Fantasy Corner Returns
Going deep into the world of fantasy football
By Adam Hoff
Now that we are four weeks into the NFL season, it seems like a good time to fire up Fantasy Corner once again. You remember this gimmick, right? During basketball season it afforded you the chance to realize that Houston had four legit fantasy players, that for the first time every you could put together a fantasy basketball team comprised entirely of foreign players and have a great chance of winning your league, and that Stephen Jackson was the most underrated player in the game over the last two months of the season. Groundbreaking stuff.
Anyway, the real reason this column is back is that one of my teams has started the year 1-3 and I need to do some therapeutic analysis.
Demise of the Running Backs? Think back to your draft earlier this year. There was a pretty good chance that nearly every first round pick was a running back, right? You probably saw Kevan Barlow go ahead of Payton Manning, Kevin Jones get snagged before Donovan McNabb, and Terrell Owens bypassed for teammate Brian Westbrook. These seemed like no-brainer picks at the time. I mean, running backs are king in fantasy football! Everyone knows that you need two stud running backs to compete. But there has been a wrench thrown into that logic this year. It seems that RB has turned into one of the most unpredictable and unreliable positions in fantasy football in 2004. Weekly matchups are being dominated by quarterbacks and determined by kickers and defenses. Wide receivers like Moss and TO are looking like they should have been top-7 picks.
So what is going on? Well, many factors are actually conspiring to create this situation. Let’s look at a few of them:
The “Anointing” of star running backs. This is the first and biggest problem. Because there have typically been 10-15 proven, legit tailbacks in the NFL, the precedent was set in Fantasy football that you had to have at least one of those guys, and probably two or more to have a shot at winning your league. Now though, that number has been cut in half. The result is that guys like Domanick Davis and Kevan Barlow get hyped beyond belief after one good half-season. Then fantasy owners get upset when they don’t go out and run for 100 yards and a touchdown every Sunday.
Injuries. RB’s are always going to be prone to injuries, but things appear poised to be worse this year than ever. Stephen Davis is down and out for a while, Shaun Alexander created a huge panic when he sprained his knee after week one, and Davis took a break from fumbling last week to nurse his latest injury. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that Michael Bennett has yet to play and that Marshall Faulk and Fred Taylor are always due to go down at any moment. Wouldn’t you be better off with Marvin Harrison in your lineup every weekend?
NFL Climate. No, not weather. This refers to the climate among NFL coaches right now, which is to win the game any way you can. The days of “establishing the running game” are quickly passing us by. Just look at the way New England and Green Bay attacked the Colts – both have great ground games but threw almost every down. With the exception of the inept Miami staff, nobody cares how many rushing yards they get anymore unless they win the game. That’s why you see Clinton Portis getting a measly 16 carries in a game in which the Redskins ran over 70 plays. Now that coaches are no longer obsessed with pounding the ball with their running back, it stands to reason that running backs will fail to be as consistent with their production.
Specialization. This has always been a minor problem, but it’s also on the upswing this year. Are you a Duce Staley owner? Good luck. I’m sure you are real happy about Jerome Bettis’ five touchdowns on eight yards rushing this year. Were you a Jamal Lewis owner hoping for just a few more yards on Monday night, only to see Chester Taylor playing on every passing down? Maybe you were like me and had Kevan Barlow on your team, only to see Terry Jackson catch the swing pass at the goal line that should have been his. (Yeah, Jackson got absolutely stuffed by the way.) Even the Chargers had two rushing touchdowns that weren’t scored by Tomlinson last week! Unless you have Priest Holmes, you can’t count on anything anymore.
Speaking of Priest …
Play Calling. This is part-NFL Climate and part-Specialization. Another reason that RB’s are losing out on the big fantasy point totals is that coaches are getting way too creative near the goal line. Whatever happened to giving it to your stud running back and letting him hammer it home? These days only Holmes gets consistent goal line carries. Every other team seems more fond of throwing it to the third string tight end or having the quarterback sprint for the end zone on some sort of suicidal roll out. Look, I know that defenses are stacking the line down there, but have some balls! Did you see Priest owning that goal line the other night? Give the ball to the running back and get out of the way.
(Special note here: This is particularly annoying when a running back gets his team inside the five and then doesn’t get a chance to get the TD. Two Sundays ago I was flipping channels when I saw Chris Brown make a big run down to the one and Thomas Jones go 20 yards down to the two. On the subsequent plays, the Titans used McNair to sneak it in while the Bears went right back to Jones for the touchdown. Is it any surprise that the Bears won and the Titans lost? Nope, that was the result of the football gods rewarding the proper play of letting the running back get his.)
Losing Teams. Tomlinson has been mired on a loser for his entire career, but has remained a fantasy stalwart. However, even he couldn’t overcome his team’s incompetence against Denver two weeks ago, as the Drew Brees Show limited Tomlinson to six total points. If the Chargers flounder early, his odds of having a big game are pretty much shot. How about Kevan Barlow? His 49ers are down 17-0 at the end of every first quarter. Running the ball isn’t an option at that point and for some insane reason, they favor Terry Jackson in passing situations. Barlow does look sleek on the sidelines though. Then there’s Thomas Jones who was quickly becoming the next Priest Holmes. Now with Grossman gone and the absolutely abysmal Jonathon Quinn at quarterback, defenses will be stacking the line and putting eight guys in the box. The poor guy doesn’t have a chance.
Fumbling. It’s bad enough that a lost fumble costs your team two points, but even worse is the fact that it costs your running back crucial opportunities. Coaches seem to be okay with a certain number of interceptions from their QB’s, but they abhor fumbles. If Domanick Davis keeps fumbling, he won’t need to worry about his injured leg because he’ll be splitting carries with Jonathon Wells. If Ahman Green can’t hold on to the ball, the Packers have no choice but to rely on Brett Favre and Jevon Walker to make the big plays. If Tiki Barber or DeShaun Foster – known fumblers – start coughing it up, will that be the end to their hot streaks? Just another variable to consider.
The bottom line is that running backs are not nearly as consistent and reliable as they have been in the past. Ricky Williams is smoking weed daily, talent is being squandered by horrible teams and overly creative coaches, and the injury and fumbles bugs are biting early and often.
Yeah, I’m definitely drafting Moss or Culpepper next year.
Emerging Stars of the Week
WR - Randy Hymes. We know all about rookie sensation Roy Williams, but he was on a bye week last Sunday, so he’s disqualified from this segment. Besides, that would be boring. There were a handful of young wide outs making noise last weekend, but Hymes seemed to show more promise than the rest. He only had two catches, but that can be primarily attributed to Kyle Boller being his quarterback. And while that fact won’t change any time soon (although has anyone else heard the Brad Johnson rumors floating around?), it was the amount of looks that Hymes got that impressed me. He’s clearly become their go-to threat in Todd Heap’s absence. And while he doesn’t appear to be a high volume receiver, he has scored touchdowns in two consecutive weeks and looks like a perfect big play receiver. He’s like a very, very poor man’s Randy Moss. He even has the same first name, so that’s nice. While I don’t recommend counting on Hymes for Moss-like numbers, he might not be a bad play against the right secondary; particularly if you already have a volume receiver like Isaac Bruce on your team.
RB – DeShaun Foster. Every year there are running backs that emerge sometime during the season and become big time fantasy contributors. Last year we saw Brian Westbrook, Rudi Johnson, Domanick Davis, and Lee Suggs step in and put up huge numbers. This year it was anticipated that guys like Chris Brown, Kevin Jones, and Quentin Griffin would become front line fantasy backs. While that group has performed with mixed results, it would still stand to reason that others will pop up over the course of a 16-game schedule. This past Sunday Amos Zerroe had a huge game for the Raiders and Jonathon Wells had a huge game against the Raiders; however, each were playing as an injury fill in against a team that was scouting someone else. Zerroe is certainly more likely to continue down the path of success with the likes of Tyrone Wheatley and Justin Fargas on the roster, but I’m withholding judgment until he can replicate his 24 point performance. All of which leads me to Foster. Three weeks ago, filling in for the injured Stephen Davis, Foster went nuts against the porous KC defense. Impressive, but also pretty common. The real test was this past Sunday against the Falcons. A much better defense that spent the week preparing for DeShaun. While he did not have a ton of yards on the ground, he still had nearly 100 all purpose yards and a touchdown. It was this steady performance that solidifies him as a fantasy stud. Now if he can just hold of Davis and keep getting at least 15 carries a game …
QB – Ben Roethlisberger. Two weeks ago he was being mocked by teammates who didn’t want to play with him. Last week he was looking terrible in the muck and mud in Miami. But this past Sunday he was brilliant, efficiently and calmly leading his team up and down the field against the Bengals. Sure, it was only one week, but I’m guessing he’s no longer a free agent in your fantasy league. If nothing else, he proved that he’s going to be a stud in the very near future, if not an immediate option for your fantasy team.
TE – Eric Johnson. He’s been on the radar screen for a while now, but whenever a tight end officially emerges as the go-to receiver, you’ve got to snatch him up. He had 11 catches for over 100 yards and appears to be the only San Francisco player that can get open for Tim Rattay. He’s moving quickly toward Todd Heap territory.
K –Kris Brown. It’s anyone’s guess at this position, but Brown seems to becoming a legitimate top-ten kicker. Snag him if he’s still available.
Defense – Arizona. Is it time to start considering Arizona’s defense as one of the best in fantasy football? The Saints are no offensive juggernaut these days, but they still have some serious weapons. Yet the Cards held them to 10 points and scored a defensive touchdown of their own. Also, you might recall that Arizona very nearly stole away a game in week one from St. Louis thanks to their stifling D. At the time everyone blamed the Rams performance on Marc Bulger, but it seems obvious now that Arizona’s defense might have had something to do with that.
Stat of the Week
Pass Catching RB’s. Nothing is more important in fantasy football than getting touches. If you’ve got a stud WR but his team runs the ball all game, you’re screwed. Likewise, if you’ve got a Kevan Barlow but the Niners are always playing catch-up, he becomes downright worthless. In this new age of third down backs and passing down sets, it is more important than ever to have running backs on your roster that are good receivers out of the backfield. Not only that, but in one of my leagues we have reduced the value of a rushing touchdown to 5 points in attempt to balance out the positional value of players. In an instance such as that, a RB that can catch touchdown passes becomes even more valuable. So, who are the best RB’s at snagging passes in addition to their duties on the ground? Here are the receiving yardage leaders among tailbacks through four weeks:
Onterrio Smith – 223 yards
Brian Westbrook – 206 yards
Domanick Davis – 180 yards
Tiki Barber – 164 yards
Thomas Jones – 156 yards
The only other players with over 100 yards receiving are Justin Griffith (a fullback), Aaron Stecker (injury replacement), and Marshall Faulk (barely makes the mark). Plus, our leader, Smith, is starting a four game suspension. It certainly makes the other four players more valuable, especially Davis, who actually has more yards receiving than rushing in his three games. Then again, he’s hurt. And Jones no longer has a QB that can throw. So I guess the lesson is this: if you have Tiki Barber or Brian Westbrook, hang on to them with a death grip!
Issue of the Week
What to make of defenses? Currently, I am playing in four fantasy football leagues (at least that I am aware of). Most use similar scoring systems across the board for offensive players, feature the usual head-to-head matchup format, and use a similar playoff structure. So why are they all completely different? Simple: the scoring system for defenses is all over the map.
Here are the four different systems in place in my leagues:
The “Defense as MVP” system: In one of my leagues, there are four defenses among the top 10 fantasy producers in the game. You get like 25 fantasy points if you allow fewer than 7 points. That just simply isn’t right. You’re telling me that the Falcons defense is more valuable than it’s running back and quarterback combined? In this league, defenses have thrown up five of the seven highest single week totals and are on the verge of making the entire thing absurd beyond belief.
The “Normal” system: In my WIS league, we’ve actually got a format that makes sense. Outstanding defenses can swing a matchup, but it takes a special performance. Not only that, most of the “good” defenses all score within a few points of each. All of the defensive stats – touchdowns, points allowed, yards allowed, sacks, and turnovers – are all weighed pretty evenly.
The “Undervalued” system. I’m not saying that we should go with the first option on the list, but it doesn’t make much sense to have all defenses worth the same either. In this league, you lose out on points for “yardage allowed” as soon as a team goes over 250 yards, which is pretty much every game in the NFL. I don’t think I’ve seen a defensive unit score more than 12 points yet. Still, I’ll take this over …
The “Defenses are a Liability” system. This one is just awful. Defenses regularly score in the negatives in this league. I’ve got the Ravens and while they haven’t been as good as expected, the highest score I’ve received from them was 7 and that was with a defensive touchdown!
Needless to say, the world of fantasy football is in desperate need of some uniformity where defensive scoring is concerned. If not, then I guess the lesson learned is that you need to do some serious research before every draft so that you know how to act accordingly.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.