NFL Fantasy Football

NFL fantasy football is the most popular fantasy sport online, just as NFL football is the most popular sports in North America. The two go hand-in-hand, though I tell people that fantasy football has an advantage that most other fantasy sports don't have - the casual fantasy owner. The reason for this is the nature of the sport itself, which becomes evident, once you start to look at the number of games alone.

A good franchise owner in fantasy baseball, fantasy basketball and fantasy NHL have to keep track of the results and roster moves of somewhere between 82 and 162 regular season games. Fantasy NASCAR owners have to keep track of a 36 race season, as well as qualifying and race position battles during each week. The NFL fantasy football owner only has to keep track of a four-month regular season, and a 16-game schedule for each NFL team and NFL player.

Fantasy Football's Popularity

This naturally makes NFL fantasy football a better game for the casual fantasy sports fan, who doesn't want to keep up with games all week long, or over the course of most of the year. You have to worry about setting a starting lineup on Sunday morning, then keep track of scores and injury news from Sunday afternoon and Monday night. Sure, there is late-breaking injury news on Sunday morning to keep track of, but with online fantasy football management sites offering news links and updates on your league's homepage, all you have to do is take a look on Sunday morning and make roster moves accordingly.

Meanwhile, the length of the season is also a big plus for the casual NFL fantasy football player. While the fantasy baseball, hockey and basketball owner have regular seasons up to 6 months long, with 3-7 games to keep track of, depending on sport, the fantasy football owner has 4 months and is out. That's a huge relief to the wives and families of fantasy sports owners, because a "fantasy football widow" is only a widow for four months of the year, and only 1 day (and selected Monday nights) of the week throughout those months.

Family concerns and the casual nature of football fandom is just one reason for the popularity of the NFL, and NFL fantasy football, which is said to have had 27 million participants, as opposed to 11 million participants for fantasy baseball, which consumes a vast amount of time for a "serious player".

What Is Fantasy Football?

When people in North America use the term "fantasy football", they mean "NFL fantasy football". While you'll hear of college or NCAA fantasy football, or maybe even the odd league based on the United Football League or Canadian Football League, the vast majority of all American football league leagues involve the "National Football League", America's #1 professional sport.

If you Google "fantasy football", the only other fantasy sports site likely to come up, besides NFL-based fantasy leagues, are the English Premiership. The English Premier Leagues (soccer) are considered the most prestigious, if not the best, soccer leagues in the world. Given the fanatical devotion to "English football" by Europeans and most of the rest of the world outside the United States, this stands to reason. But we aren't interested in European Football here; we're interested in the NF-freaking-L.

What Is NFL Fantasy Football?

"NFL Fantasy Football" is a fantasy sport based on the results of games involving NFL football teams. The NFL is a U.S. pro sporting league including 32 teams based in 31 American cities (with New York City having two), including such world famous franchises as the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins, the Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants. Every year from September until the first week of February, the NFL season takes place, with the action culminating in the yearly Superbowl extravaganza. The Sunday of the Superbowl has become an unofficial American holiday.

NFL fantasy football has a lot to do with the 32 teams in the National Football League, but fantasy football takes a look at the game from a closer, individual perspective. Instead of charting the success of the full teams as they go through their 16-game regular season schedule, fantasy football charts the progress and statistics of individual players in the NFL. The more yards, touchdowns and other stats those players accumulate, the better they perform from a fantasy football perspective.

Fantasy football leagues form every late summer in America, usually including groups of friends numbering either 10 or 12. You can have more owners (or franchises) in a league, and you can can fewer fantasy football owners in a league, but ten or twelve work best for league balance and competition (12 is best). Before the season, the owners of this league come together for a "draft", where individual NFL players are assigned to the competing teams.

How a Fantasy Football Draft Works

Let's take the 12-team fantasy football league as a working example. These 12 teams would get together at an assigned time and place for a fantasy football draft. Some random method would be used to determine who has the first pick in the draft, along with a full draft order including all 12 teams. Typically, the league would use a "serpentine draft" format to balance out draft position. Serpentine means that the draft order would snake back the other direction every other round, so that the person with the 12th pick in the 1st round would have the 1st pick in the 2nd round, and so on.

When it comes one team's turn to draft, that team could select any one player from any one NFL team, except those players who have already been selected in the draft. In this way, those individual NFL players considered most valuable would be assigned to teams throughout the fantasy football league. Most fantasy football leagues have roster limits of 16 to 20 players, so the draft would last 16 to 20 rounds.

NFL Fantasy Football Scoring Rules

How scoring is tabulated is a big factor in who you draft for your fantasy football team. Most fantasy leagues have a standard scoring system, with points awarded for certain number of rushing yards, passing yards and receiving yards. Points are also awarded for rushing touchdowns, passing touchdowns and receiving TDs. Team rosters are dominated by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and (usually) tight ends. Most teams have one field goal kicker, whose production is tracked for field goals and extra points made, often with more points assigned for longer field goals made.

Defensive players have different stats to determine their level of production, though there are two major methods of accounting for defensive production. The traditional way is with a "Team Defense", whose value is based on either points allowed or yards allowed, or a combination of both, as well as the number of sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns they score. Often, an NFL team's special teams unit is lumped into the defensive stats, so that you might be drafting a "Defense/Special Teams" unit. NFL special teams don't score more than a couple of times per year, so their production tends to be negligible in most games - and a boon in games they do score.

The other major way to account for defensive production is to have "individual defensive players", instead of team defenses. When you use "IDP" scoring, you draft individual defensive players like you would individual offensive players. In these cases, defenders get points for tackles, sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries and touchdowns scored. The linebackers tend to dominate the IDP fantasy scene, since they are most consistent at collecting tackles.

Typical Fantasy Football Scoring Rules

As for offensive scoring systems, there are a million of them out online to choose from. Most conform fairly closely to the scoring system below, though you shouldn't take the following list as the end-all scoring system in fantasy football. Local leagues often like to add 1-2 unusual scoring rules, to make their league a little different.

  • 10 Rushing Yards = 1 point
  • 10 Receiving Yards = 1 pt
  • 25 Passing Yards = 1 point
  • 1 Rushing Touchdown = 6 points
  • 1 Receiving Touchdown = 6 points
  • 1 Passing Touchdown = 6 points
  • 1 2-pt Conversion either Rushing, Receiving or Passing = 2 pts.
  • 1 Reception = 1 fantasy point
  • Field Goal Under-35 Yards = 3 pts
  • Field Goal 35-49 Yards = 4 points
  • Field Goal 50 Yards or More = 5 points
  • Extra Point = 1 fantasy point

The variations on this basic example are endless. Many leagues prefer to give only 4 points for a passing touchdown, because starting quarterbacks tend to score more touchdowns than any other player (20-40 per year, while 5-20 for most runners, receivers and tight ends). Some leagues don't have a position for tight ends at all, since the average TE tends to have less production than your average RB or WR. Other leagues boost tight end stats by multiplying them by a factor of 1.5, as opposed to 1.0 for all other players.

NFL Fantasy Football Scoring

Many NFL purists turn their noses up at fantasy football, because it values individual player stats over team success. You can have a player put up good stats on a lousy team, while players on the Superbowl contenders might not have very good fantasy football stats. This creates a situation where players like Terrell Owens, who has put up huge regular season stats, but never won a Superbowl crown, are put up on pedestals by single-minded fantasy football fans.

In my experience, though, fantasy football fans are NFL fans. Most of them have an NFL team they also cheer for. What fantasy football does for them is make them familiar with a wider base of NFL players, including 2nd- and 3rd-tier players on National Football League teams outside their local market. I guarantee you that a player of fantasy football living in Dallas knows a lot more about Kevin Smith of the Detroit Lions or Lee Evans of the Buffalo Bills, than your average Dallas Cowboys fan, who only keeps up with the local team.

In fact, fantasy football makes fans crave for news out of all the NFL outposts, and greatly increases interest in the pro football league and viewership of games. I guarantee that a game involving the St. Louis Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs is a lot more interesting to people outside of Missouri, if those fans happen to have Steven Jackson or Dwayne Bowe on their fantasy team - or if their rivals do. That's the nature of NFL fantasy football: it makes otherwise boring games exciting.

NFL Broadcasts and Fantasy Football

After a few years of seeming disinterest in the fantasy football aspect of broadcasting, there's a reason that networks carrying NFL broadcasts have embraced fantasy football stats and reports. They realise that a large segment of their viewing audience wants access to fantasy-related news and updates, and they'll turn the channel, if they aren't given that information on the channel they're watching at the moment. One reason the NFL Sunday Ticket is such a success, is because people can flip through the full schedule of games, instead of being chained the 3 broadcasts offered by network television each fall Sunday afternoon. I imagine the NFL Network would have had a hard time getting off the ground, if there wasn't a built-in market of fantasy football players who want the edge on their ff competitors, by getting year-round coverage of NFL news, including the NFL Draft Combine and extended coverage of the NFL Draft in April.

NFL Draft and Fantasy Football

I've heard some general sports fans and radio announcers wonder aloud why NFL fans get so excited about the NFL Draft every year, because all you're doing is sitting around to watch Roger Goodell announce every 10 minutes or so a name that's been drafted. But you have to remember that the National Football League is America's most popular sports league, and that the NFL Draft is the only real concentration of NFL activity for a six month period. NFL fans are starved for developments in their favorite sport, so they get excited to see what the latest additions to their teams are going to be.

A large part of the NFL draft hype has to do with NFL franchise fans learning the latest developments involving their favorite home team. But another significant factor in the overall enthusiasm about these seemingly uneventful several days is the fantasy football factor. FF owners want to know how the NFL draft is going to affect players in the upcoming fantasy football draft.

NFL Player Movement and Fantasy Football

Let's cite an example from this past offseason: Ladainian Tomlinson and the San Diego Chargers. In 2001, the Chargers made Ladainian Tomlinson the 5th overall pick in the NFL Draft. From 2001 and 2009, Tomlinson (sometimes known as LT or LT2) was the face of the San Diego Chargers franchise.

For a whole string of years in the mid-2000s decade, Ladainian Tomlinson was also the #1 draft pick in most fantasy football drafts. As late as the 2008 fantasy football drafts, people were debating whether Ladainian Tomlinson or Adrian Peterson should have been the #1 overall pick.

In this past NFL Draft, though, the Chargers decided to trade up in the 1st round of the draft to select Ryan Mathews, a 22-year old, 6'0", 218 lb running back out of Fresno State. Earlier that month, Tomlinson had left the Chargers to sign with their AFC rival, the New York Jets, in free agency.

Ladainian Tomlinson and Ryan Mathews

People had wondered what would happen to the Chargers running back situation leading into the 2010 NFL offseason. After the NFL Draft, a new name had emerged in the fantasy football player buzz, because Ryan Mathews had been drafted by the high-powered San Diego Chargers offense. While Mathews is likely to split time with the diminutive, yet productive, Darren Sproles, it's likely that he's going to be the "every down back" in San Diego, sooner or later.

Meanwhile, Ladainian Tomlinson landed with the Jets, muddling what appeared to be a running back situation that had seemingly cleared up earlier in the offseason. The New York Jets had seen the departure of Thomas Jones, opening the door for their playoff star, Shonn Greene, to take over the sole duties as an emerging star runner. But suddenly, LT was on the roster. While a 30-year old Tomlinson is unlikely to beat out Greene for the starter's role, the aging veteran is unlikely to sit on the bench quietly, so he may take enough carries away from Shonn Greene to knock him out of that tier of undisputed blue chip fantasy football draft picks in 2010. While Greene still has huge potential on a team that should challenge for the AFC title, there's suddenly the real chance that another talent could take a significant number of carries, receptions and touchdowns away from him.

That's why fantasy football fans pay so much attention to the NFL Draft, and to the NFL offseason in general: the player transactions heavily affect their projections for the upcoming fantasy football season.

NFL Projections - Fantasy Football Projections

Our example also underscores the fallacy of assuming that fantasy football owners are only interested in the success of individual players. That's true, in the direct sense. But having a player on a winning NFL football team is almost always better for a fantasy owner, than having that same player on a losing football team - at least in the case of NFL players on offense.

Assume you have a fantasy football running back on a winning NFL team. Most weeks, he's going to have more chances to score touchdowns and be productive, while a running back on a losing football team is going to have fewer chances to produce and score touchdown. An NFL running back who is ahead in a game during the 4th quarter is more likely to get a lot of carries in the 4th quarter, as his team is trying to run out the clock and keep the ball away from their opponents. That means a lot of carries over the course of a season against tired defenses.

Offensive players on winning NFL teams tend to get more plays a game to produce, as well. Except for quick-strike offenses who score in 2-3 plays, most successful NFL offenses tend to score on longer drives. As a defense wears down, the offense can control the pace of the game and "the clock" by holding onto the ball, methodically moving the chains. So while there are productive fantasy football players on losing NFL teams - especially among wide receivers on teams that have to throw the ball to "catch up" - it's generally better to have players on good teams, because they have more opportunities to produce. So fantasy football players track which teams they think are going to be good and which ones are going to suck, as much or more than average non-fantasy fans of the NFL.

Fantasy Projections for Defensive Players

That logic doesn't apply to IDP players, which we'll discuss in greater detail some other time. Suffice it to say, if you want a productive linebacker or safety, you want that player on a bad NFL team. Look at the best fantasy football linebackers over the past few years - Patrick Willis, Demeco Ryans, Kirk Morrison, even Jon Beason at times - and those LBs have been on bad teams. Linebackers rule IDP leagues, because they collect a lot of tackles, and tackle stats are more consistent than your odd interception or fumble recovery. Defensive players on bad football teams are on the field more, trying to stop those long drives, so they get more chances to produce stats. It might be counter-intuitive, but it's logical, when you think about it.

Fantasy Football Effects on NFL Spectatorship

Some NFL players and fans have voiced concerned about the effect of fantasy football on NFL spectatorship. While fantasy football players watch more NFL football on television and in live venues than your average NFL viewer. But fantasy football has placed a greater emphasis on the accumulation of stats by individual players, causing fans to sour on those players with less visible signs of production. Stats giants like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens have become the biggest names in the game, while "team players" who do the little things to help their team win are often overlooked.

Also, fantasy owners are less likely to support a team, or cherry pick their support according to their own fantasy roster. Someone with Donovan McNabb and Jason Witten on their fantasy roster is likely to watch a Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins game and, instead of pulling for one team to defeat the other, might be pulling for Donovan McNabb to compile big statistics when the Redskins are on offense, then cheer for Jason Witten to produce offensive stats when the Cowboys are on offense.

In my time playing fantasy football, I've met fantasy owners who were completely apathetic to team success. These players were only fans in the NFL, because of its effect on their fantasy success. But these players are very much in the minority. Most fantasy owners are also NFL fans.

NFL Fan and Fantasy Owner

Take me, for example. I was raised in North Texas during the Roger Staubach and Tom Landry era, so I've always been a Dallas Cowboys fan. I love fantasy football, but that doesn't mean I'm cheering against the Dallas Cowboys, when they're playing one of my players. My loyalty to the Dallas Cowboys outweighs my fantasy sports success.

In my case, I've become a much bigger fan of the NFL through fantasy football. My knowledge of teams outside the NFC East has grown accordingly. I'm much more likely to watch a game between the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams than I otherwise would, but that's a good thing for the NFL. Being a fantasy football owner affects how I watch the rest of the NFL, but it doesn't affect how I watch the Dallas Cowboys and their rivals.

I know some owners who won't draft players on certain teams, though, because they don't want to end up cheering against their team. I know a Browns fan who won't draft a Ravens player, and would just as soon not draft a Steelers player (though he will in a pinch). I try to keep a separation between fantasy and real NFL football evaluation. If anything, I'm less likely to draft a Cowboys player, for fear that I'm being a homer and not evaluating them with cool logic, instead of Dallas Cowboys' homerism.

Fantasy Football Effects on NFL Popularity

There's no doubt that fantasy football has increased the popularity and revenue potential of the NFL. In fact, the NFL signed a $600 million deal with Sprint, in no small part having to do with the online fantasy football communities using Sprint cell phones.

Like myself, fantasy football makes fantasy owners much more likely to be fans of the whole NFL, instead of one particular team. That's a good thing for the National Football League. Fantasy football has widened the base of fandom for the NFL, helping it to maintain its position as America's leading sport.

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