The main purpose of my Dynasty, in Practice column this season is to give a place to make specific observations about players and provide actionable recommendations for your dynasty leagues. While we eagerly await the Sunday kickoff to yet another regular season, there is little in the way of specific observations to be made… so I have decided to devote this week’s entry to an actionable recommendation that will help improve the quality of your specific observations in the future. If you’re familiar with my writing over the years, you might already know that I keep a “fantasy journal”. No, not that kind of “fantasy journal”— one where I write down my thoughts on draft picks, trade offers, start/sit debates, and any other decisions I might be faced with in the day-to-day operation of my dynasty leagues. This week, I want to lay out the reasons why I think you should consider starting one of your own, as well as provide tips for getting one started.
Before, you are wise; after, you are wise. In between you are otherwise.
-David Zindell, The Broken God
Fantasy football is a game of decisions. Who do I draft? Who do I start? Who should I trade, and for whom? In dynasty leagues, these decisions are multiplied many times over, with consequences that carry over for years. The decisions we make today will shape our team in the future, but we cannot know how until we have the benefit of time to look back. And unless we know where our mistakes were made in the past, we cannot begin the process of avoiding them again in the future. It is not by accident that the first article I wrote for Footballguys was on the importance of objectively evaluating our processes. Remembering our decisions so they can be revisited once we have additional data is a key element to growing and improving as a fantasy owner; this process takes on a special import in dynasty leagues, where the slate is never wiped clean and the echoes of our decisions precede us through the years.
It’s very easy for us to make broad plans for the course of our team so long as those plans remain vague. Resolving to trade for future first-round picks is easy when there are not yet players at stake. Resolving to draft the best player available is easy when we’re not yet on the clock and our needs do not yet loom quite so large. Similarly, after events have played out it’s quite easy for us to see where we went wrong. Conducting postmortems on which players we gave up on too early and which we held too long is easy when we have years of evidence at our disposal.
Wisdom is, in fact, abundant at all times except for the moments when it would actually do any good, the moments when decisions are at hand. Instead, when those vague plans become specific actions we become gripped with uncertainty. Are we doing the right thing? Have we considered all the possibilities? Those ideas sounded great in theory, but are we really so sure they work in practice? Having an honest account of past successes and failures to fall back on gives us something to refer to when indecision strikes. We may know that trading non-core players for future firsts is a good move in theory, but there is a certain comfort to be gained when we can remind ourselves of times we have made similar moves in the past (or, just as importantly, times when we have passed on similar opportunities). This experience can embolden us to take the necessary action in the future.
Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
The problem with revisiting our past decisions, of course, is recalling our past decisions. For most, the process of recalling is one of remembering. The problem, of course, is that our memories are bad. Worse than bad, our memories are biased. They are systemically flawed in predictable ways. The worst flaw in our memory manifests in the form of hindsight bias, or creeping determinism— the sense that the way events played out was not just expected, but was in fact viewed as almost inevitable. We see it all the time when discussing prospects entering the league. When a highly-regarded quarterback enters the league, he is said to be the best prospect since Peyton Manning. He is not said to be the best prospect since Ryan Leaf, despite Leaf being every bit as highly-regarded as Manning, because with the full benefit of hindsight we now know that Ryan Leaf turned into a terrible quarterback. That knowledge colors our memory until we think that Leaf and Manning couldn’t have possibly been equivalent as prospects. Obviously Ryan Leaf had all of those red flags, and Peyton Manning had none, and it must have been clear as day that Manning was the better prospect. Our knowledge of the past creeps into our memories of the past and slowly changes them to make every event that follows seem a mere inevitability. And that same process plays out over and over again. When providing lists of the best wide receiver prospects of the last twenty years, many will list Andre Johnson and not Charles Rodgers despite the fact that Rodgers was drafted before Johnson and nearly-universally hailed as the better prospect. And creeping determinism works the other way, too; with hindsight, Aaron Rodgers’ fall in the NFL draft seems baffling given how good of a prospect he obviously was. The fact that Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart also fell, on the other hand, never seems quite as puzzling. Cam Newton was clearly a worthy selection with the #1 overall pick, whereas Jamarcus Russell clearly was only selected first because some fools made the obvious mistake of paying too much attention to his pro day.
The only thing that is clear, it seems, is that we cannot be trusted to remember how we felt about decisions at the moment they were made. Instead, if we are to evaluate our thought processes, we need an accurate and objective record.
This is where a fantasy journal comes into play. By recording our thoughts at the moment we are thinking them, we do not provide any room for later knowledge to impact our memory. If we want to know what prompted us to make a specific trade, we have merely to look up our entry for that trade and read a first-hand account. Why did we target that player? Why were we so willing to give up this player? Did we have an inkling of what he might yet become, or were we oblivious? Were we objectively evaluating the risks involved, or were we ignoring them in favor of emotion and hope? And if we were overlooking something, what can we do going forward to avoid repeating our past mistakes?
In any case, while it is all very well to talk of 'turning points', one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one's life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one's relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.
-Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
Hopefully the value of keeping a fantasy journal is clear, but the key to this column is “actionable suggestions”, so how does one put this into practice? What thoughts should we be recording, when we do not know at the time what will prove to be significant and what will not? Obviously it is impractical to record every thought we have about every player in the league at every moment in time, (and it would be just as impractical to sort through such a record looking for significant conclusions). Our goal should be to make the practice of journaling painless enough that we’ll actually do it, and concise enough that we’ll actually review it; journals that never get reviewed are nothing more than a waste of time.
I would recommend just grabbing some blank sheets of paper and a pen, (or a word processor and some fingers). Much of my own journaling practices have been developed through years of trial and error, and what works for me might not be what works for anyone else. If you want a quick idea of what fantasy journaling might look like in practice, however, here is a brief rundown of the types of notes I keep in my own fantasy journals, as well as an example excerpt from last year.
If I’m in a slow draft and I have the luxury of time, every time I am on the clock I like to write down my two favorite picks of the last round, my two least favorite picks of the last round, and a brief list of players I am considering. Details are helpful, but I tend to keep them brief for most players, going into slightly more detail on the final two players I am left deciding between for my pick. If I’m in a quick draft with a timer, I budget time to take notes immediately afterwards concerning my impressions, where I was surprised, and what I think the best/worst picks were. The key is to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) as quickly as possible. Feel free to ramble. The goal is to record, not to compose.
Here is an actual entry transcribed from my personal fantasy journal regarding a 12-team TE-premium startup draft I did last offseason:
Love: DeAndre Hopkins (6.12) - good passing offense in desperate need of a short-term #2; Mike Williams (7.12) - nobody else left with his combination of talent, youth, and proven production.
Hate: Eddie Lacy (7.02) - Fell for a reason, major conditioning concerns, long-term concerns over toe fusion; Tony Gonzalez (7.08) - big short-term difference maker, but too much quality talent left to draft a guaranteed long-term zero.
Considering: Pierre Garcon, Kenny Britt.
Pick: Garcon. Hate this pick. Really scared by his foot. Can’t touch Britt’s upside. Been the best player left in my rankings for a round and a half, though. I know injured players are underrated. Trust the process.
I write down all offers I receive and all offers I send, as well as the reasoning behind them. I also make sure to leave room to add notes on the final resolution. Again, here is a sample entry from a trade shortly after that same startup:
7/31 Harvin hurt / time to buy. Too thin at RB to offer anything if I want to compete this year. Harvin’s market value crashed, but I want to come in above market to not seem insulting. Also don’t want to move core. Leaves Ridley, Crabtree, Garcon, future 1st as best “next-tier” assets. Would need RB back for Ridley- possible RB/WR for RB/WR combo deal? Toss out feelers, mention possibility of enticements, see what sticks.
8/1 Seems intrigued by Garcon/future 2nd, but not ready to commit. Don’t want to appear too eager. Letting him sit with it for a bit.
8/5 he came back to me. Harvin for Garcon/2nd is a go. Steal.
#3- Expectations going forward
I do like to write down preseason expectations of my own players so that after the season I can see how close I came. I might also write down expectations for top targets of mine while I’m at it. Typically I write entires before the season starts (or upon acquiring a player in trade), but I will add more if something causes me to re-evaluate my initial expectations. These also give me a good barometer during the season of how much a player is underperforming or outperforming my expectations. Here is another sample entry:
9/2 Gronk - Back in pads but not making week 1. Should be back early, betting on 3-4 weeks. If he only misses two weeks, think he outscores Graham straight up. If four, think he’d still score more counting his backup. Money in the playoffs. Call it 70 yards / 1 TD per game played.
9/28 Gronk - Gibberish coming from NE. Looks good, will play, won’t play. No clue what’s going on. Think he returns soon. No chance he keeps up with Graham this year. Still think he outscores everyone else going forward, hot start from JT/JC or no.
#4- Start/Sit decisions
I don’t bother with them. I think they’ve been evaluated enough that best practices have already been established. I routinely finish among the league leaders in start/sit efficiency, so there’s no sense in bludgeoning myself over the head with all of the times fortune did not smile on me. If you are not very confident in your ability to make optimal start/sit decisions, though, this is definitely another area you could keep track of. If you are consistently making the same mistakes, you will notice the trends pretty quickly- whether it's not playing matchups enough or playing them too much.
At the end of the day, this journal serves as a way for you to track your progress. It works best when you decide what you want to track and actually follow through with it.
One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.
-Rita Mae Brown
Hopefully some of my personal excerpts help make clear the value of the exercise. They should also make clear that keeping a journal will rock your faith in your own ability as a fantasy owner. This is probably a good thing. It’s surprising to me when looking back just how down I was on Eddie Lacy, and how high I was on the Houston passing game. It’s sobering to realize how much I loved Kenny Britt, and I wonder what might have been if I hadn’t stuck to my guns regarding injured players and Pierre Garcon. It’s valuable to have a tangible reminder that sometimes the best move in negotiations is to walk away from the table for a while. All of this knowledge makes me a better owner- or, at least, an owner who is far more realistic about my chances and the razor-thin margin separating success from failure. Without a journal, I would mentally gloss over these failures and assume these successes were inevitable rather than the product of a moment of clarity following an eternity of agonizing indecision. Ironically, without the tangible reminders of my own fallibility I would probably be happier with my own performance, even if my resulting performance left me with less to be happy about.
I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.
-Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
In all, I would estimate that keeping up with my fantasy journal takes about an hour a week on average. Obviously that total is higher during preseason prep and lower during midseason maintenance. I don’t think there’s another habit I have that offers me anywhere near as much return on that kind of time investment. With all due respect to Sophocles, this is an instance where dwelling on the past is not merely revisiting suffering long gone, but preventing suffering yet to come. If you’re serious about fantasy football and want to take your game to another level, I strongly recommend giving journaling a try.
One last note: in case it’s not already obvious, if you do follow my advice, I would recommend against telling anyone that you are keeping a “fantasy journal”. It seems that when most people hear that phrase, their mind immediately pictures quite something else entirely.