August 28, 1999, will forever be the day the "Big Noise" went silent. In a local league with old friends, I prepared to gallantly defend my crown and launch a dynasty into the next millennium. Little did I know the unimaginable was about to happen.
It was my favorite moment of the year, draft night. Amidst discussions of Andre the Giant's stamp on wrestling history, pinup babes and the impending Y2K disaster, we had fantasy business to attend. And I, the defending champ, brimmed with confidence.
This was my fifth year of playing competitive, high-stakes fantasy football and although I soaked in a great deal of preseason action, I typically dismissed most exhibition games as glorified practices. So when my buddies decided to turn on the Rams-Chargers preseason game during our draft, my attention was minutely swayed. Well, at first anyways.
In the early rounds, my draft game plan was conducted flawlessly. I selected steady Eddie George with the ninth pick and followed with Vikings plowshare Robert "The Cure" Smith. Everything fell into place. After six rounds, my team had three terrific backs and a steady balance of serviceable wideouts. The cheap beer and Chex Mix never tasted so good.
As a staunch supporter of focusing on backs and receivers in the early rounds, I had yet to select a quarterback. When Isotoner boy Dan Marino, scrappy Buffalo Bill Doug Flutie and, one of my all-time personal favorites, Bubby Brister, went off the board, the position went thin but I had little worry. My prized trump card sat there in the middle rounds just as I had anticipated.
Always fond of up-and-coming sleepers, my mind was fixated on a relative unknown out of the University of Indiana who played for a coach that would cry over a tire-flattened squirrel. Yep, it was Trent Green. In Dick Vermeil's pass-happy system in '99, Green oozed with potential and drove my fantasy libido wild. Elated he lasted until Round 9, the St. Louis gunslinger was mine. My team was complete, unstoppable and, for the moment, poised to once again dominate. Then, the god of fantasy quarterbacks hurled a lighting bolt at my crotch.
In a surreal twist of fate, I looked up from my cheat sheet and saw a blitzing Rodney Harrison lunge at my treasured quarterback's knee. The brutal hit forced Green's knee to buckle, tearing not only three ligaments but also my prospects of stealing away a top-five quarterback for peanuts. Instantly, I was bombarded with a cascade of laughs and taunts from my league mates. My buzz was totally killed. Bewildered, frustrated and nearly suicidal, I hastily took Charlie Batch in the next round. Talk about an all-world blunder.
Unfortunately, that year I failed to believe in the power that was Kurt Warner and stuck with Batch for a good chunk of the season. "Bag Lady," as I called Batch by season's end, finished with 13 touchdowns and an awful 178 yards-per-game average. Eventually, I finished fifth and tarnished my image as the perennial league guru. Now, every year when my friends and I convene for the draft, I am constantly reminded of the ridiculous episode. Stupid Rodney Harrison, I will never forgive you.
The moral of the story: Preseason football matters. You just never know what injury could befall your team and what potential superstar could rise to the occasion. Remember, always handcuff your superstar running back and pray that some crazed defender doesn't dash your hopes of reaching the gridiron gold. Oh, and if the "Bag Lady" ever finds the light of day as a starter in Pittsburgh, feel free to pick him up if you're purposely trying to tank your season.
THE SPINMEISTER FIVE
Not only a great name for an early 90s alternative rock band, the Spinmeister combs through volumes of print to bring you the five most intriguing training camp morsels each week.
1. The Bell Heard Round the World
Call the jerk line, Darth Vader is at it again. On Monday, Mike Shanahan announced that undrafted rookie running back Mike Bell – a Denver native who grew up idolizing the Broncos – leapfrogged Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne on the depth chart to become the team's new No. 1, for now. Following a similar path as other virtual unknowns, Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Clinton Portis and Reuben Droughns, Bell was "shaking" with excitement when the announcement was made. Shanahan added, "He's been real impressive. It's very close, and it could change day by day, week by week, but we felt like Mike deserves a chance to work with the first team and take a look to see if he can keep it up." Are you really all that surprised? Bell's first action as the starter comes on Friday in the Broncos' preseason opener at Detroit.
Spin: Apparently the orange skin tint has finally soaked into Shanahan's brain. As many of us know all too well, he is a man whose ego gets stroked every time one of his diamonds in the rough pan out – with the exception of hardened criminal Maurice Clarett – and this time his tormenting effects on fantasy owners may have reached its zenith. Am I right Tatum Bell owners?
Projected to be a mid-round selection back in April's NFL draft, a terrible combine plunged Mike Bell's value. The scout reviews of Bell prior to the combine were solid. At Arizona, he averaged a stout 4.7 yards-per-carry his senior year and was an aggressive, strong back that racked quality yards-after-contact numbers given his large 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame. What has impressed the Denver coaching staff most is Bell's incredible work ethic, something that has always been amiss for the other "cracked" Bell. Despite the positives, the upstart rookie has limited breakaway speed and is an average receiver. Also, stamina could be an issue as he only averaged 202 carries-per-year in his last two collegiate seasons.
The bottom line: His running style and quality burst in the hole is an ideal fit for the Denver zone-blocking scheme and as long as he can stay atop the depth chart, he is easily a high risk/high reward choice in Round 8 of 12-team drafts. Remember, during Shanahan's tenure as Broncos head coach, he has churned out five different 1,000-yard rushers, and this kid could very easily be the sixth. Contrary to the buzz, auction draftees should not overpay. It's still a long way until kickoff weekend and Dayne and Tatum Bell are still very much in the mix. If you've already drafted, grab the former Wildcat now before he tolls for someone else, but he is far from a 1,000-yard lock, yet.
2. Grounded Jet
Five-time Pro-Bowl running back Curtis Martin's career is in limbo. Still not in camp, Martin continues to have problems with his surgically repaired right knee and is unsure whether or not he will be able to suit up at all this season. Camp observers have said the future Hall of Fame runner has walked with a noticeable limp. One unnamed team source told the Newark Star-Ledger, "Our starting running back on opening day may not be on the roster yet." With Chris Brown, Thomas Jones, T.J. Duckett, Marcel Shipp and Michael Turner all involved in swirling trade rumors, the Jets could explore a solution elsewhere.
Spin: At this point in his career, Martin reminds me of the hated copy machine from "Office Space." Always jammed and constantly out of service, it just needs a baseball bat beat-down to be put out of its miserable existence. And so does Martin. Going around pick No. 116 in Yahoo! drafts, he is nothing more than a midnight hour selection for fantasy owners. When team doctors say the unbearable pain in your right knee is due to "bone-on-bone" discomfort, hanging up the cleats is a probable option. At this point, I would be shocked if he plays a down this season. Avoid him at all costs.
Of the names bantered about in trades, Duckett seems to be the most likely candidate to land in New York. The Falcons have been very impressed with rookie Jerious Norwood and with Warrick Dunn the primary ball carrier, Duckett would be the most expendable compared to Brown and Jones. Deep-thinking owners might want to circle Duckett's name as a late-round flier in drafts. If no deal is penned, look for second-year man Cedric Houston to split carries with veteran Derrick Blaylock. Houston averaged a Nick Nolte mug shot ugly 3.7 YPC as a rookie, but his tough, north-south style would be ideal in goal-line situations. Keep him in mind after Round 10 as a fifth running back.
3. Houston Rocket
Houston Texans fourth-year receiver Andre Johnson is anxious to bury the specters of 2005 and prove that he is one of the game's most underrated pass catchers. "Last year was so frustrating. I couldn't run. I couldn't cut. I couldn't do what I wanted to do on the field. I couldn't be me. It's is not going to happen again," Johnson said. Teammate Eric Moulds spoke highly of the talented youngster stating, "I've talked to our corners who've had to cover him in practice and they'll tell you that's what hits them between the eyes. I've played against Dexter McCleon for most of my career, and he told me the guy is on you before you know it. Nate Clinton, who I played with in Buffalo, said he's seen very few receivers like Andre. DBs all over this league are saying he's got all of the attributes of the all-time greats." Johnson will see his first action of the season on Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Spin: Described by teammates as a silent warrior, Johnson is my leading candidate for the Rubber Band Award (Best Bounce Back Player) in '06. After going in Round 3 in most drafts last year, A.J. had an abysmal season. The high-flying wideout missed three early games due to a leg injury and never got back on track, failing to register a touchdown until Week 12. Despite the wretched campaign, this Texans' spurs are sharpened and ready to kick some tail, but the dominoes will have to fall in the right place.
For starters, new head coach Gary Kubiak's Denver-influenced zone-blocking system must have a healthy Domanick Davis. His presence should be able to keep defenses honest and open up the passing game. Also, Moulds will have to be a dependable No. 2 in order to take a large amount pressure off Johnson. Finally, the offensive line will also need to reach serviceable levels in order for David Carr to have enough time to find his favorite big-play threat.
Remember, Johnson was a Pro Bowl receiver just two years ago and possesses the speed, leaping ability and sure hands to be a topflight No. 2 receiver on your roster. Currently the 20th-best receiver based on his 50.5 Y! ADP, the sticky-fingered Texan will turn a top-15 wide receiver profit and finish around 75 receptions, 1,050 yards and six-to-nine touchdowns.
4. Greener pastures by the Bay
Former fantasy stud Ahman Green took part in his first drills of 2006, attempting to return to serviceable levels after a quadriceps injury cut short his '05 campaign. A four-time Pro Bowler, Green has not been cleared for contact and will likely miss most, if not all, of the Packers' preseason games. "I won't say it's a given," Green said of playing against the Bears in Week 1, "but it's a very real, high possibility. Real high." New Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy said, "He looks great physically. He just needs to get back in there. We just have to be smart with him." Green has averaged 1,100 yards, seven touchdowns and a lofty 4.8 YPC average since 2003.
Spin: Green is the skull-and-crossbones hot sauce you would like to try but are scared about the fiery repercussions. His deplorable two-yards-per-carry decline over the past three seasons is a major red flag, but the former Nebraska standout still possesses an aggressive style that can move the chains behind a healthy offensive line. At age 29, his explosiveness will surely be down coming off a major leg injury, but don't count him out completely. Viewed as a tireless worker, he could be a useful No. 3 back available in Round 9, but figure on second-year waiver wire god Samkon Gado to steal eight to 10 carries per game in order to keep the veteran fresh. For now, look at the Packers' running back job as a "twofer" on draft day. In other words, if you plan to take a risk on Green, its imperative Gado is shackled a couple of rounds later for insurance. Despite the negatives, Green is a solid draft day value. If 12 to 14 games are logged, he should finish around 1,100 total yards with six to eight touchdowns.
5. Warner will give you wings
Age-defying Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner wants to implement more downfield home-run plays into Denny Green's offense in order to increase scoring opportunities. Warner said, "We didn't have big-play touchdowns to take the pressure off of us. What we did last year, you look at yardage, you look at what we did between the 20s, it was very similar to what we did in St. Louis. Maybe we didn't have enough confidence to do the seven-step drops, let our guys put on some double moves, take some shots down the field. And that's why I don't think we got those big plays because we didn't take the chances to do it." Offensive coordinator Keith Rowen added, "Some of it is second-effort blocks where another player down the field nicks a free safety. In the running game … it's someone getting on a free safety. It's a receiver getting on a corner, and 'Edge' taking a 20-yard run up to 60." The Cardinals' air show begins on Friday against the Chicago Bears.
Spin: Never, ever underestimate a quarterback with two All-Pro receivers, an elite running back and a constant five o'clock shadow. Last year, Arizona was first in the NFL with 12 completions of 40-plus yards and first with 63 20-yard strikes. Warner's talk of adding more long bombs is drool-inspiring – especially for owners in leagues that give bonuses for long touchdowns – and it's yet another reason why you want to get this guy on your team even if he only plays 10 games.
With a Y! ADP just shy of No. 100, this desert bird is quite possibly the best quarterback bargain around. Although question marks loom about the offensive line, the presence of Edgerrin James will give Warner more pocket time, keep defenses consistently off guard and increase open spaces for physical marvels Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin to exploit. In '05, Warner tied Tom Brady with five 300-yard games and will likely lead the category again. Due to his late-round availability, he is this year's version of Carson Palmer. Just make sure you draft a trustworthy backup. You can anticipate 23 to 27 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and 275 YPG if he plays 14 or more games.
CHEAT SHEET HEAT
Who should you move up in your rankings? What impact will injuries have on player values? Which Cincinnati Bengal will get tasered next and become undraftable? The heat gives you the gridiron dish on the volatile fantasy football player market.
Way ahead of his rehab schedule, Culpepper is ready to drop-kick more punks than Patrick Swayze in "Road House." Nick Saban said his starting quarterback will play in Miami's preseason opener on Saturday against Jacksonville, so all signs point to a Week 1 start. His injury risk and 51.5 Y! ADP makes him a bit overvalued, but he is a worthy No. 1.
The Bengals' clubhouse leader in offseason arrests with four, Henry has come into camp with a fresh, well-behaved attitude. According to head coach Marvin Lewis, he has nearly sewn up the third receiver spot after his five-reception, 117-yard, one-touchdown performance in an intrasquad game on August 5. If Chad Johnson or T.J. Houshmandzadeh were bedeviled by injury, Henry would become a strong fantasy No. 3. Deep leagues that start three receivers should view him as a great late-round sleeper.
Reports out of Texans camp is that Smith has been a vocal leader in the locker room and has backed it up on the field, likely cementing his role as the primary backup to Domanick Davis. On Monday, Davis sat out practice again with left knee swelling and, although listed as day-to-day, Gary Kubiak is not confident Davis will return to action anytime soon. For those Davis gamblers, Smith needs to be chained.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio has officially listed Ernest Wilford and Matt Jones as one and two on the wide receiver depth chart. He-Man Wilford has decreased his body fat to an insane two percent and is primed for a breakout campaign. His physical gifts and experience in the Jags' system should make him a strong No. 4 receiver as he fills the void left by the retired Jimmy Smith. A 2006 campaign of 65 receptions, 800 yards and six to eight touchdowns cannot be ruled out.
On August 6, the Vikings' burner caught a 70-yard touchdown from decrepit starter Brad Johnson, wowing the crowd and the coaching staff. Williamson will be the Stretch Armstrong for Minnesota this year and has played his way into a possible starting role opposite No. 1 Koren Robinson, but head coach Brad Childress has been tight-lipped on who he prefers. Williamson won't be a world beater in PPR leagues, but his blazing speed makes him a nice fifth receiver in Grand Canyon-deep leagues. With an ADP of No. 185, don't waste a pick on a second tight end or kicker late in your draft and give the second-year receiver a look. Anticipate final totals around 45 receptions, 650 yards and three to five touchdowns.
Expected to miss at least one preseason game with a lingering hamstring injury, Owens will tally mountains of time in his Michael Jackson endorsed hyperbaric chamber over the next few days. Although a bad hammy can be a real bugaboo for most wideouts, T.O. is a physical freak that could juke most defenders at 80 percent. Remember the 122-yard effort coming off a broken leg in Super Bowl XXXIX? Don't let the excessive media exposure scare you away. He'll be ready by Week 1.
Stallworth will be a sideshow act on Bourbon Street if his health and on-field performance don't improve soon. This week, a sore groin has kept the speed demon on the sideline, allowing Devery Henderson to continue to impress with extra exposure. Stallworth's job appears to be safe, but if he continues to see snaps with the second team, that could certainly change. March this Saint down your list a few spots.
Still unable to take the field after offseason ankle and knee surgeries, Perry is losing his grip on the Bengals' backup job to Kenny Watson. Marvin Lewis has not set a timetable for Perry's return and the longer he sits, the further his fantasy value drops. If you're in an ocean-deep league and you need a shackle for Rudi Johnson, keep an eye out for the versatile Watson.
Former San Diego Charger Reche Caldwell has vaulted past Jackson on the Patriots' depth-chart. Jackson, a second-round draft choice, has had a difficult time absorbing Bill Belichick's complicated system and has been limited by hamstring woes. With Deion Branch a holdout, Caldwell instantly becomes a great late-round sleeper in wide receiver-heavy leagues. As for Jackson, consider him waiver-wire fodder until the rookie shows some vital signs.
Ticked, injured and inactive for the Hall of Fame game, Porter had his stock plummet while continuing to nurse a calf strain. The value of Porter, who has been the subject of trade rumors to Green Bay and Atlanta, hinges on whether or not he gets dealt. If the disgruntled wideout remains in Oakland, stay far, far away. Right now, consider him only as a high-upside fourth receiver.
UNLEASH THE BEAST
Upset you don't have a forum to express your disdain for drafting Willis McGahee? Do you question why on earth you're not a fantasy expert? This is the place for you to vent your thoughts, tirades and frustrations. Can you bring the noise?
I am in no way a McGahee supporter or apologist, but he finished in the top 15 last year (15th) as far as running back rankings go in my standard scoring league. And he had what was considered a bad year for him. With nothing different, why is it so far of a reach to think he will rank even lower when he is the only option for Buffalo's running attack? I think you are over exaggerating quite a bit, sadly to gain some readers obviously, because your rationale is not based in fact.
If the Bills did NOT address anything in the offseason and McGahee was in the top 15 in standard scoring leagues (10 yards per point, 6 for TD) then I see no reason why he would slip.
All I have to say is start hitting the tanning beds now. I don't want the poor people of Buffalo to be blind after you hold up to your promise.
– Duane, Toronto
Noise: You're right. The reason I made the bold prediction was to foster discussion and encourage more readers to soak in my material. Hey, it's my job to write a fun, entertaining and informative slant on the fantasy issues that perplex us all. Instead if I said, "run down the streets of Buffalo in a goose-down parka with mittens on," it would have lost its shock value. If I'm willing to put my reputation and pasty whiteness on the line for a little friendly fun, I am more than happy to do it. That's what keeps fantasy and life interesting.
I disagree with you that my assessment was "not based on fact." As stated in last week's "Noise," the Bills addressed very few offensive needs in the offseason. The offensive line stinks. There is no clear-cut leader at quarterback. And Dick Jauron is far from an offensive mastermind. If you recall, he couldn't move a feather with a high-powered fan as head coach in Chicago. Total it up, and the forecast for McGahee to return to elite levels appears gloomy. Hence, the predicted 18-to-22 finish among running backs.
For those wondering what it will take for yours truly to streak in a banana hammock in temperatures that would make Ron Jeremy appear human, here is what has to happen:
1. With only four rushes of 20 or more yards in '05, McGahee will have to double that number this season. Recent reports out of Buffalo have said that McGahee is very happy with the quicker, more athletic offensive line in Buffalo this year. However, the verdict is still out.
2. New offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild has to incorporate McGahee more in passing plays. The former "U" product has the ability to be a sensational receiving back, but he has averaged just 174 receiving yards in his first two seasons and was replaced by Shaud Williams on many third downs last year. Fairchild has hinted at involving him more in third downs and if the news is true, it should give McGahee's total yardage numbers a much-needed boost.
3. After a 13-touchdown season in 2004, McGahee has to find pay dirt at least seven times. The Bills had a red-zone touchdown percentage of 34 last year, the third worst in the NFL. Buffalo has to increase that mark to 50 percent to be efficient inside the 20.
4. Whatever Medusa wins the quarterback job – J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb or Craig Nall – he has to be at least average in order for defenses to not stack the box. This is the biggest key to McGahee's success. The Bills were 28th in the league in passing yards with 157.2 per game in '05. If that number could increase to, say, 185 YPG this season, McGahee has an excellent shot at top-15 or, dare I say, top-10 running back numbers.
There your have it. That's all it takes for a national columnist to make a complete schmuck out of himself in front of millions of people. And don't think I'll back down. I am sure McGahee has acquired an unforeseen number of fans over the past week. Maybe I'll get a kickback on jersey sales.
Oh, and Duane, there is one adoring female fan that actually wants to be blinded by my sexy, barley and oats chiseled body, tanned or not. Her name is Mrs. Noise, er, Jessica Alba.
- Mike Shanahan