Two quarterbacks are better than one. It's double the pleasure, baby, triple the fun!
OK, so what can I say, as I sat down to write our annual two-quarterback strategy column, I couldn't help but feel nostalgic, reminiscing about the days of hair bands, New Kids and, of course, "Bill & Ted." After all, it sure feels like that much time has passed since I joined my local two-quarterback league.
Having been in that league for more than a decade, I can attest it's definitely "double the pleasure." Of course, it also means more work. Double the work? I doubt to that extreme, but let's just say that if you stroll into your two-QB league's draft and chuckle when Drew Brees inevitably gets picked fifth overall, chances are you're the one who's going to get laughed at.
First, let's discuss the appeal of the two-QB league. The logic is simple: There are 32 teams in the NFL, meaning that, at any given time, there are 32 starting quarterbacks, 32 starting running backs (excluding backups who get "starter's" touches due to committees) and 64 starting wide receivers (excluding the No. 3 wideouts on teams that frequently go three-wide). A typical ESPN league starts one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers and a "flex" running back/wide receiver, meaning at any given time there are 10 quarterbacks and at least 20 apiece at running back and wide receiver. In other words, a standard league isn't even using one-third of the active quarterback population at any given time, whereas at running back, the pool gets sufficiently drained.
(On a side note, don't get me started on the math at tight end, kicker or defense. I think we all realize by now that barely 10 tight ends a year are meaningful from a fantasy perspective, kickers are largely unpredictable and defenses are no fun if your league activates so many that picking them is more about avoiding bad games than it is unearthing a sleeper performance.)
Of course, the math is also responsible for the most radical difference between one- and two-QB leagues: Quarterbacks fly off the board far quicker on draft day.
Using ESPN standard scoring, the difference in 2008 between the No. 1 quarterback, Drew Brees, and the No. 21 quarterback, Jake Delhomme -- I pick 21 because he'd be the top-ranked quarterback who didn't qualify for a "starting" spot -- was 129 fantasy points. That's 8.1 per game. By comparison, the difference between Brees and the No. 11 quarterback, Tyler Thigpen, was 92 points (or 5.8 per game).
This all points back to replacement value. Lose the No. 9 quarterback from 2008, David Garrard, to an injury and chances are you might have found Thigpen available as a replacement in a one-QB league. Lose Garrard in a two-QB league and it's a precipitous drop to a player like JaMarcus Russell and his 129 points.
And that fails to account for the types of players typically found around No. 20 at the position on draft day: Russell, Jason Campbell, Shaun Hill, (Gasp) Daunte Culpepper. Not a stellar bunch by any means. Sure, there might be sleeper talent in those or other comparably ranked quarterbacks, but there's a reason they're ranked where they are: They're much more hit-or-miss than the men rated ahead of them. If you're banking your team's chances on the scraps at the position, you'd better have the utmost confidence in your scouting skills and ability to unearth values.
Expect to see Brees picked sometime within the first five picks of your two-QB draft, Tom Brady shortly thereafter and Peyton Manning after that. In a 10-team league, it's a guarantee they'll all be gone by the conclusion of the second round. That's a draft strategy that might have made the suave fantasy owner chuckle -- at least in a one-QB league -- but when you boost the position's number of active players to two, it's commonplace. Expect to be laughed at if you don't follow suit.
Here's another little helper: Below is a comparison chart between the average picks for players in my aforementioned two-QB league the past four seasons (2005-08) and a standard one-QB ESPN league during the same time frame. One caveat: It's a nine-team two-QB league, compared to 10 for standard ESPN, so take the numbers as an example, not a definitive measure for ranking your quarterbacks. I'd expect quarterbacks to fly off the board even quicker in a 10-team, two-QB league.
Average Draft Position, By League Type (2005-08)
Accounting for those numbers, a sound estimate would be that you probably need to pick your first quarterback within the first three rounds, and your second most likely within three or four rounds from then. And that might even be conservative; as much as we advise against falling for position runs, this is one format in which it's important not to let too many quarterbacks slip through your fingers before taking your two starters.
League scoring/roster differences
Don't forget to check your league's scoring system and roster rules regarding quarterbacks before formulating your plan. On these pages, our first piece of advice is usually "know your league's rules," and that certainly applies here. A few examples:
• If you're allowed to roster an unlimited number of quarterbacks, it impacts your strategy. In my two-QB league you're permitted a maximum of three quarterbacks. Your league might not have a cap on the position, meaning if you're especially confident in your scouting skills, you might find it wise to pick one solid, top-five option, then collect as many as four or five sleepers in the hope one or two might pan out.
• It also matters whether you use ESPN standard scoring or a different system, like awarding six points for a passing touchdown, not penalizing for interceptions, going TD-only, etc. Those "replacement-value" notes I mentioned earlier change based upon your league's scoring system, so you'll need to run the numbers and determine whether the difference between the Nos. 1 and 21 quarterbacks is 8.1 points per game, or 10, or 20-plus. The greater the difference the quicker they're going to get picked.
During the season
Another common mistake of owners in two-QB leagues is assuming that the boost from one to two starters changes your strategy only on draft day. The differences don't end there.
Bringing math back into the equation, there might be 32 NFL teams, but in three separate weeks as many as six will be on byes, and in four other weeks there will be either two or four teams not playing. In weeks where six teams are off, the pool of active quarterbacks will narrow to 26, limiting your number of choices. If your two-QB league has 12 teams, 24 quarterbacks will be active in any given week, even in those bye weeks. What do you think the chances are that all 26 active quarterbacks will be spread across rosters such that each team will have two for both of its starting spots? I'd say not good. That's yet another reason it's worthwhile to stash an extra quarterback on your bench if your league rules allow for it, especially during those bye weeks of Weeks 4-10.
(Another side note: To tackle the issue of there being enough quarterbacks to populate active rosters, if that's of concern to league commissioners, I'll reference my buddy's 18-team, two-QB league, which has one of the more interesting formats I've seen; it allows you to designate a quarterback's numbers to count for two consecutive weeks -- the one directly before his bye counts in that week and for the bye week. You have to make the decision to activate the player for the bye week before the preceding week's lineup deadline in order for his stats to count for both weeks, however.)
Playing in a two-QB league also increases your need to be mindful of the waiver wire, as we all know how often a quarterback can come out of nowhere to have a surprisingly useful season. In 2008, Matt Cassel, Thigpen, Chad Pennington, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco all finished among the top 20 quarterbacks in ESPN fantasy points despite going largely undrafted. In fact, they might have lingered on waiver wires in one-QB leagues for a week or two longer than when they joined their respective teams' starting lineups. In a two-QB league, expect even a remotely talented quarterback to be snatched up quickly, perhaps the instant he's elevated to starter status, or perhaps even sooner, the moment there's a rumor he might soon start.
The bottom line: Backup quarterbacks might not be especially relevant in one-QB leagues, especially if you're a Brees or Manning owner. But in a two-QB league? Those backup spots are immensely useful, and often spell the difference between a championship and a fifth-place finish.
Keep your chin up
Finally, with the hefty premiums paid for quarterbacks in this format, frustrated fantasy owners might be wondering, "What if my team falls upon hard times in the injury department?" (Or, in layman's terms: "What if I'm the 2009 version of the team that picked Tom Brady No. 2 overall in 2008?")
It might sound easy to say, but my best advice: Chin up.
For a personal example, I was that guy who picked Brady No. 2 in the aforementioned two-QB league last season, and felt utterly deflated about 15 minutes into Week 1. Sixteen weeks and a Cassel pickup later, I finished in third (it's a points-based league, and as for not finishing first, let's face it, losing Brady is still a tough pill to swallow). That demonstrates more than anything that while the premiums for a quality quarterback are greatly increased in a two-QB league, it's every bit as likely in this format as it is in a standard format that you can massage your team off the waiver wire. In fact, I find it more fun in that those out-of-nowhere studs can definitively crack a weekly lineup.
And that is, as the aforementioned Bill (and/or Ted) might say, "excellent."
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.