by Neal Kitterlin
Fantasy football is the perfect game for a world told in real-time numbers and heads buried in smartphones. What was once the province of that small intersection of math nerds and NFL football fans obsessively checking the box scores each week, calculator in hand, has blossomed to encompass even the most casual fan, though the numerically proficient among us still have a slight advantage. It is no longer enough to cheer for a team assembled for us and assigned matching laundry – we assemble our own teams of mismatched colors and statistical achievements. For many of us who have gone deeply enough into fantasy world, our allegiances to these teams threatens to supplant our support for the officially-sanctioned squads.
Case in point – I cheer for two NFL teams: the New Orleans Saints, the team of my Louisiana youth; and the Chicago Bears, the team currently nearest to me geographically. On Sunday, both teams triumphed, each building a perfect record through the first three weeks of the NFL season. Yet as the final seconds ticked off the clock of the Bears Sunday night trouncing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I felt little elation and much frustration due to perhaps one of the most pathetic fantasy performances I’d ever put up in my longest-standing league.
See, I went into the season dreaming of a perfect campaign, after already having won the league the year before. We allow keepers, which means that, in exchange for a draft pick (which is predicated on the players position in the draft the year before, and is determined by a formula the details of which I won’t bore you with now), owners can keep a limited number of players. I kept Marshawn Lynch, C.J. Spiller, Randall Cobb, Demaryius Thomas, and David Wilson. I seriously considered keeping Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson, but settled on David Wilson, figuring that RGIII was a big risk given that he was coming off an injury, and that being able to pick up a good starting QB would be easier than a high-quality running back.
Well, the first week went OK, despite step one of the great David Wilson implosion, but there were warning signs. Lynch’s performance was substandard, as was Spiller’s. But all my receivers performed well, as did Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback I picked up in lieu of keeping Wilson or RGIII. Indeed, the first week provided a sublime fantasy moment – me driving home from a reading, the 2013 NFL season Thursday night game on the radio, and me whooping like a madman in my car as Demaryius Thomas caught a long touchdown pass and earned me major points. It’s time like those that fantasy football actually feels like it provides some tangible connection to another human being’s achievement, like I could feel a little bit of what it was like to be Demaryius Thomas as he strode down the field in a display of athletic prowess the likes of which some 99.99% of the earth’s population would be entirely incapable.
The next week, scoring was still acceptable, but things started to fall apart. My opponent rode superb performances by Aaron Rodgers, Jimmy Graham, and Pierre Garcon, while I suffered through an injury to Steven Jackson and a horrendous night from Kaepernick. Oh well, you win some you lose some, right?
Yes, but then sometimes you get completely annihilated, like last week, when I posted one of my lowest point totals ever. Kaepernick posted another extremely low point total in what I had pegged to be a bounce back game for him. C.J. Spiller posted negative points after a case of fumble-itis and a minor injury. David Wilson disappeared further into his nightmare season. A large percentage of my players seem intent on squandering their potential and so grossly underperforming their expectations that it’s hard to remember the basis for these expectations in the first place. Marshawn Lynch was a victim of his own team’s success, losing carries and failing to find the end zone as his Seahawks crushed the lowly Jaguars. Everything that could go wrong did, pretty much across the board. I lost by “only” 70-something points, and this is with my opponent making the mistake of playing Phillip Rivers and leaving Cam Newton on the bench. Serious fantasy owners will understand how bad it was when I say that Bernard Pierce was my leading scorer with 13 points, and that only two players (Pierce and Thomas) even hit double-digits.
So there I sat, my real life teams basking in their undefeated glory and me fuming over the across-the-board failure of players that I cared about solely because I chanced to draft them, some of whom I would actively root against absent fantasy implications (I have a long history of hating the 49ers that dates back to the days of my youth when the Saints shared a division with the 49ers and were the perennial Washington Generals to the their Globetrotters, so normally would be enjoying a nice bit of schadenfreude over Kaepernick’s struggles).
Unfulfilled promise is always a little sad. The baseball trickling through Bill Buckner’s legs. The slow-motion replay of a ball Moises Alou was unable to catch and the endless debate of a hapless fan’s place in that debacle. The football squirting through the hands of David Wilson or C.J. Spiller, a missed pass block, an errant throw that floats aimlessly into the waiting hands of a defender. Fantasy football gives us the chance to revel in the glory of others’ athletic achievement, but it can also allow us to feel a little of the crush of failure on levels big and small, forever reaching out our hands to grab the elusive thing that just somehow, despite our best plans and intentions, slipped right through.
So what is there to do after that than pore through the lineup and try to discern what gold may still be mined, what temporary sadness may rewrite its ending? I have given up on Wilson, but not on Spiller. My finger is hovering in a perpetual question – Kaepernick or Vick (a success story that feels eternally temporary, eternally on the edge of souring)? It is only Week 4, and it is early yet, at least until it is no longer.