I really enjoyed fantasy (American) football for the years I played, but it always upset me when players earned fantasy points for things that didn’t help their team, or were penalized for actions that did. The most common examples are scoring drives with the clock running down: a short pass to a receiver who is immediately tackled in the middle of the field is as bad as a sack in many such situations, but both quarterback and receiver get points for it. Similarly, an attempt at a 50-yard “hail mary” pass that results in an interception as time expires just shouldn’t be scored like other interceptions: it’s no worse for the quarterback and no better for the defense than an incompletion. Changing scoring to take account of such “game situation” parameters would be complicated, however, so I understand why few (if any) leagues make exceptions for such circumstances.

There is, however, one well-defined statistic which is very closely matched with a player’s contribution to his team, but is completely ignored by most fantasy leagues: first downs. A player who fights for the one extra yard needed for a new set of downs contributes a lot more than the tenth of a point (or less) given for a single yard of field position, quarterbacks who consistently throw passes just short of first-down yardage and must rely on running backs for first downs deserve fewer points than QBs who can do it themselves, and there should be some incentive to include reliable short-yardage backs on a fantasy team.

The simple fix is to give an offensive player an extra point if he gets a first down. This system could make consistent running backs and star “possession” receivers competitive with the “speed” receivers who are disproportionately rewarded for a small number of big plays (which can result in huge field position gains and touchdowns, but which are the direct result of extra plays that arise from steady progress down the field).

Offering a bonus point for a first down amounts to a much-simplified version of an approach taken by footballoutsiders.com, in developing the Defensive-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) statistic:

DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12.

Most current player statistics don’t include “number of first downs”, but it’s trivial to piece this together from play-by-play information, so it would be straightforward for Yahoo or any other fantasy football system to incorporate it as an option for their leagues.