Drew Magary, the best sportswriter in America, has a running feature in his sarcastic weekly roundup of NFL games titled "Fantasy Player That Deserves To Die A Slow, Painful Death." This week's winner was Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson:
Chris Johnson [has] been outscored this year by the likes of Cadillac Williams, Michael Bush, Darren Sproles, and Daniel Thomas. What the f[---], Cop Speed? Your holdout was supposed to be OVER. You weren't supposed to stage some kind of bizarre, post-contract sit-in! And now the Kenny Britt Show is done for the year and defense will crowd the box and it's just gonna be one long slog watching you get stuffed week after week. You were supposed to be EXPLOSIVE, dammit! You were supposed to BLOW UP REAL GOOD.
Two weeks ago, the honor went to New York Jets RB Shonn Greene:
Shonn Greene. Oh, Shonn Greene, they promised us things would be different this year. and then you went out in Week 1 and once again took five seconds to be upstaged by LaToeInjury, who is eighty-six years old. YOU F[---].
These complaints are not unique to Magary. Johnson, who went first overall in many fantasy football leagues, has posted only 98 yards rushing through this week and has yet to score. Greene, expected to finally be the featured player in a run-oriented Jets offense, has only one touchdown and 134 yards for the season thus far, good for 3.3 yards per carry. Similar, albeit less profane, criticisms have been leveled at other running backs, including Pittsburgh Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall. Through three weeks of NFL games, Mendenhall also has only one score and only 14 rushing yards more than Greene.
This anger, however, is almost definitely misplaced. As pretty much everyone who has ever played fantasy football realizes, running back success in any given season is highly variable; a back that rushes for 1,000 yards one year can be riding the bench the next. Football is the least individual of North America's major sports, and scheme, play calling and surrounding talent account for a great deal of any individual player's success or failure. (This is where, if I were an NFL commentator, I would insert the phrase "in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE.")
It is no coincidence that Johnson, Mendenhall and Greene, the three most conspicuous fantasy disappointments thus far, all play on teams with significant offensive line woes. The Titans run-blocking has been historically poor through three weeks; K.C. Joyner of ESPN.com notes that "[t]he Titans' run-blockers have given their ball carriers a favorable blocking situation on 29 percent of their rushing attempts this season (a favorable blocking situation being loosely defined as when the blockers don't allow the defenders to do anything to disrupt the rush attempt). To get an idea of how bad that total is, consider that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked dead last in the league in that metric in 2010 and they managed to post a 33.6 percent rate in this category."
Greene's Jets and Mendenhall's Steelers, meanwhile, play behind offensive lines that have been ravaged by injuries. Last week saw rookie right tackle Marcus Gilbert injure his shoulder in the second half; he would have to return prematurely after the team's other tackle, Jonathan Scott, left with a sprained ankle. Guard Doug Legursky is also suffering from a shoulder injury.
In New York, the offensive line has been a question mark since Damien Woody decided to retire during the offseason to pursue a broadcast career. His replacement, career journeyman and backup Wayne Hunter, has been exposed through the first three weeks. (In Week One, he gave up two sacks to Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware.) And behind the starters, depth is thin. Second-year lineman Vladimir Ducasse has yet to earn significant playing time, while backup swing-lineman Robert Turner was placed on injured reserve after a preseason injury and a Nick Mangold high-ankle sprain left undrafted rookie Colin Baxter the only center on the roster.
All three backs will likely post better numbers as the season progresses. Opposing defenses can't stack the box against Mendenhall, who plays in a pass-heavy Pittsburgh offense. The same may soon apply to the Jets, whose offense has become more dependent on the passing game as quarterback Mark Sanchez matures. Chris Johnson, one assumes, is too dynamic to be held in check all year. When and if these backs do bust out, however, it will owe a great deal to improved offensive line play and stability -- the same culprits of their early-season troubles.
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