Experience pays when running a fantasy football league and acquiring said experience gives commissioners the tools to see how rules and settings work in a real-world environment of a league. Over the course of a season, General managers (GMs) develop patterns of behavior and interactions. GMs find gaps in the rules or figure out how to beat the system and use it to their advantage. That is okay as long as it does not harm the league overall. As a commissioner, it is your job to recognize these things and try to implement rules to prevent them next season. In some cases, everything will be great, and you may just be looking to shake things up a bit. Either way, a couple of rule changes or additions may be exactly what you need. This article will focus on how to implement general league changes, regardless of your format.
GENERAL LEAGUE CHANGES TO CONSIDER
There are a variety of rules you can implement in your league which carry some specific purposes. The ideas listed below range from almost standard to very exotic, depending on the goal of the rule.
Rosters and Positions
- Lineup Changes - In smaller leagues, you might want to expand your lineups to include more players at different positions. Some leagues require two starting quarterbacks or tight ends, while others expand to three, four, or even five or more wide receivers. Some allow for one or two flex positions where a running back, a wide receiver, or a tight end can be inserted, depending on the team. In general, the bigger the lineup, the more flexibility each team has to field a starting lineup. As with scoring changes though, make sure to test how an expanded lineup will play out. Allowing two flex positions might give GMs the option to start four running backs each week. Make sure to keep the overall league balance in mind. Allowing for flexible lineups can also help in larger leagues where it might be more difficult to field starter-quality players at all positions each week. Allowing guys to start a third or fourth receiver in place of a back can keep a team competitive during those bye weeks where you might lose a stud or two from your regular lineup. Finally, if you expand the starting lineup, also consider:
- Roster Changes - Expanding the roster will allow GMs to draft more players, keeping them on the bench and out of the starting lineup of their opponents (or on the waiver wire). It also allows a team to protect their starters in case of an injury. With larger rosters, you will see more competitive moves like one team taking the backup quarterback from his division rival, leaving him vulnerable if the starter goes down to injury. Larger rosters also favor the knowledgeable fantasy players, because they can fill their roster slots with sleeper picks in the hope that they will break out as the season wears on. Guys who know the rookies inside and out can load up on these plays and be miles ahead of the guys who just pick up a magazine on the day of the draft. However, also remember that having larger rosters means a smaller free agent pool. This hurts the weaker teams or the teams struck by serious injuries because they don't have many options to recover. Deeper rosters also mean a longer draft. It may be cool to say your 12-team league has a 30-man roster, but when your draft hits the five-hour mark and guys don't care about who to take in the 26th round, you run the risk of ruining the best single night of the season as another consideration.
- Roster Position Limits - In general, it is better to let general managers build their teams however they want. If one guy thinks drafting five quarterbacks is the key victory, let him do it and see how it plays out. However, in some cases, a position limit may make sense. In a bigger league with deeper rosters, a GM can screw up your season by drafting a bunch of guys from the same position. In most cases, this strategy fails but if a team insists on doing this year after year, a position limit might be needed. In leagues that allow a flex position or two, guys may load up on four or five running backs early and dominate the league based on their flex. Keeper leagues may have protection limits by position to prevent guys from carrying forward four stud running backs year after year. Approach these types of limits with caution. In most cases, if the strategy is weak, the team will not be able to use it the following season and if the strategy creates a dominant team, the other teams in the league adjust the following season to give themselves the same advantage. If normal year-over-year play does not correct these situations, a position limit may be needed.
Drafting and Free Agency
- Straight Draft - In redraft leagues, this does not make as much sense, but in leagues that allow teams to carry forward players from last year, the stronger teams create a huge advantage by keeping the top players from ever getting back into the draft pool. You can restore balance to the league by implementing a straight draft based on where teams finish from the previous season. The teams that win it all usually have the strongest players and can carry them forward to next season. By making them draft near the bottom of every round, it gives the weaker teams a chance to shake off a bad season and be competitive in a shorter time period. Straight drafts will slow down your drafting time, though because you'll lose the speed you typically pick on on the ends of a serpentine draft when guys have two picks very close together.
- Third Round Reversal [3RR] - I won't go into the specifics of it here, but many experts believe that having one of the top picks in a redraft league creates such an advantage, and even a normal serpentine draft (first pick in round one gets the last pick in round two), the top picks still have an advantage because of the back to back picks at the end of round two and the beginning of round three. By reversing the third-round draft order to match the second-round draft order, you further reduce this advantage. In a 12-team league, the team with the first pick in the first round normally has picks 1.01, 2.12, 3.01, 4.12, 5.01, and so on. In a 3RR draft, the team with the first pick in the first round has picks 1.01, 2.12, 3.12, 4.01, 5.12, and so on. The normal serpentine draft will reverse in the third round and then continue as normal from that point forward.
- Select Your Own Slot - From year to year, general managers develop a sense of where they are most comfortable drafting. Some guys like the power a top-three pick gives them. Others like to draft on the turn because they like building a team based on the best available players and can start and kill trends with back-to-back picks. Select your own works the same as a normal draft league, but GMs get to pick where they want to draft based on the number that they draw and the positions that are left. Instead of automatically getting No. 1 overall, the guy who draws the first selection can decide to pick ninth (or any other spot) if he wants and so on until the last guy gets whatever draft position is left.
- Power Based vs. FCFS Free Agency - Many leagues have a power-based free agency, meaning the weaker teams get the first crack at the free-agent pool each week while the power teams need to wait for their turn. This approach sacrifices fairness in favor of league balance and competitiveness. Most league software will allow you to set up a custom waiver wire order based on various things, including overall winning percentage and division-winning percentage, so this will help with a power-based waiver wire priority. Other leagues have a first-come, first-served (FCFS) free agency, where free agency begins at a certain time (usually Tuesday morning) and whoever gets there first gets who they want. The FCFS approach requires minimal involvement from the commissioner and gives the most flexibility to the league. If you choose to go FCFS though, make sure to disable it during the games and on Sunday after the first game starts. Only a couple of general managers will watch the NFL with their computer handy, and it's best to let injured players be evaluated by the team doctor before making a final determination on if you want to pick up their backup or not. A Tuesday morning waiver wire start is probably the earliest you would want. A nice way to balance power-based and FCFS waivers is to create a blended approach. Have one or two rounds of free agency drafting on Tuesday based on your power ranking then open up the league to FCFS free agency. This way, the weaker teams still get their first crack at the hot waiver wire pickup, and then GMs can add and drop players as they like until game time.
- Auction and Blind Bidding Free Agency - Another way to run free agency is to allow for blind bidding on free agents. In this model, every team is given a waiver wire cap, and they must bid on each free agent that they wish to acquire. Blind bidding puts everyone on the same page because you can bid as much of your cap as you like to acquire any player. Once your cap is spent, you cannot pick up any more free agents, so teams need to manage their caps throughout the season. Again, most league software systems allow for this type of process. You can also do a blended model where the blind bidding happens on Tuesday and Wednesday and FCFS after that to help those guys who forget to set waivers or are low or out of funds. One final note on blind bidding units: to allow even more flexibility, consider them as team assets and allow them to be traded for draft picks, players, or whatever the two teams work out. Teams who use all of their caps to bid on a free agent might have to trade a player or picks to get more cap money to make a playoff run.
- Weekly Free Agency Cap - On the one hand, if your league charges a transaction fee, you probably do not want to cap the free agency moves because it just adds more money to the pot. However, you may have a couple of teams who abuse the system by adding and dropping players multiple times during the week. This creates havoc with other GMs and can lead to a cascade of adds and drops, depending on which players were targeted in a given week. You can limit this churn by putting a cap on the number of free-agent moves a team can make each week. Limiting them to two or three moves is probably best. When you start dropping four or more players a week, you're looking to change almost 25% of your roster in one week. General managers who reach their weekly limit can still make trades and should still be penalized for not having a full starting lineup if they do not have one by Sunday.
COMPETITION AND TANKING
Every league wants to be competitive. However, as the season wears on, especially when there is money involved, some GMs who feel that they cannot compete just check out and stop submitting a lineup or purposely start weak or injured players to skew the league. Here are a couple of rules to keep people interested and discourse people losing on purpose or not paying attention.
- Bye-week Start - This happens a lot. General managers forget to submit a lineup or are not paying attention and miss their kicker on a bye this week. Many leagues, especially those which are for money, have a penalty for the team who starts a player on a bye. Penalties can range from fines to losing a roster spot for the season to losing draft picks for next year, depending on how harsh you desire. One idea would be to create a rule where any player who was started on a bye was immediately cut from their roster and put back into the free agency pool for anyone to bid on. Rules like this show GMs they need to pay attention and keep everyone engaged during the bye weeks. You never want a guy to win the division or make the playoffs because his opponent started a player on a bye, even if it was an accident.
- Penalties for Losing - This one is a little tricky because some guys just have a bad draft. However, if you want to encourage strong participation, implement some type of penalty for losing a game. A variety of gag penalties can be handed out on the draft night for the team that finished last including a trophy, T-shirt, or constant mention as the league's worst team. Other ideas include a progressive tax for each loss, charging the team $1 for their first loss, $2 for their second, $5 for their third, and so on. Guys will work like crazy to avoid paying $10 for their fourth loss. You could also just fine the team with the lowest points scored each week a flat fee just like you would a waiver wire transaction. You can be creative or standard with the penalties, but either way may be the best for your league to keep all teams attempting to win each week of every season.
- Weekly Top Score Prize - In money leagues, one way to keep everyone fighting to the very end is to give a small monetary prize to the team that scores the most points in a given week. Even a team that is 1-7 will keep playing the waiver wire with the hope that they might get something back if they can cobble together a good week. Be careful with this one though, as it often just turns into another way to reward the top teams in the league.
- Mandatory Check-in, League-Controlled Teams. This one is harsh, but if your league does not have a mechanism to take over for an absent general manager, you need to add it before the start of the next season. General managers stop playing in the middle of the season for a variety of reasons. People wind up in the hospital. In some cases, GMs even pass away. You hate to throw gasoline on a fire, but if that guy's team turns into an easy win for the rest of the league, it just makes matters worse. League constitutions should have a provision for GMs to check in by submitting a lineup each week or every two weeks. Even if it's the same lineup, a team should still submit it each week. Any team going three weeks without submitting a lineup should open their team up to league control. The Commissioner or another GM should step in and automatically submit the highest-scoring player at each position that is not injured or on a bye week. If the team cannot field a legal lineup due to injuries or bye weeks, the proxy GM should cut the least valuable player on the team to fill in the necessary roster slots. The rule should be specific enough so that anyone in the league could run the team or know instantly what roster moves and starting lineup should be made. This way, if a GM leaves the league for any reason, the league as a whole doesn't suffer.
OTHER LEAGUE TWISTS
Here are some outside-the-box ideas. These are not for everyone, but they can give you some ideas on how to make things interesting.
- Attrition Leagues - In highly competitive leagues, general managers can adopt some unconventional things. These rules may not be for everyone. Some leagues force the lowest-scoring team each week to drop a roster spot and the player associated with it (or the team is eliminated from the league entirely if the lowest scoring from the previous week with their roster frozen from other teams picking up any of them). Another rule included allowing head-to-head winners to force a trade with their opponent, such as your worst running back for their best wide receiver. Still, others award bonus points to the top-scoring team the following week or penalized the lowest-scoring team with a point deduction the following week. Any type of rule that would weaken a team for losing or strengthen a team for winning would be included here. These types of leagues really reward the strong teams and you need to make sure everyone knows what they are getting into before they start, especially if they are expected to pay to be in that league.
- Playoff Attrition Draft - A variation of the Attrition League format. When the regular season ends and the playoffs teams are chosen, a mini-draft night is held. The teams that made the playoffs have a two-round draft, selecting players from the rosters of non-playoff teams as a reward for making the playoffs. You can do this a couple of different ways, but the most rewarding (or punishing) would be that the top-seeded teams go first and the weaker teams draft at the turn. Think of the strategy that goes into those two rounds! Do you draft the best available player, even if it is not a position of need? Do you draft a player to prevent another team from drafting him? Do you take a guy because he will be facing weak NFL opponents? What players do you drop to make room? Be careful if you implement this though as you could shift the entire dynamics of the playoffs. Be open to making adjustments next season, depending on how it plays out.
- Bonus for the Season - In money leagues, many different rewards can be built in for teams who have the best (or worst) performance of the season. A bonus for the team that scored the most points in any single game of the year or a bonus to the GM of the team that had the best waiver wire pickup (most points or best average points) encompass these types of leagues. You can award prizes for the best (and worst trade) based on how the players performed before and after the trade, or the best sleeper pick of the draft (most points relative to draft position).
- Tiered Performance Leagues - In face-to-face leagues, this doesn't happen often because it's difficult to get such a large number of in-person participants. But over the internet, interest in a particular league can spread quickly. When you move beyond 16 general managers of a given league, it becomes difficult for teams to be competitive every week. Splitting the leagues into tiers can make things even more interesting. The Pro League starts out as the top-scoring teams from the previous season. The Semi-Pro League consists of everyone else. The top two or four teams from the Semi-Pro League advance to the Pro League the following season and the lowest-scoring Pro teams are sent down to the Semi-Pro league to make room. Each league is considered a separate entity with its own draft and player pool. Ideally, the drafts are as close together as possible, but if you can't have a concurrent draft, the lower level league always drafts first.
- League Pro Bowl - One way to really keep every team interested to the very end is to have a league pro bowl after the playoffs are over. One team from each division or conference must submit a starting lineup based on the players from their division/conference. Each team must submit at least one player, and the designated general manager has the final say as to what players start. Other GMs may suggest who to start, but the designated GM must be the one to set the final lineup. Whoever wins the game should get a bonus for the entire division or conference. Perhaps a monetary incentive or an extra player in keeper or dynasty leagues. Something to give the game some meaning to everyone. General managers from every team will have a stake in this final pro bowl, and they will all be glued to the games in that final week if the payoff is big enough. Try not to schedule it during Week 17 if possible, but if that is the only week available, each team will be under the same constraint.
WRAPPING IT UP
As you can see, there are a variety of different twists that you can put into your league if you are creative enough. We just scratched the surface here, so let your imagination run wild and come up with whatever rules or ideas that you think will make the league more competitive and fun for everyone. A word of caution though: if you use a league software management system, make sure to test if your league supports your new ideas before you implement them. There is nothing worse than suggesting an idea that everyone loves, but you cannot use it because the typical league management websites do not offer the options.
Do not be afraid to try new and interesting things. The worst which can happen is your league does not like it and you remove it at the end of the season. As long as you implement it after the playoffs and before the draft, your league GMs will have plenty of time to plan and use the new rules.