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September 28, 2013

Fantasy and football are not the same

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — As most of my friends would tell you, I love me some football. After all, it was sports — football, hockey and basketball, in that order — that first drew me to journalism. As a kid on the cusp of the pre-Internet generation, I still had to rely on Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and the sports sections of local newspapers to keep up with my teams.

Nonetheless, I’m still one of the last holdouts against fantasy football. I don’t judge those who play, but I’ve always had a few qualms about the game that outweigh any enjoyment I might derive from it.

The first and most obvious of these is the dilemma posed by my blind, rabid homerism for the Giants and my competitive nature. What happens when these conflict? Inevitably at some point in my fantasy draft, the best available player by objective standards would be a Dallas Cowboy. But I’d jump in front of a bus before I’d root for any Dallas Cowboy, so what choice would that leave me?

But my more serious gripe about fantasy football is when its noise drowns out the game itself, as former Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook can attest. Late in the fourth quarter of a must-win Week 15 game at Dallas in 2007, Westbrook broke free for a 25-yard run to the end zone. But with a 10-6 lead and their opponent out of timeouts, the Eagles’ only chance at losing would be to score again — and give Dallas time for a Hail Mary and an onside kick. Westbrook knew this, and wisely slid to the ground on the 1-yard line, allowing Philly to kneel the clock out.

Eagles head coach Andy Reid later said he’d “never coached a player as smart” as Westbrook. ESPN.com had a different take, however, under the headline “Westbrook’s Betrayal,” lamenting “Can you imagine a Westbrook owner who lost his or her fantasy playoff matchup by fewer than six points?”

Westbrook later recounted the flak he caught from his “owners” for playing smart, heads-up football to help his team win.

“I get guys asking me, ‘Why did you have to go and ruin my season?” said Westbrook, a two-time All Pro. “It helped out a lot of people, but it also hurt a lot of people, too.”

Smart, winning football, in fact, is often antithetical to fantasy sports, which are based on numbers that often lie. For running backs, the greatest statistical seasons of all time have almost always come from teams that lacked balance — and didn’t win. Nobody remembers the 1984 Rams, the mid-90s Lions, the 2003 Ravens or the 2009 Titans as great teams, but running backs Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Jamal Lewis and Chris Johnson put up phenomenal numbers in those years.

Last season, Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson established themselves as two of the league’s elite players. But their jaw-dropping statistics came in part because the Vikings and Lions had mediocre talent around them, and had to force the ball to their stars on every play. If they played for better teams, their statistics would suffer.

This year, Peyton Manning — the football player — saw his Super Bowl chances take a slight hit when the Broncos lost star pass-rushers Von Miller to a suspension and Elvis Dumervil to a contract snafu. But as a fantasy quarterback, this news buoys Manning in a weird, twisted way; with a less-effective defense, more will be required of him and the offense if the Broncos are to win.

Manning threw seven touchdowns in Denver’s Week 1 win over Baltimore. But lost amid all the Manning fanfare was the fact that Denver needed all 49 of those points — its defense gave up 362 passing yards, 27 points and nearly 34 minutes of possession time.

Is that the kind of football that wins on the frozen tundras of December and January? It’s a moot point; the fantasy playoffs are over by that point anyway.

JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor for The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com.