Challenge Contests — by Justin Eleff
About the Challenges: Kicking Off with General Rules
Posted Jul. 12 at 05:26 AM
Hello and welcome. If you've read this column in years past, welcome back. If not, a bit of background:
My name is Justin Eleff. I live in Ithaca, New York. I try hard to root for the Bills. Meanwhile I use this space mostly to write about national challenge-type fantasy contests.
There are no drafts or auctions in the challenges; instead, every team owns whatever combination of players it wants under a salary cap, using salaries assigned to the players by the companies that run the games. If every team wants Drew Brees, they can all own him and fight it out with the rest of their rosters. But Brees, you might guess, ain't cheap.
Last year a reader thanked me for sharing my "secrets" in writing about these games, but that thanks was largely undeserved.
For one thing, I don't believe much in keeping secrets (in this or any context, really). I'm more than happy to give my very best answers to your specific questions between now and the end of the football season; just drop them into the comments sections of these columns. But understand -- consider yourself warned -- that I get a lot of the answers wrong.
For another thing, I won't write about every decision I make in playing any of these challenges, because in doing so I'd bore all of you (and myself) to tears. These columns are long enough as is. So our teams won't be identical almost no matter what happens, and even if they were identical at the start of the season, we'd manage them differently from that point forward anyway.
So no secrets. Just discourse, made more or less engaging by the extent to which you choose to participate. And, please, know this going in:
If we happen to play the same games this year, I'm going to want to beat you. I'm going to try my damnedest to beat you. I'm going to make it hard for you to beat me.
But I'm also hopeful of making it hard for anyone else to beat you.
This is a big year for us. Counting only challenges that are now run by Fanball (http://www.fanball.com/challengegames/?ArenaID=1), in the last five years I've owned teams that finished as high as 6th place overall in one challenge (Budget Football, 2005); 8th place in another (Salary Cap NFL, 2008); 12th place in a third (Fantasy Football, 2009); and 14th place in a fourth (Football Challenge, 2008). Last year was my most satisfying season yet, as several of my readers had teams in contention for big prizes. This year, either I win one of these games or one of you does. Or both.
Toward that end, I thought I'd kick off this year's columns by writing up some of my "secrets" in the most general terms, before we consider how any particular challenge will work given this year's player salaries. In the abstract, starting with the most general rules and then touching on each of the positions that matter in these games:
1. Buy yourself a Fantasy Index Weekly subscription.
At the constant risk of sounding like a company shill, I've been instructing readers to do this for years now. No denying it; this subscription is a big reason why I do well in the challenges.
Ian Allan, who writes a huge percentage of Fantasy Football Index magazine (on newsstands this week) and is also responsible for the Weekly, knows his stuff -- but it's more than that. He knows so much stuff that there's no way to discover it all without buying the subscription or going to ridiculous lengths. I learned this first-hand earlier in the summer, when I did a bit of copy editing for the magazine.
Understand: I am a diagnosed obsessive-compulsive. One of many uncomfortable manifestations of my disorder is that when I read a sentence that has numbers in it, I have a hard time not checking the math that produced the numbers.
Ian writes about numbers. A lot. Sometimes he writes about numbers that are freely available on this very Internet, sometimes about numbers that he has personally culled from box scores going back decades. So if you want to know how many yards Peyton Manning passed for as a rookie, and to compare that total to those of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford, Ian could tell you or you could look it up for yourself. But if you want to know how often Peyton Manning called his own number on third- or fourth-and-one, or at the goal line, and how successful he was in converting those yards, and how successful the other rookie QBs were in the same circumstances, Ian could tell you or...
Well, good luck.
Ian has so much data, sorted so precisely into so many useful categories, that you basically have three choices -- and really only two if you happen to have a job.
If unemployed: (1) spend your whole week, every week of the season, researching the coming games.
If employed: (2) subscribe to Fantasy Index Weekly (and read it), or (3) know less than I do about the coming games.
And if you know less than I do?
Remember that thing about me wanting to beat you?
Bottom line: These games cost money to play. The prizes we're going after are big -- as much as $50,000 in some cases. The most expensive package offered at this website for Ian's full season of updates will set you back $75. Duh.
2. Know the game(s) you're playing.
Challenges usually work in one of two ways: Either they're scored like your typical office-based fantasy league, with point values assigned to various football events and players earning points by gaining yards or scoring actual points, or they're scored rotisserie-style, like most office-based baseball leagues, with players accumulating stats in various categories (yards per reception, kicking points, et cetera), and with balance across categories being essential to winning. For ease of reference, from now on I'll refer to the two kinds of games as "points" games and "categories" games. I trust you'll remember the difference.
Also, note: Many points games feature a means of scoring that office leagues typically lack. Players earn 3 points per team win -- just enough to separate some roster candidates at lower-scoring positions like tight end and kicker.
Also, note: In many challenges, the opening game of the NFL season -- the Thursday night game -- counts toward the Week 1 scoring... but the deadline for submitting Week 1 rosters isn't until Saturday night or even Sunday afternoon. That opener is a "cheat" game in such challenges; it's silly to think about finalizing your roster before you see the stats from that game.
Especially this year.
Minnesota at New Orleans should provide plenty of fireworks, but even if not, it's sure to feature several of the biggest names in our games. It isn't possible to lock down a roster in a challenge that counts the cheat game without seeing what Drew Brees, Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice and several others do that Thursday.
So there's an excellent reason why our rosters won't be quite identical; I won't be able to finalize my own rosters before the cheat game goes down, and after it does I'll spend the last couple of days before the deadlines scrambling to get things just right. Last year I locked things in at the very last minute. I cannot possibly share information with you before I have the information myself.
No matter. We're all taking our best shots here. We're all thinking for ourselves. And we're all going to make some money this year.
3. About quarterbacks.
I can't go into much depth at any position without discussing the players' salaries, so there'll be plenty more for us to talk about in weeks to come. But this year and any other, each position carries its own set of general guidelines. When it comes to picking players at quarterback (and the other positions, below), these are factors you should consider:
In points games, every position is about the same thing: accumulation. How a QB earns his points doesn't matter, so you shouldn't overlook the extra juice you'll get from a guy who occasionally scrambles for a dozen yards or a TD. I probably won't ever own a true running quarterback -- even Mike Vick in his heyday wasn't consistent enough with his legs to beat the biggest arms -- but I always factor in the additional damage a mobile guy can do.
In categories games, because passing typically accounts for two whole categories (out of eight, in many cases), and because your team will feature only half as many QBs (three) as RBs or WRs (six each), the position is all about throwing. Arms and systems matter; legs really don't. I love Aaron Rodgers in these games, but I wouldn't love him much less if he were a statue from the waist down.
And when I say systems matter, I mean it. Kyle Orton was a functional quarterback for much of last year. I am indeed planning to own Kevin Kolb in 2010.
Another rule in most seasons is that a collection of star-and-scrub quarterbacks will beat a collection of quarterbacks with middling salaries. The challenges raise players' salaries more aggressively here than in baseball, so when Aaron Rodgers breaks out in 2008, he carries most of an elite salary into 2009. The realm of middling salaries is typically a wasteland of guys who were just good enough to play their way off of the bottom of the salary heap, but will never be elite players.
But file that away for future seasons. Having peeked at the salaries in a few of our games already, I'm inclined to relax (or even repeal) the rule for 2010.
4. About running backs.
Here's where knowing the game(s) you're playing requires the most finesse.
If you've ever played fantasy football before, you've probably been conditioned to think of running backs not only in terms of their carries, but also in terms of their catches. Many backs add 20 or more yards per game to their totals through the air; those backs start with a big edge on their stone-handed counterparts like Michael Turner and Shonn Greene.
At least, they start with that edge in office leagues and in points games. Not necessarily in categories games.
If you play a challenge that counts yards per reception as a category, you can do real harm to your numbers by owning an especially sure-handed back or two. Carry the wrong guy in the wrong season (say, for instance, LaDainian Tomlinson in 2003, when he caught 100 passes (!) for a paltry 725 yards), and you'll actually wreck one category while improving others. So, right. Finesse.
A good rule of thumb is not to carry more than three guys who'll catch a ton of passes, and to try hard never to start more than one of them in any given week. Make an exception for the occasional choice matchup or to cover other players' bye weeks, fine. Make many such exceptions, not fine.
If you're new to challenges, this may seem paradoxical for a while. I'll try to remind you often enough that you'll be thinking like a veteran come Kickoff Weekend.
5. About wide receivers.
A second paradox, almost: It's never good to start a player at any position on his bye week, but if you find yourself in a salary jam and absolutely must do so, this is where you do it. For one thing, you have six receiving slots, and your six receivers are really only contributing to your team's numbers by doing one thing: catching passes. Running backs catch passes and they run. Quarterbacks throw and run, and you own fewer of them anyway; each one is more essential.
Receivers just catch passes. And there are six of them. And there are also two tight ends helping you in the same way. And there are also six running backs, and even in a categories game, even using as much discipline and finesse as I'm hoping you will, you're going to get some receiving yards from them.
So take an occasional (read: rare, like twice per season at the very most) zero from one of your receiving slots. Just make sure you're taking it from a guy with a tiny salary, so at least you can load up elsewhere.
Not that loading up will necessarily offset your zero. I mean, I owned Greg Jennings in a categories game last year; he carried a premium salary; Week 2 of the season wasn't his bye, and he wasn't hurt or suspended, and Aaron Rodgers passed for 261 yards, and Jennings still caught zero passes. Happens, I suppose. The fact that it didn't kill me only makes my point -- if you must take a zero, take it here.
6. About tight ends.
It isn't any better to take a zero here than at WR, but it's more likely that you will. Many strong challenge teams will carry only two TEs on their rosters, opting to go "naked" at the position -- i.e., to carry no backup.
That's fine if you're carrying two cheap or relatively cheap TEs, but it hurts if you happen to have invested in one of the bigger-salaried players at the position. In that case, I'd suggest carrying a backup, with the idea of dumping one guy once you've gotten past all three players' byes.
About that: Lots of fantasy owners draft their office teams with no regard for where their byes will fall. It's hardly fatal; studies have shown that you're actually best off if all of your players happen to have the same bye, so you get creamed once but your team is at full strength all other weeks.
Here, though, you really want to stagger your byes as much as you can. You get a limited number of new player purchases in the challenges, and some of those will inevitably go toward covering for injuries. Football is a violent game. Best not to burn through a bunch of extra purchases at positions like this one or kicker, when the positions I've covered above provide the bulk of your team's numbers.
One more thing:
Last year I liked Vernon Davis as a sleeper in the preseason, but I didn't carry him on any of my teams. He killed me. I kept writing that he couldn't possibly maintain his early-season pace. He kept killing me. I nicknamed him V.D., meaning that in the foulest, most derogatory sense of the initials, and he kept killing me.
This year he has bigger salaries to go with last year's big numbers. He'd have to have an even better season to kill me in the same way, given what he'll cost those who decide to carry him. So I'll try not to carry him myself, and I'll keep calling him V.D., and I sincerely hope that each of you will join me in hating his guts.
7. About kickers.
No magic here.
You want the cheapest players with mostly-assured jobs for the highest-scoring teams. In categories games (where kicking points are often a category unto themselves), you can creep up the salary lists a little farther than in points games. I always emphasize the proverbial name on the front of the jersey over the one on the back -- that is, I want offenses, not particular kickers -- but in close cases I choose the most accurate leg among my options. The player with that leg should convert most of the opportunities his offense gives him, and should also (knock on wood with crossed fingers) hold his job all season. Dan Carpenter did last year. Steven Hauschka didn't. That was an issue for many challenge teams.
8. About team defenses.
No magic here, either. Less, actually.
I'll own the most attractive of the cheap options and hope for the best. Some years this works better than others -- a dirt-cheap San Francisco defense was an obvious play in 2009 -- but I am absolutely convinced that spending big on any defense is an excellent way to dig a hole for yourself. Teams earn more points for return TDs than for virtually anything else; return TDs are random events almost by definition. Spend elsewhere.
Starting next week I'll incorporate specific salary information into these columns, and eventually I'll also be posting a few pieces that should help you across fantasy formats, not only in challenges.
For now, though, let's start to get excited. That bit about this being a big year, and one or more of us winning one or more of these games?
I mean it.
Posted by DAVID DIGREGORIO | Jul. 12 at 11:44 PM
I had Jennings in my line up that week. I had Gonzalez the week he got hurt very early in the game and had to leave. I had another WR who got suspended right before the game and got me zero points. Three WRs got me 0 points. I still won some money, but it killed me in WR yards. Just killed me.
Posted by DAVID DIGREGORIO | Jul. 12 at 11:47 PM
Wrs also score. Maybe it would be better to play a cheap guy on a bye in the category where it would be hardest for the guy right behind you to catch up. This is easier to determine later in the season.
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Jul. 13 at 01:37 AM
David: Agreed that luck like you had can kill your chances; I suppose the good news is that you're bound to have better luck in 2010. But I'll also say this: I'm intent on all of us competing for overall prizes, not just league prizes, and that means there really won't be a category in which "the guy right behind you" will have a hard time catching up. Overall, the numbers will be fairly tightly bunched in every category. And taking a zero anywhere will hurt, of course. But taking one from a cheapo WR will hurt a lot less than taking the one we took from Jennings, and certainly a lot less than taking one from a QB or RB or (in categories games) K. And, hey, I'm not PLANNING on taking ANY zeroes, when push comes to shove ...
Posted by MARK MALONEY | Jul. 15 at 02:54 PM
Justin - I'm feeling it this year. Already got a Fanball team roughed out, can't wait for your position by position articles. Maybe this year we'll get lucky on the cheapo WR's. Agreed - Kolb is automatic.
Posted by Duane Stay | Jul. 16 at 12:40 AM
Mark, Has Fanball worked for your Leagues? My leagues have all left Fanball, because of massive technical problems.
Posted by MARK MALONEY | Jul. 16 at 02:24 AM
Duane - I was actually referring to the Fanball Salary Cap Challenge games. I do particiapte in a league that does use the Fanball Commisioner service and it's been o.k. I guess - we have some scoring sytem difference that they have a hard time with.
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Jul. 16 at 12:51 PM
Mark: Welcome back. There are so many good QB options at reasonable prices that we may not need many cheap WRs. In any event, greatly looking forward to the season.
Add a Comment
Already a registered user? Please sign in to add comments.
To add comments, you must become a registered user of our site. To register, please click here.