Opening a Window

A lesson on how defining "championship windows" can help an average team compete for titles in dynasty leagues

Ask the average dynasty league owner whether he'd like to win now or win later, and he'll glibly respond with "both". After all, the title of the league is a dead giveaway- the whole point is to build a dynasty and dominate the league for years on end. The problem simply becomes one of execution; building a dynasty is hard work. At most, only one or two teams in a given league can qualify for "dynasty" status, which means 80-90% of teams in dynasty leagues are NOT dynasties. Countless articles have been written with advice on how to make that leap to full-blown dynasty. This is not one of them. This article, instead, is aimed towards the 80-90% of non-dynasties out there hoping to bootstrap their way to a title or two. Consider it more a guide to becoming the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers of fantasy football- an otherwise unremarkable franchise that managed to squeeze in a title run between championships by the New England Patriots. 

A Game of Resources

Fantasy football is fundamentally a game of limited resources. There are a dozen guys you'd love to take in the first round of your draft, but you only have one first round pick. There are a handful of guys you'd love to claim off the street, but the waiver priority system means you have to wait your turn, and you only have so many roster spots besides. In redraft, all teams start with roughly equal resources, and the team that manages them the best usually walks away with the trophy. Dynasty leagues are typically the same in their first season- all of the teams start with roughly identical resources, so most of the teams will be roughly similar in quality. As years go by, some teams will find themselves on the winning end of more than their fair share of transactions. They'll make several trades that, in hindsight, amounted to trading a quarter and getting a dollar. They'll use a couple of $.50 draft picks to land some $2 players. Eventually all of these gains add up, until the team is operating at a decided resource advantage, similar to a redraft team that was given three extra first round picks.

Once a team has achieved a resource advantage, it has a lot more leeway in terms of roster construction. It doesn't have to worry about getting players who will help win now or players who will help win later, because it can afford to do both. The job then becomes trying to maintain that resource advantage in a system that's rigged against it- dynasty leagues are set up to give the most new resources (i.e. rookie draft picks) to the teams with the fewest existing resources, and to give the fewest new resources to the teams with the most existing resources. In theory, this mechanism will move everyone back towards the middle over time, and top teams must spend their efforts fighting against this current if they want to remain at the top.

For teams without a resource advantage, winning a championship requires making some tough choices. An owner with limited resources who attempts to be competitive in both the short term and the long term will, in the end, be competitive in neither. He'll lose out in the short term to the teams that are sacrificing the future for the present. He'll lose out in the long term to teams that are sacrificing the present for the future. He'll manage to be consistently good, but never great, which means he can't even count on much help coming from the rookie draft. Such an owner will quickly feel as if he's stuck on a treadmill of mediocrity, good enough to be relevant but never good enough to make some noise. The worst place to be in a dynasty league is somewhere in the middle. So how can an owner avoid getting stuck in that purgatory?

Opening a Window

The easiest way to get stuck on the treadmill is to try to do too much. Owners with limited resources must recognize early that they have to make sacrifices. They need enough clarity to understand the best path to a championship, and they need enough discipline to stick to that plan when they start feeling the pain. That's easy enough to write, but clarity and discipline are both very difficult traits to put into practice. One of the easiest ways I have found to create a clear vision and enact it with discipline is simply by defining my team's "competition window". Unless my team has already achieved dynasty status, when asked whether I want to win now or win later, my answer will never be "both". For all of my teams, I have a clear and precise championship window, and every move I make is made with that window in mind.

A very common piece of advice given to people new to dynasty leagues is that they should maintain a healthy balance of young prospects and established veterans. It might sound like heresy, this is perhaps the worst possible advice to give a team just starting out in dynasty, because it will doom them to life on the treadmill until they get a lucky break. Instead of diversifying the portfolio, new owners should be doubling down on one strategy or the other, either going overboard with the aging veterans or skipping them entirely and loading up on unproven youth. This idea is probably best illustrated with an example. Imagine you're in a three team league that will play for two years, and each team is given enough resources to "buy" 1000 fantasy points over that span. Team A wants to remain consistently competitive, so he buys 500 points in year 1 and 500 points in year 2. Team B wants to win immediately, so he buys 800 points in year 1 and 200 points in year 2. Team C is playing the long game, so he buys just 200 points in year 1 and 800 points in year 2. At the end of the two years, the team that sacrificed the present and the team that sacrificed the future both walked away with a championship and a #1 rookie pick for their efforts, while the team that tried to diversify wound up with neither. In practice, you want all of your players peaking at the same time, even if that means they all crash at the same time, too.

The idea of creating a window of contention is best illustrated with an example. Imagine the following team existed in your dynasty league:

  • QB: Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco
  • RB: Steven Jackson, Giovani Bernard, Mark Ingram
  • WR: Andre Johnson, Percy Harvin, Reggie Wayne, Michael Floyd, Stephen Hill
  • TE: Owen Daniels, Zach Ertz

That appears to be a solid dynasty team. It lacks any true cornerstone players, but It has some very productive veterans putting up points right now, and several quality young prospects ensuring it will remain competitive going forward. A lot of owners, given that lineup, would mostly opt to stand pat and play out the season as currently constructed. That would be a mistake. If we instead define a clear championship window, it becomes apparent that that team should be taken in one of two directions.

Direction #1: Win Now

If the owner decides he wants to win now, he should double down on the veterans. Joe Flacco currently ranks as QB18 in the staff consensus dynasty rankings, but the team's chances at a title this year would be much improved if he was moved for Michael Vick, ranked 21st in the staff consensus. Likewise, Giovani Bernard (RB15 in the consensus rankings) and Mark Ingram (RB27) are both valuable pieces, but neither would contribute as much towards a title this season as Maurice Jones-Drew (RB17) and Frank Gore (RB28).

At receiver, Percy Harvin (WR12) is a phenomenal talent, and I'm among his biggest fans, but even the most ardent of optimists has to concede that he wouldn't contribute as much to a title run this year as Roddy White (WR13). Michael Floyd (WR36) has really turned some heads this offseason, but it's doubtful he manages to outproduce Miles Austin (WR35) or Steve Smith (WR49), and Stephen Hill (WR51) has all the upside in the world, but he doesn't have the track record of production of a Lance Moore (WR55). At tight end, Owen Daniels fits well on a win-now franchise, but Zach Ertz (TE13) is probably a year or two away from contributing, and could easily be swapped out for Tony Gonzalez (TE17).

According to the current staff consensus rankings, these moves would be slight downgrades, but each would net a player of roughly similar quality who better fit the "win now" window. If the owner made all of these moves, his new roster would look more like this:

  • QB: Peyton Manning, Michael Vick
  • RB: Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore
  • WR: Andre Johnson, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Miles Austin, Lance Moore
  • TE: Owen Daniels, Tony Gonzalez

Suddenly, that's a team that's deep and diversified and well-primed to compete for a championship this season. It's also a team that would make most dynasty owners break out in a cold sweat, as the entire roster could be enjoying retirement within three seasons, with no young depth waiting in the wings to take over. Within a season or two, that team will almost certainly be among the worst in the league. Remember, though, that dynasty leagues are structured so that the worst teams get the most new resources- a few drafts yielding a player like Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, Andrew Luck, A.J. Green, or Julio Jones and the team will be ready to enter back into a competitive window again.

If, as an owner, the idea of rostering the AARP All-Stars is too much for you, there's another direction to take the team.

Direction #2: Win Next Year

Rather than cashing in all of his chips to make one last run, the owner could opt to delay his championship aspirations with an eye towards the 2014 season. Joe Flacco (QB18 in the staff consensus rankings) provides a better fall-back should something happen this year, but with an eye towards the future he should be moved for a young quarterback with a higher upside, such as EJ Manuel (QB20 in the staff consensus rankings). Peyton Manning (QB11) provides an interesting decision. His 2014 contract is fully guaranteed, which means the Broncos believe he's likely to remain productive next season, but at his age there are no guarantees. An owner with a "win next year" window could opt to retain Manning and hope he makes it through this season with his value intact. He could also hedge his position slightly and trade Manning for the younger Tony Romo (QB12). Finally, he could opt for a full-on youth movement and trade Manning for someone like Ryan Tannehill (QB16). Trading for Tony Romo would be the safest bet, while a Ryan Tannehill / EJ Manuel combo has the higher long-term upside and would likely result in a higher pick in the 2014 rookie draft.

At running back, Bernard and Ingram are perfect examples of players who will be more valuable next year than they are this year, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Darren Sproles get phased out of their respective offenses. Steven Jackson, on the other hand, is someone who will contribute much less to a title run next season. Jackson is ranked as RB22 in the staff consensus, but the team would be far better served by adding Le'Veon Bell (RB24) or Montee Ball (RB25).

At receiver, the aging Andre Johnson (WR14) and Reggie Wayne (WR41) could easily be swapped out for the injured Michael Crabtree (WR29) and a rookie such as Robert Woods (WR45) or Keenan Allen (WR54), or a young prospect like Ryan Broyles (WR52) or Vincent Brown (WR57), and the owner could probably pick up some extra 2014 draft picks in the process. At tight end, Zach Ertz is a solid "next year" player, but Owen Daniels (TE15) is an aging veteran whose role is in decline, and the team would be better off replacing him with Dennis Pitta (TE19), who will miss this year with an injury but should be primed to come back strong in 2014.

Again, each of these moves is considered a downgrade according to the current staff consensus rankings, but they all fit better with the team's particular window. If the owner made some combination of these moves, his final roster would look like this:

  • QB: Tony Romo, EJ Manuel
  • RB: Giovani Bernard, Le'Veon Bell, Mark Ingram
  • WR: Percy Harvin, Michael Crabtree, Michael Floyd, Robert Woods, Stephen Hill
  • TE: Zach Ertz, Dennis Pitta

That's a roster that will likely be terrible in 2013, as Harvin, Crabtree, Pitta, and possibly Bell will miss much of the season with injuries, while the rest of the roster is either too raw to contribute immediately or mired in a short-term timeshare. Next year, however, all of those injured players will return, and the owner will have a high rookie draft pick (plus any extra picks he received for moving from Andre Johnson down to Michael Crabtree) to spend on some immediate contributors. That's a roster that's primed to make some serious noise in 2014.

Breaking it Down

In the end, we took a solid, reasonably balanced roster and we morphed it into a unit that is tragically flawed in either the short or the long term, but which is still much better positioned to walk away with a championship trophy in the next two years. As an added bonus, either of the two final teams can count on getting much better rookie draft picks to help out should a rebuild become necessary. It's also worth pointing out that neither of the two final rosters had a single player in common. That's how it should be- each team was built with crystal-clear clarity of purpose, and that laser-like focus allowed the owners to do the hard work of weeding out all of the players who did not fit his specific goals, while reinforcing all of the players who did. In the end, the odds are against either team actually winning a championship, but at least both teams will have a fighting chance- which is a pretty impressive accomplishment for a team that doesn't contain a single player currently being drafted within the first 30 picks of dynasty startups.

I've used the staff consensus dynasty rankings for this piece because the idea of dynasty windows is not about the specific players involved. If you prefer Geno Smith to EJ Manuel, or you can't stand Tony Romo, or you think Roddy White is overrated, or you think Michael Crabtree is done, that's fine- you can feel free to replace those players with other players who you like better. The point isn't to tell you which particular players you should be targeting or avoiding, it's to give an illustration of the kinds of lateral moves that can sync your roster up so that all of the players fit the same window. In the end, the goal is to take a roster where all of the players' peaks and valleys occur at different times, and shuffle the pieces around so that all players are peaking and crashing at the same time. 

A Few Last Words of Caution

Notice in the second example that the goal is winning next year, not winning "later". Many dynasty owners mistakenly assume the opposite of "win now" is "win later", but this is not the case. "Win now" is very specific and tightly defined, whereas "win later" is ambiguous and could mean any time from next year to the year 2020. The goal of using championship windows is clarity and discipline, and having a poorly-defined future target undermines both. The majority of the time, players focusing on the future should be focusing on next season. Occasionally, a roster will become so putrid that becoming competitive within the next year is not viable, in which case a 2-3 year window should be used. The rookie pick system means that, with enough clarity and discipline, it should be possible to turn around any team within three seasons.

Also keep in mind that there are some players who are so young, so proven, and so elite that they fit into whatever window you happen to be using. These players are extremely rare- they're usually all gone by the end of the second round in startup drafts- but once they are acquired, they should be held at nearly any cost. Players like Demaryius Thomas, Cam Newton, Doug Martin, or Jimmy Graham should be built around regardless of what window you are using. If you have a chance to acquire an A.J. Green, Aaron Rodgers, Trent Richardson, or Julio Jones, you should take it regardless of what your competition window might be. The way to become a true dynasty, a team so talented it doesn't have to worry about concepts like championship windows, is to acquire more of these young, productive players than anyone else in your league. I purposely did not include any of these names in our hypothetical, because this exercise is about building a champion when you don't have the services of these cornerstone talents to rely on.

Finally, always remember that dynasty leagues are games of limited resources, and the only way to be consistently successful in the long term is to acquire more resources than the other guys. Notice that all of my hypothetical trades had me receiving players who were rated very closely to the guys I was giving up, but who simply fit better into my target window. Even the worst team should never trade Adrian Peterson for Bernard Pierce, even if Pierce fits better in the 2-3 year window. Even the most near-sighted "win now" team should never trade Percy Harvin for Reggie Wayne, even if Wayne will do more to help win a championship this year. These kinds of trades hurt a team because they reduce the amount of resources it has at its disposal, moving it ever farther away from "dynasty" status. The concept of "championship windows" exists to help identify lateral moves you can make that will increase your chances of winning a championship at some point without depleting your roster of all of its talent.

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