A Muppets love story

Updated: September 27, 2013, 11:43 AM ET
By Matthew Berry | ESPN.com

The Talented Mr. Roto

Singers:
It's time to play the music
It's time to light the light
It's time to meet the Muppets
On the Muppet Show tonight
It's time to put on makeup
It's time to dress up right ...
And now let's get things started

All Muppets:
Why don't you get things started?

Kermit:
It's time to get things started

Singers:

On the most sensational!
Inspirational!
Celebrational!
Muppetanional!
This is what we call the Muppet Show!

(Gonzo plays the last off-key note on his trumpet.)

Jim Henson, the man who gave us the Muppets, "Sesame Street," "Fraggle Rock" and so much more, would have been 77 years old on Sept. 24. And like millions of others around the world, I continue to mourn his passing and thank him for the years of entertainment and pleasure he gave me. My daughters have just discovered "Sesame Street" and they love it, asking for "Emmo" -- which is what they call "Sesame Street" -- so there's now yet another generation of fans of Henson's world in my household, just as there is in virtually every family across the country.

I am a Muppet freak. Loved the show as a kid, saw all the movies, am of the belief that "The Muppet Movie" is among the greatest movies of all time (well, until Miss Piggy shows up).

I don't like the Muppets. I don't fondly remember the Muppets. I love the Muppets. LOVE.

And Henson's birthday made me reflect on something that was among my happiest and saddest moments in show biz. I've written about this before, both in this column and in my book, but never with the detail I'm about to share.

In 2002, Fox announced they had reached a deal with The Jim Henson Company and a non-writing production team called Team Todd (they did the Austin Powers movie) to produce a new prime-time version of "The Muppet Show." And I went insane. Nothing I would rather do. Wanted it bad. Worse than anything I ever wanted professionally. And to this day, as much as I love my job and as much as I don't miss show business, I have told my agent that if I ever got a chance to do something with the Muppets, I would do it in a heartbeat. That's my dream. That I someday get to do something, anything with them.

I came close. When the project was announced, our agent called and tried to get a pitch meeting for us. My writing partner Eric Abrams and I were good, respected writers at that point, but we certainly weren't "sexy." We weren't on "The Simpsons" or "Friends" or "Frasier" or any of the popular, hip writing shows of the day. So while the producers were going out to all these big-name writers asking them to pitch on this project, we were desperately trying to get in. I met the development girl at a party through a mutual friend and begged her in person. We weren't the biggest names. We knew that. But we were the most passionate, and all we wanted was a chance.

They weren't sure what they wanted, talking about reinventing the Muppets, there was talk about showing the puppeteer along with the Muppet, there was talk about making it a hybrid sitcom/sketch show. Should there be humans as regular cast members? Where does it take place? How do we make it different from the original show, and its short-lived successor, "Muppets Tonight!"? And how do we go about updating it for the edgy Fox audience, while still remaining true to the characters that people had grown up with and, in 2002 had forgotten? Remember, in 2002 the Muppets had been gone for a long time. How adult are they, or are they still more innocent and childlike? Everything was on the table. And they wanted the show to start with a "bang!" What would be our "Live from New York?" they asked. Lots of questions, not a lot of direction, but we didn't care.

We wanted it.

So we got a meeting and pitched our hearts out. We showed our passion. We discussed how we would update the Muppets while maintaining the core of their character that we all loved. We brought up obscure Muppets. We did everything short of wearing felt and putting a hand up ourselves. We said, in essence, you guys are making this too complicated. Stop with the "showing the puppeteer" or the "sitcom hybrid" or anything that isn't "The Muppets." They are classic characters. They are beloved. They are funny. Just make the sketches a little edgier to update for the times and for the Fox audience and go from there. There's nothing wrong with the Muppets. There's nothing that needs fixing.

Trust in what you love about them, we said.

We were thanked for our time, passion and ideas. They were going with some guy from "The Simpsons." We were crushed. But about six months later, we got a call. The Simpsons guy couldn't crack it. The project was due in two weeks, they had nothing and they were desperate.

[+] EnlargeMuppets
ichael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesSmiles everywhere; a common occurrence when Jim Henson and the Muppets were involved.

Were we still interested?

Hell yes we were. I have my prideful moments. There are many occasions in which I would have said, no, you had your chance. I'm not crawling back because you can't get anyone else on such short notice and getting into a situation where everyone knows we're your second choice. But this is not one of them. It's the Muppets. And I am a Muppet freak. So ... where do we sign?

We basically kill ourselves for two weeks, writing all day and all night nonstop and at the end, we have a script that we are proud of. And more important, a script that everyone else ... loves!

This is not hyperbole or selective memory. Trust me, I had plenty of scripts that many people hated. This one? No notes. No notes from the producers, no notes from Lisa Henson (I loved working with Lisa Henson), no notes from Fox. Which is unheard of. There are always notes. If there are no notes, development executives aren't totally needed, you know? There are always notes.

But nope, everyone loved it. It went up the chain at Fox, the network president at the time, Gail Berman, loved it, everyone loved it. Talk was turning to how soon could we start production and what a good time slot would be. "Great job," they said. "Hilarious." "You remained true to the characters but brought them into present day," they said. We'd kept the core of what people loved about the Muppets but made it accessible to both longtime fans of the show and people who had never heard of them. "How did we do it," they said? Simple, we said.

We trusted what we loved about them.

We wrote with passion, we wrote with love and mostly, we wrote with trust. They didn't need to be reinvented. They are classic, beloved, amazing characters. They have lasted multiple generations and will continue to do so.

So, in an "only in Hollywood" end to the story, the script was sent to the chairman of Fox, who read this script that everyone else who worked for him loved ... and he passed.

Everyone was shocked and soon, the producers met with him.

Producers: Why'd you pass? Is there something the guys could address that you didn't like? Can you give us some notes?

Chairman: No notes. Liked the script. Thought it was very funny.

Producers: Then what's the problem?

Chairman: Does it have to be the Muppets?

Seriously. They had literally made an expensive deal with the Muppets (a known quantity, obviously) and then the problem with the show was ... the Muppets. He didn't think they would work on Fox. Which begs the question: then why'd you make the deal with them in the first place???

Boggles the mind.

That feeling of "everything was so good" quickly turning to a feeling of "what the hell just happened?" is one a lot of fantasy owners are going through right now. You drafted well. You have two stud running backs. A young stud of a QB. Solid wide receivers. And you're 1-2. Or 0-3.

What the ...?

You're freaking out. Do you blow up the team? Do you trade one of your studs? Is your season over? Seriously. What happened?

And I go back to what I realized with the Muppets.

Trust in what you love.

In the preseason, you loved the fact that C.J. Spiller was the seventh-best fantasy running back in 2012 despite just 250 touches. You loved his big-play ability, his third-highest yards after contact average and Doug Marrone's promise to run. You loved the fact that, over the past three years, no team in the NFL has more rushing touchdowns or rushing attempts inside an opponent's 10-yard line than the New England Patriots, and that with a questionable passing game, they'd lean more on Stevan Ridley. You loved MJD in a contract year, that once David Wilson got a chance last year, he was the seventh-best RB in fantasy over the final four weeks. You loved the consistency of Arian Foster, Ray Rice and Frank Gore. You loved the fact that Roddy White has never missed a game in his NFL career and has been super-consistent as a fantasy force every year; that Colin Kaepernick was a dual threat; that Tony Gonzalez was a great red zone target. You researched and watched and read and thought and, in the end you chose them for your team over anyone else. Because you loved them.

Trust what you love.

It's been just three games. C.J. Spiller did not forget how to play football in three games. Now, not everything will work out. Every year, there's disappointment. There may come a time at the end when the chairman says, "Sorry, Tony Gonzalez, we're passing. I just don't think the Mupp, er, an older tight end will work in this offense."

But in the end, you'll have at least gone down with your best shot. I'm as proud of that Muppet script as anything I've ever done, especially because I know what we were up against, how no one could figure it out, the deadlines and multiple cooks in the kitchen, the challenge of updating the characters and remaining true ... all of it. It didn't ultimately work out, but that script generated a lot of other jobs for us, the guy at Fox got fired not super long afterward and Fox spent quite a while longer looking for another comedy hit. And many years later, the worldwide success of "The Muppets" proved there's still a very large audience, young and old, that wants these characters in their lives.

It didn't end exactly how I wanted but it was a great experience and one that I am so grateful I got.

I trusted what I loved.

Let's get to it. As always, don't use this as a start/sit column, but rather opinions on players I think will exceed or fall short of general expectations. Use my rankings for any "this guy or that guy" questions.

Quarterbacks I love in Week 4

Robert Griffin III, Washington Football Franchise: It's not just that Oakland is bad! I mean, they are, but it's not just that. It's also that Washington's defense is bad! Oakland is actually going to move the ball here (see below) and even though Washington wants to run more, they are going to have to throw like Lew Zealand and his fish. Over 320 yards in three straight games, RG III should have had 57 more yards and a score last week (grumble, Aldrick Robinson, grumble) and that gets rectified this week. I have a horrible feeling in my stomach as a Washington fan that we lose this game, but it won't be before RG III puts up serious points.

Terrelle Pryor, Raiders: Currently undergoing tests in accordance with the NFL's concussion protocol, there is a chance he misses this game. It's a late game, so make sure you have a Plan B, otherwise known as "someone other than Matt Flynn who also has a late start," in case you want to roll the dice with Pryor and and he gets ruled out just before game time.

For those of you with Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton on your bench, Pryor is my choice for a plug-and-play QB. I have him as a top-10 quarterback this week as I expect a high-scoring game between two teams that allow more scoring than some actress in the current pop-culture zeitgeist who is well known for her promiscuity. Look, one of us was going to have to fill in the blank on that hacky joke, this week it's you. By the way, Pryor is 11th in the NFL in completion percentage. Why, he completes more passes than an actor in the current pop-culture zeitgeist who is well known for having brief relationships with many high-profile, attractive young women! Hey-oh!

Tony Romo, Cowboys: No team has allowed more fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks this season than the Chargers. They've played Matt Schaub, Michael Vick and Jake Locker. Vick I'll give you but, come on! Most yards, most touchdowns, highest completion percentage, pick a stat, any stat and San Diego is not good against the pass. Romo has just one interception this year and threw for 298 against what we now know is a very good K.C. defense. Just for kicks, it's worth noting the Chargers also allow the second-most yards after contact to opposing receivers this season. And Dez Bryant plays for the Cowboys.

If you're desperate: Alex Smith is averaging 17 points a game and is at home against the, shall we say, struggling New York Giants. ... Philip Rivers is a top-five fantasy quarterback so far. And while I don't expect him to end the year like that, I do think he'll be solid against a Cowboys team that gives up the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks.

Quarterbacks I hate in Week 4

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesThe rushing stats have been nice, but you're pushing your Luck if you start counting on that production.

Andrew Luck, Colts: Josh Freeman. Christian Ponder. Geno Smith. Sorry, just listing some of the quarterbacks who have more pass attempts this year than Andrew Luck. He's 25th in the NFL in that category, he's 26th in passing yards, he has three touchdowns in three games. I know, it's Jacksonville and Luck has bailed you out with two rushing scores and over 20 yards rushing in every game, but while he is mobile, I just don't see that as sustainable. Indy wants to go power running game with their new toy Trent Richardson -- especially in the red zone -- and while I feel Luck has a solid game, this isn't the high-flying offense we saw last year. Not a top-10 play for me, as Indy gets up big quickly and then runs, runs, runs.

Eli Manning, Giants: "Everytime you love Eli, he stinks. Please go back to hating Eli." That was requested from me on Twitter and it's true, I've made a career on hating Eli. Much more than not, when I hate Eli, I'm right. When I've ventured to the other side, like last week, it never goes well. So I'm back, America! Chiefs D is for real and so are the Giants' offensive line issues. Eli has been sacked 11 times, and the Chiefs lead the NFL in sacks. Bleah.

Matt Schaub, Texans: He's averaging 6.55 yards per attempt. By comparison, Alex Smith is averaging 6.37. Andre Johnson is banged up and I don't want my fantasy fortunes resting on Matt Schaub's ability to dink and dunk his way to glory against the Seahawks.

Running backs I love in Week 4

Trent Richardson, Colts: See Luck, Andrew. They take the new toy for a test drive against a Jags team allowing 5.2 yards per carry, third most in the league. By the way, Ahmad Bradshaw isn't going away. He'll be a decent flex play this week.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: Colts have given up four rushing touchdowns in three games so far (tied for third most), they allow 4.7 yards per carry and MJD traditionally owns the Colts. I'd be lying if I said I was thrilled with Blaine Gabbert back at quarterback, but whatever, he's scoring in junk time regardless and you can get there with Gabbert just as easy as with Chad Henne. Solid RB2 this week.

DeMarco Murray, Cowboys: Just know I don't feel good about this.

Matt Forte, Bears: A super-obvious name here but putting him in because he's now a legit top-eight running back. This is a good game to use him if you play our Gridiron Challenge Eliminator game, where you play any player you want but can use him only once a season. It's a really fun game, actually. Lions have allowed the second-most fantasy points to opposing running backs this season, but here's a fun piece of info-tainment from the crack research team here at TMR HQ: Matt Forte has 10 red zone rushes this season, fourth most in the league. I hope you toast me with the drink you'll win with that bar bet.

Darren McFadden, Raiders: Three easy reasons.

1. Washington isn't just terrible against the pass, it's also bad against the run! Only two teams have given up more rushing yards per game.

2. When Terrelle Pryor hands it off on a zone-read, DMC is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Of course, the whole "will Terrelle Pryor actually play?" thing factors in here, but if Matt Flynn is starting, does that mean they don't hand it off to RunDMC? Right.

3. I'm playing Trent Dilfer this week in the 16-team "War Room" league you've heard many of us discuss ad nauseum. It's a big game this week as we are in the same division. He has McFadden, so you just know he's going off. I went against Eric Decker in this league last week. You're welcome, America.

If you're desperate: One of these days, David Wilson is going to go off. This weekend makes the most sense, because everyone will have bailed on him, and Kansas City has allowed 5.6 yards per carry this season (most in NFL) and the Giants have to do something to keep Eli upright. Remember, he did have a touchdown called back last week. ... Tough to throw on the Saints these days, but you can run on them, which makes Lamar Miller somewhat interesting. ... Did you know Danny Woodhead is third in the NFL in receptions among RBs? Great little PPR flex play. ... Spiller or no Spiller, Fred Jackson continues to have value. ... I think New England will struggle to run against Atlanta so they'll pass, and Brandon Bolden will be a part of that.

Running backs I hate in Week 4

Arian Foster, Texans: You're starting him if you have him. I have him in my family league with my 9-year-old, and we're starting him. As good as Seattle is, you can run on them a little (12th in rushing yards allowed), but are we sure that it will be Arian Foster who runs against them? Check this out: Ben Tate has averaged more yards after contact (4.5) than Foster has gained overall (3.9). Tate has gained 106 yards on eight rushes outside the tackles this season. Foster has gained 20 yards on eight rushes outside the tackles. And Foster is averaging a career-low 3.9 yards per rush. He's due for a score, so I bet he gets into the end zone here, but I don't see a huge day and, for the first time in a long time, I have him outside my top 10. I'm not using him in my player eliminator pool or salary cap games.

Stevan Ridley, Patriots: I still believe in him, actually. And the time to buy low is after this week. As noted in the Bolden bit above, Atlanta is tough to run on (fifth in yards allowed, third-fewest yards after contact) and while I don't expect Bolden or LeGarrette Blount to overtake him, they'll both touch the ball enough to bring Ridley's value outside the top 20. Flex play this week.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers: Glad he's back. But much like Kermit with Dr. Honeydew and Beaker, caution is the best approach here. Let's see him do something first and get more than 12 carries before I put him in my lineup.

Rashard Mendenhall, Cardinals: No idea what happened last week. Dude averaged 3.2 yards per carry last week in what looked like a good matchup, and lost carries to the likes of Alfonso Smith. Regardless, it doesn't make you feel all happy, like you're at a Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayem concert or something, now that he goes against Tampa Bay. The Bucs offense is a mess but they can play the run; one of only three teams in the NFL to not have allowed a rushing TD.

Ryan Mathews, Chargers: He ceded the goal-line carry to Ronnie Brown last week. I repeat. To Ronnie Brown. The Chargers coaching staff, when faced with the opportunity to let Ryan Mathews carry the ball on the goal line, turned to each other and decided, in their collective wisdom, that they liked their odds of scoring better with Ronnie Brown. Once again, that's Ronnie Brown.

Wide receivers I love in Week 4

[+] EnlargePierre Garcon
AP Photo/Mark DuncanOh, Garçon! I'll have another double-digit reception week, please.

Pierre Garcon, Washington Football Franchise: Top 10 in the NFL in targets and receptions, the only quarterbacks who have thrown for more than 300 yards in three straight games are Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and ... Robert Griffin III. When RG III throws against the Raiders, it'll be to his guy Garcon. Top-10 play for me this week.

Marques Colston, Saints: Just a pure and total gut call here. Been three games, hasn't really gone off ... think he's due.

Torrey Smith, Ravens: No wide receiver has been targeted more on throws at least 15 yards downfield than Torrey Smith. "Why is this relevant," you ask? Because last week the Bills allowed 247 yards and two touchdowns on receptions more than 15 yards downfield, and their secondary is still banged up. "Oh," you say.

Julian Edelman, Patriots: No team has allowed more receptions or receiving yards to slot receivers than the Falcons this season.

Josh Gordon, Browns: You know how an NFL franchise gets the most for someone in a trade? You feed him the ball over and over and over like he's Animal and you have meat. And as good as the Bengals defense is, it's tied for the fifth-most receptions allowed to opposing wide receivers. Gordon is a top-20 play this week.

Tavon Austin, Rams: Remember when they were the Niners D? Yeah. Thursday games are historically less offensive than others, but slot receivers have had success against San Fran this year and Austin has run 86 routes out of the slot this season, so I like his chances of doing something in this game as a flex play.

If you're desperate: You don't pay a guy $56 million to ignore him for two straight weeks, so I bet Dwayne Bowe has a solid game this week. ... Denarius Moore has two scores in three games and I bet he has a good shot at three in four if Pryor plays against Washington. ... No Nate Burleson, lots of attention on Calvin Johnson; OK Ryan Broyles, now is your moment, kid. ... I continue to believe in Cordarrelle Patterson. Every week he plays a little bit more. Just like with Gonzo, you know the explosion is coming, it's just a matter of when.

Wide receivers I hate in Week 4

Andre Johnson, Texans: Banged up, game-time decision and it's the physical secondary of the Seahawks he'd face. Not a top-10 play for me.

Greg Jennings, Vikings: Although he's second in targets on the Vikes, it's not a great matchup this week for him. For all the issues the Steelers have, they can still defend the pass. Not if he's running through the field with a bed around him, of course, but the repeatability of that is very slim. Believe in yoursmelf. Just don't believe in Greg Jennings finally putting up numbers against the Steelers.

Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: When you limp onto Revis Island, it's not your week. Outside my top 20 this week.

Lance Moore, Saints and Kenny Britt, Titans: Not that you were thinking of starting either guy, but I bring this up because both of them are owned in over 90 percent of ESPN.com leagues and they shouldn't be. Cut both of these guys ASAP and get someone even slightly more consistent in there.

Tight ends I love in Week 4

[+] EnlargeGronkowski
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaEverybody wants to know; when will Rob Gronkowski be ready to play?

Rob Gronkowski, Patriots: If he's active, you're playing him. Simple. Of course, they play in the Sunday night game, so be aware you should grab Charles Clay (87 percent available, plays Monday night) if you can, or just have a suitable replacement ready in case he is ruled out.

Jordan Cameron, Browns: Hopefully you got this guy after I was touting him all preseason, and not the Zach Sudfeld I was also hawking. Either way, Jordan Cameron has caught all three of his end zone targets this season (the most such touchdown receptions in the league). And while Cincy has a tough D, they have allowed opposing receivers to catch four of six throws to the end zone, tied for the fourth-highest percentage in the NFL. You were starting him regardless, I just wanted you to feel even better about it. That's what I am here for. I'm like a fantasy therapist. Tell me about your feelings. Let's start with your childhood.

Antonio Gates, Chargers: We've already established that I think the Cowboys will have no problems putting up points on San Diego in this one, so the Bolts will be throwing right back at them, and when they throw, they'll look for Gates. Eighteen targets the past two weeks for Gates, it's a good matchup as only one team has allowed more receptions to opposing tight ends this season than the Cowboys.

If you're desperate: I'm the highest on Coby Fleener for this week and probably the season. I expect the Colts will go to two-tight end sets a lot and he'll be the only pass-catching one on the field as they continue to try to establish a power run game. ... With Heath Miller back in the Steelers' fold, it's worth noting that the Vikings already have allowed six touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season, two more than any other team in the league. ... I already mentioned Charles Clay, but if you're really digging deep, Joseph Fauria has two touchdowns in three weeks. The targets aren't there yet but maybe they'll start to come now that Nate Burleson is out.

Tight ends I hate in Week 4

Jared Cook, Rams: It's not your imagination. Thursday games are lower scoring. Since 2010 through Week 2 of this year, teams have averaged 21.4 points, 104.5 rushing yards and 236.2 passing yards per game when playing on Thursdays. In the same span, teams have averaged 22.4 points, 115.7 rushing yards and 228.6 passing yards per game on Sundays. San Francisco has been strong versus opposing tight ends this year, allowing only nine receptions in total, tied for fourth fewest. While I believe in him long-term, Cook is outside my top 10 as I believe the Rams try to run on the Niners and Tavon Austin gets the most love in the passing game.

Brandon Myers, Giants: Friend of the podcast Brandon Myers has seen his receptions drop each week since the start of the season. He's going to need to block in this one, given the line play of both the Giants (poor) and the Chiefs (good). The Chiefs have allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends this season.

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings: Bad NFL team, bad NFL quarterback, bad matchup with Pittsburgh. Under 30 yards in two of three games, it just depends on if you think he scores. I don't, so he's outside my top 10. And, on behalf of America, apologies to London for this game. Oh, and "Khole and Lamar." Who both kind of  look like Muppets.

Brandon Pettigrew, Lions: Just putting him here because he is somehow still owned in over 30 percent of leagues. He needs to be owned in zero.

Defenses I love in Week 4

Kansas City Chiefs: Team that leads league in sacks, meet team that is tied for allowing the second-most sacks. While throwing the most interceptions. And this game is at Arrowhead.

Indianapolis Colts: Blaine Gabbert's back? Blaine Gabbert's back.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: As much of a hot mess as the offense is right now, the defense is pretty legit. Great run D, Revis Island in the secondary, and this is the 11th-best scoring defense. Arizona is tied for the sixth-most fantasy points allowed to opposing defenses.

If you're desperate: The Titans are allowing 10 points a game and are home to Geno Smith. Tennessee is a plucky little team.

Defenses I hate in Week 4

San Francisco 49ers: Four. Nine. One. That's what the preseason consensus No. 2 defense has put up so far this year, and now they are without Aldon Smith, who leads the NFL in sacks since the start of 2011 and commands a ton of attention from the opposition. They'll be fine here -- again, scoring tends to be down on Thursday night -- but I wouldn't use them in a salary cap or eliminator-type game. And if someone will give you full value for the name, trade away.

Washington Football Franchise: Just in case you were thinking of getting cute because they play Oakland. Pryor is tough to tackle/sack and they have a strong-legged kicker and punter, often making a return tough. Oakland is a tougher play defensively than you might think.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto – thinks Sam the Eagle is very underrated in Muppet circles. Berry is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off. You may also have heard: He's written a book.

• Senior Fantasy analyst for ESPN
• Member, FSWA and FSTA Halls of Fame
• Best-selling author of "Fantasy Life"

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