1. When we last saw Michael Turner, he was futilely hurling himself into an impregnable wall of Saints defenders on 4th-and-1 in overtime. Mike Smith's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Falcons' 29-yard line has been the subject of zesty debate all week. If Atlanta sports fans weren't such a dispassionate group, they might have taken up torches and pitchforks and shown up on Smith's doorstep. Was it a bad decision? Meh ... I think you could make a reasonable case either way. I have a bigger problem with the play call itself, which had all the originality of an "According to Jim" episode. Turner between the tackles on 4th-and-short - who could have seen that one coming? (Rolling eyes.)
But this item isn't about Smith's controversial call. No, this is a shout-out to Turner at a time when the most recent image of him is associated with failure.
Turner certainly isn't unappreciated, but he's underappreciated. He doesn't threaten rushing records and doesn't catch many passes, so he tends to be thought of as an unsexy draft commodity, with an average draft position somewhere in the mid-teens. Turner is typically ranked near the bottom of the top 10 at the RB position before each season, and once the season is under way, he often creeps into the top five in fantasy experts' weekly rankings. Every August, fantasy owners tend to filter their views through the prism of "upside," and Turner's upside is deemed limited, while his dependability is undervalued.
Definitions of a "solid" single-game performance for a running back may vary, but let's try a benchmark of either 80 rushing yards or a TD. We can probably agree that if a running back reaches either of those goals, he hasn't had a bad game from a fantasy perspective. Since Turner joined the Falcons in 2008, he's had at least 80 rushing yards or a TD in 38 of the 52 games in which he's played — so he's turned in a solid or better performance in 73.1 percent of his starts. (For the sake of comparison, Adrian Peterson's percentage of solid-or-better starts over the same four-year period is 85.7 percent.) To define an "excellent" game, let's throw out a benchmark of 100 or more rushing yards plus at least one TD (rushing or receiving). Turner has had 17 such games over the last four seasons, a rate of 32.7 percent. (Peterson's percentage of games with at least 100 rushing yards and one TD since 2008 is actually lower, at 28.6 percent.) It's an arbitrary benchmark for excellence, as it omits, for instance, an 80-yard rushing game with three TDs, or a 160-yard rushing day without a TD. And obviously, there isn't a case to be made that Turner is a more valuable fantasy commodity than Peterson. He's not.
Point is, Turner continues to be one of the more reliable performers in fantasy football, and if his brand of reliability is boring, well ... bring on the boring.
2. The guys at FantasyPros.com have asked me to be this week's featured "expert" in their weekly "Beat the Expert" contest. It's a salary-cap competition in which you choose a fantasy football lineup for the week that falls within the cap limit. The contest is free, and if you beat my score, you win $5. Finish in the top 10, and you win a share of a $1,000 prize pool. Here's a link to the contest. The really cool thing about it is that it benefits charity. Each expert gets to play for the charity of his choice, and the more of you knuckle-draggers I beat, the more money my charity receives. I'm playing for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
Parkinson's is an insidious disease that slowly but surely robs people of their motor skills, eventually turning them to prisoners of their own bodies. I know all too well what a terrible disease it is. My grandmother died from it, and now a close friend's dad appears to be fighting his last round against it. My buddy's dad, Ron S., is a fantastic guy whose presence I miss greatly. He's a devoted fan of the Chicago Bears who has always voiced his Bears fandom loudly and proudly despite living deep in Green Bay Packers country for most of his adult life. And speaking of the Packers, former Packer great Forrest Gregg revealed this week that he's battling Parkinson's. I'm too young to have seen Gregg play, but my late step-grandfather, Chuck Johnson, who covered the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal during the Vince Lombardi era, insisted that Gregg was one of the finest players of his era, regardless of position. I wish Ron S. and Forrest Gregg well in their battles with Parkinson's.
The FantasyPros guys are making these charitable donations out of their own pockets — a big-hearted gesture. Check out their site, which aggregates the player rankings of all the fantasy experts, and join the contest so that I can kick your rear end this week and direct some money toward the Michael J. Fox Foundation. (Fair warning: My lineup this week is stacked; you don't have a chance.)
Thank you, FantasyPros.com, for this opportunity. And (bleep) you, Parkinson's disease.
3. I'm not ready to believe that the season-ending injury to Matt Schaub will be ruinous to the fantasy value of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. Schaub will be replaced by Matt Leinart, and while Leinart will probably never turn into the quarterback everyone thought he was going to be after an illustrious college career at USC, he could still turn out to be decent.
Unless you count a mop-up appearance last year in which Leinart didn't attempt a pass, he hasn't seen any regular-season action since 2009, but he's played reasonably well in the last two preseasons. Things obviously didn't work out for Leinart in Arizona, but he's in a much, much better situation now than he was then. With the outrageously good one-two punch of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, Houston's running game is light-years better than Arizona's was before Leinart changed teams, which sets up the passing game nicely, and the Texans also boast arguably the best offensive line in the league. The Texans have a bye this week, giving Leinart a little extra time to prepare, and when they return to action in Week 12, Johnson is expected to be back from his hamstring injury.
And remember, it wasn't so much that Leinart flopped with the Cardinals. He was shaky as a rookie, as many rookie QBs are, and then Kurt Warner drank from the Fountain of Youth and seized the job, ending the Leinart era before it ever really began. Yes, there have been stories and rumors about Leinart being an unprofessional putz during his days in Arizona. It's hard to refute that argument when one can readily find an Internet photo of Leinart holding a beer bong for a young blonde. For all we know, Leinart might still be an unprofessional putz. But he might also have grown a bit wiser with age (or at least we Andre Johnson owners can hope).
I suspect that Leinart will be able to play at roughly the same level as fellow USC product Mark Sanchez. That's neither a slam nor a compliment. It means that Leinart can be a reasonably acceptable quarterback for a good team. And I don't expect much slippage in the productivity of Johnson and Daniels — maybe a 5 percent to 10 percent dip in their per-game productivity at worst.
4. While we're on the subject of Leinart, it's amusing that when you Google his name, you immediately see the infamous photo of Leinart hot-tubbing with four bikini-clad girls. That photo was taken in early 2008, so it's more than 3.5 years old. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then that picture is a 1,000-word cautionary tale for the Internet Age.
5. While I don't think the injury of Matt Schaub will kill the value of his best pass catchers, I think the Matt Cassel injury drives a stake through the heart of Dwayne Bowe, Steve Breaston and Jonathan Baldwin's fantasy value. The Chiefs' offense was erratic even with Cassel, who might generously be referred to as an average starting quarterback. Palko has appeared in four regular-season games and attempted 13 passes, and he's never been regarded as a future starter. I might be tempted to plug Bowe into my lineup one last time, since the Chiefs are playing the Patriots and their 32nd-ranked pass defense this week, but beyond that, there isn't much reason to put a Kansas City receiver into your lineup unless you don't have a choice.
6. Fred Jackson will make an interesting case study over the next couple of years. There's no denying that Jackson is a talented back who's enjoying a fabulous season. But Jackson will be 31 next year, and history tells us that running backs in their 30s are bad bets. On the other hand, Jackson is a late bloomer who hasn't been subject to heavy usage over a prolonged period of time, so the parables of Eddie George and Clinton Portis may not apply. This will be Jackson's third consecutive year with more than 200 carries, but his season high in carries entering this year was only 237. George had eight straight seasons of more than 300 carries before he ran out of gas. Portis had six seasons in which he had from 273 to 352 carries, and he was done before he turned 30. Jackson doesn't have anywhere near that sort of mileage on his odometer, so maybe he can keep this up for a few more years.
7. Pro Football Weekly has a feature in each issue called "Audibles" in which scouts, coaches and front-office people from around the league weigh in honestly and bluntly (very bluntly) on a variety of NFL topics under the condition of anonymity. If you prefer brutal honesty to empty press-conference platitudes, this feature is for you.
This week's installment of "Audibles" had an interesting lead item on Philip Rivers. An NFL insider suggested that a sternum injury is bothering Rivers, preventing him from throwing accurate deep balls and making him skittish in the pocket. The insider also made an interesting comparison between Rivers and ex-Brown Bernie Kosar, two non-athletic quarterbacks with unconventional throwing mechanics. The anonymous insider noted that Kosar did his best work in his 20s. Rivers turns 30 in a couple of weeks. It's an interesting historical comparison, and since I'm at a loss to explain Rivers' ineffectiveness this season, I tend to give credence to the notion that unathletic QBs with weird mechanics might not age especially well.
8. Here's something that might be able to shake Rivers out of his torpor: a matchup against Jay Cutler. Their rivalry has been dormant since 2008, but Rivers and Cutler do NOT like each other. Cutler basically said as much during an appearance on "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period" a few years ago, as Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times noted the other day. The animosity began in 2007, when cameras caught Rivers barking at Cutler during a Chargers win over the Broncos. The two played against each other five times from 2006 to 2008 but have not squared off since Cutler was traded to Chicago. Now, Rivers and the Chargers come to the Windy City. It's time to play the feud!
9. Darrius Heyward-Bey owners are no doubt disheartened that he has fallen out of favor with the Raiders so quickly after finally showing signs of career growth. Those who are holding on to DHB in hopes that the Raiders' brain trust (there's an oxymoron, eh?) has a change of heart can look to Sunday as a moment of truth. Jacoby Ford is expected to be out with a foot injury. Denarius Moore now appears to be the clear No. 1 receiver for Oakland, but who's No. 2? Besides DHB, the other candidates are T.J. Houshmandzadeh (washed up), Chaz Schilens (as fragile as a porcelain vase) and Louis Murphy (bad). The Raiders play the Vikings, and Minnesota's defensive backfield is in tatters. If Heyward-Bey doesn't produce this weekend — or isn't on the field enough to produce — it's time for his owners to part ways with him.
10. I'm starting to think that Mark Ingram is going to follow the career path of Ron Dayne. I know ... it's far from a perfect comparison, aside from the fact that both are Heisman Trophy winners and were first-round draft picks. But I suspect that Ingram, like Dayne, is a back whose talents won't translate into NFL success. Some running backs are never able to adapt to the smaller holes and faster defenders they encounter at the professional level. Dayne is remembered as an NFL bust, but he actually hung around for seven seasons, four of which were at least semi-productive. Ingram will probably hang around for a while, too, but if he was destined to be an NFL star, he probably would have shown signs of it by now. Yes, it's too early to write him off, but "semi-productive" is about all he's offered us so far.
11. I've been getting some terrific correspondence from readers lately and just wanted to issue a blanket "thank you" to everyone who has shot me an email in the last couple of weeks. It's always fun to banter with fellow fantasy enthusiasts — even the ones who send emails with subject headers such as: "Your take on Suh is crap" (actually, that e-mailer and I had a pretty pleasant dialogue, and I certainly admire his devotion to the Lions).
As always, feel free to contact me with lineup questions, fantasy football thoughts, get-rich-quick schemes or anything else that's on your mind. (And to Joe G. of the U.S. Army ... I wasn't blowing off your question, Joe, but Uncle Sam wouldn't let my reply through. If you know of a way for me to get email through to you, please let me know.)
12. Bummer that Leonard Hankerson went down with a season-ending injury (two, actually: a subluxation of his hip and a torn labrum) just as he was starting to make headway in his rookie season with the Redskins. Hankerson started for the 'Skins last week and had eight catches for 106 yards before he was injured. It will be tough to assess his value for next season, assuming he's able to return. There's obviously some talent here, but we didn't get much of a demo, and a hip injury for a wide receiver is pretty alarming.
13. A lot of hard-core football fans are reacting to the likelihood of an aborted NBA season with a collective shrug, but I am not part of the "good riddance" crowd. I'll miss the NBA if it does, in fact, go away this season. Although I'm far more passionate about the NFL than the NBA, I was a basketball fan as a child before I was a football fan, and my own children seem to be following the same path, as they'll sit and watch basketball with me (for a few minutes, anyway) but will not watch football with me. Plus, I'm a sports fan whose engine runs hot, so I require a great deal of sports-television fuel. I can watch a December game between the New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Bobcats and not want to immediately change the channel.
If the NBA season is destined to be a total washout, I at least hope that players and owners eventually get their act together and come up with a system that draws inspiration from the NFL. The National Football League is a model for any league that aspires to true competitive balance. The Miami Heat's roster-construction plan from last season — add one superstar plus one alleged superstar to your existing superstar, then add a collection of free-agent scrubs — offended my sensibilities as a sports fan, and I couldn't have been happier that the Heat failed to win a championship. Even worse is that other teams began to aspire to the same roster-building plan. If that's how the system works, then the system sucks and needs to be changed.
So long, NBA. Get well soon.
14. Frank Gore owners have to be beside themselves. Gore was on a sick five-game tear, with five straight 100-yard rushing games and a TD in four of those five games before getting hurt in the Giants game last week. Now he's dealing with a knee injury, along with an ankle injury. He's expected to play against Arizona this weekend, but Jim Harbaugh has hinted that he might divvy up the carries between his running backs. It's obviously encouraging for Gore owners that the knee injury isn't considered a serious one, but the guy was on such a nice roll, and there has to be some concern that the injuries will sap some of the mojo.
15. There had to be mixed feelings in the Cardinals' front office after last week's road win over the Eagles. On one hand, John Skelton made a solid case that he belongs in the NFL, throwing for 315 yards and three TDs. On the other hand, Skelton's success underscored just how bad the Kevin Kolb trade really was. That's not to say Skelton is ready to be a full-time starter. In two starts he's completed 54.7 percent of his passes and taken seven sacks, and he threw two interceptions against the Eagles, one of which was returned for an easy touchdown. But the Cardinals have won both of Skelton's starts, and Kolb has proven himself to be the mediocre quarterback that a lot of people outside the Cardinals' front office suspected he was.
It will be mildly interesting to see what the Cardinals do at quarterback for next season, though fantasy owners would be best-served by steering clear of that situation. Kolb is destined to be a backup, though that destiny may be delayed if the Cards decide he's still their least unpalatable option for 2012. Skelton is a more interesting case, but it's hard to see him having much value for the rest of this season, and I'm not sure he's worth attention in dynasty leagues, since he's probably at least two seasons away from becoming a competent NFL starter, if it ever actually happens.
16. Random musical note of the week: Back when I lived in downtown Chicago, I used to see a ton of live music. Now that I have two kids and live in the suburbs, that rarely happens anymore. But with my mother-in-law moving to town a couple of months ago, my wife and I now have a reliable babysitter nearby, so we were able to go see a band last week. The musical act was my wife's choice, a band called tUnE-YarDs (no, I don't have any idea what's up with the weird capitalization in the name). In much the same way that the White Stripes are a "band" but with one member, Jack White, pulling about 95 percent of the weight, tUnE-YarDs is driven almost entirely by a crazy-talented girl from New England named Merrill Garbus, who sings and plays ukulele and percussion. The music has a heavy African influence and sort of strikes me as a cross between Talking Heads and Sinéad O'Connor. Like Sinéad, Garbus has a pretty voice but can really bring it when she turns that voice loose. For a sample of the band's work, I recommend downloading the single "Bizness." It's an addictive track — good luck getting the chorus out of your head.
17. Bears fans here in Chicago are already beginning to make the case for Devin Hester's Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy based on his kick-return excellence. Yeah, granted, he's now the best kick returner of all time, but I don't think that fact in and of itself gets him into the Hall of Fame. Ray Guy is the best punter of all time, and he's not in the Hall. And you know that the Hall of Fame voters are going to set the bar awfully high for special-teamers. Would they let Hester and, say, Adam Vinatieri into the Hall within a few years of each other? I doubt it. And yet Vinatieri has had a fantastic career and has kicked some of the more important field goals in league history. I think Hester needs to either pad his kick-return TD record by such an enormous margin that it's obvious it will never be beaten, or he needs to add a couple of kick-return TDs that help pull out playoff games for the Bears.
18. It's kind of odd that the Packers can't seem to work James Jones into their passing game on a more consistent basis. Jones hasn't been shut out in any of the Packers' nine games, but in five of those games he's had only a single catch. (He scored TDs in two of those one-catch games.) And other than a monster 140-yard game against the Falcons, Jones hasn't had more than 63 receiving yards in a game.
19. A classic fantasy football example of the old expression "better lucky than good": The owner with the best record in one of my leagues is ninth in points scored. Ninth! Actually, this owner is pretty sharp. He isn't the sort of guy who needs this kind of luck in a rare down year. Where's MY horseshoe?
20. Dynasty leaguers looking for deep sleepers to grab before the end of the season should at least take note of Chastin West. He's a young receiver from Fresno State who spent last season on the Packers' practice squad before being signed by the Jaguars this season. He has played in five games for Jacksonville this year but saw his first significant action as a receiver last week, when he caught three passes for 39 yards. The Jaguars' passing game is under construction at the moment, with rookie QB Blaine Gabbert developing at glacial speed and a group of mediocre wideouts awaiting catchable passes the way buzzards await carrion. I'm not sure how soon — or even if — West might be able to make a meaningful contribution to this low-level passing game, but I thought he looked awfully good for the Packers in this year's preseason. I even thought there was a chance the Packers would release Donald Driver in order to keep West on the roster. That obviously didn't happen, but at least West now finds himself in a place where he can expect a reasonable chance for an audition.
21. The disappearance of Johnny Knox from the Bears' offense is only slightly less mysterious than the disappearances of D.B. Cooper, Jimmy Hoffa and the Lindbergh baby.