This just in: Good players don't suddenly become terrible!
Chris Johnson began the year with 23 carries for 45 yards in his first three games, and Fantasy Nation had seen enough: CJ0K was the worst player ever, worthy of being dropped in 10-team leagues. Of course that was stupid, but we all need to have something to talk about. Even during Sunday's game between the Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills, game analyst Rich Gannon spent an incredible amount of time criticizing Johnson for bouncing runs outside too often, implying that he isn't tough enough to accept contact if and when the hole is occupied, as though he'd never seen Johnson run before. But Johnson is among the bounciest-outside good rushers I can ever remember.
As I've said multiple times on the Fantasy Underground podcast, Johnson's struggles were 90 percent offensive-line related. When his line started to get a push and make creases, the in-his-prime CJ would perform just fine. Can we dismiss Johnson's 18 carries for 195 yards and two TDs Sunday because it came against an awful Bills run defense? I don't think so, considering in his past four games, CJ has 15, 0, 11 and 31 fantasy points. Nor does this mean that CJ is back to being a top-five fantasy RB. It's fair to want to see the Titans' O-line perform this well against better defenses, and in Weeks 9 and 10 they'll face the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. (Next week's opponent is the Indianapolis Colts.)
The lesson here isn't that you should be forever patient with players we all know are talented. Sometimes circumstances just never come together for a guy; I think Jonathan Stewart is a hell of a back, but he's nowhere near my standard-league starting lineup. No, the lesson here is twofold. First, don't cut very talented players, or trade them away for dimes on the dollar. Second, when a talented player is struggling, it doesn't mean he forgot how to play. It means something else is wrong. I don't know when or if Darren McFadden's blocking will ever improve, but if it does, Run-DMC will be super-productive again. I don't know when Vernon Davis will start getting the regular open looks he has gotten for three-plus years, but I'm pretty sure he didn't forget how to catch. Their situations may create frustration, but I'll say it again: Good players don't suddenly become terrible.
Let's look at Sunday's other top stories:
• Maurice Jones-Drew took his second carry of Week 7 up the left side and fell into a heap of Oakland Raiders, and in that moment his season and the fantasy seasons of many of his owners may have gone up in smoke. MJD went directly to the sideline and had the Jacksonville Jaguars training staff wrap and re-wrap his left foot, but couldn't get comfortable and wound up getting carted to the locker room. He returned to the sideline out of uniform, wearing a walking boot and using crutches. As of this writing I have no further information, but you'd have to imagine a multiweek absence is the best we can hope for. I jokingly tweeted, asking my followers how long it would take for someone to blame this injury on MJD's holdout, and it took four minutes, as several folks re-tweeted me a note from a fantasy writer from a different site. C'mon, man. Unless you believe in karma, it's mighty hard to draw a straight line from missing training camp to having a half-ton of humanity crush your foot. Alas, those of you who did the smart thing and drafted MJD despite his contract squabble probably won't reap the full reward this season.
• When Trent Richardson stood on the sideline for the entirety of the second half of the Cleveland Browns' excruciating loss to the Indianapolis Colts, my assumption was he'd reinjured his ribs. After the game, Pat Shurmur gave mixed signals about whether that was the case, but Richardson had eight yards on eight carries (and 11 yards on two catches) at halftime, and was overmatched by an Indy defense that allowed Shonn Greene to go crazy in Week 6. When the RB talked with reporters, it seemed clear that he did play with great pain, so the distinction of whether he was benched because of the injury or its resulting ineffectiveness seems moot. Montario Hardesty played on early downs throughout the second half, but registered only 28 yards on seven carries, and Chris Ogbonnaya played on passing downs, contributing 23 yards on four touches. T-Rich will likely take it easy on his ribs this week in practice, and be questionable for next week's game against the San Diego Chargers.
• Fred Davis tore his left Achilles Sunday and is done for the season. In his stead, Logan Paulsen caught three passes down the field (he had another grab earlier in the game, before Davis' injury), which might've put him on the fantasy radar as a potential replacement. However, multiple reports indicate that the Washington Redskins will bring back Chris Cooley. It's difficult to know what kind of shape Cooley is in, and whether he's going to be startable immediately in fantasy leagues, but Davis' owners could probably do worse.
• Eli Manning is amazing, and I mean that with both good and bad connotations of the word. He has actually been a so-so fantasy QB to date; his 13 fantasy points Sunday represented the fifth time in seven games he has failed to top 20. Even against an awful Redskins pass defense (and pass rush), he made a couple unbelievably dumb throws in the fourth quarter that simply make you wonder whether, at times, he's accepting the challenge of playing blindfolded. And then of course, he holds the ball long enough to allow Victor Cruz to streak past a flat-footed Skins defense and accept a winning 77-yard score. As of this writing, Manning is the No. 7 QB in fantasy, and still a starter, because in the end things seem to work out for him. But if I'm his fantasy owner, I have to worry that the monkey's paw he's carrying around with him might soon lose its magical powers.
• Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson reaffirmed that despite Jonathan Vilma's emotional (I guess) return and the New Orleans Saints getting a week's worth of bye-oriented rest, you still want your skill guys matched against defenders from the Crescent City whenever possible. Freeman notched the first 400-yard passing game of his career and Jackson caught 216 yards' worth in the process, along with a score. Tiquan Underwood had the game's first TD, and the only real bummer was that Mike Williams was limited to four grabs for 36 yards, but he appeared to catch a game-tying touchdown on the final play only to be penalized for stepping out of the end zone before returning to make the grab. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' WR targets were 14 for Jackson, eight for Williams and six for Underwood. It'll be significantly harder for these guys to stay hot Thursday night against the Minnesota Vikings.
• Speaking of the Bucs, it took 1 1/2 seasons for departed coach Raheem Morris to see about enough of LeGarrette Blount. Here's hoping Greg Schiano takes the hint faster. Doug Martin rewarded my faith in him with a 35-yard TD run Sunday and wound up with 19 touches for 122 yards on the afternoon, but after a long Vincent Jackson play that got down to the Saints' 1, Tampa handed it to Blount -- the worst short-yardage-rushing big man this side of Ron Dayne -- three consecutive times, only to see him stuffed on each try. (On fourth down, Freeman rolled out and tried to run for it himself, but didn't get in.) The missing piece of Martin's fantasy stardom is his coaches' trust in short yardage. One wonders if perhaps a fresh opportunity is coming.
• Thanks for playing, DeAngelo Williams! D-Willy had two touches Sunday. Two. He wasn't hurt, he just didn't play much. Could that have been part of the explanation for Cam Newton's postgame rant to reporters about how the offense was too pass-heavy and needed to change? Jonathan Stewart got a couple red-zone carries (he didn't convert) and basically only had one really nice run, but at least he touched it 13 times (for 46 yards). Mike Tolbert got a short TD. But D-Willy was MIA, and pretty much can't be started until we see the Carolina Panthers decide that the guy upon whom they lavished a $21 million signing bonus 15 months ago is actually worth using.
• I have no insight about whether Jimmy Graham will be able to play in Week 8, though if his injury is a high ankle sprain, I doubt it. In Graham's absence, David Thomas saw only four targets and wasn't a first option on any play that I saw, but he did score a two-minute-drill TD at the end of the first half. The biggest beneficiary from Graham's absence in the Saints offense was obviously Lance Moore, who caught nine of 10 targets for 121 yards, mostly on short and intermediate stuff. I rated him as a No. 3 wideout Sunday over worries about the injured hammy that caused him to miss Week 5. But now it's clear he's healthy, and if Graham sits again, Moore will warrant top-20 consideration.
• Surprise! Felix Jones left Sunday's game after two plays, and was seen getting his neck and/or shoulder examined by trainers. To his credit, Jones did return to the game soon thereafter, but one wonders if he ceded so many carries to Phillip Tanner -- Jones had 15 totes to Tanner's 13, though Jones did catch five passes compared to one for Tanner -- because of that early stinger. DeMarco Murray has told reporters he thinks he'll play in Week 8, and considering we don't know much about his injury, it would be silly to disregard this statement, though I'm skeptical. What I do believe: Jones is as big an injury risk as any RB in the NFL for as long as he's in there.
• After watching LaRod Stephens-Howling run poorly in the first quarter of Week 6 and William Powell play much better, my assumption was that Powell would be the Arizona Cardinals' lead back in a tough matchup Sunday against the Vikings. And maybe that was Arizona's plan, but Powell fumbled the opening kickoff (the Cardinals recovered), and then took his place in Ken Whisenhunt's doghouse. TV cameras showed him standing alone on the sideline, holding a football under his arm as LSH was running impressively against a stout Vikings defensive front. Stephens-Howling got 11 touches from scrimmage before Powell got his first, and by game's end the total was 24 to 5. Harumph. I guess that makes it one week apiece in the battle to lead the Cards backfield, but you'd have to consider LSH the better bet next week. However, Arizona faces the San Francisco 49ers, so you're best off just avoiding either back.
• Another RB replacement struggled mightily, as Alex Green had 35 yards on 20 carries. I liked his four catches for 29 yards, and I think eventually Green can be an above-average weapon as a receiver. But that would require him to last as a lead rusher, and I'm not sure he did enough Sunday to accomplish that. James Starks dressed but didn't get a touch versus the St. Louis Rams, while John Kuhn carried it three times. Cedric Benson won't be available for many more weeks, but you have to ask yourself how committed to Green the Green Bay Packers will stay, especially when 14 of his carries this week went for two yards or fewer.
• Two fast rookie WRs continued their skeins of impressive play Sunday. Josh Gordon scored his fourth TD in three weeks on a well-covered 33-yarder deep down the right side, and then almost won the game for Cleveland burning the Indy secondary for a 55-yarder, but the sun coming in through the windows of Lucas Oil Stadium flashed in his eyes the moment the football arrived and he dropped it. And Chris Givens took a WR screen 56 yards, giving him four straight weeks with a 50-yard gain. (He also contributed a 14-yard end-around.) Field Yates and I spoke at length about Gordon on last week's Fantasy Underground podcast, and at this point I think we'd both be willing to praise him even further; he might be up-and-down going forward, but he should at least be owned in all leagues. And I wrote about Givens in last week's Hard Count column as a potential future Mike Wallace clone. They're two of the most exciting young WRs in the NFL.
• Speaking of Wallace, he had a tough Sunday night, with two clear drops, one deflected drop in the end zone, and one pass on which he was credited for a reception where replay seemed to show the ball moving while in contact with the ground. He wound up with eight catches for 52 yards and maybe you're a bit frustrated with him. But the dude got 15 targets, and Ben Roethlisberger knows who his playmaker is. I'm still fully on board, especially with the Redskins on the docket for Week 8.