Beginner Series Section XII: Your Playoff Push
By Marc Levin
May 17th, 2012

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"The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will." -- Vince Lombardi

You have received sufficient advice in other sections regarding how to improve your team at different positions through waiver-wire work and through getting the best you can in trades. So, this section assumes you can already evaluate players and their worth to your team. When evaluating what to do with your team during your push for the playoffs, there are three major issues to consider:

  1. Is my team's personnel ready to make a push?
  2. If I am fairly certain I am making the playoffs, do I have the right players to make a run for the championship?
  3. Does my league have roster move deadlines that will force me to add depth in case of catastrophic injury?

Is my team's personnel ready to make the push?

It is past the fantasy mid-season and you are seriously worried about whether you will make the playoffs. What you need to do is evaluate your personnel to see if tinkering is required. If your team is strong but has had bad luck, or has players returning from injury, or is about to hit some favorable matchups for your key players, doing nothing may be the best advice you can give yourself. But, to make an evaluation, you must take a hard look at your team's strength and weaknesses. You need to devalue players who have upside but are not reaching it and you need to be extraordinarily active in seeking a trade or two that will improve your weekly starting lineup over the last half of the season. Of course, don't ignore the waiver wire either.

First, identify your core players and your basic weaknesses. If you have been winning on the strength of starting three running backs in a flex league, consider that strength untouchable. If you have been getting stud quarterback and solid wide receiver play, along with Antonio Gates or Rob Gronkowski at the tight end spot, to compensate for weak running back play, those are the players that are untouchable. At this point, it is not recommended that you patch a weakness by sacrificing a strength. Amplify your strength by lifting the weak areas of your starting lineup and be prepared to sacrifice some depth. To use a colloquialism, don't change horses in the middle of the stream.

Second, identify the position(s) not pulling their weight. No position is minimal when you are making a playoff push. At this point, adding two to four extra points per week from your off positions could be the deciding factor in winning a game here or there or in accumulating enough points to win tiebreakers that get you into the playoffs. Just as in the NFL playoff pushes, the fantasy push requires increased production from unexpected places. A defense or a kicker with a hot stretch of games could be your edge into the playoffs.

Third, if you are deep in a couple of key areas, especially in areas of your core strengths, it is definitely time to work a trade for a quality player. Players on your bench will not help you get into the playoffs, and if you don't get into the playoffs, nice depth on your squad is meaningless. While it is unlikely you will be able to pry a top notch running back away from your opponents, you may be able to trade one of your starting backs, plus a backup player from a deep position of strength, for an overall improvement to your weak starting backfield. Unless you have a weekly stud at quarterback, you can try to trade for one who has a favorable stretch of games upcoming. And don't overlook trading depth at a skill position, or even a starter who can be nearly matched by one of your backups, for a top notch kicker or defense. It is not necessarily a good idea to value those positions in your draft, but during the year, and especially during your push, those positions score well and can make the difference in winning each week.

For a concrete example, if your starting flex running back is getting you eight points a game while your backup is getting you six, and your defense is getting you nine points a game, trading your starting RB2 for a defense that is getting 14 points a game is a net improvement to your starting lineup of three points a game. You now start a squad that is that much closer to having an edge in head to head scoring.

Fourth, it is also probably about time to give up on those sleepers and flyers that did not pan out. Players need to contribute immediately, and last time I checked, potential points are worth nothing. These players also may hold sufficient name value in trade to someone else to help improve your squad with players ready for the push - at the least, they are taking up space for waiver wire additions ready to contribute now. While it always hurts to trade a player who blows up, you have to decide at this point whether you are going to ride the potential on your bench, or put more potential points into your starting lineup. You might even be able to work a two-for-one running back trade of your starting RB2 and a bench back with upside for a more solid starting RB2.

Fifth, on the waiver wire, look for players who have temporarily high value. You need a few weeks of high quality efforts from your team. Players who step in during the season and put up some solid numbers really can push the squads to the playoffs and the titles.

Sixth, a strategy exists in leagues that allow unlimited roster moves of working the waiver wire each week for your kicker and defense based on the most favorable matchups offered that week from among what is available. That strategy can work, but it can be a really difficult thing to manage properly and you end up every other week forced to make a move because you have only added waiver-wire quality players to your team.

When trading and making waiver wire decisions during your push, target players with favorable schedules over the next several weeks and into the playoffs rather than looking purely at weekly average scoring. If you are looking at those factors and others are not, you can make some very wise trades without sacrificing as much as the player is worth to you Keep in mind that quarterbacks are the position most susceptible to matchups It might be a good idea to look for that quarterback with a favorable schedule down the stretch and trade away your solid starting quarterback who has the better name. The overriding concern is making the playoffs and hoping for a run that takes you to the championship - but getting in is the goal right now. Always remember that the push requires a starting lineup that is strong for the rest of the season. Sacrificing some valuable running back/wide receiver depth may be necessary to create that lineup.

Do I have the right players to make a run for the championship?

Maybe you have decided that major tinkering with your team is not the right thing to do, that your team is strong enough along the starting lineup to make the playoffs, and that the first line of backup depth is too good to sacrifice. Your focus now is squarely on performance once you are in the playoffs - examine your backup players' matchups during the playoff run and see if any minor moves could be made for comparable players with a more favorable schedule during the fantasy playoffs. Your studs and starters should perform regardless, but worry about your normally reliable backups being pressed into action during a month that happens to be their toughest part of the schedule - and your most important part of the year.

Getting hot during the playoffs is how many championships are won, but you can manipulate that heat with a little oven work on your backups. You do not want to alter the starting lineup that you are happy with. But, for instance, make sure that if your backup running back is pressed into action during your playoff run, that he isn't facing Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Baltimore, in succession over weeks 14-16. Even a solid starting running back would have a tough go in the playoffs facing those teams. Maybe trade that backup running back and another player for a comparable running back who has a more favorable schedule plus a kicker or defense that improves your squad or has a more favorable playoff schedule than your starter.

Many of the principles from part one are obviously applicable to part two. If making moves, focus on what teams that player faces in the playoffs as much as how many points a game he is scoring.

Very important to keep in mind is the NFL reality you will be facing in December. This includes things like whether a losing NFL team will be looking to play its younger players more, whether a warm weather/indoor team with players you have been riding (read: Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Houston, Miami, Minnesota, or Detroit) have an inordinate number of December games outdoors in bad weather cities, and whether the team is likely to be playoff bound or eliminated. Also project whether your players are going to be playing away games in stadiums where the home team needs to win to get in. You simply hate playing your Cleveland players in Baltimore in December if the Ravens need to win to get in the playoffs.

Keep in mind that rookie receivers might get significantly more looks in the passing game during the last few games of the year. They will have passed the learning curve for first year players and, as their teams are eliminated from contention, they will send more looks the rookies' way. NFL reality also includes the give up factor - some veterans simply stop working as hard, and stop getting as much offensive attention after their teams are facing a losing season.

So, if you are looking to turn your team from a playoff bound team into a hot team during the playoffs, analyze what is probably going to be happening for your players over the last month of the NFL season. NFL concerns dominate how players are used. Your championship run just happens to coincide with the NFL's playoff push, so those two events are inextricably aligned. While we all know how unpredictable the NFL is during its playoff push, you can consider the fact that some teams collapse each year in December, some teams make a push, and some players get stronger in December. Use that in deciding whether your fantasy squad is ready to get hot in December.

Does my league have roster move deadlines?

It is Week 10 or so of the regular season, and your fantasy team is just rolling along. You have either clinched a playoff spot or are fairly close to doing so. You are stockpiled with solid starters and nice depth behind them. However, your league rules mandate that roster moves will end after all bye weeks are completed. Or when the playoffs start. You have dropped those unnecessary backup tight ends and kickers to give you room for important RB/WR depth, and you have three QBs because your starter has been dinged up a bit.

If your league allows moves through the playoffs, this section is unnecessary. However, many leagues end moves a few weeks before the playoffs, or when the playoffs start. Do not forget an essential part of fantasy depth - Murphy's Law: "Whatever can go wrong, will." If you leave yourself only one kicker after all roster moves are done, it is almost a guarantee that the first play of your fantasy playoffs, your kicker pulls his groin.

For years, even though I hated watching my ditched talent accumulate points on the waiver wire or someone else's team, I have made sure that before my roster was closed, I have a backup tight end and a backup kicker, and that I drop to only one backup quarterback and only one defense. I also always try, if possible, to have the backup to my starting RB1. Moreover, I tend to have no more than one backup for each starting wide receiver. If we start two, I have at most four on my roster and if we start three, I have at most six. If I have a flex spot, I will use the backup wide receivers for that flex spot provided I don't already plug in a running back. If my backup receivers (who sit on the bench anyway) are too valuable to simply drop, they need to be traded for improvement elsewhere - even for improvement to my starting kicker or tight end. Any leftover space goes to running backs for depth at that key position.

In this way, I am prepared for the possibility of a catastrophic injury at any position. It is a very difficult thing to do if you are restricted by how many roster moves you can make per week or if you have a very limited roster size, but it is worth losing solid depth all the way down to WR5 and RB5 in order to still have a shot at the crown if I lose my starting kicker.

You may need to make some tough choices regarding backups. For instance, figuring out which player is the immediate backup for your starting running back can be tricky, but that is the individual you keep instead of either that RBBC guy you have for depth or that rookie you have been hanging onto hoping he'd emerge. You might err on whom you ditch, but you will be better insured against injury to your RB1 since you will have your starter's replacement. Of course, you need confidence that the coaches will use the backup that you kept to the same degree as the starter was used.

In deciding how to backup the non-skill tight end and kicker positions, any warm body that gets points each week will do, but look for one that has favorable matchups during your fantasy playoff. Dump that defense by committee and commit to one defense with a favorable playoff schedule. Do, as you will in managing your team's injury risk. Just remember that during the playoffs there is nothing worse than guaranteeing yourself a zero at a kicker or tight end position, when you have an otherwise Super Bowl ready squad.

Final Thoughts (from Chris Smith)

Congratulations on reaching the end of this series and you are well on your way to becoming a strong owner in your fantasy league. There is a lot of information to digest in the previous pages but I can promise you that learning the information above will make you a competitive owner each and every year of your league. Taking the time to prepare with a commitment to excellence will enable you to have the perfect draft, post-draft and season on your way to the playoffs. Thanks for reading, have a wonderful season and I hope to see each and every one of you on the Footballguys.com site soon.

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