Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is LT's Reign At An End?

Welcome to the inaugural edition of fantasyfootballgeek on Special thanks to vikesgeek and company for extending an invitation to work for free. I will do my best to return the favor.

With the NFL regular season roughly two months away, serious fantasy football players are now beginning to make their lists for upcoming drafts. In previous seasons, the player at the top of most draft boards, no matter the league's scoring system, has been San Diego Chargers' running back LaDainian Tomlinson. While that might again hold true for most fantasy football team managers in 2008, there are signs that LT's reign at the top might soon be coming to an end.

No fantasy football team owner wants to be the one to obtain the overall number one pick only to use it on a player who fails to live up to billing. That sentiment is particularly true in eras in which there is a consensus number one pick who may or may not be on the verge of succumbing to the wear and tear of the NFL.

Prior to LT's recent run atop the fantasy rankings, the most notable long-term fantasy football player of similar merit and having a similar run as LT was former St. Louis Rams' running back Marshall Faulk. For years, fantasy players could count on Faulk to solidify their fantasy rosters, with Faulk capable of winning several games a season virtually on his own.

Then came the injuries. And the difficulties returning to the lineup. And personnel changes around him. And suddenly, Faulk was not only not the best fantasy player in the NFL, he wasn't even owned in 100% of fantasy football leagues.

The lesson for fantasy football fans is that production is fleeting. The difference between winning your league and losing, thus, often is the difference between holding too long or drafting too high yesteryear's top player.

While LT appears poised for a better year this year than he had last year, when a coaching change, questionable offensive scheming, and suspect play by quarterback Philip Rivers created problems for the Chargers' running back, the rise might merely be part of a gradual, or more precipitous fall from his lofty 2006 season.

For those in yardage plus scoring leagues, LT had a strong fantasy season in 2007. But for those in scoring only leagues, LT's 2007 results were abysmal when adjusted for his average draft position. After a sparkling 2006 season in which he produced 31 touchdowns rushing and receiving, LT dropped to 18 touchdowns in 2007. In most leagues, that's enough of a drop-off to cost a team relying on LT as the number one point producer a handful of games.

Of course, 2006 could be viewed as an aberration for LT, as his 2007 numbers more closely mirrored his career numbers than did his 2006 numbers. One thus could argue that if you liked LT before 2006, you ought to like him just as much in 2008.

But the number fluctuations nevertheless raise a concern about LT. Marshall Faulk enjoyed his greatest production in year seven of his career, but was one year younger at the time than was LT in year seven of his career. After his peak year, Faulk's numbers dropped noticeably to the point that, within one year he was slightly above average in fantasy production for starters at his position--though still in line with his pre-high point numbers, within two years he was below average, and within four years he was done.

To date, LT's numbers appear to be tracking eerily similar to those of Faulk (see, Faulk's stats versus Tomlinson's stats). And while Faulk had injury issues that LT largely has avoided, there is little in terms of use, physical size, or team composition to suggest that LT will track differently from Faulk going forward.

While LT remains a solid top of the draft pick in 2008, he thus comes with a sizeable caution and with a caveat, especially for those in keeper leagues. With the Chargers' loss of Michael Turner, LT should have a more consistent role with the Chargers in goal-line situations. That could be both good and bad for LT's fantasy owners--good in that he should score some of the easy TDs that he seemed to lose last season to Turner and bad in that he's going to get hit more in short-yardage situations. But even with a strong start, 2008 might not be the year of LT. That might make 2008 the year to shop LT, particularly for those in keeper leagues.

Up Next: Challenges to LT's reign.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fantasyfootballgeek Debuting

It seems nearly impossible, but the start of yet another NFL season is just around the corner. And with the advent of the 2008 season, vikesgeek is happy to unveil the debut of fantasyfootballgeek.

FFG joins vikesgeek after numerous years tirelessly working the fantasy football trenches under his better known alias. Alas, not permitted to work these lowly pages under his better known name--and clearly after considerable thought--FFG has settled on a site appropriate nom de plume.

FFG will be offering his insights into the world of fantasy football, providing keys to winning your league, all at no cost to you--a premium reward for site loyalists who otherwise would spend/waste money on FFG's analysis at certain other locations. And where FFG fails to provide cogent insight or otherwise misleads readers, vikesgeek promises to follow up with impeccable hindsight.

Up Next: The Debut of FFG. Plus, Vikings news.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Minnesota Sports Ownership Groups Mismatched With Teams

There is nothing more frustrating for a devout sports fan than watching every other team win a championship while their team fails to grab the golden ring. This is a truism to which Minnesota fans can relate only too well, with only the Minnesota Twins providing local fans a championship over the past half century.

The short-comings of Minnesota teams come in a wide assortment. The early Twins teams had the talent but faced some very good opposition at a time when the league was less watered down. During the Calvin Griffith era, the team mostly wallowed, burdened by a parsimonious owner. The team's fortunes changed under owner Carl Pohlad, who, as tight as he has been with the dollar, appeared to be a knight in white armour following in Griffith's footsteps.

The Vikings great teams had the misfortune of playing against the Dolphins and the Steelers of the 70s and the added liability of underperforming most substantially against inferior teams in Kansas City and Oakland. And the Vikings' top two teams never even made it to the Super Bowl, one falling victim to hubris, poor coaching decisions, and bad luck, the other the victim of one incredibly bad call on a cold day at the Met.

Following General Manager Mike Lynn's failed Herschel Walker gambit, the Vikings fell to mediocrity for several years before being resurrected to an extent under Denny Green. Green's inability to propel the Vikings to the Super Bowl, combined with new owner Red McComb's desire to field a winning team in support of his bid for a new stadium led to the Mike Tice era out from under which the team yet is attempting to climb.

On the wholly less successful end of the spectrum for Minnesota sports franchises are the Minnesota Wild and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wild have a partial excuse for only once moving beyond the first round of the NHL playoffs, namely, that they are a relatively young franchise. Still, with several years now in the books, teams like Detroit magically remaking themselves over night, and others like Pittsburgh rising far more quickly from nothing to championship contender, the clock is now ticking on the Wild.

While the Wild receive a partial pardon for their struggles, the Wolves receive none. Clearly one of the more dysfunctional franchises in all of major sports, the Wolves in 2008 appeared no better than the inaugural edition of the team. With coaches and management alike forever trotting out lines such as "we just have to get over the hump," "we showed effort, and you've got to like that," and "we just all need to buy into the system, and we haven't done that yet," is it any wonder that this revolving door of over-paid never-was players, over-hyped rookies, and retreads has only once made it past the first round of the NBA playoffs?

But the point here is not to frustrate further the presumably and understandably fragile sports psyches of Minnesota sports fans. Rather, the point is to note the absolute greatest misfortune of all for Minnesota sports fans, namely, that their professional sports franchises ownership groups are so poorly aligned.

If there were justice in the world for Minnesota sports fans, the complexion of the local sports franchise ownership groups would be much different. Assuming that Minnesota fans were stuck with the four current ownership groups, a simple realignment of ownership groups ought to provide Minnesota sports fans with a much higher probability of seeing their favorite teams enjoy success than is possible under the current alignment.

For the Wild, the clear choice for owner is Carl Pohlad. Owning the Wild would provide Pohlad with the three things he appears most to cherish in owning a professional sports franchise--a low and firm salary cap, a relatively new venue, and a cash cow.

What makes Pohlad even more ideal for the Wild, particularly from the perspective of a Wild fan, is that, despite his miserliness, Pohlad seems to have a knack for finding good people to run his organizations. Imagine the hockey equivalent of Terry Ryan running the Wild. It would be a match made in heaven.

With Pohlad gone to the Wild, the Twins would be in need of a new owner. And there is no more logical fit for that vacancy than current Wolves owner Glen Taylor. The Twins continue to struggle under Pohlad's tight fist, losing players in their prime and saving their gambles for washed up players and young players with several years of MLB servitude yet in their futures. With proper management and some lousy competition, the Twins have made that a successful formula for making it into the playoffs once in a while. But it is clear that the algorithm requires higher caliber talent to win it all.

In Taylor, the Twins will have the single Minnesota sports franchise owner to whom money means almost nothing. Taylor was so eager to see the Wolves succeed that, for several consecutive seasons, he actually paid a luxury tax. Pairing Taylor with Minnesota would mean that Minnesota Twins' fans could shift their considerable energy from debating how the Twins can best field a team under an artificial salary cap to whether the Twins made the right moves in the off-season.

The caveat with Taylor, of course, is that he is the polar opposite of Pohlad when it comes to managing a team. Though willing to spend and eager to field a winning team, Taylor appears absolutely void of any management sensibilities, retaining a management group that has made poor decision after poor decision with the ultimate indignity being the trading away the team's franchise player essentially for a younger, not as talented version of that franchise player, and failing to land, in the deal, the one additional player that would have made the deal palatable.

If someone else makes Taylor's management hiring decisions, Taylor running the Twins could be one of the greatest sports marriages of all time. If Taylor were to continue to make the decisions, however, all bets would be off.

Taylor's move would leave a vacuum into which current Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf readily could step. Eager to show his commitment to the local storied franchises, nobody would feel more at home dishing out rehearsed BS about a moribund team than Wilf.

With a team about which few care, an arena with less enviable sight lines than the Metrodome offers for baseball, and no cap floor with which to concern himself, Zygi would have, in the Wolves and the Target Center, a team that could only improve, a truly bona fide claim for renovation or rebuilding of a sports venue, and no need to drain his pocket book to get the return that he seeks.

Wilf's ownership of the Wolves is, perhaps, the least satisfactory outcome of the exchange of ownership groups among Minnesota's sporting franchises, but it is the pareto optimal outcome. And, even if Zygi refused to spend, he might accomplish two things that most Wolves fans would welcome--an improved venue and the firing of the current management group. Those two accomplishments alone would make Zygi an ideal Wolves owner.

That leaves only the Vikings without an owner and current Wild owner Craig Leopold without a team. The fit is a natural one, even if Leopold is not an ardent NFL fan. In the Vikings, Leopold retains a salary cap structure, albeit a higher one, akin to the NHL. That higher cap should not faze even the wealthy Leopold, however, as the NFL also provides substantially more revenue--well ahead of the NHL as compared to each league's respective salary cap.

With community ties to which Minnesotans more comfortably can relate--for better or for worse--Leopold would stand a better chance of obtaining a new or significantly upgraded venue for the Vikings than does Zygi. And with a track record of at least modest management success, the Vikings would fair no worse under Leopold than they currently do under Wilf.

The caveat in all of this, as was the case with Taylor, is that each owner will have to identify the proper management group with which to build a contender. Where Taylor has failed miserably, Wilf could not help but improve. But where Wilf has had some success, there is no certainty that Leopold would succeed. Only Pohlad seems charmed enough to be counted on with certainty to make such a transition. Even with this substantial caveat, however, the re-alignment of Minnesota's professional sports franchise ownership groups would be interesting to watch.

Up Next: The Making of an Executive of the Year--Footsteps Not to Follow.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Packers, Bears Falling, Vikings Rising, Lions Being Lions

As Summer approaches and NFL teams look towards training camp and the beginning of the 2008 NFL season, most NFL teams already have made their most significant additions and subtractions, leaving them either to hope that their talent remains healthy or dramatically improves. With the addition of Bernard Berrian, Madieu Williams, Jared Allen, and Thomas Tapeh, the continuing nurturing of Tarvaris Jackson, Sidney Rice, Anthony Herrera, Aundrae Allison, and Cedric Griffin, and the lack of depth along the offensive line, the Minnesota Vikings are no different than most.

Not so for the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, or Detroit Lions--all, coincidentally, fellow denizens of the NFC North. With more glaring issues than most in the backfield, each of the Vikings' inter-division rivals appears destined for a decline this year, just as the Vikings appear poised to improve.

Supplanting Detroit as the team with the greatest off-season challenges this year are the Chicago Bears. Last season, Chicago moved to address what Coach Lovie Smith believed to be the team's most glaring short-coming outside of a rash of injuries to defensive players. The pinnacle move last season was the trade of Thomas Jones to the New York Jets and the installation at starting running back of former first-round draft choice Cedric Benson.

After a disappointing 2007 season that foiled not only the Bears' designs but those of numerous fantasy football players, Benson pledged to return to the Bears in 2008 fit and ready to lead the offense. That pledge did not even last until the opening of training camp as Benson picked up two OWIs--one boating, one driving--in the span of one month.

Willing to give Benson "the benefit of the doubt" that he was falsely accused in the boating incident, the Bears finally cut their losses with the former Texas running back after Benson's early morning arrest for driving under the influence this past week. The release of Benson leaves the Bears with veteran Adrian Peterson and rookie Matt Forte. Although either Peterson or Forte arguably would represent an improvement over Benson, the Bears had neither in mind as a starter in 2008, pinning their hopes on Benson's ability to resuscitate his career.

Adding to the Bears' woes in 2008 is the loss of wide receiver Bernard Berrian to division rival Minnesota. Though Berrian had his issues holding onto the ball as a member of the Bears, the general perception in Chicago is that the Bears guessed wrong in believing that Berrian would take less money to stay in Chicago and that the Bears now regret not retaining the wide receiver.

The loss of Berrian leaves the Bears with broken down Marty Booker, unpredictable Brandon Lloyd, and a slew of unproven young players as receiving targets next season. All of which might have been moderately stomachable for Bears' fans were it not for the fact that the Bears will have either the nearly released Rex Grossman or the dreadful looking Kyle Orton at quarterback.

With so many questions on offense, the Bears are left to pin their 2008 hopes on a defense that, though finishing the season relatively strong in 2007, remains smitten by too many injuries to depend on to carry the team.

The situation is not much better in Detroit where the Lions enter 2008 in year seven of the Matt Millen experiment. Under Millen's guidance, the Lions are a mind-numbing 31-81, including 8-48 on the road. Millen has admitted that the Lions have been "beyond awful" under his leadership, an admission that his peers appear more than willing to accept. In a Wall Street Journal article on April 26, 2008, WSJ reporters noted that, in private discussions with NFL executives, there was unanimoty that Matt Millen "had made more bad draft decisions than anyone else" in NFL history and that Millen was not cut out to be an NFL general manager--two things Lions' fans could have confirmed for WSJ.

Millen's poor decision-making has not been relegated to mere bad drafting, however, extending to questionable trades, bad free-agent signings, and the failure to fill glaring holes despite spending freely in off-season signings. The result has been a predictably bad football team.

Last season, after adding former Denver Bronco running back Tatum Bell and rookie wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Millen promised a playoff run. His quarterback, Jon Kitna predicted ten wins. Neither promise came to fruition as the Lions finished 7-9.

For their woes, the Lions pinned the entire blame on fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz. To be certain, Martz's unwillingness to scheme to the opponent's weaknesses, change in the face of the opposition's adjustments, and establish any semblance of a running game were substantial causes behind the Lions' failures in 2008. But such myopia is the reason that the Lions continue to be a bottom dweller in a league that makes consistent bottom dwelling virtually impossible.

With 377 yards and nearly 28 points allowed per game, the Lions easily finished at the bottom of the NFL in defense. Despite glaring needs just about everywhere on defense heading into 2008, the Lions used two of their first three picks in the college entry draft to select offensive players, relying on free agency to find defensive starters. Unfortunately for Lions' fans, those defensive free agents look an awful--with emphasis on awful--lot like the retreads that the Lions have brought in as free agents in past years.

While even marginal decision-making by Kitna, a modicum of a running game, and receptions by the Lions' highly paid wide-receiving corps could suffice to make the Lions better than they were at the end of 2008, the defense probably will continue to drag down the fortunes of the team. And with a 1-7 finish to the 2008 season, more than a little improvement will be necessary for the Lions even to keep pace with the Vikings and the Packers.

While the Bears and Lions face substantial challenges to winning in 2008, the Green Bay Packers have just one question mark entering the 2008 season--but it is a substantial one.

With the presumed retirement of Brett Favre, the Packers are left with former first-round draft choice Aaron Rodgers as the sole viable starting quarterback this season. If Rodgers is unable to go, there is no credible backup. And if Rodgers is able to go and falters, there might be outright panic in Green Bay where the defense is solid, the offensive line is intact, and the skill position players have shown both promise and production.

The big if, however, is Rodgers. With fewer starts than Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, things could be challenging for Rodgers, particularly at the outset. And with promising rookie Brian Brohm staring over his shoulder, Rodgers might find himself pressing even more than he otherwise would have as the replacement for future Hall of Famer Brett Favre.

The Packers showed significant improvement from the beginning to the end of the 2007 season. That improvement was the direct result of consistent--and mostly very good--play from Favre. Favre's play allowed running back Ryan Grant to grow into the role of fantasy star, making the Packers' receiving corps all the more impressive. The offensive play trickled over to the defensive side of play and the two units gradually began to feed off of each other.

But there is a reason for old adages having staying power. And in the case of the Packers, the most applicable NFL adage is that as the quarterback play goes, so goes the team. For the Packers to pick up where they left off last season would be remarkable, given the loss of Favre and the installment of a virtual rookie in Rodgers as Favre's replacement. The Packers need not finish 13-3 to win the NFC North, but even predicting double-digit victories this season might be a stretch.

That leaves the Vikings, who finished a disappointing, though perhaps predictable, 8-8 in 2007. With significant off-season additions at positions of weakness in 2007, the Vikings enter the 2008 season with two persistent question marks--quarterback and head coach. Jackson showed some improvement in 2007, even if less than hoped, and Childress continues to evolve, at least as a person, if not necessarily as a coach.

For Minnesota, the question is not whether players such as Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk, Adrian Peterson, Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice, Jared Allen, E.J. Henderson, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway, Ben Leber, Darren Sharper, Antoine Winfield, and Madieu Williams can pull their weight, the question is whether the second-tier of players--the remaining offensive linemen, the secondary receivers, the other corners, and the tight ends--can lift their load. If they can, if Childress allows his top-tier players to make plays and gets results from Jackson, the Vikings ought to give the Packers a run for the division title. If not, it surely will be judgment time in Minnesota, for Childress, Jackson, or both.

Up Next: Around the NFL. Plus, ends and ends.