The subversion of expectation. The best poets can do it with seeming ease, while the worst either telegraph it from almost the opening syllable, or make it feel like a cheap trick, the non-narrative equivalent of a deus ex machina. When the table is set carefully, when the resonances are established and given proper weight, and then the table cloth is ripped off and fashioned into a cape, and maybe later a parachute so that we might land gently from our free-fall (or perhaps we are forced to fly on our own or land bloodied and broken below), we find ourselves on the right side of the divide between trick and design, all the coyote pieces having been laid out and presented to us as parts of a whole shining and glimmering like Walter White’s immaculate lab.
Fantasy football can occasionally provide such a tableaux, a match-up whose intricacies won’t vacate your head long after the last involved player’s minutes have evaporated off the clock, and you should properly be looking ahead to the next week instead (I generally start this process on Monday morning or even Sunday night, long before the present week’s contest has been finally decided, which goes a long way to explaining what a nightmarish riptide any true, serious investment in playing fantasy sports or devotedly following any sport can be – the constant push away from the existence of the moment in favor of focus on a future that you then, in turn, will be unable to fully exist in because you have already moved on to the next moment).
Last week provided such a match-up for me in my 14-team league. I thought I could see the keys to victory over my opponent set out before me. On my team, I expected another titanic performance from Jimmy Graham, decent games by Jay Cutler, Alfred Morris, and Vincent Jackson, a shrewd move in benching Kansas City’s defense in favor of Denver’s D against the widely pitied Jacksonville Jaguars, and whatever drips and drabs I could get from the likes of Brandon Bolden and Andre Ellington. For my opponent, I hoped Cam Newton would continue to mildly disappoint, that Scott Chandler and Jordy Nelson would predictably fail to post big numbers, and that the Saints’ running back tandem of Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas wouldn’t do too much damage.
I was right about the Saints’ backs and serviceable performances by Cutler and Morris, but wrong about almost everything else. Jimmy Graham finished the game with zero points thanks to great coverage by Aqib Talib and an injury to Graham that even the most atheistic Saints fans and Graham owners are praying frantically is not serious. There is something really psychologically crushing about a fantasy goose-egg for a non-injured player (while Graham was injured, it doesn’t really count, as he was healthy until late, and even then he remained in the game and was targeted by Brees), especially a top-flight one like Graham. Even seeing low single digits are preferable – seeing that zero there just drives home the potential of points and plays up their failure to materialize. A player on a bye or out for injury is signified by a single dash – his points do not exist even in theory – but a player who is shut-out garners points that do indeed exist, that are conspicuous by their absence. Even a negative score can be more comforting, as it confirms involvement, albeit involvement where very bad things happened from a fantasy, and usually (though not always, such as an intercepted hail mary) from a real football perspective.
So yes, there was the great Graham goose-egg (which was, to be fair, offset by my opponents Cecil Shorts no-show, though comparing Graham and Shorts is like comparing a four-star restaurant with food scavenged from a dumpster), but this was not the lone surprise. Denver’s defense wasn’t exactly bad against the Jags, unless you take into account the fact that it was the Jags, which fantasy scoring systems mercifully do not, but I left a dominant performance by Kansas City on the bench. Hakeem Nicks and Bolden also failed to give me much, and my kicker (fellow Bronco Matt Prater) was pretty pedestrian too.
Combine this with really strong performances by Cam Newton, Scott Chandler and Jordy Nelson (players I was counting on not to show up for my opponent), and it seems like a recipe for a disastrous fantasy day. But it was not so, as Andre Ellington (an exciting player who is maddeningly underused but still has great value, kind of like a baby C.J. Spiller), Alfred Morris, and Vincent Jackson each had strong double-digit showings, Jay Cutler managed a mid-twenties performance that, though dwarfed by Newton, kept things competitive. On the other side, middling to underwhelming performances by Darren Sproles, Torrey Smith and Pierre Thomas cemented my ten-point win.
I’m not entirely sure why this game has captivated my imagination. Part of it has to do with the fact I won – I tend to employ the “don’t look back” method of dealing with fantasy disappointments, which may prevent me from fully learning from my mistakes, but also prevents me from giving up chunks of my sanity. Focusing on this fantasy win may also have consoled me in the wake of a devastating gut punch of a loss by my beloved Saints in a game that I watched later that night on DVR and whose last-minute heroics by Tom Brady and the Patriots felt absolutely unreal when viewed through tired midnight eyes.
But truly, I think it was the fact that every element of my fantasy match-up zigged where I expected it to zag. My mental roadmap to victory was ripped to shreds, though in a way that could have conceivably been predicted with relative ease (aside from the first-quarter injury to Cecil Shorts, but hey, it’s the Jaguars and Cecil Shorts, so was it really that unpredictable?). All the elements of what would eventually happen were present from the beginning, but expectations were subverted and the end result was a net positive from my biased perspective.
BONUS: Things we learned. Peyton Manning is a non-cyborg human being, though probably not a real hero, at least in the truest sense of the term and not the fake sports version. Tom Brady still has the ability to break spirits. You should never trust Demarco Murray, and the corollary, pick up Joseph Randall if he is still available in your league by some miracle of negligence by your fellow owners. Also, pick up Keenan Allen and Andre Ellington. There is a good chance Danny Amendola still does not know where he is. Pick up Nick Foles if you are desperate for a QB. Pick up Jeff Cumberland if you are desperate for a TE. Some players should not do touchdown dances (looking at you, Detroit Lions). NY Giants practice, or Eli Manning’s head, is probably a place you should be happy you are not this week. It is raining in Chicago and I’m sitting in a café as I write this, avoiding it as long as I can. The rain beats down cold this time of year. Winter is coming, the future looms, football season is here.