I’m not sure why it became a way to settle disputes, but, in my neighborhood when I was teenager, it was important to be fast. Whether playing football or avoiding an angry father of a girl you were dating, speed was critical. We prided ourselves on being able to out-run our friends. Some of the guys were short-area burst types (40 to 100 yards). I had what doctors call sustained speed. If I had you by a couple of steps early on, pack a lunch if trying to catch me. If I was chasing you, do yourself a favor and stop now. You will eventually be caught.
Every year when we get to this point of the football season, I dispense advice to new customers by using that story. We had a guy in our neighborhood nicknamed Lightning Ronnie. The boy had wheels. When he was on, nobody could beat him. But, he blew hot and cold. He didn’t run as fast every time. If he was in a race and was losing, he would come up lame, claiming a hamstring or calf pulled on him. After awhile, we just quit believing him. He would still bring it when he was leading, but, when he knew he wouldn’t win, his game plan changed. Lightning Ronnie became an adjective for tanking.
We have reached the point of the season where several teams already know they’re not going to make the playoffs. Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Houston, Atlanta and Pittsburgh are already on that list. The Giants, Oakland, St. Louis and Buffalo will join them in the next week or two. Unlike basketball, which many in The Shop believed is as fixed as boxing or the WWE, NFL teams want to win so badly that they’ll ruin their draft chances in order to get a “W.” There is no need for an NFL draft lottery because teams don’t tank games. But, they do pull a Lightning Ronnie of their own.
When a team is in the middle of a playoff run, even if the odds are long against them, players take the field knowing that, when the season is over, they’re going to need surgery to repair injuries. They play through excruciating pain for the good of the team. When a team is out of contention, those plans change. They pull up. They slow down return times. They shut players down.
If you own fantasy players from the Texans, Falcons, Steelers, Vikings, Buccaneers and Jaguars, you should already start making alternate plans. The same will be true soon enough for the Giants, Bills, Raiders and Rams in the next couple of weeks.
These teams aren’t going to lie down and throw games, but, what will happen, especially with key players under contract viewed as key pieces to the franchise moving forward, teams will shut those players down or, at a minimum, make sure they are completely healthy before they let them back on the field. It doesn’t mean that franchise is throwing games. It doesn’t mean the players in question don’t have the heart or desire to get back on the field. Instead, it’s the state of the game we live in these days. With more attention than ever being paid to the short-term and long-term damage playing in the NFL can do the both mind and body, the fragile nature of playing careers and the financial investment made in top-end stars, there is little benefit in forcing a player back onto the field with it’s not necessary. In the big picture, what is the difference does it make whether you finish 5-11 or 6-10? The season is a failure regardless.
If Ray Rice is hurting at Thanksgiving, his role in the offense will drop. If Ben Roethlisberger has the type of injury he would play through in a postseason game, he will come out in December. If Arian Foster has a tummy ache, you can bet he’ll miss time. The best part about parity in the NFL is that two-thirds of the teams are still playoff eligible heading into the final couple of weeks. But, for those teams that are already out if it, if their players get dinged, memories of Lightning Ronnie will come back to bite fantasy owners who don’t have a viable backup plan on their bench.
- Who would have thought Little Nicky was capable of this? After throwing just 11 touchdown passes in their first eight games, there weren’t many fantasy owners buying into the Eagles quarterbacks anymore. Then Nick Foles lights up Oakland for seven touchdowns, all of which ended up either on somebody’s bench or on the waiver wire.
- Revenge is a dish best served cold. Chris Ivory, who was viewed as expendable by New Orleans and was shipped to the Jets last offseason for a fourth-round draft pick. Ivory knew the Jets would play the Saints this year and got his revenge, rushing 18 times for 139 yards and a touchdown.
- Break up the NFC Least (a.k.a. East)! There was a running joke last week that the Giants would likely gain ground in the division race because they were on their bye week. Seeing as all three of the teams won Sunday, the G-Men actually lost more ground by not playing.
- Revenge Part II. When Jeff Fisher was fired by Tennessee, one of the first things he did in St. Louis was to cherry-pick players who had played for him with the Titans, like Cortland Finnegan and Jared Cook. He didn’t get Chris Johnson, which may have been a mistake, since he burned his former coach for 150 yards on 23 carries Sunday, showing his first sign of life this season.
- For those with loyalty to Andre Johnson, they finally got paid off Sunday night. It had been 11 months since Johnson had scored a touchdown (his last TD coming in December 2012). Yet, with a third-string QB at the wheel and the top running threat in street clothes on the sidelines, Johnson caught nine passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns. Hopefully, he wasn’t sitting on your bench when it happened.
THE RAZOR’S EDGE
10. Traveling Incognito – In what is nothing short of racist bullying in the pathetic Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin story, the big reaction is being missed. Would the boys in The Shop like to gang up on Incognito and put the boots to him? Yes. Would we all be terrified that he could kick all of our asses? Yes. Our condemnation, therefore, is based more or moral ground than gettin’ physical. What has come out about him is ridiculous, but what is being missed is what this situation will do to the Miami offense. Martin was supposed to replace Jake Long at left tackle. Incognito was the left guard who was signed to a long-term $14 million contract. Both of them are gone. Can the Dolphins offense survive? Next man up is a motto. In Miami, it’s a reality on the left side of the O-line…and not because of injury.
9. No More Mr. Rice Guy – Is it time to let Ray Rice stay on your bench? He has played in seven of Baltimore’s eight games and has more than 45 yards in a game just once and, in 97 carries, hasn’t had a run of more than 14 yards. We questioned him before when he was struggling, but he may have hit bottom Sunday against Cleveland. In seven games, he has less than 400 combined rushing/receiving yards and is no longer a viable fantasy player. Those who continue to start him do so at their own peril.
8. Tuel Time Gets Cancelled – In a week where the other three AFC East teams made a statement, Buffalo had the biggest chance to say “what about us?” but failed. In the same week when Miami beat Cincinnati on an overtime safety, New England lit up Pittsburgh with record numbers and the Jets improved to 5-4 by mauling the Saints into submission, Buffalo had its chance to grab the headline. The Chiefs were trailing 10-3 in the third quarter at Buffalo and Tuel Time was on the 1-yard line looking to go up 17-3. Instead, a 100-yard interception return tied the game and Kansas City ended up winning without scoring an offense touchdown. They added another TD, this time on fumble in the Buffalo red zone that was taken back. It was a chance for Buffalo to make a statement. They did, but not the one their fans were expecting.
7. You Can Call Me Al – You have to feel sorry for Alfred Morris owners. Coming off a season where he set Redskins rushing records and was a fantasy stud of high pedigree, he is still a stud. He’s averaging more than five yards a carry. But, in the last three weeks, he has had two teammates have three-touchdown rushing games. Against Chicago in Week 7, Al-a-Mo ran 19 times for 95 yards and didn’t score. Roy Helu ran just 11 times for 41 yards, but was fed the ball in close for three touchdowns. Darrel Young made things untenable Sunday, rushing just five times for 12 yards, but three of them being touchdowns that had been set up by Al-a-Mo going into East Coast Beast Mode. He carried 25 times for 121 yards and did one get one touchdown. But, in the era of touchdowns equaling dollars in contract discussions, Big Al has been ripped off twice in three weeks while being in fantasy contract killer mode. All Morris owners can wonder is whether the thefts are going to keep on coming? He should be pushing double-digit TDs, not watching teammates celebrate.
6. Al’s Not Taking Your Calls – The Oakland Raiders have been the most consistently mediocre or worse franchise in the NFL for a long time. Over the last 10 seasons, the Raiders have lost 11 or more games eight times and haven’t finished above .500 since 2002. The Eagles were their best last chance to make something of the 2013 season and potentially end the streak of Commitment To High Draft Picks. Considering the Raiders play five of their final eight games on the road and two of their three home games will be against Denver and Kansas City, good luck with that.
5. Welcome To Bizarro World – The AFC North is steeped in tradition – the tradition of Baltimore and Pittsburgh fighting it out for first and the Battle of Ohio typically a fight for last place. With Cincinnati losing last Thursday, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore had a chance to tighten the gap in the division, but both lost. The Steelers got blown out by the Patriots in the second half of their game and the Browns beat the Ravens. When the dust settled Sunday night, the Bengals have the lead at 6-3 and the Browns are in second at 4-5. Baltimore is at 3-5 and Pitt is at 2-6. The division has been turned on its head and the season may be over for both the Steelers and Ravens. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
4. The Hou-stunk Texans – All the ingredients were there Sunday night for the Texans to draw their own line in the sand as the defending champs in the AFC South. Andre Johnson had almost 200 receiving yards and three TDs at halftime and the Texans had a chance to pull within two games of Indianapolis with a win in hand. Their second half collapse ended that and now the Texans are 2-6 and all but dead in the AFC playoff picture.
3. A Minute To Win It – The Minnesota Vikings fell to 1-7 and their ratty 2013 season has had the fork stuck in deep. They’re done. But, what makes their dismal performance so gut-wrenching for their fan base is that, if games were 59 minutes long, the Viqueens would be 4-4. Their Swiss cheese defense lost to Chicago with 10 seconds to play, lost to Cleveland with 51 seconds to go and on Sunday lost to Dallas with 35 seconds left. They aren’t as bad as their record shows, but, as former Vikings head coach Dennis Green famously said, “They are who we thought they were.” Your record states who you are and 1-7 stinks up the entire locker room.
2. Say Hello to the Door Matt – With Julio Jones gone for the year, Roddy White trying in vain to be a lion in winter and Steven Jackson rolling on bald tires, things can’t get much worse for the Falcons and Matt Ryan. Not only have they dropped to 2-6 and, if not for Tampa Bay, would probably be last in their division, but they got schooled by division rival Carolina, Matty Ice had beat them seven of the last nine times they played. A 24-point smackdown is the type of beating that could break the Falcons.
1. A Come From Ahead Loss – Nobody expected the Buccaneers to have a snowball’s chance in Cuba of hangin’ and bangin’ with the high-flying Seahawks. But, when they had a 21-0 lead over Seattle, there was joy in Tampa Bay. Christmas was coming early. The love was coming back. Seattle had never won a game after trailing by 21 points…until Sunday. It’s one thing to not have the talent to compete. It’s another to build a huge lead and then pee down your own leg. This one will leave a mark because, for a team with a goose-egg in the win column, it should have ended and would have got a lot of national attention.