There are certain things that every experienced fantasy football player knows.
For example, everybody knows that the best way to protect your investment in a big-name player is to make sure you get his backup. That way, if your star gets hurt, you'll have his replacement ready to go. It's the handcuff theory. Everybody knows this.
Everybody is wrong.
Look a little deeper into the handcuff theory, and you come to realization that it's far more trouble than its worth. For a variety of reasons which we'll examine below, handcuffing is a flawed strategy that will rarely yield any significant benefit.
First, some ground rules. To clarify what we're talking about: Handcuffing is the idea that you aggressively target whichever players are backing up of your top stars (almost always your QBs and RBs). We're not talking about obvious running back by committees such as Hearst/Barlow and Bettis/Zereoue, but rather clear starter/backup situations like Faulk/Gordon and Holmes/Johnson.
I should also point out that I'll be working on the assumption that you play in an average sized league of about 10-12 teams. In very large leagues, where 50-60 RBs are being drafted, each team will have several backups on their roster. Handcuffing can make limited sense in those leagues, although it's still a shaky strategy to base a draft around.
In smaller leagues, of course, there's no need to have backups of any type of a roster (although a surprising number of owners in 8-team leagues still insist on handcuffing their stars).
Let's look at three reasons why the handcuff strategy usually backfires.
Reason #1: Backups are backups for a reason Sure, it sounds obvious. With the exception of very rare cases where a coach has fallen in love with an aging veteran, the backup will almost always be less talented than the starter. In some cases, the talent gap will be small. In most cases, it will be enormous.
The mistake handcuff advocates make is in assuming that your handcuff will put up numbers that are reasonably close to what your starter does. In most cases, though, they won't, simply because they're not good enough to be productive NFL starters.
Remember: In most cases, if that guy was worth a spot in the starting lineup, he'd already have one.
Reason #2: There's really no point planning for worst-case scenario Many of the fantasy owners who swear by handcuffing argue that it's necessary in order to protect against the worst-case scenario. We've all seen promising seasons go down in flames because a top draft pick blows out his knee and goes down for year. Handcuffing can be seen as a way to lessen the impact of these situations; think of it as cheap insurance, right?
Wrong. Here's the cold, hard truth: If you spend a first round pick on a guy who ends up missing most of the season with injuries, you're screwed. Plain and simple.
Yes, in rare cases you can recover. If you had an extraordinary run of luck in the middle rounds, or if you manage to fleece a fellow owner or two in a trade, you may have the depth to contend. But the chances are, you'll be looking at next year as soon as you hear the pop of your stud RBs ACL.
Sure, having a handcuff insurance policy available may mean the difference between finishing tenth and finish seventh. Big deal. If you're reading this site, you're obviously in your league to win, not just to do well.
If one of your studs gets hurt, your chances of winning your league will essentially disappear. It's the harsh reality of fantasy football. So why bother planning for the worst-case scenario? Instead, base your strategy on the assumption that your studs will survive the season and concentrate on picking up solid depth guys rather than emergency "worst-case" handcuffs.
Sure, it's an all-or-nothing strategy. Fantasy football is an all-or-nothing game, unless you're one of those guys who's happy to finish third.
Reason #3: Handcuffs usually wind up being worthless Here's where we get to the meat of the argument. I realize that there will be plenty of self-appointed experts who aren't convinced. You know who you are: you skimmed the first two sections, nodding but unimpressed, muttering "whatever you say, chum, I still need my handcuffs". You don't care that most handcuffs simply don't have the talent to make an impact, and you don't mind wasting time planning for the worst-case scenario.
OK, then let's try this on for size. We would all agree that most handcuff picks will never be needed because the starter will stay healthy. But even in those cases where the starter does go down, there's a very good chance that your precious handcuff pick won't be the guy who steps in.
Let's take a moment to let that sink in: In the majority of cases, your handcuff will never make a start.
Don't believe me? Let's look at six of last year's trendy handcuff picks:
Stud: Marshall Faulk Handcuff: Trung Canidate Reasoning: Faulk was perhaps the most coveted player in fantasy sports history. But he was an injury risk, and if he ever did go down then Canidate would be a, um, candidate to post staggering numbers in the Rams explosive offense. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Canidate was the most-hyped handcuff of all time; Fanball warned that "if you draft Marshall Faulk, [Canidate] better be in your top ten". Result: Oops. Faulk did get hurt, but Canidate ended up watching from the sidelines as Lamar Gordon got most of the replacement carriers. Faulk owners who spent a draft pick to handcuff him to Canidate tore their hair out watching some schmoe pluck Gordon off the waiver wire. And even then, Gordon didn't do very much.
Stud: Kurt Warner Handcuff: Jamie Martin Reasoning: In many leagues, Warner went #2 overall behind Faulk. With the Rams collection of speedy backs and receivers, surely an injury to Warner would mean big numbers for his backup (like it had for Trent Green when Warner missed five games in 2000). Result: Oops again. Warner did get hurt, and Martin did step in. And after one decidedly average effort, he turned the reins over the Mark Bulger. Bulger, a waiver wire pickup in virtually every league, was the one to rack up the points in Warner's absence. Martin did get some playing time in December, but most owners who drafted him had dumped him in frustration long before then.
Stud: Edgerrin James Handcuff: Dominic Rhodes Reasoning: James was returning from season-ending surgery in 2001. Rhodes had filled for James that year and rushed for 1,100 yards. If James were hurt again (or ineffective), Rhodes would step in and the Colts offense would barely miss a beat. Result: Rhodes blew out his knee in late-August (after most leagues had already held their drafts), and missed the entire season. James stayed healthy for the most part. When he did miss time, it was James Mungro who stepped in and put up nice but not spectacular numbers in spot duty.
Stud: Terrell Davis Handcuff: Olandis Gary/Mike Anderson/Clinton Portis Reasoning: Davis was expected to retire, and even if he hung on he'd be unlikely to be a regular starter. Gary had stepped in for Davis in 1999 and rushed for 1,159 yards. Anderson had been even better in 2000 with 1,487, although he was expected to play fullback in 2002. Portis was the least-hyped of the three. Result: Davis did retire (kind of), but Gary and Anderson owners didn't get a thing for their investments. Portis, of course, had a monster year. But in most leagues, he was a waiver pickup.
Stud: Fred Taylor Handcuff: Stacey Mack Reasoning: There's only one constant in the fantasy football world: Fred Taylor is always hurt. Result: Fred Taylor was never hurt. Mack did vulture nine touchdowns, but never got a single start.
Stud: Curtis Martin Handcuff: Lamont Jordan Reasoning: Martin was a first-round pick, but was getting older and had a talented backup waiting in the wings. Result: Martin did get hurt, and struggled through most of the year. Fantasy owners who drafted him early probably had terrible years. Despite that, a combination of unpredictable playing time and lackluster performance made Jordan a fantasy non-factor. Granted, this is a small sample. But of the half-dozen handcuff situations that were most likely to come up in your fantasy draft, only one yielded a replacement player who had any success at all (Portis) -- and most owners probably missed out on him altogether in favor of Gary and Anderson. The other handcuffs amounted to nothing more than wasted draft picks.
Is this really the sort of success rate you want to have determine your draft day strategy?
Common Objections Some fantasy veterans are so used to using the handcuff strategy that they'll have a hard time abandoning it. Here are some objections I'd expect to hear, with my answers.
Just because predicting which backups will be successful is hard doesn't mean it can't be done Yes, there will always be a few backups each season who make the most of an opportunity and put up great numbers. This tends to happen in very specific situations, in which talent and opportunity come together to crack the door open for a deserving player. With some hard work, fantasy owners can even identify these situations before they happen.
But that's now what handcuffing is about. Rather, handcuffing is a knee-jerk reaction: I have Player A, therefore I must get Backup B. In order to handcuff, an owner has to artificially boost the value of specific backup players - which means passing over potentially better options.
What about the recent backup QBs who exploded, like Kurt Warner in '99? Or Tom Brady in 2001? Or Tommy Maddox last year?
They were great stories, but all three had something in common: they were virtual nobodies before they got their shot. Each also played for teams that weren't expected to air the ball out the way they did, and each was behind a QB who went into the season as the undisputed starter. In other words, none were classic handcuff candidates. In fact, the chances are that none of these guys were taken in any of your leagues the year they blew up. If anything, they're the exception that proves the rule: It's almost impossible to pick which backups will do well in a given season.
But what about Shaun Alexander in 2001! He was a classic handcuff pick, and he exploded! Yes, good old Shaun Alexander, the handcuff lover's best friend. Look, nobody's saying that a handcuff pick will never, ever work out. We are saying that it happens so rarely as to not be worth your time. For every Alexander, there are plenty of Canidates, Martins, Rhodes, and more. So sure, sometimes the handcuff strategy works. Sometimes drafting rookie WRs works too (Randy Moss). But both work so rarely that they're not good strategies for series fantasy football players.
But... I like having handcuffs for my star players. I'm very timid, and it makes me feel warm and safe. I suspect that this is the real reason that so many owners love to handcuff. To them I say: It's OK. As long as you understand that you're sacrificing quality for comfort, go ahead.
I bet the guy that wrote this never won a fantasy league either. As long as you draft your backup late when you're not passing up solid bench players that start, you'll be ok. But if that hot commodity on the waiver wire comes around, don't hesitate to drop them.