With the emergence of veterans like Brandon Jacobs, Thomas Jones, Michael Turner and DeAngelo Williams, not to mention rookies standouts that include Matt Forte, Chris Johnson and Steve Slaton, the running back position has been re-established as the most valuable position in the world of fantasy football this season.
Unfortunately, a number of elite backs pulled the ol' Houdini act when we needed them the most.
Superstars like Frank Gore (DNP), Joseph Addai (0 points), Marion Barber (0 points), Adrian Peterson (6 points), Jones (8 points) and Slaton (9 points) all failed to meet expectations. Peterson finished with 76 yards, had more fumbles than touchdowns and tied quarterbackTarvaris Jackson for the team lead in rushing yards. Jones failed to score a touchdown for the first time since Week 7, and Slaton rushed for 66 yards against a Raiders defense that entered the week ranked 31st against the run.
Overall, the top-scoring runners of fantasy's championship week weren't the ones we hoped would find statistical success and lead us to a league title.
Derrick Ward (21 points) rushed for an incredible 215 yards in Sunday night's win over the Panthers. LaMont Jordan (19 points), who is a free agent in 94 percent of NFL.com leagues, found the end zone twice against the Cardinals. Le'Ron McClain (19 points) and Willis McGahee (18 points) combined to rush for 247 yards and two touchdowns against the Cowboys.
Amazingly, 159 of those yards and both scores came on two carries.
So at the end of what was another wild weekend in fantasy football, a team that started Jordan and McClain at running back and Choice at a flex spot would have outscored a team with Peterson, Jones and Slaton by 34 points. That's par for the course in what's been the strangest and most unpredictable season I have ever experienced.
Of course, not all of the premier running backs failed to make an impact.
Williams rushed for 108 yards and scored four touchdowns in a loss to the Giants. It was his second four-touchdown performance in the Panthers' last four games. With over 1,300 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns on his 2008 resume, Williams has come out of nowhere to become the top-scoring running back in standard fantasy leagues. What makes this accomplishment even more of a shock is that Williams wasn't even the first running back on his own team taken in most fantasy drafts -- it was rookie Jonathan Stewart.
Stewart has had a nice season (780 rushing yards, nine touchdowns), but his numbers pale in comparison to those of his veteran backfield mate.
With a vast majority of fantasy leaguers over in Week 16, Williams' immense success begs the question: Should he be selected with the top overall pick in 2009 drafts?
To me, the answer is no.
It's impossible to argue with his talent and immense numbers, but the past doesn't bode well for Williams' chance of a repeat performance in 2009.
A total of 18 running backs have scored 20 or more touchdowns in NFL history. Of those 18 backs, only Marshall Faulk (2001), Priest Holmes (2003) and Emmitt Smith (1995) were able to reach the 20-touchdown mark the next season. Jim Brown scored 21 times in 1965, but he retired after that season and was not considered in researching this trend.
Furthermore, no running back who's scored 20 or more touchdowns (other than Larry Johnson, Faulk, Holmes and Smith) came within five touchdowns of equaling their previous season's total. It should also be noted that Faulk, Holmes and Smith all failed to come within 10 scores the season after their second 20-touchdown campaigns. Overall, the 17 runners (not including Brown) to score 20 or more times in a season averaged an impressive 22.7 scores. Those same 17 runners averaged 13.2 touchdowns the very next season.
That's a 41.9 percent decrease in touchdown production.
While I still see Williams as a surefire first-round selection, I still see Peterson and Michael Turner as the top two options in all drafts.
Alright, let's move on to some of the best and worst performances of fantasy's championship week.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego (35 points): Rivers, who has established himself as an elite fantasy quarterback this season, threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns against the Buccaneers. The N.C. State product is now second in fantasy points on NFL.com to Drew Brees, and he's a fabulous start for owners who continue their season into Week 17. He'll face a Broncos team that ranks 27th in the league in pass defense.
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Carolina (34 points): Williams tore up the Giants for 108 yards and four touchdowns in a 34-28 loss on Sunday night. He's scored four times in two of his last four games and is now the top-scoring running back on NFL.com. The Panthers need to win this week to secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC, so Williams won't be at all limited against the Saints -- they're ranked 16th in the NFL against the run.
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Matt Cassel, QB, New England (32 points): Cassel found success in the NFL's version of a winter wonderland, throwing for 345 yards and three touchdowns against a Cardinals defense that looked all but invisible in the snow. He hasn't put up numbers like Tom Brady, but Cassel's 3,615 yards and 23 total touchdowns are solid nonetheless. He'll face the Buffalo Bills and their 16th-ranked pass defense in Week 17.
Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis (32 points): Manning led countless fantasy leaguers to a title this week, throwing for 364 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout win over the Jaguars. Unfortunately, owners in leagues that extend into the regular-season finale will likely be without Manning -- coach Tony Dungy is expected to rest most of his starters against the Titans in a game with no postseason implications.
Tyler Thigpen, QB, Kansas City (29 points): Thigpen has been the true definition of a sleeper, coming out of nowhere to become a viable fantasy starter. In fact, his 320 passing yards, 57 rushing yards and three total touchdowns against the Dolphins were enough to lead most owners to a league title. With a favorable contest against the Bengals next on the schedule, Thigpen will be active in most fantasy leagues.
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston (1 point): Johnson entered the week as one of the hottest wide receivers in fantasy football, but the Raiders threw cold water on him. He finished with 19 yards and scored fewer fantasy points than Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens! Johnson remains an elite option at the position, but this stinker of a stat line made it hard for fantasy owners to take home their league's championship.
Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona (1 point): Warner taught us all a lesson -- when a quarterback, even an elite one, plays in poor weather and could be pulled in a game with no postseason implications for his team, there's no decision other than to bench him. Warner threw for 30 yards and scored one fantasy point in a blowout loss to the Patriots. It would be a shock if Warner saw more than a series or two (if that) in Week 17.
Roddy White, WR, Atlanta (2 points): White has established himself as one of the better wideouts in fantasy land this season, but his 24-yard, no-touchdown stat line in Minnesota left much to be desired. The good news is that the Falcons still have a lot to play for next week against the Rams, as an NFC South title could very well be at stake. That makes White a must-start in fantasy leagues across the board.
Willie Parker, RB, Pittsburgh (2 points): Despite the absence of Albert Haynesworth, Parker was unable to find success against the Titans. He finished with a mere 29 yards on the ground and has now averaged an awful 2.3 yards per carry in his last three games. With no reason to use his starters in Week 17, coach Mike Tomlin could decide to rest Parker when the Steelers close the regular season against the Browns.
Brett Favre, QB, N.Y. Jets (3 points): Has the Madden curse reared its ugly head? Favre threw for 187 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a loss to the Seahawks, who opened the week with three wins. Favre has now averaged 194 yards with one touchdown pass and five interceptions in his last three games. He'll start and see a full game's work this week against the Dolphins, but Favre is a huge risk.