Dynasty, in Theory: Playing to Win the Game?

Herm Edwards famously said that you play to win the game. Do you? Should you?

Herman Edwards

This is what's great about sports. This is what the greatest thing about sports is. You play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game. You don't play it to just play it. That's the great thing about sports: you play to win, and I don't care if you don't have any wins. You go play to win. When you start tellin' me it doesn't matter, then retire. Get out! 'Cause it matters.
-Herm Edwards

You know the quote. You’ve likely heard it dozens of times. I’m willing to bet at some point in your life you’ve even said it. You play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game. You don’t play it just to play it.

Why do we play fantasy football? Yes, fantasy football is fun, and it creates a tight-knit community. It’s a great way to keep in touch with old friends and make new ones. But why are we at the computer at 9 PM trying to grind out a trade? Are we inquiring after Cam Newton’s availability because we haven’t chatted with the owner in a while and we thought it might be nice to catch up?

Or are we trying to improve our team solely for the sake of improving our team? Or are we trying to win the game? Where do you fall on the issue?

Don’t answer yet. Let’s put a pin in that for a second.

Billy Beane

My s*** doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is f****** luck.
-Billy Beane

Many of you are probably familiar with this quote, too, relayed to us by Michael Lewis in “Moneyball”, his seminal work on the Oakland A’s and the rise of sabermetrics.

Beane’s quote hasn’t achieved the ubiquity of Edwards’, lacking the anodyne charm to be much use for anything as banal as hocking consumer goods. But it shares a common heritage; in an unguarded moment, a great sports thinker conveyed a firmly-held conviction, stripped of any planning or rhetorical nicety.

On the surface, the quote seems funny and useful as a punchline, but there’s a great depth of thought beneath it. What did Beane mean when he said his “s*** doesn’t work”? He’s expanded upon it before, including during this 2012 interview with Tyler Bleszinski of SBNation.

Bleszinski: You famously said, "My s*** doesn’t work in the playoffs." Do you think that’s still an accurate statement?

Beane: By and large, out of 162 games, the best eight teams will get to the playoffs. Cinderellas in May aren’t there at the end of the year. I said eight but it’s 10 now. You have the 10 best teams because you’ve gone through the season. You get into a short series, anything can happen. There’s no accounting for random events that happen. There’s nothing that you can plan for in order to prepare for those random events. Over a season they get washed out but in a short series they don’t. The last two World Series Champions, one made it the last day of the season, one made it the second to last day of the season. They were very good teams but I don’t think their business plan was to barely make it to the playoffs and then win the World Series.

Bleszinski: Is the team going to have to get over that hump and win the World Series in order to fully validate the A’s process or is getting in the playoffs with that budget enough of a success?

Beane: I don’t think about validation. You always want to win the championship.

Bleszinski: All you can control is being that team that succeeds over 162 games.

Beane: Yeah exactly. You just put yourself into that tournament enough times and…

Bleszinski: Eventually you’ll win it.

Beane, like Edwards, acknowledges that the overarching goal is victory. But the tone and the implication differs quite radically. Edwards’ quote identifies victory as the animus behind all of his actions. His players play, (and, presumably, he coaches), to win the game. It is both the starting point and the ending point to everything he does.

But Beane? He almost seems to treat wins as a byproduct of his job and not the focus of it. “Assemble a good team”, Beane seems to say, “and the wins will follow. Or they won’t. All you can control is whether you’ve done your job, whether you’ve assembled the best team you can, and then you must trust the winning itself to luck.”

Herm Edwards says play to win. Billy Beane says do your best and wins will follow. Are they disagreeing? If so, who is right? Who serves as a better role model for us as dynasty owners? Where do you fall on the debate?

Don’t answer yet. Let’s put a pin in that for a second.

William Newcomb

In 1960, a theoretical physicist named William Newcomb presented a thought experiment. (Thought experiments, as I’ve mentioned before, are my favorite type of experiment because they’re like doing science, but without any of that messy “gathering facts” nonsense.)

The thought experiment was named, (appropriately enough), “Newcomb’s Paradox”. It goes thusly: imagine you are approached by an entity known only as “the Predictor” who proposes a game. The Predictor will place two boxes in front of you. One box, (box A), is transparent and clearly contains $1,000. The second box, (box B), is opaque and contains either $1,000,000, or it contains nothing.

Here is the twist: the Predictor’s title is not merely an affectation. Instead, the entity claims to be able to predict human behavior with incredible— perhaps even perfect— accuracy. Whether the Predictor is an alien being, or an immensely powerful supercomputer, or a clairvoyant, or a visitor from the future, you find its claims to be highly credible. You truly believe that it can predict human behavior with incredible— perhaps even perfect— accuracy.

Before the game begins, the Predictor will make a prediction about what you will do. If it believes you will open both box A and box B, it will leave box B empty. If it believes you will open only box B, leaving the $1,000 in box A untouched, it will place one million dollars in box B.

Having made its prediction, the Predictor will set both boxes down and leave you to the game. Once the boxes are placed, it can no longer change what is inside them; indeed, it goes away entirely and leaves you to your choice, never actually knowing for sure which you have made.

The reason Newcomb’s paradox has had such enduring appeal is because it tends to divide people into two roughly evenly-sized camps, both of whom are absolutely convinced they are right and the other camp is daft. Basically, think of it as The Dress of 1960s/1970s decision theory, except not accompanied by a sublime llama chase, (which is a shame, because everything is better when accompanied by a llama chase).

On one side of the aisle, you have a group of people who note— quite rightly!— that if the Predictor’s choice has been made and box B’s contents have already been determined, opening box A as well will always net you an additional $1,000 dollars. If Box B is empty, opening both boxes gets you an additional $1,000. If Box B is full, opening both boxes gets you an additional $1,000. There is never a situation where opening Box A does not get you an additional $1,000. These people are known colloquially as “two-boxers”.

On the other side of the aisle, you have a group of people who note— quite rightly!— that if the Predictor’s powers are to be believed, the class of people who open only box B make substantially more money, on average, than the class of people who open both boxes, and therefore one should strive to belong to the former class and not the latter. Unsurprisingly, this group is commonly described as “one-boxers”.

Which side is right? Both of them; there’s a reason why it’s known as Newcomb’s paradox and not Newcomb’s puzzle or Newcomb’s brain teaser.

So where do you fall on the spectrum? Are you a one-boxer or a two-boxer?

Don’t answer yet. Let’s put a pin in that for a second.

Dynasty Owners

Let’s say that you’re the owner of a good dynasty team. You are firmly within your competitive window, but your team is not especially old or otherwise likely to fall off a cliff after this season.

Late in the year, your top running back goes down to an injury, leaving you with a rather large hole in your starting lineup. A leaguemate approaches you with a deal that would give you a quality temporary fill-in at the position in exchange for future assets of no immediate use, but you estimate the total value of the assets you are giving up to be roughly double the value of what you are receiving, in a vacuum.

While this is not a perfect analogue for Newcomb’s paradox, some interesting similarities exist. Notably, two statements can be made about this situation. First, an owner who makes that trade improves his or her odds of winning a title. Second, the type of owner who was unwilling to make those trades in the past is more likely find himself or herself in position to compete for a title this year in the first place, having declined to address prior roster holes with expensive short-term patches.

In short, the person who chooses door #1 increases his or her title chances, but merely belonging to the class of people who consistently choose door #2 also increases one's title chances. One way to "win now" is to make a "win now" trade. Another way is to never make "win now" trades.

At the time of the decision, though, all of those past trades have already been made or not made, and your current decision cannot change them either way. Similarly, at the time the Predictor places down the boxes, the contents have already been determined, and taking the additional $1000 in box A cannot change them. "Belonging to the class of people" who choose one box and "belonging to the class of people" who do not make win-now trades is useful, but by the time you reach the decision point, abandoning that class still always provides a positive yield.

Can you be the type of person who only opens one box while still opening two boxes? Can you be the type of person who never makes win-now trades while still making a win-now trade? Where do you fall? Would you accept the deal?

Before you answer that, let’s take the pin out of all those thoughts from earlier.

Herm Edwards says you play to win the game. I would submit that his lecture on the reasons we play fits well with the desire to make the trade. He would want to be doing everything in his power to secure the victory.

Billy Beane says you build the best team you can and everything after that is luck. I would submit that his fatalistic musings on what we can and cannot control dovetails well with a reluctance to sacrifice so much value. He would want to build the best team possible and let the chips fall where they may.

Unlike Newcomb’s paradox, I believe this problem has a solution, and I think the answer comes when we look closely at the differences between Edwards and Beane that might inform their respective positions. Herm Edwards is a coach and not a general manager. Billy Beane is a general manager and not a coach. Rather than a random observation, I believe this is the key to the puzzle.

Players and coaches are tasked with winning football games. Winning, it can be said, is something wholly within their control. General managers, on the other hand, have no direct control over the goings-on on the field. They build a roster and then turn it over to others to try to execute the vision of winning games.

The paradox, in fantasy football, is that we serve as both general manager and coach; as a result, we often blur the lines of demarcation between one role and the next. It’s quite easy for us to to manage our teams like a coach would, losing our long-range vision in the short-sighted quest for wins.

There are some situations where we are making decisions without any future implications; in the absence of such an opportunity cost, winning the game should be the only consideration. Examples would be setting our weekly lineup, or grabbing players off of waivers to fill our starting lineup during bye weeks.

But many of our decisions are not made absent any future considerations. As in our hypothetical, we often find ourselves debating sacrificing the future of our team for marginal gains in the present. We ask ourselves if we want to "win now", and if so, at what cost. And in those instances— especially given the random and unpredictable nature of a single-elimination playoff— I believe we would be far better served to think less like a coach and more like a general manager.

To be more explicit, (and perhaps more controversial): dynasty owners, by and large, are far too concerned with trying to win games. I believe we would be better served if we spent less time asking ourselves “does this improve my chances at winning a particular game?”, (even if that game is a championship), and more time asking ourselves “does this make my team better? Or does it make my team worse?"

There are exceptions; like nearly everything else in dynasty, this is not a situation that lends itself neatly to black-and-white rules. But the owners who task themselves with the goal of improving their teams and treat wins as a fortunate byproduct of that process will likely find themslves, at the end of the day, with more of them than the owners who busy themselves overly much with the mundane day-to-day business of winning games.


And so I ask for the last time, where do you fall? Ask yourself honestly whether you are devoting the bulk of your efforts to trying to win games. But don’t answer yet. Put a pin in that for a second.

Ask yourself instead: should you be?

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