Don't Panic! (at least not this week). Or your playoff odds given your record
Updated: Sep 4, 2022
Every year some NFL teams start out hot while others struggle to get going. The same is true for fantasy football teams. Some teams start 3-0 while others are wallowing at 0-3. Experts are always saying don't panic, play the waiver wire and you will be able to turn it around. After all, they did so in one league just last year. But at some point, you have to panic. At some point, you have to pivot from waiting for the guys you drafted to perform to trading for different guys, even if they had lower draft value. So in this post, we are going to explore when is it time to panic. Specifically, we will look at your playoff odds given your record and point differential. By the end, we will have a sense of when is the time to panic, when is your record more due to bad luck and you should stay the course, and finally, at what point are you just trying to avoid the last place?
For this post, we will be using a collection of 2019 and 2020 ESPN leagues (over 100,000 teams). For each team, we will calculate their record at different points in the season and compare whether they made the playoffs or not. In aggregate, we can see what percent of teams with a specific record at a specific week make the playoffs (e.g what percent of 3-0 teams make the playoffs).
We will also calculate each team's cumulative point differential vs the median score each week and make the same playoff odds calculations. We can use this as a luck reference (for a larger explanation, see my post on fantasy football luck), such that if you have a high, positive point differential, but a bad record, then you are probably better than your record would suggest. To keep things simple (and the sample sizes large), I will be comparing only 10 team leagues with 4 playoff teams, but know that having larger leagues will likely mean each win counts for more while more playoff teams will have the opposite effect. Also remember that the NFL expanded to a 17 week season this year, that extra week gives everyone another week to turn it around.
I am also including a widget at the bottom of this post that allows you to explore the playoff and championship odds for any given week.
Let's start by looking at how many wins we need to make the playoffs.
Looking at season totals (week 14), we can see that as long as you have 10 or more wins then you have a 99% chance of making the playoffs. Having 9 wins (91%) or 8 wins (60%) means you will normally make the playoffs. Once you drop to 7 wins you have a 20% chance and at 6 wins you have a 2% chance at the playoffs. We can conclude that we need at least an 8-6 (and preferably 9-5) record to make the playoffs in most leagues.
I also want to point out the shape of the curve shown here. This is a logistic curve and helps show the winner take all aspects of fantasy football. whether you have 0 wins or 5 wins, does not matter, you are not making the playoffs. So don't be afraid to swing for the fences and make the boom/bust type moves at the end of the season that has a chance to get you into the playoffs.
Week 3 vs 6 vs 9
With the end goal in mind, let's work backward and check teams' records and odds after weeks 3, 6, and 9 to see what kind of records we want to see there.
Unsurprisingly, our confidence when looking at the playoffs odds increases as the season goes on. Additionally, our curve gets more logistic (s-shaped) with time, more closely resembling the end of the season graph. In general, if you have a winning record you have a good chance at making the playoffs (no shocker there). Additionally, it is nice to see very little difference between the 2019 and 2020 teams. We are dealing with such large sample sizes here that it helps align these values towards their true values.
To me, the surprise is how quickly the elite and bad teams separate. Even at week three, we see a clear difference in odds between a team that is 3-0 (~76% chance at making the playoffs) vs 0-3 (~8% chance). There is even a big difference between a 2-1 team (~52% chance) vs 1-2 (~25% chance). Just really drives home the importance of every single week. This separation right around a .500 record carries through. At week 9, a 4-5 team has a 16% chance at making the playoffs while a 5-4 team has a 47% chance at making the playoffs. Obviously easier said than done, but you want to do what you have to to maintain a winning record as we progress through the season.
Given how big the differences are and where we are in the season, let's zoom in even farther and look at the first 3 weeks
Weeks 1 vs 2 vs 3
We see a pretty consistent shift here. 0-1 drops your odds to 27%, 0-2 and you are at 16%, reach 0-3 and your playoff odds drop all the way to 8%. Overall this just adds to the idea of getting off to a good start. But it also gives a good line, if you get to 0-3, it's time to panic. Panic, but not give up.
One way to determine the strength of a team is to calculate a team's point differential vs the league median. A positive value means you should have won more than you lost, negative means the opposite.
Alright, so we see the same type of distribution as with wins. By the end of the season, you want at least 65 points above the median to have a 50% shot at the playoffs. You need at least 170 points above the median to get to an 80% chance at the playoffs.
Week 3 vs 6 vs 9
Again we see a progression where the odds of coming back reduce quickly. Even a slightly negative point differential has reduced odds at the playoffs at week 3 and this difference only elongates by week 9 (where you need a positive point differential to have even the base level odds).
Week 1 vs 2 vs 3
I actually think this is the more encouraging graph. Even a negative 50 point differential at week 3 still gives you a 15% chance at the playoffs. Now that's not good, but it definitely means you are not out of it at week 3. The important thing to consider with all of these point differentials is to compare where your team is vs its record. If you have a positive point differential vs the median but are sitting at 0-2, then I would not worry and would hold strong. Your luck should turn around. Use these to confirm your record, but remember that at the end of the day you are what your record says you are.
As with all of my posts, there are limitations here. The most obvious is that I have no idea how these teams were managed. Some of these teams likely had great managers and some had terrible ones. I expect that a bad manager is likely also a bad drafter and therefore likely has a worse team. So this analysis may be an overly pessimistic view. Still, it is informative as it defines a baseline. An additional limitation is a purposeful one, namely that I limited this to 10 team leagues with 4 teams making the playoffs. I expect a 12 team league to have a steeper slope while moving to 6 playoff teams would be more forgiving. So adjust accordingly, though I doubt any combination will make an 0-3 start look good. Finally, note that all of us are playing 1 more week this year (thanks to the 17-week regular season), which gives all teams more time to recover.
The overall conclusion is to never give up, even in the most drastic scenarios you do have a chance to turn it around. That said, those odds go down quickly, so if you are 0-2 right now, you should at least start thinking about the moves you may need to do. Do double check your point differential vs your league's median before you truly panic, as your team may be better than your record says. But know that at some point you need to make the kind of drastic decisions necessary to turn your team around. Overall, I don't think that those of us sitting at 0-2 need to panic, but next week we might have to.