Requiem for hope and a lost season
I was born in Denver, and spent two years in Atlanta, but the majority of my formative years from ages 4 to 12 were spent in Richmond and Charlottesville, Va. My dad is a huge sports fan and so is his father, so it was no surprise that I was watching sports at an early age.
As an NFL fan, Jack Pardee was the first Washington coach I remember, and when he was fired in 1981, 11-year-old me desperately wanted the team to hire Bum Phillips, the colorful Houston Oilers coach who had just been let go after "Luv Ya Blue" had failed in the playoffs once again. There was no Internet back then, and we didn't have that new thing called cable TV, so I was disappointed when they hired a Chargers assistant I had never heard of named Joe Gibbs.
It would be the last time Washington would disappoint me for a long, long time.
Gibbs, of course, became one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, leading Washington to an amazing run including four Super Bowl appearances, winning three, and I was in, hook, line and sinker. I collected all their football cards, I watched every game, I read every article I could find and my most prized possessions were a Washington helmet I wore everywhere and an autographed photo of Joe Theismann. I had mailed him a fan letter, and I'll be damned if a month later or so he didn't send back a signed photo.
As often is the case, what was important to you as a child becomes really important to you when you're older. Important and beloved. And so as I moved around as a kid from city to city, my faith in the Burgundy and Yellow never wavered and continues to this day.
On Dec. 29, I will turn 44 years old. It will be both the end of the 2013 regular season, and more important, of my 39th season as a fan of Washington's football franchise.
It's the worst one I have ever experienced.
Say this for all the drama going on between Dan Snyder, Mike Shanahan, Robert Griffin III and everyone else: No one's talking about the team's nickname anymore.
I hate the whole name thing, and here's why: I don't know the right answer. The name doesn't offend me. But then again ... I'm not Native American. How on Earth can I say what is or isn't offensive to someone who is? And that's sort of my issue with the team's stance and those who defend it. Unless you are also Native American, you can't say it's not offensive. Because you don't know. I don't have an issue if they change the name. I'm also OK if they keep the name, as long as they acknowledge there are a group of people who are really bothered by this and they try to work on some sort of solution. In the meantime, out of respect for those who are offended, I've stopped calling the team by their nickname. It's a complicated issue, and I just hate that the team I love is in the middle of it.
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It seems like they are always in the middle of it. For the longest time. From 1993 until now -- in other words, nearly 21 full seasons -- Washington has won 140 games. Here's the list of teams that have won fewer games the last 20 years (not including the Texans, who joined the league in 2002): the Rams, Bengals, Cardinals, Lions and Browns (and they didn't play for three years). That's it. Two decades. Five teams.
This is not a small-market team. This is team with unlimited resources. This is not a team in a place where free agents don't want to live. This is a team without any inherent challenges that other franchises face.
This is a team whose issues are entirely self-created.
I am objective enough to understand that winning is hard, that there are ebbs and flows and sometimes players, coaches and seasons are not going to pan out the way you want. I've seen three Super Bowl victories in my lifetime, and that's more than a lot of people get. And there are five fan bases worse off than us the past 21 years, so I don't want you to think this is a whiny piece about that. I don't like the losing, but I can live with it.
The part I can't live without? Hope.
They've beaten the hope out of me. As Bane says to Bruce Wayne in "The Dark Knight Rises:"
"There's a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth ... hope. Every man who has ventured here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy ... so simple ... and like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope ..."
I've written before about what RG III means to me and to my son, so if you've read either story, you know a big part of the appeal was hope. We finally had a franchise quarterback. After a 3-6 start in his rookie year, he led the team on an incredible run, culminating in a division title with a win over the hated Cowboys on national TV. People were talking playoffs, the future and how they were so happy they gave up all those picks to draft him. Because we had a quarterback. We had a future.
We had hope.
Griffin is not perfect. He has not played well this year. I would have liked to have seen fewer commercials and news conferences this offseason. But as he's being skewered by the press and thrown under the bus by his coaches, people are forgetting he's a 23-year-old kid just two years out of college, with no offensive line. According to Stats Inc.'s Protection Index, only six teams are worse. Only four teams have allowed more hurries and knock downs. Only three teams have more holding calls.
He's had only one decent pass catcher for the majority of the season. And the defense is atrocious. Only Matt Ryan has attempted more passes when losing than RGIII this season (346 to 340) and, of course, Ryan has played one more game than Griffin. So yeah, thanks for always putting him in a hole and making his game one-dimensional. How come no one is discussing that Washington's special teams are the worst in the history of the NFL? And I am being kind when I say that.
How about someone mention that the roster is devoid of special talent, a result of some poor drafting and the salary cap penalty. It's not RGIII's fault Washington signed Albert Haynesworth. Or that the NFL decided two years after the fact that just because it said it was an uncapped year, it didn't really mean it.
I see Shanahan's news conferences and I hear all the sniping from planted sources, and you know what I am reminded of? My kids. The three boys who like to snap at each other, tattle on each other, instigating each other and then trying the innocent face when there's retaliation. "What? What'd I do?"
John Keim wrote Wednesday, "This is the most bizarre turn of events that I think I've covered in Washington." And, "Now you have no idea where this disaster is headed."
And it's that last statement that gives me pause, because I agree with him. They have lost games this year and I have shrugged. More things come out daily and I yawn. Because I don't care. Because I am numb. I see RGIII's body knocked around like a rag doll out there, taking hit after hit (and not a lot of flags, it seems) and I feel the same way after every game. Pounding after pounding.
Because I have lost hope.
Are we stuck with this regime because Snyder doesn't want to buy out Shanahan, and Shanahan won't quit? And if something does happen, what good coach would come to this mess? What free agent would want to play here? Someone will take the money, but will it have to be so much that they can't afford the many other glaring needs? Will the job be so unattractive that, to get someone good, they need to give that person the keys to the kingdom, like they did with Shanahan? I actually think Shanahan is a good coach, I just think he's a poor talent evaluator.
I just want hope. That's the toughest part of the end of the fantasy football season. The end of hope. I always love having players going on "Monday Night Football" because I still have hope. Even if the other guy has crushed me on Sunday, even if most of my guys haven't shown up, I still have the hope of a magical night from Michael Vick or Justin Tucker or any of a number of other Monday night miracles that have unfolded over the years.
I need hope back. I need Washington to give me hope back. Because I haven't had it for a while. I really liked Chris B. Brown's article on Grantland.com about what went wrong with RGIII; Brown writes that with Griffin's young age, there is still reason for optimism. As Brown points out, "at least statistically, Griffin's 2013 season rates out better than all but two of Joe Flacco's six seasons, and that it took Eli Manning until his fifth season to have a better passer rating than the one Griffin managed this year; a year pretty much everyone declared 'awful.'"
That's the logical part of it, but hope feeds on emotion, and I was dead inside. Until I found hope in the one place it should always be: on the face of a child.
Standing in the right place at the right time before a Washington game, wearing his Griffin III No. 10 jersey, my stepson was able to get it signed by the man himself. It was just 10 seconds of Robert's life, but the smile on Connor's face lasted much, much longer than that.
There's my hope. Because I'm grumpy and cynical and been down this road too many times, I forget the innocence. Of what a simple gesture can mean. Of having a hero not disappoint. And just like Joe Theismann did for me when I was Connor's age, Robert Griffin III made a fan for life. As I'm about to start year 40 of being a Washington fan, even in the franchise's darkest hours, I remember Connor's smile and I see hope. Hope that the good days will again outweigh the bad, hope that Griffin will eventually lead the team to another Super Bowl, and hope that one day, a Washington quarterback will take 10 seconds of his life to make Connor's future son or daughter a lifelong fan and give them one of the best things you can give someone else: something to believe in.
And whether your fantasy season is over or will be soon, remember the hope. That next year will be the year you bring home the trophy. Possibly for the second time.
Before we get to the players, a little bit of house-cleaning. This is the last Love/Hate column of the season. There will be a video version of Love/Hate next week, but because of the holidays and a bunch of reasons you don't care about, this is it. We will also still have rankings and podcasts in Week 17 for those still chasing their championships, including those in the second week of finals in ESPN standard, but this is it for the column until next year. As always, please, please use my rankings when making a final decision between two players, and this column as the context for my rankings decisions. So, for one final time, a big thank you to Zach Rodgers and the mystery-solving kids in the ESPN Stats & Information van and to you, for coming back here every week. Means more than you know.
One more week ... let's keep hope alive.
Quarterbacks I Love in Week 16
Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: You've heard the old saying. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach a man to start his QB against the Falcons, he eats for a lifetime. Colin's played well on "Monday Night Football," for what that's worth, with five touchdowns and no interceptions in two MNF starts, but this is all about the Falcons. Giving up the fifth-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks, including 381 and three scores to Kirk Cousins last week. And I like the matchup even more now that Kaepernick has Michael Crabtree back to open up the passing game; I have him as a top-10 play in the last regular-season game for the 49ers at the place I call Candlestick.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks: I love this matchup for Wilson. Obviously, Wilson plays well at home and the Cardinals are banged up in the secondary. But get this: So Wilson leads the league in passing touchdowns and yards when pressured this season, right? Well, the Cardinals blitz on 48 percent of opponents' dropbacks this season, the most in the league. (Wilson threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns when the Cardinals blitzed in their previous game this season and finished with 19 points.)
Aaron Rodgers, Packers: I ranked him, so I am thinking (hoping?) he plays. Very simply, if he plays, I have no issue starting him against a Steelers team that just gave up a combined 42 points to Andy Dalton and Ryan Tannehill in the past two weeks.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: Same game and another good start. Forget last week; that was a poor game only due to how well (and lucky) the Steelers' special teams did. This offense is playing at a high level (Ben completed 80 percent of his passes last week) and if Rodgers is back, will need to put up points to compete. The Packers have given up seven passing touchdowns in their past three and more than 300 passing yards in two of the past three.
If you're desperate: It helps when your running back can take a dump-off pass to the house every time, but Alex Smith has at least 20 points in four of the past five and in five of the past seven. ... Over the past five weeks, no team has allowed more fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks than the Vikings, which should help Dalton have yet another good start at home. ... I'm lowest on Kirk Cousins, of course, because I know better than to expect anything against the hated Cowboys this season. Watch them have their best defensive game of the season. It would figure. (And wouldn't be a high bar to clear). As good as he looked in the first half last week is as bad as I thought he looked in the second. The Matchup is about as good as it gets and the negativity is coming from being a Washington fan, so if you feel like rolling the dice, I get it. But it's Week 16 and he's Kirk Cousins. Just know you're playing with fire.
Quarterbacks I Hate in Week 16
Tony Romo, Cowboys: Just 20 points combined the past two times he's faced Washington, and it's not as good a matchup as you think. Washington has held the past three quarterbacks it's faced to 15 points or fewer, including the red-hot Smith and Ryan in Atlanta. Some of that is because the special teams are so brutal, some of that is because the run defense is so brutal, but both things are in play here again. Romo could easily go nuts, or he could have his sixth straight game of 18 points or fewer. He'll be fine, of course, but to me he's a QB2 this week, not a no-brainer starter.
Carson Palmer, Cardinals: Very simply, I want no part of anyone on the Cardinals this week. On the road, at Seattle, against a Seahawks team that has allowed just five passing touchdowns at home all season? And he's not 100 percent healthy? No thank you.
Matt Ryan, Falcons: Sense a theme here? On the road at a 49ers team playing great defense these days (just four passing touchdowns allowed over the past four games and 14 sacks), Ryan has yet to have more than 15 points in any game on the road since the Falcons' bye week. Twelve of his 14 interceptions this year have come on the road, and I don't see that trend reversing in San Francisco.
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins: So, this stat you probably know. No quarterback has been sacked more than Tannehill this season. This stat you might not: When under duress, Tannehill has completed only 38 percent of his passes. And I bet this one takes you by surprise: The Bills lead the league in sack rate (sacks per opponent dropbacks) this season. In fact, over the past five weeks, only the Seahawks have allowed fewer fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks than the Bills. I know he's been red-hot recently, but I think he comes back to QB2 range as opposed to the QB1 we've seen the past three weeks.
Running Backs I Love in Week 16
Zac Stacy, Rams: Since Week 5, only Eddie Lacy has more carries than Stacy. Dude is touching the ball a ton and the Rams are averaging 142 rushing yards a game since Week 5, second most in the NFL. He scored five times in the past five games, and while it's not an ideal matchup with the Bucs, it's not a scary one, either. Tampa Bay has given up at least 93 yards rushing to running backs in four of their past five games. Not sure why I am the only one to have him as a top-10 play this week, but he is.
DeMarco Murray, Cowboys: Among the reasons I am down on Romo is that I expect another huge game from Murray. Averaging a just-silly 6.3 yards per carry since coming back in Week 9, and no team allows more rushing touchdowns than Washington.
Jordan Todman, Jaguars: This assumes Maurice Jones-Drew doesn't play, of course, but the reason is real simple. I thought he looked great last week, he's gonna touch the ball a ton and the Titans allow the third-most fantasy points to opposing running backs. They also allow the most yards after contact per rush (2.0) and the second-most rushing touchdowns (18) by running backs. Strong RB2 play with top-10 upside for the week.
Le'Veon Bell, Steelers: Maybe an obvious name, but I love this stat; as good as his rushing is, did you know that since his return in Week 4, the only running backs with more targets are Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte and Pierre Thomas? And it's an awesome matchup: over the past five weeks, only the Bears have allowed more rushing yards than the Packers.
Ryan Mathews, Chargers: Getting a ton of work (29 carries in two straight with two 100-yard games and two scores) he's facing a Raiders team that has been, shall we say, very generous to opposing running backs lately.
If you're desperate: With Daniel Thomas a little banged-up and the Bills allowing 5.1 yards per carry over the last five weeks, third most in the league, I could see Lamar Miller getting some run and doing something with the opportunity. ... With Ben Tate done for the year, Dennis Johnson will get the majority of work against a Broncos team that has allowed the fifth-most rushing yards the last five weeks. ... Montee Ball averaged 16 touches in his two games prior to the disaster against San Diego and scored double-digits in three of the last five. Houston is 24th against the run. ... If you've made it this far, it's no thanks to Ray Rice, but I will say I think he has looked better recently and you can run on New England's 31st-ranked run defense.
Running Backs I Hate in Week 16
Chris Ivory, Jets: I actually really like Ivory as a player, but when the Jets get down (and there's always a chance they will) they abandon the run and use Bilal Powell. Ivory has 12 or fewer carries in three of his last four, and it's a bad matchup, as Cleveland is giving up just 3.7 yards per carry, third fewest in the league. He's always a threat to score, but given the lack of guaranteed touches, hard to have him inside the top 20.
Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, Saints: The key to each of these running backs is their role in the pass game, and you know that Brees has struggled when playing on the road this year. In addition, the Panthers have allowed only one touchdown reception to opposing running backs, tied for fewest in the league. Plus, they're splitting time. Not feeling it.
Steven Jackson, Falcons: Averaging just 3.3 yards per carry since his return from injury in Week 8, he's needed to score for his fantasy value. On the road at San Francisco, which allows the fewest rushing yards after contact this season, including the fewest inside its own 10-yard line, his odds of getting into the end zone aren't great.
Wide Receivers I Love in Week 16
Pierre Garcon, Washington: With Cousins at quarterback last week, Garcon averaged 18.4 yards per reception (after averaging 11.4 with RGIII). The Cowboys are horrific. If you want a stat: They have allowed the fourth-most yards to opposing wide receivers this season. Seriously, they're bad. In fact, it's worth noting that after last week's 37-36 loss to the Packers, the Cowboys now have four losses this year when scoring at least 28 points. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is tied for the most in a single season in NFL history. What does that have to do with fantasy? Nothing. As a Washington fan, I just enjoy pointing it out. Hmmm, maybe that's another source of hope for me -- at least Dallas isn't any good, either!
Marques Colston, Saints: Thirteen targets in consecutive weeks now, including his season-best game against the Panthers two weeks ago (nine receptions, 125 yards and two touchdowns). The biggest change has been in the red zone. Colston has been targeted eight times in the red zone the last two weeks, scoring three times. Colston had seven red zone targets the entire season prior to Week 14. Want more? During his past five games, he has 15 receptions on passes traveling more than 10 yards downfield, tied for second during that span. Meanwhile, the Panthers have allowed 30 completions on such throws since the start of Week 11, tied for fourth.
Packers wide receivers: If Rodgers is playing, I'm starting them.
Julian Edelman, Patriots: I know, I hear all the stats about how Brady struggles against the Ravens, and yes, they have a decent defense. But dude has four scores in four games and at least 101 yards in three of the last four. Since Week 12, only Josh Gordon has more targets than Edelman. I'm starting him.
Michael Crabtree, 49ers: Looks healthy to me. You know I love Kaepernick this week and that he's one of the reasons why, as his presence opens up the entire offense. Solid WR2 with upside against a Falcons team that is giving up the eighth-most passing yards, third-most receiving touchdowns and 12th-most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers.
Doug Baldwin, Seahawks: At least 60 yards in five of the last six, touchdowns in four of the past six, he's the guy Russell Wilson looks to the most. And we saw what slot receiver Kendall Wright did to the Cardinals in their first game without Tyrann Mathieu.
If you're desperate: Over the past four weeks, Emmanuel Sanders has three receiving touchdowns and has been targeted at least once in the red zone in each of those games. Only one team has allowed more touchdowns to opposing wide receivers than the Packers. ... Rod Streater now has back-to-back weeks with at least 10 targets, and over the last five weeks, Streater is one of six wide receivers with at least 50 yards in every game. The Chargers allow the third-most receptions and yards to opposing wide receivers.
Wide Receivers I Hate in Week 16
Riley Cooper, Eagles: Four points or fewer in three of his past four, zero scores in his last four and during that span, has not caught more than 50 percent of his targets. Meanwhile, for as much as the Bears' run defense has struggled, no team has allowed fewer receptions to opposing wide receivers than them. Cooper is a boom-or-bust play this week, and I prefer safer options in a championship week.
Roddy White, Falcons: After going nuts against the Bills, White's targets, receptions and yards have been pedestrian once more. And time for another "San Francisco is really good" stat: Over the past five weeks, no team has allowed fewer touchdowns to opposing wide receivers than the 49ers.
Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: Not convinced he plays, but even if he does, in his past four games against the Seahawks, Fitzgerald has averaged only 57.8 yards per game with no touchdowns. Seattle has allowed the fewest fantasy points to opposing wide receivers this season.
Tight Ends I Love in Week 16
Greg Olsen, Panthers: In the Panthers' last game against the Saints, Olsen set season highs in both targets (12) and receptions (eight). And over the past five weeks, Olsen leads the Panthers in targets, receptions and yards. During that span, only the Cardinals have allowed more touchdowns than the Saints to opposing tight ends.
Delanie Walker, Titans: Three scores in his past four full games, Walker is second on the team in targets by Ryan Fitzpatrick and faces a Jaguars team allowing the second-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends.
If you're desperate: The Jets are tied for the sixth-most fantasy points allowed to opposing tight ends, and Jason Campbell can't possibly play as poorly as he did last week, right? Jordan Cameron should be OK here. ... Dennis Pitta has a nice matchup as the Patriots have been among the top three in most fantasy points to opposing tight ends the past five weeks. ... Marcedes Lewis has scored in three straight. ... Zach Miller is the answer to this week's "Which tight end gets to face the Cardinals?" question.
Tight Ends I Hate in Week 16:
Coby Fleener, Colts: Held without a catch last week and now has to go to Arrowhead to play a Chiefs team allowing the fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends this year.
Tim Wright, Buccaneers: I know, he's scored in two straight and has been pretty good, but the Rams allow the fourth-fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends, just shut down Jimmy Graham and have allowed just two touchdowns to a tight end at home all year.
Defenses I Love in Week 16
OK, there are no actual defenses I love in Week 16 that aren't the obvious: 49ers, Seahawks and Chiefs. As people who streamed the Eagles last week will tell you, the rent-a-defense thing doesn't always work out. That said, if you're desperate and need to ... I thought the San Diego Chargers' defense looked impressive against the Broncos last week and had no issues with the Giants two weeks ago. At home to the Raiders off a long week should work out OK. ... The Cleveland Browns against Geno Smith won't be as good as you think (Jets are solid at home) but it also probably won't backfire, either. ... You could do worse than betting against Eli. The Detroit Lions at home should be solid, especially with Victor Cruz unlikely to play.
Defenses I Hate in Week 16
Pittsburgh Steelers: As I've said, I think Rodgers plays. If he doesn't, disregard this.
New England Patriots: In the Patriots' three regular-season meetings with the Ravens during the Joe Flacco era, they have averaged 0.7 fantasy points per game. New England's defense has not scored more than six fantasy points since Week 8.
And there you have it. Another season of Love/Hate is in the books. Or on the Internet. Or on the floor of your bathroom. Regardless, it's been a blast and I can't wait to do it all over again next year with you along for the ride. That's my hope.
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- also hopes Washington gets this all figured out before his daughters are old enough to figure out they should stay far, far away. He 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.
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