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: Deep-fried gator nuggets with garlic-aioli dipping sauce
The Denver Broncos have fallen to 3-9 and have a first-round draft pick collecting cobwebs on the sideline. How much longer will it be before the Broncos drop former Florida Gator Tim Tebow into the NFL deep fryer?
There are some who believe the recent firing of Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels reduces the likelihood of a late-season audition for Tebow, since Tebow was considered to be McDaniels' pet. And if indeed the Broncos intend to give up on the idea that Tebow is their quarterback of the future, might they be better off keeping Tebow on the bench and avoiding the possibility that a poor late-season showing would diminish his trade value?
I think the organization has to give Tebow a look down the stretch, whether he plays a few series here and there, or actually makes a start or two in place of Kyle Orton. The Tebow pick will, in all likelihood, prove to be a bad one; I doubt he'll ever be an NFL-caliber passer. But the Broncos need to put him in for more than just a few goal-line plays. They need to figure out whether he has the makings of a productive NFL quarterback. Yes, he'll probably look bad if he gets prolonged exposure in the last few weeks of the regular season. But the Broncos need to look for traces of big-league talent before abandoning Tebow altogether.
What makes the Tebow situation salient to fantasy owners is not the fantasy value (or non-value) of Tebow himself, but the effect that a Tebow audition would have on some of the other Broncos, particularly Kyle Orton, Brandon Lloyd, Knowshon Moreno.
It's hard to knock Orton when he ranks fourth in the league in passing yardage and 10th in passer rating. But as good as he can look in some games, he can look awful in others, and last week was one of his awful games. Orton completed only 9-of-28 passes for 117 yards in a 10-6 loss to the Chiefs and also took four sacks. If Orton slumps down the stretch, the decision to give Tebow a look becomes that much easier for the Broncos.
Tebow's unrefined passing would all but kill the fantasy value of Brandon Lloyd, who has evolved into one of the more productive wide receivers in the league. Lloyd has been Orton's go-to guy all year. Lloyd owners no doubt shudder at the thought of Tebow tucking it away and running on close to half of his dropbacks and throwing the occasional flutter-ball in Lloyd's direction. (And it goes without saying that Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal would be utterly useless as fantasy commodities with Tebow at quarterback.)
Knowshon Moreno's value would take a big hit, too. Moreno has been terrific lately. As well as he's been playing, he might get consideration as a top-10 fantasy pick next season. But with Tebow at quarterback, opposing defenses would crowd the line of scrimmage without fear of being beaten deep downfield. Moreno would be lucky to see eight-man fronts; nine-man fronts would probably be the norm.
Owners of Orton, Lloyd and Moreno will have to monitor this situation down the stretch, because any Tebow-related tinkering that the Broncos do could necessitate a change of fantasy plans.
Salad: Garden salad
When Vernon Davis broke loose for a 66-yard TD catch against the Packers last week en route to a 126-yard day, no doubt a lot of his fantasy owners were thinking, "Finally!" Not that Davis is having a bad season. He's not that far off the yardage pace he set last year, when he sniffed the 1,000-yard mark, and his TD total (five) isn't bad, even though it's a big drop-off from the 13 TDs he scored last year. But before the touchdown against Green Bay, Davis had gone four weeks without a TD, and he'd only had one other 100-yard game.
Davis still has to be considered a top-tier tight end, but the season he's having is typical of the hit-or-miss nature of the position. It also makes me appreciate Antonio Gates all the more. The TE position can be separated into three tiers. Gates occupies a tier of his own. Davis and a small handful of other tight ends are on the second tier. The third tier is full of garden-variety tight ends, which is to say almost all tight ends.
Gates has 10 TD catches despite missing two games — he averages a TD per game. Marcedes Lewis has eight TD catches (which, realistically, has to be considered a bit of a fluke), Rob Gronkowski has six, and no other tight end has more than five. And despite the two missed games, Gates has an 80-yard lead over Jason Witten, and he's more than 100 yards ahead of the third-leading yardage gainer at the position, Davis.
And, of course, Gates is an absolute warrior. He only missed two games after tearing the plantar fascia in his foot. It's an injury that typically keeps players sidelined for a month or more. For my money, Gates is this season's fantasy MVP (at least in leagues that require you to start a tight end). He gives you a greater competitive edge at his position than any other player at any other position.
Entrée: Chianti-marinated beef stew
Hats off to fetching Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis (not to be confused with Rams LB James Laurinaitis) for this phenomenal brisket stew, the perfect meal for a cold winter's night.
In fact, I may have to fire up the slow cooker and give Giada's recipe a go on Sunday, because we're in for bone-chilling weather in the Chicago area. As of this writing, the Sunday forecast for Chicago, where the Bears will host the Patriots in a late-afternoon game, is for temperatures in the low teens to upper 20s, accumulating snow, wind gusts of up to 40 mph and subzero wind-chill temperatures. Sorry, Tom Brady owners. Wish I had better news.
In case you're reading this column on your laptop while sitting topside on your yacht in San Diego, or on the veranda or your Florida country club, allow me to break some news: It's winter here in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and we're already freezing our tails off. As the weather in these regions continues to, ahem, "go south," fantasy owners have to be ever more vigilant about how bad weather could potentially affect their players.
Sometimes the effects of inclement weather can be overstated. I tend to think that precipitation, whether it be rain or snow, has a negligible effect on fantasy performance, with the exception of kicker performance. I don't have any hard data to support this opinion. This is an empirical view based solely on 20 years of fantasy football experience, and I'd be willing to listen to counterarguments from fantasy-addicted meteorologists. There seems to be a tendency to think that precipitation hurts passing games and therefore helps running games. But I think precipitation can help passing games: When footing is treacherous, pass catchers, who know exactly where they're going, would seem to have an advantage over their defenders, who have to quickly react to sudden changes of direction.
As for wind and extreme cold, that's another matter.
It was cold and windy in Foxborough on Monday night when the Patriots hosted the Jets. I was clinging to an uncomfortably narrow lead in one league, and my opponent was starting Braylon Edwards and Dustin Keller against me. I didn't especially like my odds ... until moments before the game, when an ESPN camera showed Southern California native Mark Sanchez warming up on the sideline, moving none too fluidly, with a ski mask covering much of his face. Suddenly I felt better about my chances. Sure enough, Sanchez was terrible, Edwards and Keller did little damage, and I held on for the victory.
The combination of cold and wind can be murder on passing games and kicking games, for reasons that need no explanation. It will be interesting to see what Brady and Jay Cutler can do this Sunday under what figure to be terrible conditions. You might recall that in a freak mid-October snowstorm last year, Brady threw for 380 yards and six TDs in a 59-0 rout of the Titans in New England. But the temperatures weren't especially frigid that day — Brady was wearing short sleeves — and while it was breezy, wind gusts were topping out at about 24 mph. Sunday in Chicago, we may get sustained winds of 24 mph, never mind the gusts. Of all the quarterbacks in the league, Brady might be the most immune to those types of conditions. Even in high winds, he and WRs Wes Welker and Deion Branch might be able to quick-slant the Bears to death. I don't know about Cutler, though. Yes, he's a Midwestern boy. (His hometown is — I kid you not — Santa Claus, Ind.) He also spent his first few NFL seasons in Denver. But the Bears, while establishing a bit more offensive balance in recent weeks, are still a passing team at heart under offensive coordinator Mike Martz. We'll see if Cutler can effectively run Martz's offense in wintry conditions. I'm skeptical of that, and of Cutler in general.
So, two bits of advice:
1. For the rest of the fantasy season, if you have players who will be playing at cold-weather sites, be sure to check the forecasts in advance and take wind and cold into account when making lineup decisions.
2. When you make this stew, don't waste money on a good Chianti — the cheap stuff will do.
Dessert: Chocolate bag
I enjoy the occasional sweet treat, but I'm not really what you would call a dessert person. However, this dessert is so astoundingly good that I once had a dream about it — the only dessert dream I can ever recall having.
I ate the chocolate bag at a pan-Asian restaurant in Chicago called Red Light, where it was devised by a chef named Jackie Shen. She creates an actual bag made of chocolate and fills it with white-chocolate mousse, fresh berries and raspberry sauce. I can't begin to describe how delicious this dessert is — no amount of Theismann-esque hyperbole can do it justice. (Although I'd pay good money to watch Joe Theismann and Matt Millen sample this dessert together and try to one-up each other with slobbering praise.)
For many fantasy owners, the playoffs begin this week. For a majority of owners, the postseason will end in failure, but some will enjoy the sweet dream of a fantasy championship.
Monday night's Patriots-Jets game wound up being an absolute butt-kicking, and under most circumstances, the Patriots' 45-3 victory wouldn't have been my idea of quality NFL entertainment. But rarely have I enjoyed a blowout so much. In one league, a late TD catch by Aaron Hernandez clinched a division championship and a first-round playoff bye for me, allowing me to avoid a wild-card matchup against the most dangerous team in the league. In another league, poor games for Braylon Edwards and Dustin Keller (as mentioned in the item above), coupled with the failure of Mark Sanchez to secure a victory for a divisional rival, kept me in playoff contention and gave me control of my postseason destiny entering the final week of the regular season. And in another league, dud games by Edwards, Rob Gronkowski and Nick Folk, coupled with favorable outcomes in two other games in my league, turned my Kate Moss-slim playoff hopes into a more realistic possibility.
I had the fate of three fantasy teams riding on six different games, and all six games went my way. I turned off the TV, went upstairs to bed ... and was so giddy that it took me over an hour to fall asleep.
Most likely there are cruel fates awaiting each of my three teams. But for one night - and for a couple of days to follow — I was walking on clouds.
If an average-sized fantasy league has 12 teams, that means the fantasy season will end in disappointment for roughly 92 percent of us. With the odds of failure so outweighing the odds of success, a good many fantasy owners have wondered at times why they bother playing this stupid game. Competitiveness is a huge part of it, no doubt. But if you play fantasy football long enough, you'll experience some of those days (or nights) when everything goes perfectly. It's like the feeling of hitting a golf ball flush, multiplied by 20. It's such an amazing feeling that you're willing to deal with repeated failure in order to experience it again.
Good luck in the playoffs, friends.
And sweet dreams.