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Get Real!
Fantasy Football Leagues are Usually More Fun When They Mirror the Real Game
Bob Cunningham
June 13, 2006

The upcoming 2006 season will mark my 20th anniversary as a fantasy football competitor.  During those two decades, I’ve been involved in all kinds of leagues… from a detailed, somewhat sophisticated 16-team league with four divisions and an intricate waiver system, to a league made up of passive players who were assigned NFL divisions rather than having to actually draft actual rosters, to quite a few others which would rate somewhere in between.

And the common link to just about all of them… certainly, the ones I enjoyed the most… was the goal of mimicking what a real-life NFL general manager or director of player personnel has to do to put a winning team “on the field.”

That’s what originally attracted me to the hobby more than any other factor.  Sure, I like to win.  Competition is king, bay-bee.  Bragging rights over buddies means everything.  And I can always use the extra cash that comes with a high finish.

But I can challenge my friends to a game of golf or hoops if I just want to compete.  If I want their money, I can purge that from their grasps with a friendly game of Texas Hold’em.

What makes fantasy football different is that those of us who are true fans of the sport believe… rather, we KNOW… that we could do a better job of putting together an NFL roster than Carl Peterson or Ron Wolf or even Bill Parcells.  We don’t generally have misgivings about our playing ability – I personally believe that Aaron Brooks is a terrible NFL quarterback, but he’s a heckuva lot better than me – but when it comes to running the show… shoot, how hard could it be?

For those of us with that sort of thinking, fantasy football is the way to satisfy that craving.

The first step in gaining the true “real game” experience, in my opinion, is to convert to a full keeper league format.  Rosters of about 20 players, and once you own a player he’s yours until a) you die, b) he dies, c) you trade him or cut him.

A full keeper league system is where the true fantasy GM’s stand out from the mere weekend warriors.  Assembling a quality nucleus is no small feat, when the methods for doing so are limited to quality drafting of youngsters and deft trades with fellow owners.  Anyone can draft a decent fantasy team from scratch every August.  But try maintaining a full roster from year to year, and remain at or near the top of your league for an extended period.with many of the same players.

That’s the real game, right there. It’s that reality link that makes it truly interesting.

Another must is that your league has to be head-to-head.  Points leagues are fine, but they’re a different game.  As is rotisserie baseball compared to head-to-head, fantasy points-only football leagues are comparatively sterile. Teams that get off to a poor start are usually doomed, with little to play for over the last two months because there’s no such thing as a spoiler unless the league has weekly head-to-head confrontations.

Beyond the aforementioned basics, there are some leagues that take the “reality doesn’t bite” angle several steps further.

For instance, the Famous Fantasy Football League of Anaheim, Calif. scores its league based strictly and exactly per NFL scoring.  That’s six points for a touchdown, regardless of method or length, three for a field goal, two for a safety or two-point conversion, and one for a PAT kick.  Their logic is that a TD is a TD, whether it’s a 1-yard plunge or a 99-yard bomb.  The long one is unexpected and, thus, more valuable… much like its effect in the real game.

From my standpoint, I shutter at the idea that Zack Crockett might have more value than Warrick Dunn, but that’s a minor hedge.  The idea of a head-to-head league with real football scores is appealing for many… more-so than generic numbers with three digits and decimals, etc.  Ugh.

Of course, there are other ways to arrive at realistic scores.  My primary league, the Elite League of Football based in McMinnville, Ore., takes the total weekly points of each team and divides by a factor of four to arrive at football scores.  Because 120 points in our league is a very good but not amazing total, its equivalent of 30 points in real football is about right.

It is simply more fun when it’s done this way.  Instead of winning 123-92… a fantasy team scores a 31-23 victory.  Cool, eh?  Scores that come out with a decimal can be rounded up, and if total points is a league tiebreaker, maintain a running count of total points in the standings under the categories of points-for and points-against.

Some leagues can take the concept of realism too far, however.  Like one league, defunct for the last several years, that used team categories such as time of possession in conjunction with yardage bonuses and the like.  The goal of that league, undoubtedly, was to leave no football stone unturned… but I’m convinced that league’s owners bailed because it was too confusing.

The primary trick to successfully implementing reality-based rules into a league is avoiding making it too complex for those owners who are not excessively knowledgeable.  Sometimes, simplicity is more important than reality… but most times, the two can co-exist and complement each other, such as opening up the offense to allow various “formations.”

Keep it real, but keep it simple.

Another thing that the Anaheim league does is give owners different options for the make-up of a starting offense.  A team can go with a one-back set, and use four receivers (provided at least one is a tight end).  Or it can go with the standard two backs, two wideouts and a tight end.  Or it can opt for a two-tight end attack.  As long as at least one running back (but not more than two), one wide receiver, and one tight end (but not more than two) is used, with a maximum of five combined from the three positions, it’s open season…

… Just like in a real NFL offense.

The first instinct of most owners when made privy to this format is that they would most certainly choose two running backs because leagues tend to favor the ground game in scoring systems and, by design, backs end up more valuable.

But in this particular league, it’s about the make-up of your roster.  If, for instance, Joe Horn is your third receiver and Duce Staley is your second running back… you’d almost certainly opt for the three-receiver formation for your offense.  If you own both Antonio Gates and Chris Cooley, the two tight-end attack would be tempting.

I love that concept.

If you’re interested in creating a new league, or re-invigorating your current set-up, it’s smart to consider such reality-based ideas.  The more avid your owners are about the game, the more appealing for them it is when the league reflects the “real” NFL.