Friday, December 19, 2008

The Dennis Northcutt All-Stars

Like many of you, I play in too many fantasy football leagues. I've got my "main" league with my high school buddies. I've got the league that belongs to one of my best friend's DC crowd. There's also the league of my co-worker's friends. And, of course, there's the two Yahoo public leagues that I play in. Oh, and I sort of ghost-managed my girlfriend's team for a while as well (but ultimately stopped when I realized I was managing a middling club in an all-girls league). It's enough to drive a man to drink. Or to invent wild and unnecessarily complex gambling schemes Or, at the very least, to wild binges of time wasting at the work place.

But, the overindulgence has taught me one thing. There are several archetypal fantasy football teams. For starters, there are the Eucatastrophy Teams from whom everything breaks right from the beginning, where every waiver pick turns out to a breakout player. If this is your team then you drafted Drew Brees in the middle rounds (or didn't but snagged Kurt Warner off the waiver wire after Week 1), drafted the Purple Jesus with your top pick (rather than LT), snagged Michael Turner with your second, lucked out with a discounted (because of that suspension Steve Smith), took a chance on Roddy White and then nabbed Michael Forte off of waivers in the early going. That, or something like it, happened for lots of people. I even had one team like that this year. It scored the third-most points in a 12-team league and was the only squad that didn't dip under a 100 points (we have a lot of scoring categories) in any single week. I was absolutely stacked. And, of course, I finished tied for LAST PLACE, with a 4-10 record. Because fantasy football is a godless game which rewards the auto-drafters and not-changing-guys-out-for-bye-week mouth breathers. But, I digress. Most of these squads are playing for the championship of their respective leagues right now. I'm up against one of them myself.

The bizarro version of the stacked Eucatastrophy Team is the Skin-of-the-Teeth Teams. These are the teams with mediocre but solid players who squeak out wins almost every week. Generally no one has a monster game but everyone chips in something and there is a rarely and 0fer to be seen. This formula works fine during the regular season only to fall short in the playoffs when a team's lack of game-breaking talent is exposed. Such teams may have featured Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch and TJ Houshmandzadeh. There are also the Hodge-Podge Teams, making deep runs featuring boom-busts guys and leftovers like Phil Rivers and Isaac Bruce. There's also the Auto-draft Automaton Clubs relying heavily on Peyton Manning, the Ravens defense and Terrell Owens. But these three types are who we thought they were. They're good but not great and likely facing an uphill battle beating the fully loaded squads that they must be up against at this point. Should they just plug in the Average Joes or guys in doomed matchups that they've got on the roster and start planning on how to spend their second-place money? Nope. And, why not? Because, really, the best part of playing fantasy sports (aside from potentially winning the money of your friends, family members and coworkers) is the smug feeling of being righter than everyone else.

And the best way to do that at this point is to manage a squad like The Dennis Northcutt All-Stars. This strategy is not for everyone. Be Warned: If you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant then steer clear of this team. Do not even handle broken pieces of this team. Seriously, your babies will be deformed. You also don't need to adhere to this if you are running out a Eucatastrophy Team this weekend; in that case you best dance with those ladies that brought you. But, if you're the manager of a Skin-of-the-Teeth Squad, a Hodge-Podge Team or any other variety of entrant on the wrong side of the betting odds then this is your big chance. Don't blow the big check and the fabulous prizes by listening to the fantasy experts who still want you to start LaDainian Tomlinson over Sammy Morris.

Fantasy league managers can be a lot like reality league managers, they will often do the safe thing that protects them from ridicule even if it also insulates them from victory. They'll sign the retread manager rather than go with the unproven commodity. They will take the safe path that doesn't draw attention rather than the bold one that might. Just yesterday I found a perfect example of this while reading the transcript of a chat that Matthew Berry ('s fantasy sports ringleader, whose work I do read regularly) conducted with readers. In response to a query about starting 49ers running back DeShaun Foster (presuming first-stringer Frank Gore is inactive) over Clinton Portis, Berry responded thusly:
I know. But I think Zorn is coaching to save his job here and what if you lose? You're gonna look back and go... what was I thnking? I benched Clinton Portis for DeShaun Foster.....
Now, what he really meant was, "I totally follow the logic of your suggestion but I cannot condone it because if you play Portis and lose then nobody will consider you foolish whereas if you play Foster and lose then you may be open to criticism from others who will second guess your non-conservative choice."

I couldn't disagree more with this logic. This is not how you win a one-game playoff. You can't be worried about feeling foolish when you lose. No one cares how you feel when you lose anyway. Because you are loser. This is about trying to win. Be bold. Be proactive. If Foster gets the start (and Gore considers himself 50-50 for the game) then he is the smartest play this week. He's going up against a woeful rush defense on speedy turf and won't be splitting carries. There is no doubt that Clinton Portis is the better football player and far more accomplished sartorially but that has little to do with Week 16. In Week 16, Foster is the play. You sit Portis in that situation because he has been injured, feuding with his coach and is facing a good team. Given a better one-week alternative, you sit LT (general suckiness), Chris Johnson (brutal matchup), Kurt Warner (supposedly bad weather an no need to win with playoffs clinched) and a ton of other "must-start" guys.

Without further ado, here's a list of potential members of The Dennis Northcutt All-Stars who may be able to help you pull of the shock win this week in your fantasy football league. I'll be starting these guys provided they are available in lieu of banged-up All Pros (Portis and LT) or studs with tougher matchups (Chris Johson vs. Pitt and Kurt Warner vs. The East Coast). And you should too.
QB: Shaun Hill, San Francisco 49ers
It's very possible that Hill has made a few starts in your league already but he's worth a look. Especially because he may have been dropped after last week's no touchdown performance against the Dolphins (who haven't allowed a TD in a while). Hill is taking the pass-happy 49ers into St. Louis to face the woeful Rams defense. While Brett Favre is battling the march of time and the rain in Seattle, Hill will be throwing free and easy in a dome and running plays called by an offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, who probably wants to hang 50 points on his old team. Before last week's no touchdown day against the Dolphins (although he still played well, completing 30 passes) he'd produced two scores in 4 of the 6 games that he'd played in. The Niners are going to score 3 to 5 touchdowns against the Rams and Hill is likely to get credit for a few of them. He's likely to get you at least two scores here and could explode against the pathetic Rams defense.

QB: Dan Orlovsky, Detroit Lions
Here me out. Aside from bringing us the best NFL blooper in recent years, Orlovsky could be the key to toppling a heavily-favored foe in the money game of your fantasy league. Forgetting that fact that I think the Lions could actually defeat the Saints in Detroit this weekend (New Orleans is 1-6 on the road and has nothing to play for), I don't think anyone would be shocked if the Saints won this game 38-24, with Calvin Johnson terrorizing the Saints secondary for three scores in the loss. That's totally plausible. Right? And, that means that lil' Danny from UConn tossed himself three TDs and probably almost leveled up stud-QB Drew Brees (who I'm facing in two championship games), who should probably surrender a few scores to Pierre Thomas. Just think about this before starting Tyler Thigpen against a Dolphins defense fighting for a playoff berth that hasn't given up a touchdown in a month.

WR: Dennis Northcutt, Jacksonville Jaguars
I know that this name would have been far more useful to you yesterday. Timeliness is not my strong suit. But this is the sort of situation to look for. Due to a teammate's suspension, Northcutt emerged last week (over 100 yards receiving, team-high 5 receptions and 1 TD) as his club's top option in the passing game. He's not nearly as talented or long-term reliable as many of his peers but this week he was a lock for a ton of looks from his quarterback. And that's all that should matter.

WR: Deion Branch, Seattle SuperHawks
You've actually heard of this guy. He's been good. He was even the Super Bowl MVP one time. But a conspiracy between injuries and Seneca Wallace may mean he's available in your league. Go check. If he is then pick him up and play him. Branch faces a leaky Jets secondary this weekend (29th against the pass) and all the subplot factors point towards a big day. He's a former Patriot and probably dislikes the Jets. The Jets are terrible on the West Coast (zero wins in three tries). The Seahawks should be fired up for Mike Holmgren's last home game. And, Branch has actually been playing pretty well with Wallace for the past two weeks (9 catches and 2 TDs). His 2008 season was an injury-marred abortion but he could still be the MVP of your fantasy squad.

WR: Jason Avant, Philadelphia Eagles
Cut from the same cheesecloth as Northcutt, Avant very recently emerged as the Iggles' sort-of No. 1a option, having caught a team-high (tied with Desean Jackson) 5 balls for 101 yards. Reggie Brown was on the bench and Avant was caught 3 balls on 3rd down from McNabb. The 25-year-old wide receiver out of Michigan is owned in just 3% of ESPN leagues and is worth a flier if you're a big underdog.

RB: DeShaun Foster, San Francisco 49ers
See Above. This post could easily be entitled The DeShaun Foster All-Stars as his sudden, undeserved opportunity and perfect matchup are exactly what this strategy thrives on.

More players coming...