which teams were truly the most deserving of the top spots. But what has happened? Each year, the computers are given less and less weight, and we're now at the point that they can decide nearly unanimously that Virginia Tech was the best team in the country, and the human pollsters, whose own prejudices were the very reason computers were brought into the mix in the first place, can overrule and give us Ohio State. (So please everyone, stop saying the computers have selected LSU and Ohio State. They did not.)

Now let's add to the sheer folly. Imagine you have a list of rules firmly in place to determine which teams get playoff spots. You get X playoff points for each win and Y playoff points for having the highest score each week and Z playoff points for each TD, and so on. Now your regular season is over. The commissioner of your league now decides that formula is only used to figure out which two teams get first-round byes and that the other four playoff teams will be determined by win-loss record only. Would you stand for this? Not in a million years, I venture. Yet Missouri, who is sixth in the predetermined system used to rank teams, gets passed over not only for the eighth-best team (Kansas, which they beat on the road) but also the 13th-ranked team (Illinois, which they also beat, at a neutral site).

So, my universal answer to this never-ending supply of the same question is that, if you haven't made decisions on who gets into the playoffs yet for this season, you might as well have the league vote on who gets in. Is it stupid? Most definitely. Is it fair? Most definitely not. But I venture a guess you'll come up with a completely different system next year. One that is both sensible and fair, and spelled out in black and white for all to see.

Learning from your mistakes ... now there's a concept that should probably be taught in college. Nah, I'm probably talking fantasy there.

All rise ... The Court has now adjourned!

A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.