The Commish's Court: Playoffs? You're talkin' about the playoffs?
It's that time of year again, folks. The turkey has been scarfed down and the uneaten leftovers thrown away. That can mean only one thing: The fantasy football playoffs are here. In most leagues, the postseason starts in Week 14, though that is by no means universal. Either way, the week before the playoffs also tends to bring many an argument in fantasy leagues; many leagues still have no idea exactly which teams, or in some cases even how many teams, are going to their playoffs. Let's go straight to the mailbag and take our first cry for help, as Rob from Staten Island is beside himself with confusion:
"I have been commissioner of my league for years now. Owners must vote for any rule changes or decisions, and the majority wins. We recently moved our league to a new site. Every year the league has had a 13-week regular season and three weeks of playoffs. Upon setting up the new league, I accidentally set it up for 12 weeks. During Sunday of Week 12, I realized my error. I decided to take it like a man and let it go. Tuesday morning of Week 13, several owners called me when looking at their lineups and, to their surprise, they realized the regular season is over. They asked me to call for an emergency vote. Upon doing so, a co-owner of one of the teams who is new to our league becomes enraged with me for posting a poll on this. This owner would have been the top seed while earning a first-round bye had the season ended after Week 12. His point is that any owner that failed to recognize that the season was only 12 weeks long is wrong and that they should have to deal with the consequences. The vote went in favor of adding the 13th week, 7-5. Was I wrong to handle this situation the way I did?"
You were somewhat wrong, Rob, in that you should have never simply ignored the fact that you had made an error once you figured it out. "Letting it go" is what caused the confusion in the first place, and although the rest of the owners in your league share some of the blame by not noticing that the league settings called for the playoffs to begin in Week 13, you should never have allowed people to be blindsided once you did recognize you screwed up. The fact is, since your league has been around for a long time, and the rules have always called for a 13-week regular season, and there was no vote to change that fact at the beginning of the year, how could the rule have changed? That's why it is always essential to have a written constitution. Your league rules forbid you to unilaterally change the length of the regular season to only 12 weeks, so there really was no need for a vote once you discovered your mistake. Without a vote in the preseason, there was no legal rules change, and therefore you were in all rights to simply make the change back to a 13-week regular season without any owner input.
It's not always that cut and dried in fantasy football leagues. Why? Because for some reason, each and every year, there's a letter in my mailbox like this one from Brandon in Atlanta: "I have a 12-team, three-division league. The top two from each division make the three-week playoff, with the top two seeds receiving a bye. The problem is that there is likely going to be a three-way tie for the last playoff spot in two of the three divisions. If head-to-head is a tie, how should I decide who makes the playoffs and who is out?"
Brandon! Why oh why did you not have all the rules in place to figure out ties in the standings before the season began? It's never going to be pretty when you have to get the whole league to agree on the tiebreaker rules once they are looking at it with an eye toward either making the playoffs themselves, or keeping a "tougher" potential opponent out of the playoffs. And once again, there's no right or wrong way to break these ties. Like many other rules in the world of fantasy football, this is a matter of personal preference. Many fantasy players feel that head-to-head should be the first tiebreaker, followed by divisional record and then total points. There are probably just as many leagues, however, that are perfectly fine with having total points as the first tiebreaker, and dismiss head-to-head completely.
While it really doesn't matter, as long as the decision is made before the season starts and everyone is aware of -- and stands behind -- that decision, my own personal opinion is that head-to-head should take precedence. People who are against using head-to-head as the primary tiebreaker tend to argue that it's not a fair assessment of which team has been better for the whole season. To a degree, they are correct. After all, the schedule is really the luck of the draw, because there is no way to "play defense" in fantasy football. You don't have any impact on your opponent's play. Therefore, if you end up tied with another team in your league at 8-5, but a closer examination shows that you would have beaten them in 12 out of the 13 weeks of the season, it does seem "wrong" that you could be eliminated because the actual schedule had the two of you facing off the one week your opponent had the upper hand.
The problem is that I can make a similar argument against using total points as the ultimate tiebreaker. If your team outscores my team by five points each of the first 12 weeks of the season, why should I get the playoff spot simply because my team happens to go nuts in the final week and outscores your team by 80? The fact is that if we all agree that we're going to use the head-to-head record to decide who gets into the playoffs if there are no ties in the standings, then that head-to-head standard should be just as welcome in breaking any ties that do arise.
Where it gets tricky, and where most people make mistakes that cause owners to flip their lids is when there is a multiple-team tie and the teams involved did not play each other the same number of times. Consider the following scenario, in which three teams finished in a tie:
Team A beat Team B
Team B beat Team C
Team C beat Team A the first time they played
Team A beat Team C the second time they played
This does not and should not mean that Team C is eliminated because it lost more games than the other teams, nor does it mean that Team A gets the nod because it won more games than the other teams. Unless one team has won all the games played between the teams, otherwise known as a "head-to-head sweep," then this tiebreaker is useless. This is why you need to have more than one step in your tiebreaker procedure, and total points would be a fine choice to settle the score in this situation.
However, might I be so bold as to suggest that we all consider going to a combination of head-to-head and total points as our first tiebreaker? Go back and compare each team's score, week by week, and see what lineup would have come out on top had the two (or more) tied teams been scheduled to square off each and every week. The best record wins the tiebreaker, and lives to fight another day! Just promise me that if you think that's a good idea, you wait until 2009 to change your league rules to reflect that decision. Unless, of course, you have no rules in place at all right now. In which case, get your league to hop aboard this solution, pronto.
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.