Long ago, in a divisional alignment system that now seems far, far
away, the NFC East was more likely to be referred to as the NFC
Beast than the NFC Least. The Redskins won Super Bowls. The Giants
won Super Bowls. The Cowboys won Super Bowls. And the Eagles, if
they didn’t win championships, were at least competitive—unlike
the Cardinals, who were the one truly weak link in the chain of
the old NFC East.
If you studied the NFC East, the only conclusion you could reach
was that being in a tough division made good teams better. There
was something to be said for playing twice each season against multiple
teams with multiple (and reasonably recent) championships to their
credit. Clearly, the way to become an elite team in the NFL was
to belong to a division of elite competitors. All of our lurking
suspicions about the survival of the fittest were seemingly confirmed.
The logic ran something like this: If we make things harder on each
other, the result is that we become tougher, more resilient, more
resourceful. However good we may already be, we become better because
we have no choice.
But before we get carried away by that logic, let’s not forget
that we saw just the opposite of the NFC East phenomenon—appropriately
enough—in the NFC West. You might attribute the success of
the 49ers to the West Coast offense, to the uncanny ability of Bill
Walsh and his scouts to assess player talent correctly, or to creative
management and accounting strategies at the top levels of the organization.
But you would have a difficult time convincing anyone that the 49ers
became great as a necessary response to the ferocity of such inconsistent
competitors as the Rams, Saints, and Falcons.
The fact that the 49ers were the only consistently good team in
an extremely flimsy division seemed to be no small part of their
success. They got off to fast starts, sailed through seasons on
the confidence that is the byproduct of a fast start, had the opportunity
to rest players in games when other teams would have been forced
to play them, and had a definite edge when it came to winning home
field advantage and a week off in the playoffs against the NFC East
opponents who had to slug things out until the very end.
I suppose it was only that way for a few years in real life, but
it seemed to be the case for centuries in the hundreds of seasons
of football that I played on Tecmo Bowl. Remember that little cinematic
display that comes up to announce which teams have locked up a playoff
spot during the regular season? If your seasons went anything like
mine, the first team to get that display was almost always the 49ers.
Every time I watched that cartoon footage, I had to reflect, for
a second or two, on the inestimable value of belonging to a soft
So which is it? Are good teams better off in strong divisions or
I suppose the official answer from the parity-obsessed NFL these
days would be that the question is irrelevant. I doubt that Paul
Tagliabue would even acknowledge that there are such things as “strong”
or “weak” divisions in the NFL. Things change so dramatically
from season to season that I might even have to agree with him.
But what goes for the NFL does not necessarily follow for fantasy
football. In my experience, fantasy leagues are breeding grounds
for dynasties and disparities. Some teams are lots better than others
year after year. Some divisions are lots more competitive than others
from one season to the next. This is particularly true of large
leagues with multiple drafts/auctions such as the one I have belonged
to for years and often write about.
There are forty-eight teams in my league—divided into four
conferences with twelve teams each. We have a commissioner who oversees
the whole league, but he can’t attend all four drafts/auctions—and
each conference gets to decide for itself whether it wants to have
a draft or an auction or some kind of hybrid. The owners belonging
to my conference all know each other pretty well; we talk a good
deal of smack and remind each other of losing seasons—even
if they occurred three or four years ago. We follow the NFL in the
off-season, modify our rosters constantly during the early weeks
of the season, often propose outrageously complicated trades, and
would never consider allowing our players to be assigned to us by
a computer or some random drawing.
Some of us have tenuous ties to folks belonging to other conferences
in the league. Others, like myself, do not personally know a single
participant in the other conferences. But we hear stories.
We hear stories of drafts attended by only 50-75% of the participants.
We see on our league website that these absentee owners in other
conferences who allowed a computer to select their teams for them
do not modify their starting line-up in the course of the regular
season. We watch as the good, actively managed teams in the other
conferences lock up their playoff spots quite early in the season—while
we are all clustered with records of 4-6, 5-5, and 6-4. We routinely
compare one other conference to the old NFC West and ourselves to
the old NFC East, but that isn’t really a good comparison.
The NFC East, after all, won many championships. But none of us
have made it to a title game since the league adopted a four-conference
We all keep waiting for the pressure that we put on each other to
pay off. Since the time and date of all trades and acquisitions
are a matter of public record on the league website, it is plain
to see that we pick up emerging players faster than the teams in
other conferences. It is also plain to see that some of the less
alert owners in other conferences routinely leave players in their
lineups when they are injured or on a bye—something that our
smack-talking keeps pretty well out of the picture in our own conference.
I refuse to be frustrated by any of this. Even if one or two of
the other conferences might be said to support a kind of old NFC
West ethos, I can always see how my team or the other teams in my
conference could have done something different in order to be more
competitive. So please don’t mistake this column for a complaint.
And I think most of the other owners in my conference feel the same
way. We do occasionally talk about splintering off from the rest
of the league and having our own championship, but there are very
good, very active owners in all of the other conferences, and we
want to beat them even if it appears that their less good, less
active peers give them an advantage.
So here’s the first question that I’ll pose to readers
in 2005: Do the good owners in soft conferences/divisions really
have an advantage? It’s nice to be able to take one’s
time on the waiver wire and to get away with mistakes simply because
one’s opponent is an absentee owner. However, it seems to
be the sort of scenario that is bound, over the long term, to breed
complacency and laziness.
Or perhaps I’m just another guy who got knocked out of the
playoffs and started grasping at analogies because there weren’t
For responses to this fantasy question please email