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Fantasy football: 21 things

The little things that kill

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Recent posts by Pat Fitzmaurice

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Posted Dec. 08, 2011 @ 5:28 p.m. ET
By Pat Fitzmaurice

1. It's the little things that kill — or at least that's what Bush singer Gavin Rossdale claimed. (And he's married to Gwen Stefani, who's gorgeous, so we should probably trust his judgment, right?)

Rossdale is correct, at least when it comes to fantasy football. To wit: On the play that likely ended Matt Forté's regular season, Bears TE Matt Spaeth whiffed on an attempted block of Chiefs ILB Derrick Johnson, who then connected with Forté's knee on the tackle. Forté sprained his MCL on the play and is expected to be out for at least a couple of weeks. Spaeth's failure to get low on his attempt to block Johnson, who ducked Spaeth as he made his approach toward Forté, not only led to the injury but also prevented a big gain. Forté was headed outside, toward the near sideline, and there wouldn't have been a Kansas City defender anywhere in his path had Johnson not foiled the play. A run of 40 or more yards was a distinct possibility. Who knows? Forté might have been able to take it the distance for a 92-yard TD. Forté himself told the Chicago Tribune later on that the play would have gone for a big gain if Spaeth had executed his block.

This isn't meant as a swipe at Spaeth, even though I'm a Forté owner. Spaeth is a good-blocking tight end, and it's not that easy for someone who's 6-foot-7 to wipe out a defender who goes low the way Johnson did. But that single missed block turned a potential big gain into a potentially season-ending injury, and it affected outcomes in thousands of fantasy leagues across the country — not just in Week 13 but for the balance of the fantasy season.

The little things indeed.


2. Regrets, I have a few.

I passed on the chance to see Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray in a triple-bill show at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin so that I could go to a party that a certain girl was going to be attending. Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash after the show, and I never got to see him play live. I didn't get the girl, either.

I once blew a perfect opportunity to catch a foul ball that I was camped directly underneath during a Brewers-Blue Jays game in the 1980s (off the bat of Jays catcher Ernie Whitt), but I inexplicably tried to one-hand it at the last second, and I flubbed it.

There have been other missed-concert regrets: Jane's Addiction, The Who, Peter Gabriel, Foo Fighters. The regrets involving girls are far too numerous to mention.

And, of course, there have been fantasy football regrets — so many fantasy football regrets. I'll spare you the list of reasons why it was a bad idea to spend a first-round pick on Lorenzo White in 1993. But as far as this year goes ...

• I regret picking Rashard Mendenhall in the latter part of the first round in two different leagues.

• I regret drafting Aaron Hernandez in one of my leagues when Rob Gronkowski was still available. I honestly thought Hernandez would have the better season. (Gronk was taken with the very next pick.)

• I regret the decision to draft Santonio Holmes over Marshawn Lynch in the fourth round of my 16-team league, even though I still needed a second running back.

• I regret making Jamaal Charles and Jahvid Best the first two running backs I drafted in the Pro Football Weekly in-house league.

• I regret not having picked Cam Newton one round earlier in one of my leagues, then getting snaked on him by one pick in the next round ... and having to settle for Alex Smith.

• I regret thinking that Sam Bradford was good enough to be a starting quarterback for one of my teams.


3. As we head into a critical week, there seems to be a perfect storm brewing at the RB position, with a number of top running backs facing some of the worst run defenses in the league.

The red-hot Marshawn Lynch faces the league-worst St. Louis run defense. Ray Rice, fresh off a 200-yard game against the Browns, faces the Colts (30th against the run). Rashard Mendenhall has been a disappointment this year, but he scored two TDs against the Bengals last week and now faces the Browns (31st against the run). Maurice Jones-Drew draws the Buccaneers (29th), Michael Turner faces the Panthers (27th) and DeMarco Murray gets the Giants (23rd). Chris Johnson, who's finally looking like his old self again, faces the Saints. The only reason why New Orleans ranks a semi-respectable 16th against the run is because opponents usually have to throw so much to keep up with Drew Brees and the Saints' offense. That opposing runners are averaging 4.9 yards per carry against the Saints speaks volumes — as does the fact that Earnest Graham ran for over 100 yards against them earlier this season.

To owners of the aforementioned running backs, all I can say is, "Bon appétit!"


4. Speaking of Chris Johnson, who finally lit the fire under this guy, and why did it take so long for the flame to catch? Don't you get the feeling that during the coming offseason, we're going to learn that Johnson was dealing with some previously undisclosed injury?


5. Some fantasy football leagues use a "best ball" scoring format, and while I don't play in any such leagues, I find the concept intriguing. Under this format, owners aren't required to set starting lineups because each owner's entire roster is in play. The players who post the highest point totals at their positions each week are automatically considered the starters, so every team gets its optimal lineup. The system eliminates the often agonizing process of determining a lineup each week and eliminates second-guessing on everything but roster moves.

"Best ball" is a term borrowed from golf. Golfers in a best-ball match are paired with one or more teammates, and the team score for each hole is the lowest score posted by a team member. The best-ball format is occasionally confused with the "scramble" format, in which teammates play only the group's best shot, and every teammate plays from the spot where the best shot lands.

While I find the application of the best-ball concept to fantasy football interesting, I prefer the traditional format for much the same reason that I prefer an individual match in golf to a best-ball match. If you hook your ball into the trees in a best-ball match, you know that you can still win the hole if a teammate comes through with a good score, so the shot you play from the trees becomes less meaningful. (In a scramble format, you wouldn't have to play the shot from the trees at all.) But a lot of golfers relish the challenge of that kind of situation in an individual match. They're in the trees and their opponent is in the fairway, so the challenge is to overcome the disadvantage and still find a way to win or tie the hole.

The best-ball format in fantasy football is in some ways like the scramble format in golf: You get to play everything from the fairway. I'm an avid golfer, though not a particularly good one. I appreciate the reward of being able to play a shot from the fairway (rare as that may be, in my case), but I also enjoy the challenge of playing a shot from a bunker, or from an awkward lie, or even from behind a tree. Success is more satisfying after you've experienced failure.

I can't count all the times I've given myself angina by agonizing over a difficult lineup decision. Fantasy football owners probably face an average of one tough lineup decision per team per week. But the agony is sort of fun, isn't it? These decisions can mean the difference between success and failure, which is why they cause us so much anxiety. I'd actually miss that anxiety if I played in a best-ball league.


6. My kids have been watching pretty much every holiday special on television over the last couple of weeks. To me, the hierarchy of holiday kiddie fare is pretty simple: "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is way up at the top of Mount Crumpit, and every other holiday special resides far down below in Whoville. I never tire of the Grinch, but all the other stuff seems so dated. The Peanuts gang is big in our house, but listen carefully to the dialogue in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — boy, is it dated. And after seeing the stuff Pixar has been doing, it's almost painful to see the stop-motion animation of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

My kids' favorites? The "Home Alone" movies. I know some people refuse to count them as holiday specials, but they're aired and re-aired every December without fail, so in my book they count. My kids never tire of watching Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern get brained with heavy objects. What's that they say about the apples not falling far from the tree?


7. Never trust a plodder.

That's long been a personal fantasy football tenet, and I feel like it's still a good rule of thumb. The basic premise is that it's a good idea to stay away from slow-footed, sledgehammer-type running backs. Why? Because (1) they rarely have long runs, which means they have to get a lot of carries to get their yardage, and the greater number of carries brings a greater risk of injury; (2) their limited ability to avoid tacklers also brings greater risk of injury; (3) their value tends to be heavily dependent on goal-line opportunities, and frequency of goal-line opportunities can vary wildly; and (4) they tend to catch few passes, which limits the ways in which they contribute to both their offense and your fantasy team.

I was reminded of the no-plodder rule last week — not an especially good week for plodders. Michael Turner (possibly the one trustworthy plodder in the league) had a rushing line of 14-44-0. LeGarrette Blount went for 11-19-0. Cedric Benson was 13-52-0. Michael Bush was 10-18-0. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was 6-14-1.

Not all plodders were lousy in Week 13. Shonn Greene (probably too fast to be considered a full-fledged plodder) had 88 rushing yards and three TDs. Toby Gerhart (the very definition of a plodder) had 91 rushing yards. Brandon Jacobs got only eight carries but ran for 59 yards and a TD.

But that's the rub: A plodder's style can work, but it tends to produce inconsistent results. Every decade or so, you get a consistent plodder. Right now it's Turner. Ten or so years ago it was Eddie George. But it's rare to find bruisers who offer that sort of consistency. That's why I always, always have guys like Blount, Benson and Jacobs ranked lower than a majority of my competitors heading into every fantasy draft. It's just a personal preference, but I think it's a good rule of thumb to follow. If you were depending on Blount to help get you into the playoffs last week, there's a good chance you've been eliminated.


8. Hard to say whether Cam Newton is going to keep putting up double digits in rushing TDs over the next several years. The histories of players such as Kordell Stewart and Michael Vick suggest not, but Newton might be a special breed of cat. With Newton punching in so many rushing TDs, and with so many of them coming at or near the goal line, Carolina running backs are obviously going to have to be downgraded in future years due to Newton's friskiness. You simply won't be able to count on any of the Panthers' running backs to produce more than a handful of rushing touchdowns.


9. I suspect that a lot of the people who own Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden or Matt Forté would be willing to donate their own body parts if it meant getting their injured running back healthy for this week's games.


10. Last week, I asked readers to weigh in on a challenging lineup decision that I was facing. I had Matt Forté at one RB spot but was having trouble choosing between C.J. Spiller and Jonathan Stewart at the other spot. Readers gave me solid arguments on both sides of the coin, and ultimately ... it wound up in a dead heat, with votes split evenly between the two candidates. The ball was back in my court. I went with Stewart.

Strangely enough, Stewart and Spiller produced nearly identical stats. Both had a rushing touchdown. Spiller had 83 rushing yards, Stewart had 80. Both had 19 receiving yards. This is one of the few leagues that still hasn't adopted decimal scoring, so Stewart and Spiller produced identical point totals. And, thanks to that lack of decimal scoring, my game finished in a tie. Fitting, huh? It was a do-or-die game for me, and I neither did nor died.

I can still qualify for the playoffs this week by closing the regular season with a win against a team that's more dangerous than its 2-11 record would indicate. No, seriously — he has Michael Vick, Marshawn Lynch and Larry Fitzgerald. There's danger lurking there. How can I assume a victory when I'll be without Forté and Andre Johnson. Hell, I actually have to start Jabar Gaffney.

So now I have a three-way dilemma at running back involving Spiller, Stewart and Marion Barber. Spiller is probably in — I like his matchup against the Chargers. The Stewart-Barber decision is stickier. Readers, I extend the same sort of invitation to you this week: If you want to weigh in on Stewart vs. Barber, hit me up at the address listed here. Your input is always appreciated.


11. Dynasty-league owners who've been sitting on Jake Locker all season have to be at least a little bummed out that they still have no idea what Locker can do at the NFL level. It defies the odds that creaky old Matt Hasselbeck has prevented Locker from getting any sort of meaningful audition. What were the chances that Hasselbeck would perform passably all season, that he'd remain relatively healthy for a prolonged period, and that he'd be able to keep the Titans in the hunt for a playoff berth despite Chris Johnson playing poorly for much of the season and Kenny Britt going down with a season-ending injury early in the season? Locker might still get a start or two at the end of the regular season of the Titans fall out of the race or if the odds catch up with Hasselbeck, but it's looking as if Locker will still be an unproven commodity going into the 2012 season.


12. Earlier this season, I gave a shout-out to Billy Cundiff after he kicked five field goals in a game, helping me pull out a victory in one of my leagues. So in the interest of fair and balanced commentary ...

Last week, Cundiff missed FG attempts of 34 and 41 yards, made a 21-yarder that he almost pulled wide left, and bounced one of his three PAT attempts off the inside of an upright and through - not a banner day for a placekicker. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh blamed his kicker's woes on the foul weather in Cleveland on Sunday - it was rainy and windy - and Cundiff cited problematic footing. Unfortunately, Cundiff kicks for the Baltimore Ravens, not the Barbados Ravens. When you play your home games on the Eastern Seaboard, and your divisional rivals are Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, you're going to have to kick in some crappy weather, especially in December. Apparently Cundiff owners are going to have to pay close attention to the Weather Channel. (For the record, it's supposed to be sunny and dry on Sunday the Ravens host the Colts in the Robert Irsay Bowl.)


13. It's going to be interesting how the Cowboys' wide receivers fare over the next few weeks now that Miles Austin is returning from his hamstring injury. It seems inevitable that either Austin owners, Dez Bryant owners or Laurent Robinson owners are going to be dissatisfied. But how could you bench any of those three against the Giants this week, as lousy as the Giants have been against the pass?


14. Rolling Stone magazine recently ran a cover feature on the best 100 guitarists of all time, and it was fantastic. It's the sort of feature guaranteed to stir debate, although the panelists who determined the list are all accomplished guitar players themselves, which makes it hard to question their calls. But I tend to be argumentative, so naturally, I question some of their calls.

No complaints on the top three: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page. I'm also OK with Keith Richards at No. 4. But it's inconceivable that neither Stevie Ray Vaughan nor David Gilmour cracked the top 10. (Vaughan was No. 12, Gilmour No. 14.) Vaughan may have had a handful of equals, but no one was clearly better as a guitarist — not Hendrix, not Clapton, not Page. (And yes, that's right — you're getting two separate Stevie Ray Vaughan references in a fantasy football column.) Gilmour has been known to object loudly when he feels slighted by published "best guitarist" lists, and in this case he'd have a legitimate gripe. I realize Jeff Beck (No. 5) is a beloved guitarist, but Beck's guitar has never spoken to me the way Gilmour's has. I also think Gilmour is better than Pete Townshend (No. 10) and vastly better than George Harrison (No. 11).

In some instances, the panelists clearly gave too much weight to the accomplishments of a guitarist's band. I admire the work of the Beatles as much as anyone, but Harrison was ranked far too high, and John Lennon (No. 55) shouldn't have been on the list at all. (I do feel bad about typing that last sentence on the 31st anniversary of Lennon's assassination.) I love The Police, but Andy Summers (No. 85) was arguably the third-best instrumentalist in a three-piece band. The Sex Pistols were important, but while Steve Jones (No. 97) was the only one in the band who could actually play his instrument, he's not top-100 material. Nor is Bruce Springsteen (No. 96), at least not purely as a guitarist.

Other egregious errors: Alex Lifeson of Rush behind the aforementioned Jones and Springsteen? Listen to Lifeson's solo in "Working Man" and tell me Springsteen is a better guitarist — I dare you. Johnny Ramone at No. 28. Way too high. Jack White at No. 70? Waaayyy too low. Most glaring omissions, in my opinion: Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Robert Cray, Yngwie Malmsteen (never could get into his music, but the musicianship is undeniable), Billy Zoom and Bob Mould.

It's all highly debatable, of course, but those are the two cents of a lifelong air guitarist.


15. Maybe Christian Ponder wasn't such a terrible draft pick for the Vikings after all. The guy has moxie. I hated the pick at the time, but it now looks about 10 times better than the Jaguars' selection of Blaine Gabbert.


16. Darren Sproles' productivity has fallen off since Week Nine, although his TD reception last week was an encouraging sign. Now that Mark Ingram is dealing with turf toe, I think we're going to see Sproles' numbers perk up again over the next few weeks. Don't be afraid to use him as a flex player.


17. Pro athletes take a ton of heat when they act like prima donnas, so we should at least acknowledge when an athlete who has just cause to behave like a prima donna keeps his mouth shut and plays hard. So here's to you, Larry Fitzgerald. A lot of the NFL's better receivers would be openly lobbying to be traded if they were in your shoes. Your restraint is commendable. 


18. Quick update on the FantasyPros Invitational experts league that I'm playing in this year:

I finished as the highest-scoring team in the regular season, and I've qualified for one of the six playoff spots in this 12-team league. But at 9-4, I just missed qualifying for a first-round bye, so my playoffs begin this week. At the risk of jinxing things, I'm feeling pretty good about my chances. I own teams in five leagues, and this one is easily my best. I've consistently been hanging up some big point totals for the last month or two, and when I've lost, it's been because my opponent exploded on me. (My points-against total is third-highest in the league.)

Aaron Rodgers has clearly been my MVP. Would you believe that I got him in the middle of the second round? It wasn't part of the plan for me to get a top quarterback, but when Rodgers fell, I couldn't resist. And I haven't been disappointed with first-round pick Calvin Johnson, either. A.J. Green has helped, and the early-season loss of Kenny Britt became less painful with the acquisition of Victor Cruz, who was worth every free-agent dollar I spent on him (something like a quarter of my budget). I de-emphasized running backs in the draft, perceiving wide receiver to be the more important position with the scoring system we're using, but I've been pleased with Marshawn Lynch and Ryan Mathews, and a trade for Cedric Benson (I gave up Reggie Wayne) turned out well enough.

I play Chet Gresham of Razzball this week, and if I win, Bob Henry of Football Guys awaits. It's go time!


19. Just as WR Chaz Schilens was starting to re-emerge as a potentially viable fantasy option, he got hurt again. It's a foot injury, and it's said to be minor — there's still reportedly a good chance he'll play for the Raiders in Green Bay this weekend. But, man, can't the Oakland trainers tape up Schilens in Bubble Wrap or something? Dude is always getting hurt.


20. We've reached the point in the fantasy season where owners start falling by the wayside as their teams are eliminated. Many owners also fall by the wayside in terms of their digestion of fantasy football media, and that's understandable. Over the next several weeks, as fewer and fewer owners are still competing, the focus of this column will gradually shift away from the present and toward the 2012 season, culminating in a futurist frenzy in Week 17, when I'll dedicate nearly the entire column to 2012 fantasy drafts and auctions. If 2011 is now a lost cause and you're already hatching a revenge plot for next year, stay with me for a few more weeks. I'll do my best to make it worth your while.


21. Just to get the juices flowing for the 2012 season, I'll leave you with this question:

Assuming that Peyton Manning is still playing football next season, and he and Andrew Luck aren't on the same roster, which of the two quarterbacks goes earlier in redraft leagues?

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