A New Look For Fantasy Football
By Martin Rogers
The National Football League season starts in three days, and if that phrase is a jolt to the system, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
For perhaps the first time ever, the NFL campaign has kind of crept up upon the American sports family, instead of thwacking us with all the force of an Aaron Donald tackle and consuming us thereafter.
And, in the fantastically fantastical world of fantasy football, everything has been thrown for a loop. Less people are playing this year, which is understandable given that personal time is at an absolute premium and even those who are all-in are finding new challenges.
On the surface this would seem to be the kind of unconventional season where common logic does not apply and where a player with their own haphazard approach - think Taco in "The League" - might benefit from some fluky decision making.
On the flip side, experienced players might believe that their guile and understanding of how the NFL works could allow them to get the jump on the amateurs by utilizing smart adaptation and mental flexibility, the same kind of shifts all NFL head coaches must face.
"The diehards are excited," Liz Loza, fantasy football expert and broadcaster for Yahoo Sports, told me in a telephone conversation. "They have waited for years for an advantage like this. They think they will be able to find players who can make a difference amid all this uncertainty, where there is maybe less information available than before."
With no preseason games, no binding decisions on which teams will have fans present, and pure guesswork as to how the COVID-19 crisis might develop, Loza and other fantasy experts have had to tinker with their methodology too. For example, each of Loza’s eight top ranked quarterbacks were mobile signal callers. Her reasoning is that if there is flux around an offensive line, it is be better to have the fleet-footed Kyler Murray than a protection-dependent Tom Brady.
A common public reaction to the news that the first game of the season is taking place this Thursday is … "already?" Is it because the weeks during the pandemic have all blended together and it feels more like early July than the start of September? Or because it doesn’t quite seem right that the NFL season is about to get going as we are still watching the second round of the NBA playoffs? Or that some gnarly heatwaves in different parts of the country have added to the perception that surely it is not time for the fall sports season just yet?
It is, though, and boy, can’t we be thankful for that? A dose of elite, passionate, hard-fought, ultra-competitive football games isn’t the cure for serious, real-life problems, but the arrival of the season can do what sports is supposed to – entertain, distract, and give us something to talk about.
The players are ready. While we’ve been thinking about other things, they’ve been getting prepped for the past few months, out of the spotlight, with just reported glimpses to indicate who is shaping up best.
For fantasy experts like Loza, things have looked a bit different. It is not a whole new ball game, but it is certainly an altered one and there are adjustments to be made for the men and women who pride themselves on knowing what’s happening with the statistical pastime that turned into an international craze.
"There is a lot to think about and that has become all part of the game," Loza added. "Not having an offseason has certainly affected the rankings. Teams that normally have a big home advantage may not have that. Could a team like the Chargers who don’t have that support actually benefit from this? You look at things like the ongoing stability of a team, you figure those with established rosters might be better set up for this. There are a lot of places to look for an edge."
For fantasy participants, mining the waiver wire is going to be paramount and adaptability is key. Some leagues have actually introduced more flexibility, with additional bench spots and provisions for injured players.
Some fantasy regulars are choosing to sit out. The NFL can stage football, but even the most popular game in the country can’t insulate us from life’s new realities.
"I liked playing fantasy but fantasy draft day was the reason I took part," Sierra Price, a project manager from Los Angeles, told me. Price has taken part for years in a league with several high school friends. "For the draft we would grill, hang out by the pool and probably drink too much. In recent years it would be the only time we would all get to see each other all year."
This time, with such get togethers strongly discouraged in Los Angeles County, the draft is online, and Price is out.
According to the Washington Post, societal factors are contributing to the dip in fantasy numbers.
"Developments gripping the country — including an economic recession, a presidential election and months of protests over racial inequity — also have made fantasy football feel far less compelling," wrote the Post’s Des Bieler.
But not for everyone. Others feel that fantasy, with its immersive and time-consuming nature, is the perfect antidote to current stresses.
Ben Eden, a New Jersey personal trainer, will play in no fewer than four leagues and estimates he will spend 10 hours per week on his hobby.
"It is where I lose myself," Eden said. "While I’m sure I’ll be screaming at the TV when my wide receiver drops a ball next month, for now I feel more relaxed after an hour or two on the fantasy site."
Fantasy isn’t for everyone but let’s at least say this about it – it undeniably offers a sense of community, which is why I perhaps went from not playing in any leagues last season to two this year, one of them being a family-based operation.
In some ways, fantasy is connective tissue. It is going to be imperfect this season, for it is naïve to think that life’s disruptions won’t cast their shadow over teams and that changes and alterations won’t need to be made on the fly.
But it keeps going, bonding us with those that we play with and offering a mental exercise that tests us and engages the mind.
And this time, more than anything, providing the most welcome reminder of all: that football season, suddenly, surprisingly, wonderfully - has returned.