Dynasty, in Practice: Conditional Lineup Requests

Discussing my favorite rule in fantasy football.

I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages: i) This is worthless nonsense, ii) This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view, iii) This is true, but quite unimportant, iv) I always said so.
-J.B.S. Haldane

The regular season is over and the playoffs are upon us. Strategies have already been strategized, plans have already been planned, and decisions have already been decided.

If you have made the playoffs, congratulations, and best of luck in securing a title this year, (though I'm sorry to say that you probably won’t). If you have missed the playoffs, condolences, and may your offseason plans be fruitful and lead to a quick return.

As we begin to turn the page on 2015, it seems an opportune time to discuss changes in our leagues for 2016. Last year, I wrote my best argument about why leagues should abolish their trade deadlines, and gave some practical suggestions to help eliminate tanking.

This year, I want to discuss what is without question my favorite rule in fantasy football. In the leagues where it is available, it has made my life simpler and far less stressful. Many of my leaguemates rave about it, saying they will never play in another league without it. At the same time, it’s also a controversial rule, one that many detractors say cuts against the very spirit of fantasy football.

This year, I want to talk about conditional lineup requests.

What Are Conditional Lineup Requests?

As the name implies, conditional lineup requests are a format where you submit your starting lineup, contingent on a specific condition being met. In my case, the condition is “a given player plays”.

Rather than explain it, it’s perhaps easier to give an example. In one league, I have Rob Gronkowski and Richard Rodgers. Rob Gronkowski is a game-time decision, and has been described as “50/50” to play this week.

If Gronkowski plays, I want to start him at my tight end position. If he does not play, I would like to start Richard Rodgers. The problem? Gronkowski plays in the Sunday Night game, and I will not know whether he is playing or not until after Rodgers has already played, (and is therefore locked).

This leaves me with a quandary. I can gamble on my preferred player and risk taking a zero, (unless I have another option available in the late game or on Monday Night, such as Will Tye of the New York Giants). Or I can play the lesser player and get some guaranteed points.

With conditional lineup requests, though, I do not face this problem. Instead, I can state that I want to play Rob Gronkowski if he plays, and Richard Rodgers if he does not. This provides me with the best of both worlds.

I’ve brought up conditional lineups enough on Twitter to know that, for many, the very idea is anathema. Why are they so controversial? Here is a brief rundown of the common objections that I hear.

Don't Conditional Lineups Turn Leagues Into Best-Ball?

This is the most common criticism of the proposal that I receive. Essentially, owners fear that allowing conditional lineups will make things “too easy”, removing some of the agonizing decisions that are one of the places where savvy owners can really show their skill.

Conditional lineup requests, however, are not really similar to best ball. If I submitted the Gronkowski/Rodgers request that I mentioned, and Gronkowski played and scored five points, while Rodgers played and scored twenty points, I would still be left with Rob Gronkowski’s score.

Indeed, my oldest dynasty league has been around since 2007 and has allowed conditional lineup requests that entire time. This year, the league-wide “efficiency rating”, (or the percentage of optimal points that teams actually score), is 75.66%. In the Footballguys' staff dynasty league, which does not allow conditional requests, that league-wide efficiency rating is 80.85%.

There are several reasons why the latter rating would be higher- the league features shorter benches, and in general an experts league like that is going to be better at start/sit decisions. But the point remains that the introduction of conditional lineups hasn’t moved my older league anywhere near a best-ball league, (which by definition features an efficiency rating of 100%).

Conditional lineups do not eliminate the need to make tough decisions. They simply eliminate the need to make tough decisions before you have all the information. And, in my mind, anything that allows owners to make more informed decisions is a good thing. In fact, I would argue that giving everyone access to complete information reduces luck and increasingly rewards skill.

Aren't Things Already Fair the Way They Are?

This is absolutely true; the current status quo is perfectly fair. No individual owner is particularly disadvantaged by it relative to the others.

At the same time, imagine a football league where owners flipped a coin before their matches, and anyone who flipped “heads” received a 10-point bonus. Such a rule would likewise be perfectly fair ex ante; both owners in a matchup are equally likely to flip heads. But it allows the introduction of random chance into what is otherwise a contest of skill.

Last week, I faced a similar decision at tight end. I had the option of playing Richard Rodgers on Thursday night, or holding out for Tyler Eifert on Sunday. By Thursday, we still had no idea whether Eifert would be ready to go. I decided to roll the dice and hold out, only for Eifert to be ruled out shortly after Rodgers had a monster game on national TV.

This isn’t a case of sour grapes, to be clear; I won my matchup anyway with points to spare. It’s just to illustrate how Thursday games can mess with the decision-making process. Let’s imagine that my opponent that week had a similar dilemma at tight end, where he had to decide between Schmyler Schmeifert and Pritchard Prodgers. Except let’s imagine that Schmeifert played on Thursday, while Prodgers played on Sunday.

Because of when their games were scheduled, my opponent does not face the same decision I face. He will find out on Thursday whether his star tight end is good to go, and will have plenty of opportunity to bench him for the healthy backup. Because of something entirely outside of our control, (the order games are scheduled), I find myself at a disadvantage against an owner with superficially the same dilemma.

Again, the playing field is fair the way things are— I’m just as likely to find my opponent hamstrung by an unfavorable Thursday/Sunday game-time decision as I am to find myself in that bind. But while it is fair, it is not particularly level. As I mentioned, the addition of weekly games on Thursday has allowed dumb luck to play a larger role in determining the outcomes of fantasy football matches.

Aren't Conditional Lineups a Pain to Administer?

When I first implemented the rule in my oldest league, I’ll admit that this was my biggest concern. There isn’t a league-management platform out there that can automate this process, so it necessarily adds to commissioner overhead. I was worried that I’d be performing lineup swaps every week.

Instead, what I’ve found is that I only have to invoke the rule a couple times a season. If a player’s condition is really bad, most owners don’t want to risk him being a decoy. If a player’s condition is relatively good, he’ll usually wind up playing.

In fact, through 13 weeks of the regular season, owners in my league submitted 227 conditional starters. 225 of them wound up playing, leading to just two claims the entire regular season, and about 30 seconds worth of work for me as commissioner.

The Positive Case for Conditional Lineups

Enough about the supposed negatives, why do I think conditional lineups are the greatest rule in all of fantasy football?

For starters, I already touched on it briefly, but conditional lineups do a lot to reduce the role of luck in deciding outcomes. Every team will have players who are day-to-day, but you cannot control whether those players play early in the week or late.

If they play early, you’re at an advantage. If they play late, you’re at a disadvantage. Again, since this is outside of your control, this is nothing but dumb luck. Allowing conditional lineups gives more room for skillful owners to excel.

Most importantly, though, conditional lineups provide freedom and peace of mind. They do not lessen the amount of work you need to do to succeed in fantasy, but they change the time when you’re required to do it.

Without conditional lineups, you are essentially chained to your computer early Sunday afternoon checking to see whether your players are active or inactive. If you’re in multiple leagues, you’ll have a lot of players to keep up on. If you want to go out for brunch with your family, you better hope they’re okay with you checking your smartphone at the table.

And heaven forbid if you want to actually attend an game. Many NFL stadiums are notorious for their poor reception, meaning even if you were inclined to check your lineups, there’s no way you could.

Conditional lineups allow you to set your team earlier in the week and then get on with your life. If you’re on vacation, or you have to work late, that’s not going to negatively impact your fantasy team.

And there are a lot of other things that could impact your fantasy team that most would never think of. I play in a league with several Canadians, for instance. Canada doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, (or rather, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving on the same day we do), so my leaguemates have to work that Thursday, and they are unable to check their lineups.

Should I have an advantage against them simply because of the country where I live? Should they have to go through their workday stressed about their fantasy team?

We lock waivers when games start for this very reason; we don’t want to force owners to be chained to their computers so they can be the first to grab players when injuries occur. There is something to be said for rewarding diligence, but at the same time, fantasy football is meant to be fun. If we can make it so that it fits better within the constraints of our day-to-day life, how is this not a no-brainer?

Implementing Conditional Lineups

Let’s say that I’ve persuaded you to implement conditional lineups within your own leagues. How do you go about doing this?

For starters, you must decide who is eligible for conditional lineup requests. I’ve kept things simple in my league, saying that any player is eligible whether they are on the injury report or not. (This is influenced, at least in part, by an incident several years ago where Mike Sims-Walker was a surprise inactive for violating curfew the night before the game.)

Some leagues allow owners to only submit one or two conditional requests a week. Some leagues only allow owners to submit conditional requests on players who are listed as questionable. Personally, I see no reason not to allow as many requests as an owner wants to make, and limiting requests to “questionable” designations can be tricky as designations can change throughout the week.

Another decision to be made is what type of conditions are allowed. In my league, to keep things simple, I have written that owners may declare a starter and a backup; if the starter is a game-day inactive, the owner gets the backup’s score. If the starter is active, but fails to register a single touch… tough luck. That’s the risk you take.

Having a very clear trigger is important with conditional lineup requests; it’s not a rule that lends itself to shades of grey. This is why I use the NFL’s inactives list— there’s no debate and there’s no ambiguity. Plus, it’s easy to find a list of which players were inactive at www.nfl.com/inactives.

Some leagues allow fancier conditions. For instance, an owner might say “If Marshawn Lynch plays, I will start Chris Ivory; if not, I will start Thomas Rawls”. In this case, the condition is linked to a player other than the starter. I don’t personally use this rule, but again, it’s entirely up to your league to decide what is allowed and clearly define it going forward.

To keep overhead low, I’ve also outlawed “double conditionals”, which essentially allow owners to name backups for their backups. As I mentioned, the claim rate on conditionals in my league is under 1%, so double conditionals are rarely even worth considering, anyway.

Once you’ve decided what is allowed in a conditional lineup request, you must decide the form that the conditional request can take. In my league, I allow batch conditionals. Owners name any number of starters at a position, and then any number of backups. If the starters miss, they get the score from the backups in the order they are listed.

As an example: let’s say that I have Le’Veon Bell and Marshawn Lynch, and I have handcuffed them with DeAngelo Williams and Thomas Rawls. In this case, it would make sense to submit conditional requests on each running back individually.

At receiver, on the other hand, teams rarely practice handcuffing; if I have Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Danny Amendola, and my top backups are Kamar Aiken and Marvin Jones Jr, there’s no need to assign specific backups to specific receivers.

Putting all those together, I might submit the following conditional request:

Start: Le’Veon Bell
Conditional: DeAngelo Williams

Start: Marshawn Lynch
Conditional: Thomas Rawls

Start: Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Danny Amendola
Conditional: Kamar Aiken, Marvin Jones Jr

This protects me against any possibility. If one of my running backs misses, I get his direct handcuff. If one of my wide receivers misses, I get the top available backup. If I have something I have to attend to on Sunday morning, I can rest assured that my lineup is safe.

Finally, once you’ve decided what is allowed and what form conditionals will take, the last step is to decide where conditional requests can be made. For transparency, it’s usually best to require them to be posted on your league message board. Luckily, most league hosts provide an on-site message board; for those that don’t, you can use a league-wide email blast, or you can create an off-site message board at any number of free hosting services.

On Conditional Requests and Player Locking

One last item that needs to be considered regarding conditional lineup requests is when players lock. I recommend that if a team makes a conditional request, all players involved lock as soon as the earliest involved game kicks off.

This might seem extreme, but there’s a good reason; unscrupulous owners can easily abuse the conditional request system, otherwise. Going back to my Rob Gronkowski / Richard Rodgers example from this week, imagine I submitted a Gronkowski/Rodgers request and Rodgers played terribly in the early game, catching one ball for -2 yards and a fumble.

Seeing that, I could replace Gronkowski in my starting lineup with a different tight end to avoid the risk of getting stuck with that terrible score at the position. Doing this provides me with an unfair informational advantage over my opponent, and the whole point of conditional requests was to eliminate these unfair informational advantages.

If you don’t necessarily want to go that far, at least make it so that no new conditional requests can be made involving players who have already played. This one should be a no-brainer; I can’t wait to see one of my players play on Thursday before deciding whether I want to use his score as a backup for my starter on Sunday.

A Case For Doing Things Differently

At the end of the day, conditional lineup requests are a low-hassle, low-maintenance rule that preserves everything that is great about active-management leagues while also freeing owners to manage their teams on their own schedules. They increase the role skill plays by eliminating informational disadvantages, and they help fantasy football fit better into our messy day-to-day lives.

Even if rarely used, it’s impossible to quantify the peace of mind provided to owners just knowing that they’re available if needed.

I know all-to-well that fantasy leagues tend to be resistant to change, and conditional requests can be a tough sell. But I believe they are well worth the effort; I’ve played in many leagues with many different rules, and they are without question my favorite.

I cannot recommend enough giving them a try. I suspect they just might wind up being your favorite, too.

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