Pat Fitzmaurice is addicted to competitive cooking shows ("Top Chef," "Chopped," Hell's Kitchen," etc.), and he also loves to eat. Since he isn't much of a cook, he's channeling his chef obsession into Fitz's Four-Course Fantasy Feast, a regular column featuring an appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert. Bon appétit.
These Polish dumplings are ubiquitous in Pittsburgh, and with good reason — they're delicious. Before stories about the end of Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension become equally ubiquitous, let's jump the gun and examine the fantasy implications of Bawdy Ben's return in Week Six following Pittsburgh's bye in Week Five.
Roethlisberger will begin his season with a home game against the Browns, followed by a road game against the Dolphins. Both opponents have fairly average pass defenses, so no reason to either start or sit Roethlisberger in Weeks 6-7 based on matchup alone. Rust could be a factor. Or not. Put it this way: I wouldn't start an inferior quarterback over Roethlisberger in Week Six based on the possibility that he'll be rusty.
The Steelers' offensive line is no worse than the one Roethlisberger worked with last season. According to the good people at Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh's adjusted sack rate is 5.9 percent, which is the league average. His pass catchers are essentially the same group from last year. His running backs are also familiar. In short, there's no reason to believe Roethlisberger won't be pretty much the same player he was last season. In my book, that makes him the eighth-best fantasy quarterback in the league behind Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers — and you could make a reasonable case that Roethlisberger belongs on the same tier as everyone but perhaps Manning, Rodgers and Brees.
No doubt the Steelers' receivers are anxious to get Roethlisberger back. Hines Ward had a 108-yard game in Week One but has caught four passes for 43 yards in the two games since. Mike Wallace erupted for 100 yards and two TDs last week, but a lot of fantasy owners had him on their benches after Wallace caught only four passes for 87 yards in his first two games. Wallace, in particular, gains a ton of fantasy value when Roethlisberger returns. The young receiver is a star in the making and one of the very best deep threats in the league, and Roethlisberger is the only QB on the Steelers' roster capable of exploiting Wallace's downfield playmaking ability. The 34-year-old Ward is at the point in his career where he might be slowing down, but the return of Roethlisberger might do for Ward what heavy makeup does for a cougar trolling a singles bar. Ward had 95 receptions last season, and in the six seasons since Roethlisberger has been in the league, Ward has averaged 78.3 catches a year.
And let's not forget TE Heath Miller, who had 76 receptions last season but has caught only eight balls so far this season. The veteran tight end once again becomes a credible fantasy starter beginning in Week Six.
Last but not least, third-year RB Rashard Mendenhall has been a stud even without Roethlisberger around to provide offensive balance. He's averaging better than 110 rushing yards per game and a robust 5.2 yards per carry. Even if Mendenhall loses a few carries per game, he's bound to benefit from playing with a quarterback who keeps defenses from cheating up against the run.
Salad: Spicy Thai jicama salad
Garlic chili sauce, Chinese mustard and shaved slices of jalapeno give this salad its punch. (Warning: worst segue ever, dead ahead.) In the weeks to come, two young running backs could add punch to their teams' ground games, and one of these backs is perhaps best-known for an infamous punch he threw.
LeGarrette Blount became an intriguing NFL prospect after rushing for 1,002 yards and 17 TDs as a junior at the University of Oregon in 2008. But in the moments after his first game of '09, Blount cold-cocked a Boise State player who taunted him after Oregon's loss, then had to be escorted from the field after a confrontation with Boise State fans. He missed eight games due to suspension, and that unsavory incident, combined with an earlier team suspension in February 2009, destroyed Blount's draft stock. He went undrafted, signed with the Titans as a free agent, then was released by the Titans and signed by the Buccaneers.
Blount made his NFL debut last week and carried six times for 27 yards and a TD, making him a popular free-agent pickup in fantasy leagues this week. Blount's role is evolving, but he seems destined to be a significant part of the Tampa Bay running game. Starter Cadillac Williams has been catatonic, averaging 2.5 yards per carry. Preseason sleeper Kareem Huggins has been dealing with a groin injury and hasn't played. It's an odd, unpredictable mix right now, but Blount's power makes him an obvious candidate for goal-line work, and Williams' struggles could lead to more than just that. Blount is worth a roster spot in larger fantasy leagues, and owners in smaller leagues should keep him on the radar.
Ryan Torain has been another popular waiver-wire pickup this week. He looked good for the Redskins in the preseason but was released. The Redskins then signed him to their practice squad and later promoted him to the active roster after releasing the washed-up Larry Johnson. Two weeks ago, Keiland Williams seemed like a candidate to supplant the deteriorating Clinton Portis as Washington's featured runner, but last week Torain and Portis received equal carries, and Torain appears to be the clear No. 2 man right now.
Torain was once a Broncos prospect and has a history with Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, although Shanahan is unpredictable in his use of running backs, to say the least. If you're bearish on Portis (as I am), it makes sense to be bullish on Torain and his fantasy stock.
Entrée: Gorgonzola pear pasta
Pear is the surprise ingredient in this fantastic pasta dish, which is so easy to make that even I was able to pull it off the other week. "Pear" also sounds a lot like "parity" ... which brings me to this point:
Every three or four years, we get a season so full of bizarre results that it throws fantasy-league pecking orders into chaos and promotes rampant parity. In other words, the more conventional the results, the better the odds that traditionally successful fantasy owners will do well in a season. The nuttier the results, the more likely it is that the putz whose draft-day decisions are snickered at every year will actually kick your tail and make the playoffs.
So far (and with apologies to Elvis Costello), it's been a good year for the putzes.
In many instances, the conventional wisdom of August and early September has flown out the window, replaced by strange new perceptions that no one could have imagined a month ago. For instance:
It's been a weird season, and we haven't seen the last of the weirdness. Yes, there are some unexpected flops and emergences every season, and nothing ever plays out quite the way you had it on your draft lists. But some seasons are stranger than others, and on a strangeness scale of 1 to 10, this season is measuring about a 7.7 right now.
Buckle your seatbelts, perennial fantasy bowl contenders. This could be a bumpy ride. As for you perennial league doormats, enjoy the turbulence. It can only help your cause.
Dessert: Meditation in purple
Renowned pastry chef Jordan Kahn said the color purple was the inspiration for this splashy dessert, which includes beet genoise (an Italian sponge cake), rooibos tea-infused ice cream, black-currant gel and frozen Campari foam. It's an impressive-looking dessert worthy of the impressive-looking, purple-clad Adrian Peterson.
Did I really rank Peterson third in my preseason RB rankings behind Ray Rice and Chris Johnson? Yes, I did, and I'm regretting it. In an interview with radio host Dan Patrick before the start of the season, Peterson said that he still believes he's the best running back in the league. That was hard to debate until Chris Johnson started smashing NFL records. But apparently Peterson is serious about the honor.
Peterson has 392 rushing yards to Johnson's 301, and "Purple Jesus" is only 14 yards behind league leader Arian Foster, who's still coasting on his 231-yard performance in Week One. In the last two weeks, Peterson has run for 305 yards and three TDs. He's also on pace for a career-best total. Bottom line: Dude is on a mission.
Now that Peterson seems to feel he has something to prove, and now that Brad Childress seems to be over his new-toy obsession with Brett Favre and is rightly making his star runner the focal point of the Minnesota offense, Peterson may be destined to put up staggering numbers. At next year's fantasy drafts, Peterson could very well be the consensus No. 1 pick that Johnson was this year, and we'll wonder how some morons could have possibly ranked him as low as No. 3 heading into 2010.