The Commissioner's Guide to Fantasy Football during a Pandemic

A look at the possible issues that could arise in fantasy football leagues due to coronavirus and the range of solutions and plans to deal with those issues

2020 will be a season like no other. We continue to learn more about the NFL’s approach to player safety and having a season that starts and ends on time. We continue to learn more about the virus itself, how to limit its spread, and the extent of the current outbreak. As we learn more, we can better prepare for what is to come. Fantasy football players will depend on their commissioners to have rules and provisions in place before the season to account for the curveballs that coronavirus may throw at us during this season. Whether you’re a player making sure your commish has taken the appropriate steps or a commissioner implementing a plan, it is important to contemplate how this season could unfold and take appropriate steps. What does that entail?

Note: This will be a living document that evolves as we know more and learn more about how the league and fantasy leagues are proceeding, and the full range of possibilities that we should prepare for.

Adjusting rules to account for frequent and unforeseeable extended player absences due to coronavirus

The simplest approach here is to add injured reserve spots that are only for players who end up on the commissioner’s exempt list because of coronavirus. Hopefully league software will code players with a specific status to reflect this, but it might be on commissioners to police use of the spots and ensure that they aren’t being misused for a competitive advantage. This will mirror the league’s approach, which will allow teams to add a player to replace one sidelined by coronavirus until they are cleared to play again.

How many?

Let’s hope that very few are actually necessary during the season, but if things take a turn for the worse (and we still have the season overlapping with cold/flu season, which some models projected to intensify the pandemic), an unlucky team could need upwards of five spots. The best answer to have unlimited spots, with a rule clause that specifies that a player must have been on the roster before landing on the exempt list due to coronavirus (or reported to have tested positive) to be eligible for the spot. This will keep teams from adding players after they are on the exempt list simply to stash them and then getting the roster spot used to acquire them back.

Why not add roster spots?

Adding additional roster spots will deplete the waiver wire and allow teams to hold more players on their bench as speculative stashes, which could make coronavirus losses even more harsh for teams that lose players to the virus.

How about a more liberal interpretation of injured reserve spots to include any player listed as out?

This will cut down on commissioner work to police the usage of injured reserve spots, but the design of injured reserve, both in the league and fantasy football, is to allow teams to retain a player unavailable for an extended period while still using their roster spot on a player who can be active in the upcoming week. By extending this to any player who is listed as out, the tough strategic decisions about whether to hold a player who is out, but not for an extended time, or use the spot for a player who can contribute now, are removed from the game. Of course, you might argue that this logic can also apply to players on the exempt list because of coronavirus - the more difficult the strategic decisions are, the more fun fantasy football is for some people. Expanding the use of injured reserve spots to cover more than just coronavirus cases or not adding any dedicated spots for them are both reasonable approaches, but might run into friction once teams see how they play out in practice.

What about the waiver wire?

If your league already has first come, first serve (FCFS) waivers through the kickoff of a player’s game, then your league is giving fantasy players who find out that a key player who ended up out for the game very close to gametime because of coronavirus screening a chance to make a move to adjust to that news - or for other players to pounce and take advantage by picking up a player who has newfound value on game day. It is important that the FCFS waivers don’t close at 1 pm eastern kickoff on Sunday or fantasy teams with players that are ruled out right before late or Sunday/Monday night games won’t have a chance to make a corresponding move.

This isn’t absolutely necessary and at least one high stakes contest - the FFPC - probably will not implement it this year. It might be best to run it past your league before making the change. If waivers are only available via blind bidding, then fantasy players will have to adjust and use their benches to make sure they have at least one viable backup at every position going into Sunday.

NFFC Changes: Team Kicker and Allowing Illegal Lineups

The NFFC is going with team kicker this year so last second changes won’t have to be made if a kicker is ruled out for any reason. Previously, the NFFC had not allowed an illegal lineup on Thursday (meaning you had to have a full valid starting lineup at kickoff on Thursday night), so if you only had one tight end or one quarterback, they had to be selected in your lineup at kickoff on Thursday - a problem if you wanted to add other options to consider on Sunday/Monday after Thursday kickoff. Both of these changes are arguably good even without the specter of coronavirus, but they are also responsive to possible problems created by the virus.

Crowning a League Champion and Doling Out Prizes in an Abbreviated Season

How do we choose a winner if the season is paused and never restarted? Even the thought of this is painful. College basketball and other spring sports just ended the 2020 season with no resolution. The professional leagues with playoffs in the spring - the NBA and NHL- are completing seasons paused in the spring, but to be comprehensive, commissioners should have a plan for this possibility.

Best record with a total points tie breaker or total points is the simplest answer. More robust league software that includes all-play record or a complex power rank can also be used.

The approach to dividing up league prizes isn’t as easy. The polar opposites are awarding them as they would be apportioned in a typical season, with the final spot in the standings replacing the round of playoff exit to awarding no prizes and pushing the pot forward a year to 2021 to create a “superpot” for the following year, with any percentage in between 100 and 0 also possible. The percentage of the payout can also be contingent on the number of games the NFL plays, with the number going up as the season passes certain thresholds, and staying at zero if it doesn’t surpass the first one. The best idea here to pick the starting point that is fairest in your mind and take the league’s temperature. The worst idea is to not address it and have an insurrection when prizes are (or are not) given out at the announcement of a cancelled season.

What if a game is cancelled because most or all of a team has to quarantine?

This is not unprecedented as multiple games have been rescheduled because of weather over the years. Even though it would not affect each team equally, as long as the league reschedules the game, the effects on weekly fantasy outcomes will have to just be chalked up to bad/good luck.

Dynasty Issues

What will the rookie draft order be in 2021 if the season is cancelled/abbreviated?

The range of solutions here is wide, from keeping it the same in 2021, to having an unweighted (every team has the same chance of being first and last) lottery. Some leagues might prefer splitting the difference by having a weighted lottery, which gives teams that missed the playoffs in 2019 a better chance of picking early, or even having lotteries within the playoff and non-playoff teams so that they remain in the same part of the rookie draft order, but the exact order is determined by chance. Whether the final standings based on provisions to account for a shortened season should substitute for 2019 in the rookie draft order generation process is another question to take up, and like the prize payouts, it can be based on how many games are played.

Will contracts progress a year in salary cap/contract leagues if the season is cancelled/abbreviated?

Like the issue of rookie draft order, this is something the NFL itself also might have to grapple with. The best approach is to keep it in line with the same number of games that makes the champion "official" and the prize payout "official". If we get past that threshold, the contracts go forward one year. If we don't, they stay at the number of years/salary they were at going into the year.

Draft Issues

Should we still have in person drafts?

As long as folks are masking and social distancing guidelines, and especially if they can be held outdoors, sure! Folks will have to be responsible about rescheduling if they are experiencing any symptoms or have had any recent exposures to coronavirus positive cases. It would be best to schedule the draft with at least a week before the beginning of the season (September 10) to build in a delay just in case anyone in your league contracts coronavirus close to the draft. Hopefully by then we will have seen case numbers drop!

Keeper Mulligans

If keepers have already been designated before the opt out period, it might be appropriate for the commissioner to allow a mulligan to replace the keeper. The team that lost their keeper should be allowed to choose another keeper from their former roster, assuming the draft has not yet taken place. If it has, then the team that lost their keeper could be compensated with waiver or future draft pick priority.

Thanks for reading this far. Please contact me at bloom@footballguys.com if you have any questions, suggestions, accounts of how implementing new rules went in your league, or feedback that could make this article better


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