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: Imitation-crab ceviche
Don't knock imitation crab. It's a perfectly reasonable substitute for the real thing as long as there are other flavors highlighting the dish.
On the subject of "imitation" ... this season has opened my mind as far as seeing potential in players I might have otherwise been quick to write off. If the mild-tasting fish Alaska pollock can reasonably imitate crabmeat, maybe the mild-scoring Michael Crabtree could reasonably imitate, say, Dwayne Bowe at some point in the near future.
That notion may seem absurd on its face. Bowe is putting up freakish numbers this season (more on that later). Crabtree is just sort of tootling along, catching the occasional TD pass but generally frustrating his fantasy owners. Aside from his 105-yard game against the Eagles in Week Five, Crabtree hasn't had more than 61 receiving yards in any game this season, and only twice has he caught more than four passes in a game. In 22 games as a pro, Crabtree has seven TD catches and just the one 100-yard game. On any decent fantasy team, he's a No. 3 receiver at best.
But we know there's latent talent lurking there. No one who ever watched Crabtree during his college days at Texas Tech could deny that. He'll also tease his fantasy owners with the occasional circus catch. It obviously doesn't help that Crabtree has yet to play with a genuinely decent NFL quarterback, but there's no question that Crabtree has underachieved as a pro thus far.
Bowe was similarly frustrating to his fantasy owners early in his NFL career. Talent clearly wasn't the issue; Bowe's ability was evident from the start. But like Crabtree, he ran hot and cold and developed a reputation for being moody. No doubt a lot of fantasy owners had already given up on Bowe going into this season. No doubt a lot of fantasy owners are ready to give up on Crabtree.
Who knows? Maybe the bulb will never flick on for Crabtree. But in light of what Bowe is doing this season, I'll feel compelled to take a longer look at Crabtree in the weeks leading up to next year's fantasy drafts.
Ditto for Toby Gerhart. I sort of wrote him off as just another plodding white guy when I watched him in the preseason and saw how slow he looked getting to and through holes. But with Peyton Hillis, another stocky Caucasian running back with a mediocre 40-time, going absolutely bonkers this season, I'm inclined to keep Gerhart on my watch list awhile longer.
Gerhart was a bona fide college star at Stanford; Hillis played third fiddle to Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas. College pedigree doesn't count for much at the NFL level, but Hillis and Gerhart aren't entirely dissimilar players. Hillis runs with far more power than Gerhart and is on an entirely different level right now, but I'd be eager to see what Gerhart could do with more reps. He might get them this week with Adrian Peterson's status in limbo because of an ankle injury.
Salad: Chef salad
As mentioned in the introductory paragraph above, I am an avid fan of competitive cooking shows. This led to some ridicule at a fantasy draft in early September, when I confused Aaron Hernandez, the rookie tight end for the New England Patriots, with Aarón Sanchez, who co-stars on the Food Network's "Chefs vs. City" and occasionally serves as a judge on "Chopped."
My benevolent competitors allowed me to take Hernandez and did not force me to roster a celebrity chef. But there's little doubt that Aarón the restaurateur was more productive on Thanksgiving Day than Aaron the tight end. Hernandez caught one pass for 18 yards against the Lions and has caught two passes over the last three weeks. (The other reception was an eight-yard TD grab against the Colts in Week 11.) Hernandez was only on the field for 11 snaps against the Steelers in Week 10. He played 18 snaps against the Colts the following week, then 17 snaps against the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Less than a month ago Hernandez was regarded as a top-five fantasy tight end. Now he's seemingly a spare part in the Patriots' offense. What gives?
It's hard to tell whether Hernandez is in Bill Belichick's doghouse or if his limited playing time in recent weeks is circumstantial. Fellow rookie TE Rob Gronkowski has gotten a lot of action lately, with a five-catch, three-TD game against the Steelers and a five-catch game against the Lions. Then there's the presence of Alge Crumpler, once a premier pass-catching tight end, now one of the better pure blocking tight ends in the league.
But I think it's too early to give up on Hernandez for this season, even though fantasy football's regular season is nearly over. The Patriots obviously had clear roles in mind for their young tight ends when they drafted Gronkowski in the second round and Hernandez in the fourth, with Crumpler already on board. Hernandez is the worst blocker of the three, but he's the only one who offers downfield potential in the passing game. The Pats might need that downfield potential this week against the Jets.
Darrelle Revis, the best cornerback in football, is capable of taking any New England receiver completely out of Monday night's game, and Jets CB Antonio Cromartie is no slouch. With the Patriots' wideouts locked up in tight coverage, Tom Brady may be forced to work his tight ends into the passing game. When the Patriots played the Jets in Week Two, Hernandez had six receptions for 101 yards. No New England wide receiver (including Randy Moss, still with the Pats at the time) had more than 38 receiving yards. This could be the week that Hernandez returns to relevance.
Entrée: Kansas City barbecue platter
Grab some extra napkins, because this sampler platter includes brisket, a half slab of ribs, some "burnt ends" (as served in the legendary Kansas City barbecue restaurant Arthur Bryant's) and plenty of sauce.
I'm in a Kansas City state of mind this week as the Chiefs prepare to host the Broncos in a divisional battle that offers plenty of extra zest. You might recall that Chiefs head coach Todd Haley refused a postgame handshake from Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels following the Broncos' 49-29 win three weeks ago. Haley later apologized (though not directly to McDaniels). But there's little doubt the Chiefs are itching for payback against a Broncos team that has since hit the skids, giving up 71 points in its last two games. Personally, I suspect that Haley was less upset about the Broncos continuing to throw the ball with a big fourth-quarter lead than he was about a timeout that the Broncos called with 10 seconds left in the game. No matter. The bottom line is that payback would be as sweet as any barbecue sauce in the K.C. metropolitan area.
Earlier, I mentioned Dwayne Bowe and the ridiculous numbers he's been producing. Bowe has 14 TD catches, which is three more than Calvin Johnson and five more than anyone else in the NFL. He's scored 13 of those touchdowns in his last seven games. In his last three games, he has 32 catches (including two 13-catch games) for 465 yards and seven TDs. I can't imagine that there's a Bowe owner anywhere in America who has failed to win at least two games over the last three weeks.
What's truly remarkable is that Bowe has been able to do this even though the Chiefs have no other credible threat at wide receiver. Bowe has 58 receptions. The next-highest reception total among the Chiefs' wide receivers is 15 for Dexter McCluster — and it's debatable whether McCluster is a wide receiver or a running back. After McCluster, WRs Chris Chambers and Terrance Copper both have 13 catches. Even if you include McCluster with the wideouts, Bowe has accounted for 56.3 percent of the receptions by Chiefs wide receivers this season. His 885 receiving yards represent 64.9 percent of the receiving yardage for Kansas City wideouts.
There's no way the Chiefs could pull off this one-man show at receiver if they didn't run the ball so often and so effectively. Kansas City is dragging pro football back to the 1970s with a run-pass ratio that's probably putting a smile on the face of former NFL coach Chuck Knox (nickname: "Ground Chuck").
The Chiefs have a league-high 389 rushing attempts and have run the ball on 53.5 percent of their plays. Of their 4,127 total yards, 1,917 have come on the ground (46.5 percent). For the sake of comparison, let's look at a team with a fairly well-balanced offense: the Houston Texans. The Texans have run the ball on 43.3 percent of their offensive plays. Rushing yardage accounts for 36.0 percent of Houston's total yardage. Even for some of the NFL's other run-heavy teams, rushing yardage accounts for a significantly smaller percentage of total offense than it does for the Chiefs. Rushing yardage has accounted for 42.3 percent of Jacksonville's total offense, 41.6 percent of Oakland's, 41.0 of the New York Jets', 39.5 percent of Tennessee's and 37.7 percent of Cleveland's.
It isn't hard for the Chiefs to sell play-action after using Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones to hammer away at opposing defenses. It's hard to concentrate on stopping Bowe when you have to be concerned about a running game that averages 4.9 yards per carry.
Aside from noting the sheer awesomeness of Dwayne Bowe and the delightfully Paleolithic offensive tendencies of Haley and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, there's no particular point here, except this:
Heaven help you if you face Bowe in a must-win fantasy game this weekend. It's bad enough that you're going up against a guy who's so piping hot. But a guy who's that hot AND playing for a team that's looking to really stick it to a hated rival? My prayers are with you, friend.
Biscotti goes great with coffee, and biscotti and coffee go great with deep conversations about complex subjects like ethics and morality. I can't promise any depth here, but let's talk fantasy football ethics for a moment. (And try the biscotti, won't you?)
OK, here's the situation: One of my leagues has 14 teams and three divisions, and the regular season lasts 13 weeks. The three division winners get a first-round bye in the playoffs while two wild-card teams slug it out. The first wild-card spot is based on record. The second wild-card spot goes to the highest-scoring team that doesn't otherwise qualify for a playoff spot.
The highest-scoring team in this league (and also the scariest team by far) has a record of 6-6. This team stumbled to a 2-6 start as Greg Jennings and Maurice Jones-Drew began the year sluggishly. There were also issues at quarterback until Michael Vick came back from his rib injury and became a lineup regular. Now, this team is unleashing Jennings, Jones-Drew, Vick and Peyton Hillis on opponents every week. Its owner has cleaned up in the league's auxiliary pool, with his team posting the league's highest score in each of the last four weeks. This team has no chance to win its division but is a lock for a wild-card spot based on total points.
One owner sits at 9-3, has clinched a division title and will clinch the No. 1 playoff seed with a win in this week's regular-season finale. If he loses this week, he will likely be overtaken by either of two 8-4 teams (one of which is mine) that would hold the tiebreaker over him.
The No. 1 playoff seed meets the winner of the wild-card game in one semifinal, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds meet in the other. With the most lethal team in the league being a wild-card entry, there's not much incentive to be the No. 1 seed. In fact, the prospect of meeting Team Kick-Your-Tail is a significant disincentive.
The question is: Is it ethical for the team owner currently holding the No. 1 seed to tank it this week if the result of his game affects other playoff races? Would it be ethical even if it had no bearing on one team making the playoffs over another?
Chew that one over for a while, along with your biscotti. And if you're so moved, drop me a note at email@example.com letting me know what you think. I'm curious about how other people see this.