September 3: Martyrs of the FFL
Like any sport, fantasy football's season opens with optimism and chance. Everyone 0-0. Everyone, theoretically, on equal ground. However, there are those teams in the FFL that have reached such a success drought that the desperation to win sets in from day one. Hungry teams, starving for a shining season. Hence, I want to point out the players and teams who have led the most suffering existences in FFL mediocrity in recent years, and where they differ from their more successful counterparts.
Teams without right to lament:
Z-Force, Conquistadors, Predators, Tsunamis, Blockers
The Z-Force haven't shown too much in the last few years, but they did happen to win three Fantasy Bowls back there. The Conquistadors are the dominant team of the latter '90's, with a championship and three consecutive bowl appearances. The Predators, like Phoenix, have only been around since 1995, and they just tasted glory in '99. The Tsunamis and Blockers, while likely to take their licks in 2000, aren't yet really established in the pathos of fantasy football losing.
Champions Gone Downhill:
Crips, Black Sox
I remember reading the press release about the Rockies changing their name to the Crips in 1996, right after they had won Fantasy Bowl IV. Jinxed? I don't know. But the Crips have been idling for about 4 years straight. They've done nothing of importance in the playoffs, they haven't been dominating scoring squads, and yet most years they have some good young talent. I don't get it. The Black Sox dropped off the face of the earth after winning it all in 1996. They really haven't been the same since, and Jason Elam is the last refugee from those glory days. Drew Bledsoe might have had the right idea when he decided to leave after four years of service for Chicago. He too, was never quite able to put together a good season after that magical 1996 season. And guess what? Now Bledsoe may be used to revive Colorado in 2000.
Fantasy Bowl memories long gone:
The Middletown Twins/Syndromes have not been to the Fantasy Bowl since 1994. The Miracles have not been there since 1992. Both these teams are intriguing because they make the playoffs often, but from there they have usually bit the dust.
In the spotlight, but in that Buffalo Bills way:
The Charleston Challengers are the worst franchise in FFL history, winning percentage wise. However, somehow in 1995 and 1996 they won their way through wild card games in the EFC to make the Fantasy Bowl. So, they've gotten theirs, but other than those two years, there have been some lonely December Sundays in Charleston.
Complementary Colors of Disappointment
The Blazers and Thunder are the two most reliable teams in the FFL. Year in and year out, the Blazers play .500 ball, generally make the playoffs, and there lose yet another nailbiter. For whatever reason they are the ONLY team (new expansion teams excluded) to never make the Fantasy Bowl. I'd liek to see Eddie George finally make it there. But the coup de grace are the Boston Thunder, who while assembling 4 consecutive powerhouse playoff teams still manage to lose it all somehow in December. And as a fan of the team, that is just all the more frustrating. Like George, Brett Favre has the longest tenure with a consistently playoff quality but losing team.
August 20: FFL Teams and their X-Factors
Once again, FFL camps have opened and the ever-present optimism of hot August two-a-day practices reign supreme. But as the grunt work gives way to preseason action, every team is weighing in the harsh realities soon to take hold in the regular season. Every FFL franchise leaves the yearly draft with a bevy of new players, but in particular there is always some new arrival that MUST produce and fill some hole, or December will be spent watching Fantasy Bowl IX on the tube. The following are my X-picks, the new player additions I see having the most significant impact on each team in 2000. I'm not saying these guys are necessarily MVP-type players, but new additions that have to meet expectations in order to chalk up victories.
The Thunder are a team I love and hate. My hometown team will again be making an advance on the league title, and with many of the same components from 1999 (COREY DILLON, WESLEY WALLS redrafted). That's good, but I remain wary as to BRETT FAVRE's health and the possibility of a great repeat performance by STEPHEN DAVIS. That having been said, I think the difference maker may be new rookie wideout PETER WARRICK, who will likely start oppposite ERIC MOULDS. There is little depth behind Warrick at the WR position, so he is going to have to shoot for a good 7-9 TDs. If he can't cut it the Thunder are going to have to hope that some gem pops up in the free agent market.
A lot of the hopes in South Carolina will center on the possibility of ANY running game existing in the offense, but with a likely run-and-shoot formation, a lot of the pressure is going to fall on the receivers, and that is a prime opening for the return of pressure-thriving JERRY RICE, who returns to the squad after an extended hiatus with Phoenix, Colorado and Atlanta. A comeback by Rice could push the Challengers into playoff contention, but if he falters it is likely that the team won't exceed 5-6 wins. CADE MCNOWN is another potential X-pick but I defer to Rice because of the strong free agent QB market.
A tie, between new QB's ROB JOHNSON and DONOVAN MCNABB. It's obvious that the two QB's are the most significant additions to the team, as they eschewed depth in the draft for security at the position. Either Johnson or McNabb could be the team's solution in the passing game, but neither really is a sure thing. Johnson has the better arm; McNabb the running skills to bring in sneak TDs. But, as with any team eyeing an FFL championship, the QB position had better pan out or the season is lost.
New York Z-Force
The Z-Force look fairly good on paper, but what leaves me uneasy about this team is the receivers, and they definitely took chances by filling early picks in the 2000 draft with them. In this vein, TERRELL OWENS is the player that New York is riding on to have a comeback season. After a promising first two years, his collapse last year leads some to suspect that he may not reach the upper echelon of receivers that he previously seemed destined for.
A post-draft trade sent JAMAL LEWIS and BILL SCHROEDER packing to Phoenix, but in return the Predators brought in DORSEY LEVENS in a move that could potentially make or break their run at a repeat championship. Levens is already injured (possibly through the first several weeks) but it will be when he returns when judgment on his contributions can really start. Will he become a consistent short TD producer as GM Fred deBoer hopes? Or will chronic injuries lessen his usage near the goal line? These are the questions that the defending champion will have to deal with over the course of September.
Chicago Black Sox
Would have been PATRICK JEFFERS, and may still be Jeffers, as his injury could have a devastating impact on the team's receiving TDs. But I'd have to pick in this instance JERMAINE FAZANDE, who is somewhat of an unknown quantity at the running back position, and will have to supplant RICKY WILLIAMS if things don't rebound for him this season. Fazande is big and strong, and has rebounded from early problems in training camp to become a solid #2 back. The question now is whether he'll keep a starting job by the halfway point of the season.
Kansas City Cockblockers
RON DAYNE is the man of the hour for the Kansas City hopeful. There have been mixed results on rookie running backs in the past, so the jury is still out on whether he will be more of a 6 TD kind of guy or a 10-12 TD star. Dayne will be grouped with TYRONE WHEATLEY for what will be a pretty reasonable running tandem for an expansion team. QB acquisition BRAD JOHNSON may also be an important component to the Cockblockers' offensive scheme.
Like the Syndromes, the fate of the Miracles rests a lot on improvement at teh quarterback position. CHARLIE BATCH posted inconsistent numbers in '99, and now rides the pine in New York. But new addition JON KITNA may be just the right solution. Kitna had a slow start with Colorado last year, before losing his job to Jeff George, but he has shown flashes of promise. Pairing him with receivers CRIS CARTER and MUHSIN MUHAMMAD may turn out to be a fortuitous matching.
The two tight end offense---a less-tried offensive set that may just finally work in the FFL. But that is dependent on the successful return of SHANNON SHARPE from his season-ending injury with Montana last year. Colorado is also banking on RICKEY DUDLEY, but it is Sharpe that will need to make the most significant jump in his TD stats (while fighting the chronic injuries that age has brought on) in order for GM Tyler Fleming's new strategy to pay off.
TIM BROWN returns yet again to the Montana Blazers! Will that be on Montana's season ticket promo posters? Brown may not be the biggest name among wide receivers, but he gets his chops in. Last year with the Thunder he turned in 6 TDs in limited play, and he will be returning to the familiar pro-set offense that Montana has been running for several years now. The question is whether the age factor has slowed his go-to guy receiver skills; whether he will really develop into QB STEVE BEUERLEIN's #1 target.
The Conquistadors smartly loaded up on running back talent, but while trading away DORSEY LEVENS they changed their offensive look. Will Phoenix remain a wishbone offense or revert to the more traditional pro-set? Does the new trade earn BILL SCHROEDER a starting spot? Will CARL PICKENS jump in and steal playing time? JAMAL LEWIS may be the answer to all of the above questions. Lewis has been closely watched in training camp, as the team evaluates whether teh wishbone or pro-set will be a better fit. And a lot of that will be gauged on Lewis and his scoring ability in September.
A lot of fantasy columnists like to rehash an already-old argument in this preseason: can JAMES STEWART produce good TDs on a full-time playing basis? That remains to be seen, but the young Tsunamis have a better-than-average offensive line, and Stewart is a punishing back that should carry often at the goal line. At least, he has in his part-time roles in the FFL. Stewart needs to put up good numbers, though, as CURTIS ENIS is definitely no sure thing at running back either.