Due to COVID-19, the NFL season might not unfold as planned. It's still on schedule for now, but games could be delayed, and the season could be shortened or canceled. In fantasy football, you take turns drafting real players to your team, and your success is determined by how well they actually play in real life. If the season doesn't happen, neither does its fantasy counterpart.
The uncertainty could have large ramifications on a league I've built with nine friends (including fellow CNETer Ry Crist) over the course of a decade, but we're persisting anyway. Here are a few ways we're preparing for the uncertainty of the 2020 NFL season while still planning to have fun and play our game together.
Step 1: Communicate and win
In my longstanding league, called the Mash Tun after the vessel used in the first stage of beer brewing, we have a system for planning ahead for the season and making any desired rule changes. Since our members live all over the country, we meet online over the summer at an event we dub the Summit. Picture three hours of giant football nerds drinking craft beer and teasing each other, interspersed with hyper serious debates about rules minutiae that can feel like courtroom litigation.
This year, our Summit provided a great forum to discuss contingency plans in case the season is delayed, shortened or canceled. If you have a longstanding league, try meeting through online group chatting tools like Google Meet or Zoom. I use free Doodle polls to find a time that works for everyone. Getting everyone in the same place at once will be the most efficient way to make sure all are on board with whatever contingency plans you might come up with.
Even if you just use email, make sure you communicate with your league if you're the commissioner, or chief organizer of the league. If you're not the commissioner, try reaching out and getting the ball rolling yourself. The group could have exceedingly well-thought-out plans for whatever happens with the NFL season, but if all your league members don't know about those plans, they might be construed as unfair when you start playing and need to make sudden changes.
I'm the commissioner of the Mash Tun, but the Summit meant I didn't have to come up with every contingency plan myself. Make the process democratic, and you'll have an easier time thinking through all of the potential variables.
Step 2: And speaking of plans, have one
Given the uncertainty surrounding the season and the many ways it could change, you might be tempted to throw your hands in the air and adapt on the fly when and if something does shift. While it's hard to know specifics, getting your league on board with any kind of plan will be much more fair to all in the long run, especially if you play in a competitive league with money on the line. Here are a few suggestions for plans in each circumstance and what we decided to do in the Mash Tun.
In the case of a delay, push back your fantasy draft if you haven't held it already. Try to schedule your draft as late as possible to lessen the chance of a delay being announced between the draft and the start of the season. NFL players could get COVID or decide during a delay not to play this year. League owners will have a better time if they can all draft with the same info about who's actually playing this season.
The Mash Tun will draft on Labor Day weekend, only a few days before the season starts that following Thursday. Unfortunately, we will be drafting remotely through another online meetup. Normally, we all travel to a rotating list of cities for the draft and share craft beers in person, but not this year because of all of the added risk. I'm bummed, but we'll set aside the money we would have spent this season to make next year's draft party that much better.
If you've already drafted or a delay is announced after your draft, you could let the draft stand and leave the waiver wire open so owners could continually adjust their roster to try to keep up with changes. That's what we'll do in the Mash Tun if a delay happens after our draft. You could also redo the draft or fully freeze your league until it reopens. Again, just communicate this plan with your league's members beforehand.
In the case of a shortened season, the Mash Tun is following the lead of the NBA and the NHL and jumping straight to a tournament. All 10 of our teams will get to play instead of our usual four-team playoff. The tournament seeds will be decided randomly if the shortened season is announced before we've played any games. It will be seeded by the current order of standings if it's shortened partway through the season.
In the case of a canceled season, the biggest issues are what to do with any buy-in money and what to do with any legacy elements such as players you can keep from year to year. If the NFL season is canceled, we're simply going to donate our pot to charity.
This will likely be especially tough for our first-place team at the time, but it's what we agreed to beforehand and the first-place team will get to pick the charity. You could also return the money to owners or dole out a percentage of rewards based on how far into the season you make it before it's canceled. What's most important is that the members of your league agree on what to do with the buy-in money before the season starts.
As for keepers, we're making things easy on ourselves by calling this year a reset year regardless. We haven't had a fresh draft in a while where all owners came in on even footing -- usually some have the advantage of great keepers. In our league, if you have a player who performed really well one season, you can hang on to that player for the next season as well, so he doesn't return to the pool of options we pick from on draft day. The reset gives us a chance to refresh the league and start anew.
Other options include keeping players from 2019 rosters in the case of a 2020 cancellation -- a full freeze on all assets for the year. Most keepers have a cost, so you might need to set aside your third pick in a draft to reserve your player. From year to year, depending on your fantasy league settings, that cost might increase from your third pick to your second so it costs more to keep a player longer. If that's the case, you should also decide if this value is going to freeze in the case of a 2020 cancellation or progress normally.
Step 3: I/R slots and honor systems
In the Mash Tun, we're also adding five Injured Reserve slots to our rosters. These normally let you set aside players who are hurt so you can find a healthy free agent as a substitute without going over the maximum number of players you can have.
League members in the Mash Tun will only be allowed to put players into those slots if they have COVID -- the site we play on doesn't enforce this, but we all agreed to honor this rule to give us extra flexibility. If league members have more than five players affected by COVID (as of July 28th, 21 have already tested positive), they'll be allowed to drop those players with the understanding that no one else can pick them up.
Not every league has this level of trust among members, but again, solutions with heightened understanding and flexibility are possible as long as you communicate about all of your options and get every member of your league on board.
Perhaps the NFL season will take place as usual and all of this preparation will be unnecessary. That would be wonderful. If something does go wrong, the Mash Tun will be prepared to give all of its members a fighting chance to adapt and to keep the game fair. Yes, all our planning time might go to waste, but in any league you care about, it's much better to have plans and not use them than need them and not have them.