The Journey to Back to Back King’s Classic Titles
There’s no one single moment that you can point to in a long fantasy football season that is the difference between winning or losing, but when you’ve been playing the game long enough you know certain things have to break your way or you aren’t going to get the result you want. Experienced fantasy footballers know that winning a league – whether it be an 8 team league with your family or a 14 team league with experts – is as much about the luck you don’t see as it is the luck you do see. You can pour your heart and soul into working your butt off to win, but ultimately you need a certain amount of help from the fantasy gods or it will be just another good year without a title.
In the King’s Classic Auction League, Blanda Division, I’ve been living a charmed life. I have had the good fortune to not only win the league in 2021, but I was the champion in 2020 as well. And while winning this thing twice takes a LOT of help from the universe, I’ve also been living the commonly accepted idea that finding success is to a certain degree about making your own luck. So there’s luck. And then there’s a different kind of luck. Clear as mud right? Let me explain.
Plain Old Luck
In the days leading up to Week 16, I was working the waiver wire and signed Buffalo Bills wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie to my squad. I felt pretty good about my starting lineup in the semifinals so I left him on the bench. He scored 29.4 PPR points with Cole Beasley sidelined on the Covid list. The first piece of luck is that my poor decision to leave him on the bench (plenty of indicators said he would be busy in Week 16 and I considered starting him over Tyler Johnson who had a big fat zero) didn’t end my season.
The second piece of luck regarding McKenzie happened in the lead-up to Week 17. Due to the NFL’s decision to change the policy on returning from the Covid list Beasley (and fellow receiver Gabriel Davis) was cleared to play. My opponent, dealing with some depth issues, had been starting receiver Antoine Wesley in his last flex position. When Beasley was cleared a couple dominoes fell. I had just lost Adam Thielen and James Robinson for the season and was fully planning on starting McKenzie in the finals. When Beasley and Davis were cleared I had to put McKenzie back on the bench. The kicker My opponent had Beasley on his roster and was able to put him in his lineup. Ostensibly, heading into a tight matchup this was a big blow to my chances. Losing an explosive flex player like McKenzie and my opponent getting Beasley back felt like a huge swing in his favor. That turned out to be dead wrong.
Week 17 PPR Points
Cole Beasley – 6.2 (2/22 receiving plus a 2-point conversion)
Antoine Wesley – 19.0 (4/30/2 receiving)
I won the final by a little under nine points. The difference between Beasley and Wesley was 12.8 points and represented the difference in the game.
I didn’t tell this story to say my opponent should’ve started Wesley instead of Beasley. Far from it. He got unlucky. I got lucky. These things happen. And they happen far more than we’d like to admit.
The Other Kind of Luck
What’s the “other” kind of luck? It’s the luck you make on your own. It’s the “luck” that never happens to you if you don’t put yourself in the right position. Another example is from finals week this past week.
As I said, I had James Robinson on my team. As we all know, Robinson tore his Achilles in Week 16 and was done for the year. This forced me to make a tough decision. My opponent was somewhat weak at quarterback. Trey Lance was the only quarterback left on the wire with any upside. So I checked his FAAB budget. I had used mine up long ago, and saw that he had $0 as well. The question then became – do I block his attempt to get Lance or do I go for a top position player to help my lineup? I decided that it was more important to sign a player I could start. After losing Thielen/Robinson I was very thin at my final few flex spots. So I targeted Jaguars running back Dare Ogunbowale over Lance. I was regretting this decision for three quarters on Sunday as Ogunbowale was hovering around 3-4 points most of the afternoon. But then a late garbage-time receiving touchdown propelled him to a 14-point afternoon.
Some might consider the touchdown lucky. But the fact is, I was aware that the Patriots defense had surrendered the 4 th most yards receiving per game to running backs and was allowing an average of six receptions per game to the position. It was likely that the Jaguars would be behind, throwing the ball, and using Ogunbowale. And that’s exactly what happened. If I hadn’t targeted Ogunbowale I wouldn’t have banked those massively important 14 points on finals day.
I think you get the point. There’s luck and then there’s luck. But the overarching point is the same: You have to run well to win, no matter how hard you work. In fact, all things being equal, the odds of winning a 14-team league like the King’s Classic is about 7%. And the odds of doing it twice in a row is about .5%. It reminds me of the old saying that poker players know well, “You’re never as good as you think you are when you’re running good, and never as bad as you think you are when you’re running bad.” Winning the King’s Classic back-to-back is not just running well, it’s running with the purity of the driven white snow. But let’s go back to the beginning for a second.
For those who don’t know, the King’s Classic is a league of analysts from some of the biggest and best sites on the internet. There are 14 teams and we start ten players with three wide receivers and three flex positions. We do not use kickers or defenses. As a result every week there are 140 position players in use. Compare that to a typical 12-team league with nine starters that uses kickers and defenses. In that type of league, you are only starting 84 position players. That’s a huge difference and makes things much more difficult.
Each King’s Classic league is not just one league either. The 14 teams draft once using a snake format, take a break, and then turn around and draft using an auction format. The idea is to find the best fantasy player regardless of format by using both drafting styles, and by loading the room with talented fantasy minds. The opponents in the room this year were: Ian Hartitz, Ryan McDowell/Eric Dickens, Scott Pianowski, Chris Allen/Mike Woellert, Steve Rapin, Mauricio Gutierrez, Matt Donnelly, Darren Armani, Gary Davenport, Dennis Clausen, Doug Orth, Corey Parson/Lawrence Jackson, and Hutchinson Brown.
I was proud to say that in 2021 I made the playoffs in both leagues, although my snake division team lacked punch after losing Christian McCaffrey and a few others and I bowed out in the first round. In contrast, my auction team started the year ranked by ESPN as the best team coming out of the draft and I went on to be second in points in the regular season while grabbing the #1 seed.
Now, the final part of the format that makes things more challenging is that the benches are shallow. For a 10-man starting lineup we have just 6 bench spots. This forces you to make hundreds of decisions throughout the season that can make or break your chances if you decide wrong. I had players on my roster like Devonta Freeman, Ronald Jones, and K.J. Osborn at different times but had to drop them for
covid, injuries, or bye weeks. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but sometimes it’s a herculean task simply to field a lineup that can win on any given week.
By now you’re probably thinking, “we are 1,200 words in and you haven’t told us how you won.” You’d be right. Let me walk you through some of the biggest decisions I made and how they led to a title.
One of the coolest things about the King’s Classic, besides the people you meet, is getting to draft in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s a heady experience and one that never gets old. But it also comes with its own set of expectations and pressures.
I was invited to participate as a staff writer for Footballguys before the 2019 season. As most people experienced in their own lives in 2020 we weren’t able to go in person last year. That was not only a bummer personally, but wasn’t good for my auction game either. In 2019 we had used a vastly different format. We had only 12 teams, and we still used kickers and defenses. When I showed up for the online draft I wasn’t prepared for how values would change for the new format. We added 2 teams and 24 extra position players to starting lineups each week. The 2020 online auction felt like a buzzsaw. As you know already, I won the league, but not before suffering a crisis of confidence leaving the draft room in August of ’20. I was devastated about what I perceived to be a poor performance. After all, as the self-proclaimed Auction Expert, I was supposed to be good at this right? But it turns out everyone had some holes in their lineups leaving that draft and my team was fairly strong despite my feelings.
This played into my strategy for 2021. Not only was I happy to be getting back to an in-person draft where I could use my skill at reading people and draft situations, but I had also redoubled my efforts to budget my way to a starting lineup devoid of holes after the 2020 debacle.
I spent plenty of time talking about my draft strategy on my show last year so I won’t go through it all here, but the things I was stressing were:
- Ignoring my feelings about players and taking cheap deals on players that might be “post-hype” like Christian Kirk or Adam Thielen.
- Getting two top players regardless of position, but most likely one at running back and one at wide receiver.
- Paying a few dollars above replacement quarterback money to avoid having to stream in a league where depth on the wire would be suspect.
- Spending less on second-tier players to create a huge block of depth at the back of the roster to fill out my lineup.
Walking into the draft room in 2021 I had an adrenaline-fueled rush spiking in my body. As the defending champ with the added stress of being the “auction guy,” I felt a lot of pressure to make sure I left the draft with a better result than the previous year. The unfortunate side-effect of all my studying before the draft left me with an unsettling realization: there wasn’t enough money in the room to allow someone to put together a powerhouse team. The sharp drafters and player scarcity made it nearly impossible. Instead, I’d be relying on my ability to jump on any deal I saw while still trying to get a reasonable price on two elite guys. Quite a tall task in this room of experienced drafters. Without fail, every time I felt like I was getting a steal on someone I would hear the voice of Scott Pianowski or Steve Rapin pipe up to crush my hopes. Even so, I felt much better about my performance in 2021.
I left the draft with this team:
QB – Dak Prescott $11
RB – Austin Ekeler $41
RB – James Robinson $13
RB – Sony Michel $1
WR – Davante Adams $42
WR – Adam Thielen $20
WR – Robby Anderson $18
WR – Brandin Cooks $13
TE – Mike Gesicki $3
RB – Tarik Cohen $8
WR – Michael Pittman $5
WR – Courtland Sutton $15
WR – TreQuan Smith $3
TE – Hunter Henry $2
TE – Blake Jarwin $4
As you can see, I had several misses on my bench (Cohen, Jarwin), but my general plan to grab cheap players regardless of my opinion worked wonders. Pittman was a steal and a large part of my success. Sutton won me quite a few games in the first half of the year. Gesicki was not someone I wanted but wasn’t going to pass up for $3. Cooks was yet again too cheap and he carried me at times as well.
But really, the duo of Robinson and Michel is what took me over the top. I had planned on grabbing Michel as my final player in deep leagues even before he went to Los Angeles and that’s what happened here. I figured he would play plenty for the Patriots or another team (if he was traded or cut) and thought he’d be just a dollar (he was). In this type of league my whole strategy revolved around holding my nose and drafting guys who would have value in this deep format despite a general lack of enthusiasm from the fantasy community. Those might be guys like Robinson or Pittman, or guys like Beasley, J.D. McKissic, and Hunter Renfrow who aren’t interesting in August but who can provide a floor for your team when finding a flex player who can score six to eight points is sometimes hard. Just ask me about my Kyle Juszczyk debacle sometime.
In the end, the prices I paid for Adams and Ekeler were exactly what I was after, and then I dropped way down into the teens for most of the rest of my roster. I used this theory to a degree in 2020 but was more prepared and budgeted more successfully in 2021 after studying the results from the online draft. I couldn’t have been happier with how I attempted to execute my plan.
I could go through hundreds of decisions that led me to where I ended up at the end of the year. But the lessons I learned were mostly about my failures, not my successes. Finding a gem on the waiver wire in this league is exceedingly difficult. Most players that are going to pop up to add early in the season are already rostered, and if they aren’t the competition is fierce to sign them. It’s not a strength of my game, I’ll admit that.
So I control only what I can control. I work the wire relentlessly every week, not only during FAAB time but afterward as well. If necessary I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. and wake up to see if I got who I wanted, or if I can add someone after an unsuccessful claim. This gives me the jump on people who are still asleep and acts as a sort of priority if I need it.
Generally, the waiver wire was a huge bust for me. I carried Carlos Hyde as a handcuff for seven weeks until I had to drop him to have starters to play during byes. As soon as I did that Robinson got hurt and I had to blow half my budget getting Hyde back because I didn’t know how serious the injury to Robinson was. On top of that, I had the belief that Kalif Raymond was going to start for me the second half of the year and I blew some money on him as well.
I have to say, my waiver wire work wasn’t inspiring, but it was still important. I signed guys like Rex Burkhead, Jordan Howard, and Laquon Treadwell. In this format these guys were instrumental to my ability to weather the craziness of the season. Treadwell’s steady ten points per game was one of the biggest reasons my team remained competitive when I lost Thielen. Those kinds of players are invaluable in a league like this. I stupidly left him on the bench in the finals after playing him the previous five weeks and I’m pathetically happy it didn’t cost me a title. He was awesome down the stretch.
There were two other lessons I learned from the in-season grind.
The first was that saving some FAAB for the end of the year is important. I’m a big proponent of spending your money if you need to, but now I have a new strategy. Whatever the FAAB budget is, if I’m in position to make the playoffs, I’ll be reserving 10% of my budget to be able to dominate my opponents when the playoffs come. If I had done that this year I would’ve stolen both Lance AND Ogunbowale from my opponent before the finals and improved my chances measurably. It all goes back to something I preach on the Auction Brief all the time: Things you do successfully during the year don’t automatically win you your leagues, but they improve your chances. If you string enough of those things together it gives you a definable edge on your league.
The second thing I learned (or had to re-learn) is that this large of a league emphasizes something I’ve been preaching for a long time and that’s that we play too much lineup bingo with matchups. Matchups are tiebreakers but shouldn’t dictate who we start to such a large degree. I’ve learned this lesson before, but this deep league format reinforced it because you can’t bench anyone regardless of matchup. And what you see when that happens is that opportunity can overcome poor matchups. For example, I was nervous about Sony Michel’s matchup in the finals as he drew Baltimore and their exceedingly tough run defense. Benching him in a 10 teamer might’ve been possible. But it wasn’t for me. And then he went out and threw up 18.9 points because he caught a few passes and found the end zone. Michel was a league winner for me. He might not have been if I had the luxury to bench him. Start your guys unless extreme circumstances say not to. That was hammered home to me this year more than ever.
THE END GAME
So how did I win the title? Scratch that. How did I win TWO titles? Well, I wish I could tell you I’m brilliant. Yeah, I know how to draft. Yeah, I know how to manage a team. But in 2020 I won by 7 points when my opponent had Corey Davis post a zero in the snow in Green Bay. In 2021 Cole Beasley came back and robbed my opponent of a two-touchdown day from Wesley. I could go on.
What happens to any fantasy team is that you have to work hard, catch some breaks, work hard, have some luck, and keep working hard. But if your difference-makers like Davante Adams and Austin Ekeler don’t stay healthy then none of that matters much. I’m certainly not here to say that nothing you do will matter, quite the opposite actually.
You must grind to put yourself in the right position to win, but unfortunately we all know it still may not be enough. I drafted some terrible players. I picked up some terrible players. I dropped some good players. But in the end, I continued to work and continued to play the game the best I know how.
I can’t think of a more perfect example that encapsulates all these concepts than me starting Jordan Howard in the championship game. My options were to start him, Rex Burkhead, or Laquon Treadwell. I was wary of starting Treadwell because I already had Ogunbowale in my lineup and the Jaguars had the lowest implied total on the slate against New England. Starting two Jacksonville players in a title game was nausea-inducing. I didn’t love Burkhead either against a stout 49ers run defense that had become something of a pass-funnel.
Leading up to the game I was secretly hoping Howard would be ruled out so I didn’t have to make the call. But he played, and I felt like he had the chance to score a couple touchdowns so I had to play him. In fact, Howard managed three carries from inside the 5-yard line. If someone had asked me before the game if I would want to start Howard knowing he’d get three opportunities from in close I would say unequivocally yes. Watching the game on Sunday might’ve drained a few years of my life. On one of Howard’s carries, he had a BIG hole to get into the end zone and he inexplicably tripped at the four, fell down, and still had enough time to attempt to get back up and dive into the end zone. He didn’t make it and was ruled down at the 2-yard line. Again later in the game Howard got several carries from in close and couldn’t convert before Boston Scott came in and mopped up with yet another touchdown.
This is what I mean by the luck of the game. If Howard had been ruled out I would’ve started Treadwell and his 14.7 points (or Burkhead and his 13.9). If Howard hadn’t tripped he would’ve had 8.9 points and my game wouldn’t have been a sweat. In a parallel universe Howard has 15.1 points on 31 rushing yards and two touchdowns and I win going away. If. If. If.
That’s fantasy football. And this time around my number came up despite the Howard-Treadwell decision. This game we play isn’t quite a lottery, but sometimes it can feel like it. When you’re not having success it’s easy to blame the process. But if you’re working hard and competing that’s rarely the problem. Of course, we should always be examining our process and striving to improve. But assuming that isn’t the problem you just have to remember - you can’t have your number pop up if you aren’t buying the ticket in the first place.
Take it from me. I was grinding it. I worked it. I sweated it. That got me my ticket. And none of it would’ve mattered if a few things didn’t bounce my way. But I’m proud to have put myself in the spot to win.
I bought the ticket. And my number came up. Twice. I couldn’t be happier or more grateful. I can’t wait for 2022 to see if I can defy the odds and do it again. Is it August yet?