Normally no one likes to hear about other people’s fantasy football teams. Yeah, you lost to a guy who didn’t even change his lineup and had two players on bye. Yeah, you went to the playoffs even though you missed your draft. Who cares? But I thought that running through my teams would be a good opportunity to talk about luck and small samples in the fantasy football playoffs as we head into the actual NFL playoffs.
This year I managed to have four fantasy teams. I had sort of cut back a couple years ago, but then helped to fill in for one friend last year and stayed in, and then filled in for another friend this year. I’ll do a quick run-through of each team and then get to the important stuff.
In my first ever ESPN league, I was part of a 12 team league with an auction draft and two QBs. My key players were Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte, and maybe T.Y. Hilton (you started 2 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, one RB/WR flex, a TE, a Def, and a kicker). I finished the regular season, which was weeks 1 through 13, in first place with an 11-2 record. I scored the most total points of any team with 1656; second place had 1531. That 125 point difference was the same as the difference between second and tenth; i.e., I kicked ass. I also had the good fortune to have only the 9th most points scored against me (a key difference between fantasy and real football – in fantasy football, you have no control over what your opponent scores). Cam Newton ended up being important because his car accident happened in time for week 15, which was the second round of playoffs in my league. I was stuck scrounging up Johnny Football, who scored 0.5 points. I also lost the 3rd place game when I essentially had a crappy half of Andrew Luck against an opponent with Romo, Murray, and Dez Bryant. So I ended up in 4th.
My other three leagues were all through Yahoo. One was the first year of a rebooted keeper league with ten teams. I finished the season 10-4 with the most points scored in the league at 3088. Second place had 3007, but then it dropped to 2885. So, again, I had a pretty decent squad. I was only third by record though, behind teams at 12-2 and 11-3. That’s because in this league I gave up the 4th most points; the team who gave up more finished 10th, 9th, and 7th. This was a regular snake draft; I picked 7th. Early in the season I made a big trade, giving up Tony Romo, Zac Stacy, Cordarelle Patterson, and Kendall Wright for Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Michael Crabtree, and Sammy Watkins. My main guys ended up being Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and I guess Justin Forsett (this league had 2 QB, 1 WR, 1 RB, 1 WR/RB, a defense, and 5 non-QB flex spots). I lost my first playoff game when Rodgers played the Bills and I had off games from Forsett, Watkins, Sanders, Crabtree, and Ingram (e.g., virtually my whole team). Forsett and Ingram were most disappointing because I expected Baltimore and New Orleans to win and thus run more; they only did half of that. My opponent also Bell, Odell Beckham on his 143, 3 TD day, and a Baltimore defense that got 8 sacks and a touchdown. I managed to scrape out a win in the 3rd place game despite scoring about 50 points under Yahoo’s expectation.
Team 3 was in a much more standard 10 team league. It was a completed automated draft; I went 3rd but all you could do was set your preferences and then the computer did everything. I was second in the regular season here at 9-5; first place was 12-2 and I was tied with two other teams. However, I scored the second most points at 1816; first place had 1985 (they killed it) and third had 1601. I lost 5 games because I gave up 1610, which was worst than all but two teams. My main players were Peyton, E. Sanders, Bell, Arian Foster, Jeremy Maclin, and Antonio Gates (this was a 1 QB, 3 WR, 2 RB, 1 TE, 1 def, 1 kicker league). I lost the first round of the playoffs by 4 points, scoring 30 under expectation. Peyton had a weak game against the Chargers, so Sanders did as well, and Foster was a bit off. My opponent had D. Thomas, who happened to do just fine, and Jeremy Hill when he went for 150 and 2 TDs. I won the next game to finish 3rd thanks to Gates making up for Bell’s slow day.
Finally, team 4 was in another fairly standard 10 team league. We had a snake draft and I was 4th, but Adrian Peterson fell to me. I felt like I was in good shape until Adrian got suspended. This league had 1 QB, 2 WR, 2 RB, 1 TE, 1 non-QB flex, a defense, and a kicker; losing my first draft pick hurt. I also had Stevan Ridley and Nick Foles (admittedly as a back-up) not survive the season. I replaced Peterson with Justin Forsett and a committee of Brandon Oliver and The Giants’ RB At The Time. My main guys were Peyton, Alshon Jeffery, late addition Odell Beckham, and essentially first half Kelvin Benjamin and second half Mike Evans. I ended the regular season in second at 10-3 with the most points in the league at 1462. This league was much tighter though, with second and third in points also breaking 1400. I again gave up the third most points in the league. This league had three rounds of playoffs, so I had a bye the first week, won in the second week when Beckham and the Baltimore defense made up for Peyton’s off week, and won the championship against the number 1 team behind another big week from Beckham.
So to sum up: across four teams, I scored the most points in the league in three of them and the second-most in one. Yet, just by the luck of when I played certain opponents (because the schedules were balanced pretty well), my teams “gave up” the 3rd, 3rd, 4th, and 9th most points. When I scored a lot and happened to not give up a lot, I had a good record (12-2 for 1st versus 9th place on points). When I scored less and gave up more, I lost more (2nd and 3rd only went 10-5). So one piece of luck was simply the timing with which I faced certain opponents. I obviously scored pretty well, but three of my teams happened to play teams when they also scored well.
Because of that luck, my high-scoring teams ended up 1st, 2nd, 2nd, and 3rd by record. That’s obviously not too shabby, but it’s worse than 1st, 1st, 1st, and 2nd. Then, after the playoffs, my teams were 1st, 3rd, 3rd, and 4th. The team that finished the regular season in 1st ended up in 4th and a team in 2nd ended up in 1st. I had good players (mostly Peyton Manning, since he was in two leagues, but also Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and others) who underperformed when it happened to be playoff games. Not for them, obviously, but for fantasy purposes.
The same thing happens in the actual NFL. Top teams, like the Pats, Seahawks, and Packers, outscore their opponents by a lot and have good records. But sometimes teams outscore their opponents but have some bad luck. The Ravens have the fourth best differential in the league, just ahead of the Broncos and better than the Cowboys, but right now are sitting out of the playoffs because they didn’t translate into as many wins.
Good teams also have bad stretches, like the beginning of the year for the Pats and Seahawks, the middle of the year for Dallas and the Bengals, and the end of the year for Denver and Philly. All of those teams (assuming the Eagles care to win in Washington next week) will end up with double-digit wins, but they were thrown under the bus at various points in the year. When it gets to the playoffs, just like the fantasy playoffs, things will be even worse. With only one game to stay alive, and teams more closely matched because they’re all fairly decent, luck becomes a big factor. Obviously the better teams have better chances, but sometimes crazy things happen (like the Giants. Twice). Someone might just have a bad game. Someone might be injured. That’s why byes are so important – they take away an opportunity for something bad to happen. For a good team, there’s no upside to playing a playoff game.
So keep in mind as we head into playoff time that there’s a bit more randomness involved than we might think in terms of who wins and loses, and who moves on and who stays home. Sometimes good teams lose and worse teams win. But mostly remember that at least for one year, I was pretty good at fantasy football.