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.
Appetizer: Pork dumpling with caramelized onion sauce
Just a small, quick bite to begin our meal this week. This one involves a small, quick player.
The division of labor among Chargers running backs has posed dilemmas for a lot of fantasy owners. Barrel-shaped Mike Tolbert has turned out to be a fantasy powder keg, with seven TDs for the season and a TD run in each of his last five games. But ever since rookie Ryan Mathews returned from an earlier injury, Tolbert hasn't been getting that many touches. He's had 28 carries over his last four games (including a three-carry game and a two-carry game), and in three of those four games he ran for 11 yards or fewer. He can't quite be pigeonholed as a goal-line specialist, but he's close to being one. Ryan Mathews has been a colossal disappointment this season, but his potential is tantalizing, and he's starting to get more carries. He took 15 handoffs last week (albeit for only 43 rushing yards) and had a seven-yard TD run.
Tolbert and Mathews are both reasonable lineup choices in any given week, including this week against the Texans. But you can't exactly feel confident about using either one. For my money, the most intriguing San Diego running back for this week is shifty little Darren Sproles, and here's why:
Antonio Gates is hurting. Really hurting. The big tight end has been dealing with toe and ankle injuries for a while now (though you wouldn't know it, based on his stats). In last week's win over the Titans, Gates popped the plantar fascia in his right foot. That's not as bad as it sounds, since the breaking of the plantar fascia can initiate the healing process for plantar fasciitis, according to beat writer Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Trouble is, it's painful as hell, at least when painkillers aren't in full effect.
Gates' availability for this weekend's game in Houston is questionable. Even if he can go, he's almost certain to be at less than maximum capacity. The Chargers' receivers are an injury-riddled bunch themselves. Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee have been out for a while and may not be back this weekend, and Buster Davis was just put on I.R., leaving Patrick Crayton as the only San Diego receiver with any sort of name recognition (unless, of course, Seyi Ajirotutu is a household name at your place).
The Chargers will be compelled to make Sproles a significant part of their game plan this week. Not that he's been idle lately, mind you. He doesn't take many handoffs, but Sproles has 18 catches over his last three games. He had nine receptions for 70 yards in Week Seven, and last week he had 77 yards from scrimmage plus a TD catch. Look for the little guy to be heavily involved this week. I think he'd make a solid flex play for a lot of fantasy owners this week, particularly with six NFL teams on byes.
A few nibbles of this and that as we head into Week Nine:
— At the tail end of the 2009 regular season, when DeAngelo Williams was injured in Week 15 and missed the rest of the year, Jonathan Stewart ran for 440 yards and scored four TDs over Carolina's final three games. His 206-yard rushing day in Week 16 won championships for some fantasy owners. Last week, with Williams on the shelf and Stewart the main man in the Panthers' running game by default, Stewart ran for ... 30 yards on 14 carries. I'd tell you to sell high on J-Stew, but that ship sailed awhile ago, and they're already serving cocktails on the Lido Deck.
— The last time Tom Brady threw more than one TD pass in a game? Week Three. The last time he had a 300-yard passing game? Dec. 6, 2009, which is 13 games ago if you include New England's playoff game last season. No, you're not crazy to entertain thoughts of benching Brady.
— It's odd that TE Brent Celek has become such an afterthought in the Eagles' offense. After catching 76 passes for 971 yards and eight TDs last year in what appeared to be a breakthrough campaign, he hasn't had more than four catches or 47 yards in a single game this season, and last week he caught two passes for eight yards.
— Quickie prediction: Act II of Michael Vick's season, which begins this week against the Colts, won't go nearly as well as Act I.
Entrée: Chicken, ribs, round of beef, pasta, vegetables
Does this buffet spread look familiar? It should. It's the same feast that was laid out for the Minnesota Vikings by Tinucci's Restaurant and Catering after practice one day last week, and Randy Moss didn't much care for it. The petulant receiver went into a profanity-laced tirade upon seeing the meal, proclaiming, "I wouldn't feed this crap to my (expletive) dog," according to restaurant co-owner Gus Tinucci.
First of all, I'd like to think that there's a special place in hell reserved for people who mistreat food-service workers for sport. The lack of effort Moss has displayed at times this season speaks volumes about his character. So does the fact that he's now being passed around the league like a doobie at a San Francisco street festival. But nothing that has transpired this season reflects worse on Moss than his verbal abuse of people who were trying to serve him a good meal. What an absolutely despicable moment in the life of Randy Moss.
Rant over. Back to fantasy football.
Perhaps the biggest fantasy effect of the Moss trade is the preservation of Chris Johnson's fantasy value in the wake of Kenny Britt's hamstring injury, which could keep Britt out for the remainder of the fantasy season. Moss is now to Johnson as a scarecrow is to a cornfield: He'll occupy defensive attention and keep safeties away from the line of scrimmage. At this point, I'd rather have a healthy Kenny Britt than Randy Moss — Britt was establishing himself as an elite receiver before his hamstring popped, and it's fair to ask whether Moss is still elite — but Moss is still the more dangerous deep threat. I'd be tempted to say that the substitution of Moss for Britt could actually enhance Johnson's fantasy value if not for the fact that Britt, like the rest of the Titans' receivers, is a tenacious run blocker, and we know that the adjective "tenacious" doesn't apply to Moss in any category other than abrasiveness.
The addition of Moss might mean a slight uptick in Vince Young's fantasy value, though not enough of an uptick to make Young an every-week starter for any fantasy owner with a decent QB situation. Again, Moss isn't really an upgrade over a healthy Britt. However, Moss may be a slightly better match for Young's strengths — namely, his ability to throw the deep ball. Young may be erratic on shorter throws, but he throws an awfully pretty bomb. He might hit a few more home runs with Moss, at the expense of his batting average. For fantasy owners, that might be a worthwhile trade-off.
It's hard to see the arrival of Moss having a significant effect on the fantasy value of the other Titans pass catchers. Nate Washington probably isn't a fixture in many fantasy lineups to begin with, and the addition of Moss won't make Washington any less streaky. He was hit-or-miss before; he'll be hit-or-miss now. Neither Justin Gage nor Damian Williams will lose his status as an afterthought. TE Bo Scaife might find a little extra room to work underneath, but not enough to significantly alter his fantasy value.
What about Moss himself? Is he still an every-week fantasy starter?
I think his days as an unconditional starter are over.
Before the start of the season, Moss was widely considered to be the second-best fantasy receiver, behind only Andre Johnson. Now, he's clearly inferior to elite guys such as Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and Calvin Johnson. I also rank Moss behind at least a dozen other receivers, including some elite-level guys with QB problems (Larry Fitzgerald, Miles Austin, Brandon Marshall), some near-elite guys (Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston, Greg Jennings) some "Steady Eddie" types (Hines Ward and the Giants' Steve Smith), and some young guns (Mike Wallace, Pierre Garcon, Jeremy Maclin and the Buccaneers' Mike Williams). I'd rather have Santana Moss than Randy Moss. I'd rather have Dwayne Bowe or Brandon Lloyd than the well-traveled Mr. Moss. And it goes without saying that Terrell Owens is aging far more gracefully than Moss, both on and off the field. You could also make the case for some other receivers over Moss. (The Bills' Stevie Johnson comes to mind.)
Unless you're destitute at the WR position, the decision whether to start Moss in a given week has ceased to be a no-brainer. It would have been inconceivable before the season that a lineup choice between Moss and, say, Johnnie Knox would give anyone pause. And of course, some owners will take a do-or-die stance with Moss and keep throwing him into their lineups week after week. But it's probably time to accept a new reality. We already knew that, as a human being, Moss is graceless. As a fantasy performer, his fall from grace is picking up speed.
Dessert: Double coconut cake
This cake is made with both coconut milk and coconut extract, not to mention the coconut flakes sprinkled on top. Trouble is, I hate coconut. There aren't many foods I won't eat, but coconut is one of them. The smell has always repelled me, and I don't care much for the texture, either.
We fantasy football owners all have our individual preferences for league structures. For instance, some leagues have a rule that trades can be vetoed by other owners. I personally find that rule unpalatable, but I realize that that sort of provision may have been prompted by unscrupulous past transactions. If that's what it takes to keep the peace and prevent a league from falling apart, then it's a useful rule.
When it comes to scoring rules, I have a few pet peeves. I'll share two of the bigger ones. To me, these are the coconut milk and the coconut extract of fantasy football scoring rules.
ARBITRARY BONUSES. If you play in a league in which points are awarded for incremental yardage (for instance, the somewhat standard reward of one point for every 10 rushing/receiving yards), it's inane to heap on bonus points for reaching the 100-yard plateau, or the 150-yard plateau. The performance of a running back who totals 99 rushing yards is significantly less meaningful than the performance of a running back who totals 101 rushing yards? Hmmm. I'm also not crazy about the concept of rewarding bonus points for long TDs in leagues that already factor in yardage. Back in the days when a lot of leagues used TD-only scoring, I could understand making a 50-yard TD worth more than a short TD. But now, in a league that gives you points for incremental yardage, why on earth would you award extra points for long TDs when you're already dishing up a big reward for the yardage gained on the play?
SPECIAL-TEAMS TOUCHDOWNS. They're just so random. It bothers me when defenses and special teams are lumped together into a single entity. Identifying good defenses and picking the right defensive matchups takes a measure of skill. It's nearly impossible to identify the teams that are more likely to score multiple special-teams TDs. If you happen to benefit from a player who has more than one or two kick-return TDs in a season, it's like holding a winning lottery ticket: You feel great about it, but you didn't really do anything to earn your winnings.