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20/20 Hindsight - Week 13

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.”

Another regular season for most fantasy leagues has drawn to a close. As I say goodbye to my teams that didn’t make the cut and focus on the remaining three still with a shot, I’m taking stock of 2005. Here’s the highlights, lowlights, and what I think I learned about these events as I look towards 2006.

2nd Year Signal Callers Generally Improve At A Significant Rate If They Get At Least Half A Season Of Starts. Case and point—Carson Palmer and Eli Manning are currently the 1st and 4th rated fantasy quarterbacks in standard scoring leagues. Both made significant improvements from their first season as starters and I chose to downplay the numbers that told me in July this might be the case. When I did my Crank Score projections, Palmer and Manning originally came out 5th and 10th respectively. In July I thought these results were too optimistic, but in hindsight they’re actually too pessimistic!

Lesson Learned: When the numbers point to something you don’t expect, take notice. It would have been ballsy to project either quarterback as high as the figures proposed, but I should have at least done more research to find a supporting argument for these numbers that turned out to be truer than I imagined. Palmer’s 2004 season ended much like his 2005 season has been all year long. In all honesty, I was very slow to see the light on Palmer. Taking a more studious approach with college games will help me remedy this problem.

Manning is a bigger surprise from the standpoint the Giants didn’t seem ready to make the kind of leap expected from Cincinnati. Nor did Manning show the same level of promise during his rookie games as his older brother, or Carson Palmer at the end of his season. In addition, you can add WR Plaxico Burress to the list. I figured it would take at least a year for them to have the type of season they initially experienced together.

Randy Moss And Daunte Culpepper Both Suffered From The Trade
Argue all you want that injuries derailed both players. Technically you are correct, but winning arguments on technicalities hollows the victory in this case. The contrast between Culpepper and Brad Johnson illustrates just what I mean. Among other personnel, Brad Johnson and his skills as a consistent game manager that performs within the system has kept the Vikings from flushing their season down lake Minnetonka. This isn’t to say Culpepper isn’t as good a quarterback—he’s a drastically different style of player.

Brad Johnson is succeeding because he has more than a decade of experience reading pro defenses and producing with receiving corps that never had a player with Randy Moss’ once in a generation talent. Johnson learned his craft and is applying it well within the Vikings system. If a play breaks down, Johnson gets rid of the ball before the defense may put he and the Vikings in a worse situation. When Culpepper had Moss, he could regularly turn a busted play or a bad play call into a positive, game-changing play. When Moss left town, Culpepper encountered unfamiliar defensive looks and didn’t have that bail out option when the play failed. The Vikings may have been the only team in history to have a 50-yard fly pattern as the bail out option. Eventually Daunte Culpepper will return to health and make the post-Moss adjustment to his game.

On the Left Coast, Moss had a great start with Kerry Collins. Yet even before Randy the Raider got hurt, something about the Collins-Moss connection was beginning to fall apart. I think that something were defenses coming to the realization Kerry Collins may have as strong of an arm as Daunte Culpepper, but only when comparing them heaving the pigskin flat-footed. In other words, keep Collins from setting his feet, or flush him out of the pocket, and Randy Moss is negated from the game plan. Think back to Moss as a Viking, and you’ll remember that many of his long scores result from Culpepper rolling out and buying time for Moss to outrun his man.

Lessons Learned: The Raiders either need to find the modern day equivalent of Art Shell and Gene Upshaw to complement the needs of their current statuesque QB, or they need to find a more mobile signal caller with a great arm. It wouldn’t hurt if Fred Biletnikoff could teach Moss how to become half as good of a route runner as he is a pass catcher—that would probably make as big of a difference, but if it hasn’t been demanded of Moss to get better in all phases of his game then it probably won’t happen in year nine. To put it bluntly, Randy Moss is probably the best “incomplete player” at his position the NFL has ever seen. He has the best combination of speed, leaping ability, and hands of any receiver in the game but just watch him run routes and you see the effort, crispness and accuracy of the route is not there. In fact, the biggest complaint among coaches of Moss is his tendency to freelance on routes to the extent his quarterback can’t predict where he’s going to wind up next.

This is also why Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb worked out so well in their first season—Owens can run routes as well as McNabb can keep a play alive. If Collins returns to Oakland, maybe Moss will realize he has to take his game to the next level in order to help his team succeed. If Collins is gone, Moss better hope a strong-armed, somewhat fleet of foot veteran like Steve McNair or Aaron Brooks finds his way to Oak-town…I doubt either possibility happens. I hope it doesn’t, either. Moss is too talented to avoid honing this area of his game. Someday he’s going to lose his speed and if he hasn’t learned how to run good routes, his decline will be as sharp as his ascent.

Veteran quarterbacks that served significant duty as “the” starter for a team have an easier time jumping into a new system and succeeding right away—Rich Gannon as a Raider, Drew Bledsoe in his first year as a Bill, and Brad Johnson as a Viking on his second tour all fit this description. Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia don’t match this statement, mainly because…

Offensive Line Play Means Too Much To The Success Or Failure Of Skill Positions To Ignore—Even In Fantasy Football. There has to be a better way to predict offensive line play than just assigning grades or highly subjective, numerical rankings. The Gut Check did his version of offensive line rankings in 2004, but these were more after-the-fact rankings based on the prior year’s stats. Continuity is obviously important—look at the Colts, Chiefs, Broncos, and Steeler’s lines. Coaching can have a significant impact in the short term. San Diego went from bad to great in 2004, and Hudson Houck almost did the same when he moved to Miami this year. The Falcons have a great run blocking line thanks to landing Denver’s previous line coach, Alex Gibbs. The key is figuring out the impact of individual players arriving or departing from a unit.

Lesson Learned: Rating offensive lines may be an imperfect pursuit, but it is still beneficial to do. Especially when you downplay a change to a line like Green Bay, and tout Ahman Green regardless of that situation. The leagues I drafted Green were a struggle all year.

Guys I’m Kicking Myself for Passing Up

  1. Tiki Barber in the 2nd round — I originally had Barber as a top five back. I downgraded his projections to the point that he was a mid-second round pick, just a few places below Curtis Martin. I took Curtis Martin as my second back to Edgerrin James. I have the second-best record in the league only because I also have Larry Johnson. The owner with the best record in our league is the guy with Shaun Alexander and Tiki Barber. When I think I might have had Edgerrin James, Tiki Barber, Cadillac Williams, and Larry Johnson I begin to twitch.

  2. Steve Smith — when the training camp reports say a guy coming back from a broken leg is faster than he was prior to the injury, it’s time to pay more attention. I also thought the Panthers would miss Mushin Muhammad more than they did.

  3. Carson Palmer — Palmer is one of the reasons I bought a TIVO and decided to scout college games. If I can’t watch a good player, it’s tough to invest in his potential. Palmer has impressed me more than any quarterback I’ve seen this year not named Peyton.

  4. Warrick Dunn — The Falcons starter had 8 more yards than LT after week 12 but on 24 fewer carries! I know LT has 14 more rushing touchdowns, but I could have picked Dunn in many leagues at a bargain basement price and acquired more sure things at WR. I’d take Dunn as #3 RB/Flex option any day.

Guys I’m Glad I Passed Up

  1. Terrell Owens — If he played, he was going to play well. But as NFL fans, have we ever seen a player behave this way before? You just had to figure it was going to crash and burn sooner than later.

  2. Willis McGahee — It’s not like McGahee has been horrible. Entering week 13, he was the 16th-rated runner in standard scoring leagues. But the Bills running back went being touted as the next great running back to a player whose effort is questioned by his coach. I only avoided him because J.P. Losman was a first-year starter. When Holcomb was in the lineup McGahee looked a lot better for at least a stretch.

  3. Jamal Lewis — I watched ESPN’s fantasy draft special this summer. After a half hour, I knew there was a huge gap between the participants that understood football and understood fantasy football. Especially when Nick Lachay was out-drafting Susie Kolber and Tom Jackson was questioning the sanity of several smart fantasy picks. The only ESPN staff member that truly understood the difference between what makes a good fantasy player and a good football player was Mark Schlereth. But back to the subject. Susie Kolber’s explanation for drafting Jamal Lewis was the clincher. She felt Lewis would be hungry to prove himself after a horrible off-season in a federal penitentiary. No mention at all of his injury or the Ravens team’s woes. Plus I’m sure the top-notch physical therapy Lewis was getting in the joint beat what he’d find in the free world. Kolber is a terrific reporter, yet when ESPN gave us the forum to observe the decision making their staff used to draft players, I was not only entertained but duly informed that I wouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck with Lewis—most of the general public was going to overrate him.

  4. Nate Burleson — the second coming of Darrell Jackson fulfilled those expectations—both missed several weeks of time this season. Burleson has a chance to be a good fantasy receiver for years to come, but after watching Koren Robinson slowly piece is career back together and Troy Williamson show moments I wonder where that leaves Burleson…

Guys I Wished I Passed Up

  1. Michael Clayton — I thought Clayton was one of the safer bets I could draft: a receiver with a great attitude coming off a terrific rookie season in an offense that likes to throw the ball. Clayton gains too much weight, hurts his shoulder, and looses primary looks to a rejuvenated Joey Galloway. He was a big-time fantasy killer.

  2. Drew Bennett — Poor early season play and injury did in my choice as the underrated primary WR in my fantasy drafts.

  3. Charles Rogers — I didn’t waste early picks on this guy, but it was still a wasted pick. My 2000’s version of Michael Westbrook.

  4. Ahman Green — With Green officially on my list, I’m officially through with my season-long self-flagellation for this horrible choice.

  5. Reggie Williams — Just watching this guy celebrate over a six-yard catch is disgusting. I hope he develops to the point where he has something more appropriate to congratulate himself for achieving.

  6. Kerry Collins — He did all right by me until the very weeks I’m about to need him most…

Guys I Wish I Didn’t Drop or Trade Away (Re-Draft & Dynasty Leagues)

  1. Ernest Wilford — I acquired this guy last year for practically nothing in return. I then dropped Wilford as the season began, and promptly lost a quality receiver for cheap.

  2. Thomas Jones — I traded away Jones in a dynasty league last spring. I had a ton of quality backs on my roster—or at least I thought so. By mid-season, half my runners on this team were in the infirmary and Jones was a solid #2 RB.

  3. Roydell Williams — I told everyone I knew that I thought Williams would be the best of the three receivers the Titans drafted and though he was the last to get significant playing time, I think he’s been the best all-around rookie wide out to see the field for them in 2005 and will be a sneaky good player in the NFL for years to come.

Guys I’m Glad I Acquired

  1. Heath Miller — I picked this guy up late in most re-draft or auction leagues, and he’s been a terrific bargain at this position.

  2. Kurt Warner — He’s playing great down the stretch and was a big reason my 11-2 squad was able to afford two stud RBs (Edge and Priest) and one waiting to shed the diapers…

  3. Larry Johnson — He’s Eddie George with Fred Taylor’s speed. There is nothing more I love as a fantasy football owner than to have a back that gets the ball early, often, and always as he wears out a defense and fills up my side of the scoreboard.

  4. Antonio Gates — I reached for him a bit and selected him over Tony Gonzalez. Plus I knew Gates was going to miss the first week of the season. Turns out he has been the best TE by far—even with “two” bye weeks!

Guys I Wish I Reached For Because It Was Worth It

  1. Larry Fitzgerald — He’s the next great receiver in the NFL. He has awesome hands, decent speed, and a terrific work ethic. It doesn’t hurt that Anquan Boldin makes it impossible for teams to double cover either of them. Fitzgerald is catching over 70% of the balls targeted to him. For the amount of targets he gets, this is a great stat.

  2. Lamont Jordan — I saw with my own eyes how good Jordan is as a runner. I just forgot that there would be several others in every league that would reach a bit for him because they saw the same skills. Jordan has been a top five runner at the price of a borderline starter.

  3. Plaxico Burress — I thought Burress was significantly over valued in most drafts. He’s a quality starter/primary fantasy receiver and no other pass catch has been targeted more this year.

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

Deshaun Foster Would Be A Force
Fosters performance against the Falcons was more along the lines I expected from him all season. Of course, John Fox gets sentimental just prior to the season and gives Stephen Davis the reins to the running game. Ten weeks later, Davis begins to look his age and Foster gets a shot. The UCLA alumnus has excellent hands, breakaway speed, and fights hard for extra yardage. What is not to like? Foster has some fumbling problems earlier in his career and he doesn’t posses the patience of Stephen Davis. Foster should get better with more carries.

Lesson Learned: I’ve been targeting the Falcons run defense all year long. I touted Foster this week as a good start. After the perfunctory carries to Davis established that the veteran still wasn’t going to get the job done, Foster took the opportunity and made the most of it. I can think of a lot worse options to have at running back if he is on your depth chart behind a stud that you might have to bench in the playoffs due to his team earning home field advantage…

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

Lee Evans Would Finally Play Like Many Expected From The Beginning
Three touchdowns in one game for a hot and cold player is crazy, but all three coming in the first quarter is too much to fathom. Evans clearly has the talent, but much like 49er, Brandon Lloyd, neither receiver has a good enough quarterback to get them the ball on a consistent basis. Evans and Lloyd are fit the mold of another physically talented big ten alumnus that has to cope with maddeningly inconsistent play from their quarterback—Chris Chambers.

Lesson Learned: Quarterbacks make or break most receivers. So much so, you can have a healthy debate whether it’s more advantageous for a fantasy owner to have a mediocre receiver on a team with a good quarterback instead of a good-to-great receiver on a team with a mediocre quarterback.

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

Larry Johnson Would Be The Irresistible Force Against Denver’s Top Rated Run Defense
I had some healthy doubts about Johnson running roughshod over Denver’s defense prior to the game, but with some help I came to my senses. This runner will likely be responsible for more great fantasy stretch runs than any other player this year.

Lesson Learned: Johnson has been terrific, but it’s the KC offensive line and the return of Welborn and Roaf to the lineup that is the reason one should ride Johnson until he’s through or your season is…

Nagging Feelings—Week 13

Expect the Raiders offense to take a nosedive with Collins out of the lineup. Marques Tuiasosopo has some nice athletic tools and he could find Randy Moss deep a bit more often (as I explained about buying time with an athletic QB), but there’s a big reason why they got Collins instead of handing the job to the former Washington Husky. I’d be worried about Lamont Jordan’s production with this change as well.

I think Jimmy Smith suddenly comes back to fantasy life with David Garrard in the lineup. Garrard targeted Smith 24 times in the last two contests. Garrard’s ability to keep a play alive should match up well with Smith, a receiver that had plenty of good years finding ways to get open for a scrambling Mark Brunell in his prime.