Earlier this week, I wrote about tanking. What is it, why is it a problem, what can we do about it? Well, okay, I wrote about the first two points. Today, I’d like to take a deeper look at what leagues can do to address the problem of tanking that is so pervasive in dynasty leagues.
There are two basic ways to deal with tanking in a dynasty league. The first is to change the consequences. Owners tank because the consequence of tanking— better draft position— is considered to be positive. If the anticipated consequences were not quite so rosy, fewer owners would tank.
The second way to discourage tanking is to change the motivation structure of dynasty leagues. Owners tank because they want a higher draft pick, and tanking is the way to get it. If your league no longer rewards losses the same way, you will no longer have teams intentionally trying to lose.
Just as a reminder, here is the definition of tanking I will be using for the remainder of this article:
Tanking is taking actions an owner otherwise would not have taken if draft order was not a consideration.
Option #1- Changing the Consequences
The first way to discourage tanking is to have negative consequences for owners who engage in tanking. These consequences can be as mild as a commissioner warning or as severe as forfeiture of a first round pick or outright dismissal from the league.
The problems with crafting consequences to discourage tanking are twofold. The first problem is creating a consequence that hurts the individual owner without hurting the entire league. Minor consequences such as commissioner warnings or having someone else set their lineups will not serve as a deterrent to a motivated tanker.
On the other end of the spectrum, consequences severe enough to serve as a deterrent will often make things difficult for the league. Forfeiting a future first round pick is a severe consequence, but if it prompts the owner to leave, then the league is stuck finding a replacement owner for a bad team with no first rounder. The league could restore the first rounder should they find a replacement, but then the question becomes where that first rounder should be located. If a team tanked its way to #1, should the restored pick be the #1 overall? After all, the new owner was hardly guilty of the original sin of tanking. But that leaves the owner of the #2 pick out in the cold, as he might well have earned the #1 if everything had been done fairly.
Dismissing the offending owner carries with it the same set of problems- the league is stuck finding a replacement team, and they’re still left with the issue of who gets the #1 overall draft pick.
The second problem with creating consequences as a deterrent is that tanking is notoriously difficult to prove. If an owner started Doug Baldwin over Julio Jones last week, was he trying to tank, or was he scared off by Julio’s matchup with Patrick Peterson? Some tanking is blatantly transparent, but there’s a lot of tanking that occurs right around the fringes of reasonable opinion, and there’s no way that any deterrent rule could ever penalize that type of behavior.
Option #2- Hacking Motivations
While outlawing tanking and crafting deterrents is a difficult path to go down, I believe the second option shows a lot of promise. No teams will ever intentionally lose in a league where losing is not rewarded. Instead of pinning draft position to number of losses, there are a number of other creative workarounds for leagues to try.
One option that is popular is a “consolation bracket” during the regular playoffs where non-playoff teams compete for better draft position. It’s a popular and exciting method. The biggest problem with competing for draft position is that the truly bad teams will rarely win, meaning those top draft picks will usually go to very good teams that simply missed the playoffs due to poor schedule luck.
In my mind, that’s a very bad precedent to set. The single best thing for a league’s long-term health is for it to establish a parity-producing mechanism that gives even the worst teams the chance to come back and rebuild. Traditionally, this has come through ensuring that the worst teams get the best picks and vice versa.
I genuinely love the idea of consolation playoffs to keep everyone involved all the way to the end of the season, and one compromise I have made in my leagues is to keep the consolation playoff, but make the stakes much lower. My oldest league has a “loser’s bracket” during weeks 14-16, and the winner of that bracket earns an “extra first rounder” that comes at the very end of the round, after everyone’s normal pick but before the 2nd round picks. Instead of earning the #1 overall, a great team that faced a run of bad luck can walk away with an extra low-1st or high-2nd round pick. It’s a nice parting gift to teams with some poor schedule luck, but it hardly upsets the overall balance of power. And on rare occasions, you’ll see truly awful teams go on a bit of a lucky run and earn the “bonus 1st” in addition to a top-2 pick, giving them three of the top 15 picks overall and speeding up the rebuilding process.
If consolation brackets are not a great way to decide draft position, what are some other methods that show some merit? Here are several suggestions I’ve seen over the years, along with my own thoughts and experiences with them.
Potential Points is my own personal favorite method for awarding draft position. A team’s “potential points” are how many points it would have scored on the season if it had submitted its best possible lineup every week. Basically, how many points it would have scored if it were in a best ball league.
Potential points are much harder to game than total points or wins and losses, because even benching your studs won’t help you. The only way to lower your team’s potential point total is to get rid of players entirely, which is generally counterproductive. As a result, you’ll see bad teams trying their hardest to play the spoiler down the stretch and ruin someone else’s season, since it doesn’t cost them anything else to do so.
Finally, the biggest advantage of potential points- and this is a very big one to me- is that they are highly correlated from season to season. Total points and team record both show much less year-to-year correlation, as both are disproportionately influenced by random chance. Because potential points is highly correlated, there’s a good chance it’s actually measuring something intrinsic to the team itself rather than just noise among the data. To put it another way: I am much more confident that the team with the lowest potential point total is among the worst in the league than I am that the team with the worst record or the lowest total point value is.
Potential points is not a perfect solution. For starters, while difficult to game, it’s not impossible. Trading current players for future draft picks will reduce a team’s potential points. So will trading healthy players for injured players. In general, though, both of these trades are a good way for bad teams to rebuild and improve, so the fact that it helps their potential points standing can be more of a feature than a bug. This section is all about hacking teams’ motivations, and potential points typically motivates bad teams to take actions that are in their best long-term interest, anyway.
Another flaw with potential points is that it doesn’t completely eliminate 100% of loss-seeking behavior. In rare instances, a team will find itself on the cusp of the playoffs despite a terribly low potential point total. In these situations, the team might decide it would rather miss the playoffs and earn a very high pick rather than take its chances in the postseason and ensure a draft position in the back half of the round. Fortunately, these situations are relatively rare, and enough bad teams get lucky in the playoffs that most owners would rather take their chances in the playoffs still.
The biggest flaw with potential points, however, is simply one of overhead. Both Fleaflicker.com and MFL.com automatically calculate potential point totals for each franchise for the entire season, and commissioners can merely look up those totals and compare. On many other platforms, however, that information is not available and commissioners will have to calculate the results by hand.
Along with the superior history information available on each, I would suggest this is one more reason for most dynasty leagues to host on either Fleaflicker.com or MFL.com. If money is a concern, Fleaflicker is completely free, though it lacks some of the more esoteric features that MFL offers.
Potential Points / All Play Hybrid:
This method is similar to the potential points method, but after determining the potential points for each week, it figures the all-play record based on that potential point total and gives the #1 pick to the team with the worst “potential point all-play record”.
The advantages and disadvantages are largely the same as those for the potential point method. One additional advantage is that owners are not penalized nearly as heavily for random players on their benches having a huge game out of nowhere. The biggest disadvantage compared to pure “potential points” is again one of overhead. A commissioner who commits to this course must be prepared to do a lot of calculations by hand, because I don’t know of any league platform- even Fleaflicker or MFL- that will calculate this for you.
Multiple Consolation Brackets:
This method takes the basic idea of a consolation bracket, but breaks it down even further to ensure that the truly bad teams are still winding up with the top picks. In a 12-team league with money at stake, for instance, the commissioner might set up a playoff between the top four teams for the championship, a playoff between the 5th-8th teams with a smaller prize pool at stake, and a playoff between the bottom four teams for the #1 overall pick. This guarantees that the worst team in the league will be drafting no later than 4th (instead of 6th), and it helps ensure that the #1 pick is less likely to go to a secretly good team with an unfortunate schedule.
The problems with multiple consolation brackets are largely the same as those with a single consolation bracket. It’s still possible for good teams to get unlucky or bad teams to get lucky and wind up with a draft pick they don’t deserve. Also, you might find teams at the breakpoint of the 5-8 and the 9-12 groups who will deliberately lose to get into the 9-12 playoff, motivated more by a shot at the #1 overall than the smaller cash prize.
Lottery / Weighted Lottery:
This method awards draft picks in much the same way the NBA does, with a drawing among the worst teams. In this case, losing no longer guarantees you the #1 overall pick, which lessens the motivation for losing. At the same time, though, if the lottery is weighted losing will still provide teams with a benefit, in the form of better odds at the #1 overall pick. After all, the NBA uses a weighted lottery, and yet the Philadelphia 76ers still exist.
If the lottery is not weighted, that removes the motivation for losing (outside of the small area where teams fall on the fringe of making the playoffs and opt to intentionally lose to get into the lottery, instead). Of course, an unweighted lottery suffers from the same problem as a consolation bracket, in that it often gives good picks to good teams and bad picks to bad teams. It’s superior to a consolation bracket in that at least good teams are not *MORE* likely to get the #1 overall pick, but it’s still not an ideal solution.
Consolation Bracket Hybrid:
Another interesting option is to combine the traditional “order of finish” system with a consolation bracket to create a hybrid. Staff member Greg Russell uses one such system for determining draft order. In his words:
“We combine regular season finish and consolation bracket results to determine draft order.
After seeding teams in the consolation bracket (7th place is 1st seed, 12th place is 6th seed), every team gets 2 "points" times their seed towards eventual draft position. So 1 seed will get 2 points, and 6 seed/last place will get 12 points.
Then they can earn more points from the playoff finish. Winning the bracket is 8 points, runner up 6, followed by 4, 2, 1 and 0. Add the seeding points and result points, and the team with most points gets the first pick. Tie goes to the worst seed.
So the last place team gets 12 points before results... even if he comes in last in the bracket and gets 0, the #1 seed can't catch him even if he wins the bracket (2 points + 8 for bracket). The #2 seed can at best tie and lose the tiebreak (4 points + 8 for bracket). So the regular season worst team is guaranteed at least the #4 pick. Generally any team can move up or down about 3 spots depending on results.
Goal being that everyone has something to play for, yet the worst teams if legitimately worst, don't end up picking in the middle of the draft or something like a pure order of playoff finish would give them.”
This method combines a lot of the advantages of both systems. Like a consolation bracket, it is exciting and gives everyone something to play for through the end of the year. Like an order-of-finish ranking, it is relatively meritocratic and ensures that the bad teams will still get relatively good draft picks.
Unfortunately, this system also combines some of the weaknesses of both systems. Like a true “order of finish” system or a weighted lottery, there is still an incentive for teams to lose. A bad team would still want to tank its way to the worst record for the bonus “points” when determining draft position. Also, like many of the other systems, it does create some additional overhead for the commissioner to handle.
The Gold Rule:
The NHL has historically had serious issues with tanking, too, and a University of Missouri PHD student named Adam Gold proposed a potential solution to the problem. Under Gold’s proposal, the first pick in the draft would go to the team that scored the most points after it was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. This proposal gives bad teams an advantage, (since they get eliminated earlier and therefore have more time to rack up points), but forces everyone to keep the pedal to the metal all the way to the end.
It should work the same way in fantasy, too. Once a team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, all of the points they score for the rest of the season are totaled, with the team with the most points earning the #1 pick and so on down the line. To reduce ties, you could also count points scored in the week that the team was mathematically eliminated, mostly to help differentiate between teams that were all eliminated on the final week of the regular season.
The Gold Rule wouldn’t produce quite as much of a true meritocracy as potential points. On rare occasions, a truly great team will get hosed by the schedule and eliminated early, and under this proposal they’d certainly earn a very high draft pick. And the Gold Rule also creates some perverse incentives, where a team that feels before the season that it has no chance might tank during the first half of the year to get eliminated as early as possible before turning on the jets late to secure a high draft pick. And, like many of the more interesting proposals, the Gold Rule creates a lot of additional overhead that many commissioners might not be interested in dealing with.
Flaws aside, the Gold Rule is one of the better and more interesting solutions to a long-standing problem.
Lock Draft Position Early:
One final proposal that I’ve heard floated is the idea of locking draft position early— say, after week 9 or week 10 of the regular season. Draft position will be decided based on league standings at that point, with the playoff and non-playoff teams divided into two different pools. In other words, if a team has the worst record at the week 9 “lock”, but rallies to make the playoffs, that team competes in the playoff pool for draft position and earns the #7 pick instead of the #1. Likewise, if a team has the best record but loses out and misses the playoffs, he drafts 6th instead of 12th.
A week 9 or week 10 lock should be early enough that few teams will have been eliminated, and everyone is therefore free to try their best from week 11 onward knowing that nothing they do will negatively impact their draft position.
Like the Gold Rule, locking draft position early would partially just shift tanking to a different part of the season, as teams might try to get a few extra losses immediately before everything locked before turning it back on late. One especially pernicious aspect to this is the fact that tanking is much harder to detect in the middle of the season, since bye-week issues offer owners plenty of plausible deniability.
Finally, we always have a better picture of which teams are truly bad in week 16 than we do in week 9 or 10, so determining draft position early will always be slightly less meritocratic, though it’s still an improvement over a lottery, a weighted lottery, or a consolation bracket.
Locking draft position early, paired with a system like potential points designed to frustrate tanking attempts, could be a very strong solution in the war on tanking. It’s harder for teams to trade away their stars for future draft picks and injured players when it’s still too early in the season for anyone to have been eliminated, and lots of owners would prefer to hold on to their draft picks until after the lock, anyway.
Which Method is Right For You?
Personally, I use the “potential points” method in my oldest dynasty league. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it does the job pretty well. Of course, I’ve been playing with most of the owners in that league for nearly 15 years now, and I trust them to act with the highest degree of sportsmanship. If my leaguemates were a little bit less trustworthy, or I really wanted to go above and beyond to take the option of tanking off the table entirely, I’d probably lean towards the final option where draft order is locked early based on potential point standings at the end of week 10.
In addition, while consolation brackets are not my preferred way to determine draft order, I really have enjoyed having one with a smaller final prize just to keep all owners active and engaged all the way through week 16.
If any of you experienced dynasty leaguers have systems you’ve used successfully over the years, or you felt I’ve overlooked anything about the systems I’ve discussed here, please feel free to continue this conversation on Twitter!
Today is national “Drop a Defense” day. If you’re in a dynasty league, you’ve been eliminated from the playoffs, and you have no consolation bracket to play for, make sure that you drop any defenses or kickers you might have rostered. Additional defenses and kickers will be available next August to replace them, so use this opportunity to take a flier on some quality prospects who might earn an expanded role over the offseason. You never know who is going to luck out and become next year’s Emmanuel Sanders!
Similarly, take this time to clear out the entire bottom of your roster. Focus on grabbing guys with a high degree of uncertainty over the offseason, because the cost of rostering a player from January to July is trivially low. Uncertainty means variance, and variance represents an opportunity for big gains.
Here is a brief list of interesting quarterbacks who are pending free agents this offseason. Some of these players will wash out of the league and some will latch on to a new team but make no impact, but some of these guys will be playing in much larger roles nine months from now. Take note, and roster where it makes sense to do so based on your team composition and the league depth: Brian Hoyer, Christian Ponder, Ryan Mallett, Mark Sanchez, Terrelle Pryor, Jake Locker, Colt McCoy.
Here is a brief list of interesting running backs who are pending free agents this offseason. Some of these players will wash out of the league and some will latch on to a new team but make no impact, but some of these guys will be playing in much larger roles nine months from now. Take note, and roster where it makes sense to do so based on your team composition and the league depth: Jacquizz Rodgers, Justin Forsett, C.J. Spiller, Lance Dunbar, DeMarco Murray, Knowshon Moreno, Matt Asiata, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Travaris Cadet, Mark Ingram, Bilal Powell, Ryan Mathews, Roy Helu.
Here is a brief list of interesting wide receivers who are pending free agents this offseason. Some of these players will wash out of the league and some will latch on to a new team but make no impact, but some of these guys will be playing in much larger roles nine months from now. Take note, and roster where it makes sense to do so based on your team composition and the league depth: Torrey Smith, Jarrett Boykin, Randall Cobb, Cecil Shorts, Joe Morgan, Jeremy Maclin, Eddie Royal, Michael Crabtree, Kenny Britt, Nate Washington.
Here is a brief list of interesting tight ends who are pending free agents this offseason. Some of these players will wash out of the league and some will latch on to a new team but make no impact, but some of these guys will be playing in much larger roles nine months from now. Take note, and roster where it makes sense to do so based on your team composition and the league depth: Rob Housler, Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas, Charles Clay, Zach Miller, Niles Paul.
Remember that free agency doesn’t just mean a new opportunity for the player departing. It also means new opportunities for the players left behind. Players like Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Bryce Brown, Johnny Manziel, Joseph Randle, and the like will be given new life if the starter ahead of them departs and no new credible threat is brought in to compete.
Finally, one last name to keep an eye on. Justin Blackmon has been out of sight for so long that he’s been all-but-forgotten in many leagues, but as I said, the cost of rostering a player over the offseason is trivially small. If he’s available in any of your leagues, add him immediately. We’re already hearing positive rumblings about his potential availability for 2015. 9 months is a long time for additional news to come out. If that news is positive, you just rostered a major difference-making talent for free. If that news is negative, then your gamble didn’t cost you anything of note.