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20/20 Hindsight - Week 6

As we all know Hindsight is 20/20. This weekly column is devoted to learning from common mistakes and serves as FFToday’s “Fantasy Football Confessional.”

It was a rough week in a majority of my fantasy leagues, especially the FF Today Staff League where I dropped Marvin Harrison only to see him score twice, once on a long touchdown pass that writers and analysts like Peter King, Merrill Hoge, Cris Carter, and Tom Jackson said he didn’t have the physical skills to do anymore. Let’s examine the carnage that was week six.

Would've (From The Who Would Have Known File)

Thomas Jones would be the fantasy stud in Cincinnati: Jones having a strong performance in Cincinnati sounds more like a fit for the “should’ve known” section, but with Brett Favre coming off a six-score performance in the Jets’ previous game and Jones averaging 2.6 yards per carry, it was easier to presume New York would continue to pass the ball. Although Favre put the ball in the air 33 times and completed an impressive 75.8% of his passes, Jones was the beneficiary with two scores on the ground and one by air – his first career three-touchdown game.

Lesson Learned: There are two basic strategies in any game: doing what your opponent expects you to do and daring them to stop you and ‘hitting them where they ain’t’. Unless you can physically dominate a team, the first strategy is not nearly as effective as the second. Two weeks ago, Favre and company burned the Cardinals in their jet wash and it was likely Cincinnati was naturally focused on preventing big plays in the passing game. This opened more holes on the ground in red zone situations even in goal line packages because Favre is so apt to pass throw the ball to his tight ends.

Matt Ryan would be so impressive against a top-notch defense this early: The Falcons-Bears matchup was the early game for my household yesterday and it was nothing close to the snoozer that I feared it might become. Ryan completed 73% of his passes for 300 yards, a score, and set up the game winner with a huge sideline route from the pocket with a DT bearing down on him with only seconds remaining. This was against the same defense that did a decent job of shutting down Donovan McNabb, Jake Delhomme, Peyton Manning, and Jon Kitna. Only the pass-happy Bucs and Brian Griese – who tossed more picks than scores – had a better fantasy day against the Bears than Ryan yesterday.

Lesson Learned: There are several things to learn here and extend beyond Matt Ryan and the Falcons. One of them is how much a coach can wreck a team in a short period of time. Bobby Petrino threw the baby out with the bathwater when upon his arrival in 2007. He changed Alex Gibbs’ blocking philosophy which favored quicker, lighter, more athletic linemen for a strategy that didn’t fit his personnel and the top-ranked running game took a nosedive. Warrick Dunn was renamed “Warrick Done”, branded the scapegoat of a poor decision that rested with the head coach. By the way, Warrick Dunn had 22 carries for 115 yards against a Carolina Panthers defense that has not allowed a runner to surpass the century mark all season, including Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, LaDainian, Tomlinson, Michael Turner, and Larry Johnson. If that isn’t an indictment of scapegoating a player, I don’t know what is.

The Redskins’ Jim Zorn either paid attention to Petrino’s missteps or didn’t need to learn the lesson in the first place, because his decision to retain Washington’s ground offense and supplement his passing attack was about as wise a move as a new coach has made in a long time. Sure, Washington laid and egg against the hapless Rams, but the result of Zorn’s offseason decision not to reinvent the wheel is that Clinton Portis is the NFL’s leading rusher. The ground game affords Jason Campbell an easier adjustment because the ground game has routinely put Campbell in down and distance situations where the offense has the strategic advantage.

This leads us back to the Falcons. Matt Ryan is benefitting from a solid ground game in the same way as Jason Campbell. Although Michael Turner only averaged 2.2 yards per carry in the Bears game, the fact coach Mike Smith continue to pound the ball (Atlanta gave it to Turner 22 times) forced Chicago to respect the ground game. In a sense, the Falcons built up enough equity in previous games as a running team that Chicago knew they had to respect the ground game, even if it wasn’t consistently effective. Ryan hasn’t been shell shocked like David Carr or Joey Harrington, because of the Falcons prowess on the ground.

And the opportunity for Ryan to gain confidence in previous weeks – in addition to his cool demeanor that had earned him the moniker ‘Matty Ice’ before ever arriving in Suwanee, Ga., for minicamp – and complete six of six passes in third down situations with at least nine yards to go. Against a tough Bears defense, this is as telling a stat as you’ll find in the ballgame. Ryan had pinpoint accuracy and Roddy White is playing at a pro bowl level. The fact that rookie Harry Douglas finally put a full game’s worth of a good moments together was also encouraging, hauling in five catches for 96 yards, including a 47-yarder that looked like he was doing a vintage Marvin Harrison (makes my stomach turn every time I think about him dominating the Ravens secondary) imitation.

Ryan will still have some down moments this year, but if you saw his demeanor against the Bucs and his effort to play through it without get flustered, you realized Ryan is that kind of rookie quarterback that seems to come along once every seven to ten years and grow up quickly. It supports my thoughts on Ryan this summer.

Matt Ryan, Atlanta—It’s difficult to argue against the Falcons making this pick. Ryan is a pocket passer with accuracy and toughness who elevated the mediocre college offense around him. This is what many draft analysts thought of Joey Harrington and why they projected him as a franchise QB, but I think Ryan will actually fulfill higher expectations.

There are other analysts that believe Matt Ryan has the field vision, accuracy, and leadership that will make him on par with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. I’m more inclined to think Drew Bledsoe or at best, Dan Fouts. Ryan has some mobility at this stage of his career, but so did Bledsoe. Early in his career he should be able to execute roll outs and get some positive gains if the pocket breaks down, but don’t believe that 4th QTR scramble fest at the conclusion of the Virginia Tech game is anything close to trademark Ryan.

This is a quarterback who prefers to drop five to seven steps, survey the field, and manipulate the defense with his command of the playbook and accuracy. His arm strength is good enough for him to stretch the field, but he lacks that rare gun. Paired with a strong running game, Ryan will develop into a solid fantasy starter with a few years of borderline elite play.

Rookie Impact: Odds-on favorite to start by November, the latest. He’ll impress NFL analysts more than fantasy owners in this scenario. If he starts on opening day, don’t be surprised if he flashes enough quarters of strong play and becomes a low-end fantasy backup. Because he’s smart player with a mature outlook, I think he’ll be better out of the gate than most rookie quarterbacks. Don’t anticipate numbers that compared with Peyton Manning or Vince Young, but a notch below Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie ranking among his QB brethren is possible.

Three to Five-Year Outlook: Ryan has enough of a gunslinger mentality to take command of an offense and produce some big games. I liken his upside to Dan Fouts if he gets the weapons and green light to win through the passing game. Realistically, expectations are more in tune with a modern day Ron Jaworski: a QB with a 15-year career and four, top-10 fantasy seasons and ten, top-12 years. He’ll be very good, but not great.

Ron Jaworski? Drew Bledsoe? Dan Fouts? If I were Matt Ryan I could live with that kind of upside.

As someone who has spent a majority of his life within earshot of Atlanta, I’m finally becoming a fan of the Falcons organization. It began with Arthur Blank taking over the organization from the Smith family. The hiring of Dimitroff and Smith has really solidified the team because these are true football men who aren’t inflexible, old school disciples of a long gone era (Dan Reeves), gimmickry (Jerry Jones), or products of nepotism (Jim Mora, Jr.). Smith was one of those guys that should have been a head coach a long time ago, but lacked the flair to draw the attention of PR-conscious people. But this is another testament to Arthur Blank, who was more focused on making the right choice and not the popular one.

I attended a lecture Blank gave at the University of Georgia over a month ago and he was frank about his challenges as a new NFL owner. One of the things he discussed was learning the lay of the land in terms of the difference between doing the right things and doing what NFL types normally do. He told a good story about training camp that I want to share with you. Here’s what Blank said in front of a packed audience on August 27th, in Athens, Georgia:

. . . Under the heading of ‘Walk the Talk’ let me give you some examples of that…Both Bernie [Marcus co-found of Home Depot] and I, particularly in the early days of the company…would spend close to 50 percent of our time, if not more, in our stores. And people would say ‘you do that because you want associates to [see] that that you care about the business. Yeah, that’s one of the reasons, but the reality is that we really did it because we wanted to walk in the footsteps of our associates. We wanted to understand the pressures they are under, what was working [and] what wasn’t working, what the customers were saying directly, where the opportunities for improvement came from, etc. So we spent a lot of time walking stores – never with a large group – we put on jeans, put on a shirt, put on an orange apron…and worked the floor to get a sense of the business.

Another experience in terms of ‘Walking the Talk’. . . I knew when I bought the team – we used to do training camp at Furman University. It’s a great university. . . 2002, which was my first training camp as an owner, David [David Shi, the president of Furman University] called and said I understand that you’ll be coming up to camp this year. I said, yeah, I’ll be up there for about three weeks.

I had planned on staying in the same dorms as the players. Not in the player’s dorms, but in the same dorms – that players were staying in, our staff, our coaches – adjacent to [the players]. The same facilities. And David said, listen . . . there’s a really nice home down the street that we rented for you, it’s just down from my house. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood and you can go out and run everyday and there’s a golf course not far from here. And I said, appreciate that David, I really do, but I’m going to stay in the dorms. He said that’s really nice and I know that you want to be close to your players and your staff and understand that from your background with Home Depot that’s the way you ran your business, but you’ll be happier here. It’s really going to be nice here [at the rented house]. I said David, I really do appreciate the offer…but I’m staying in the dorms.

The reason I wanted to stay in the dorms was because I wanted to get sense of what our players and staff was having to live through…I say this with all due respect, I’m sure University of Georgia dorms are perfect (audience laughter) and their totally comfortable: the walls are thick; the beds are big; and the mattresses are this thick; and there’s comforters on every bed. But for National Football League players, these guys average 250-300-330 pounds – 6-4, 6-5 – these are big human beings.

What I found out later as I lived in the dorms was that over half of the players in the dorms would take their mattress off the bed and sleep on the floor because the beds were too small for them. They had these little bitty shower heads that were about as big as the microphone, so [when] they would take a shower it took them several minutes to get wet, they’d get these little towels…it would take them several minutes to dry off and go through all the towels in the bathroom. One guy would be sharing a room and the other guy would have no towels at all. Those were all the things that actually I experienced – not that I’m that size – but I listened to their stories.

So I moved training camp back from Furman back to Flowery Branch [Ga.] . . . We built dorms that were designed by the players. We have beds that are the right size, we have showerheads that are the right size, they have towels that are the right size and the right number of them, and that came about from my experience of quote, ‘walking the talk.’

I’m not aware of what other training camps are like, but this story shows that Arthur Blank values his employees. Not knowing the hand signal for completed pass aside, he’s had some tough decisions and has handled them well. He not only made some good calls, but also learned from his bad ones – which many people in leadership positions never do. The Falcons are looking like an organization that is finally getting things right from the top-down.

Could've (From The Who Could Have Known File)

The Minnesota Vikings could look almost as bad as the Detroit Lions: Not only did Adrian Peterson cost his owners significant points in fumbles, which probably would have resulted in at least one rushing score if he held onto the ball, but the Vikings vaunted offensive line allowed five sacks to a Lions team – one more than the total Detroit had after five weeks. This is a team the Vikings should have dominated. Instead, the difference was QB Dan Orlovsky’s lack of awareness of the end line that kept this game from going into overtime and a coin flip away from a Purple and Gold disaster.

Lesson Learned: Adrian Peterson will remain a top twelve runner in 2008 as long as he is healthy, but this showing in Detroit demonstrates that the Vikings need a quarterback to allow their best player to be a dominant force. Right now, he’s merely good. Gus Frerotte is far from the answer.

Potential answers via free agency in 2009:

Kurt Warner – There’s no way Arizona is letting him go, because the Cardinals are about the same quality team as Minnesota. But if by some miracle they go one more round with Leinart, Warner and Peterson could be a huge pass/run combo.

Jeff Garcia – He’s gone this year and a perfect fit within Brad Childress’ system. Garcia is a tough leader with mobility. The Bucs’ on-again, off-again starter is probably the best available player for Tarvaris Jackson to emulate in terms of using his athleticism as a passer.

Kyle Orton – Unless the bottom falls out with Chicago in the second half, it will never happen. He’ll be resigned. If not, he’s a better decision maker than Frerotte, but not good enough to consider an upgrade.

J.P. Losman – Mobile, great arm, and a confident competitor, Losman would be a guy Childress might hope to give a second chance if they decide to give up on Jackson. But if you’re not playing for the present when you have Adrian Peterson in your prime, anyone else you consider besides Warner and Garcia should be a draft pick. Losman is a gamble on greatness that could either accelerate the Vikings’ growth, or set them back five years (more likely the latter).

Others: Kyle Boller; Rex Grossman; Matt Cassel; and Charlie Batch.

Peterson’s numbers should stay in the 80-120-yard range each week with the occasional touchdown, but I’m beginning to think that 220-yard, 3-score potential won’t happen in 2008.

Should've (From The I Knew I Should’ve File)

Not to drop Marvin Harrison: It’s not because I thought Harrison might return to form. It was a shocker to see him burn the Ravens secondary this weekend. It’s not because I didn’t trust several former NFL players that watch film who said Harrison is a shadow of himself. Determining speed and quickness off film is a difficult undertaking and as good as these guys are as analysts, projecting the course of a player’s career is a proposition that will make you a fool more times than not.

The fact of the matter is that I didn’t try to at least trade Harrison for something worthwhile.

Lesson Learned: I’m not sure what I could have earned from Harrison prior to the Ravens game, but his stock surely went up afterwards. It certainly wasn’t worth adding a bench player at WR or RB.

Nagging Feelings—Week 6

I hate getting enamored with the potential of receivers like Mike Walker. If you saw the Steelers game, you know I was right about what the guy can do. The problem is health. Now, Walker is hospitalized with an infection to his knee. Doctors are treating the infection with medication that does not require him being put under the knife. Still, all these knee issues need to clear up by next season or his opportunity to be a quality starter is likely over.

Steve Reed of the Gaston Gazette quoted Warrick Dunn on Earnest Graham’s voluntary switch to fullback when the Bucs starting lead blocker was injured. "You can't say enough about Ernest," running back Warrick Dunn said. "This guy sacrificed his day to get in the there and block and he did a great job. He was reading it the right way, putting hits on guys. He's the ultimate team guy. I'm speechless a little bit because of what he sacrificed for this football team today. That's one of the most unselfish acts I've ever seen on a football field in a long time." It’s players like Graham that remind us that there are far more quality personalities in the NFL than we see or hear about in the media. For every T.O. or Ocho Cinco, there are 7-9 offensive linemen willing to switch spots at a moment’s notice when one of their teammates gets hurt. When they open holes for their runner to gain 200 yards or give their quarterback enough time to get the ball to the team’s diva receiver for three touchdowns, you don’t hear them whining to the media about not getting enough attention.

Brady Quinn is in a tough situation. He’s the hometown kid, first round draft pick, and fan favorite who has demonstrated poise in limited play. The front office are standing behind Derek Anderson, who performed at a pro bowl level for most of the 2007 season, but until the first half of last night’s game, didn’t look anything like the player we saw last year. If the Browns trade Quinn to a team that needs a young quarterback, Cleveland fans will be up in arms – especially if Anderson doesn’t live up to the big contract. If the Browns trade or bench Anderson, they tell the world they made a huge financial error in judgment to sign the QB to a big deal. Unless Anderson gets hurt or clearly costs the team games, Quinn is stuck on the bench for a few years.

When the Browns offensive line doesn’t make stupid mistakes with false starts and minor holding penalties, this unit could be dominant. The funny thing is 20-30 years ago, the Browns offensive line was the same way – talented, but mistake prone. The scary part is they still kept Anderson’s uniform clean for the entire game. The most entertaining part of that game was Brandon Jacobs powering through the Browns secondary for his first score and then tiptoeing around the end zone as the Browns defense watched.