Fantasy Fortune Cookie
By Matt Waldman
October 19th, 2011

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.


Fantasy Fortune Cookie

Lo Mein. Mongolian Beef. Kung Pao Shrimp. Bourbon Chicken. Fried Dumplings. Everyone loves Chinese food - especially the fortune cookie at the end. Even the most cynical of us enjoy that brief suspense of what the fortune within will say.

Heck, I still find my fortunes in jeans and coat pockets from meals I had weeks ago, the ink often faded and the edges of paper worn soft from the laundry.

As I took stock of the Week Six and the NFL happenings preceding Week Seven, many of the situations or players involved reminded me of fortunate cookie messages I've kept over the years. Order some sweet and sour pork with a side of fried rice (or Hot and Spicy Tofu if you're eating like me these days) and take in some of these fantasy fortunes while you wait for delivery.

"Many a false step is made by standing still." (Oakland Raiders)

I mentioned on Twitter that I enjoyed the various reactions to Bengals-Raiders trade that sent quarterback Carson Palmer to Oakland for what could turn into two first-round picks. There's no doubt the Bengals are winners in this deal for the sheer fact that they got a great return for a player that was never again going to set foot in their facility. However if you listen to the NFL analysts who allow their inner bean counter and financier take over, Oakland got robbed.

And there is some logic to this take. Palmer hasn't been consistently productive since 2006, the Raiders gave up a first-round pick in what will be purportedly a QB-rich 2012 NFL draft to get him, and they already spent their third- and fourth-round picks in said draft to obtain Jason Campbell and Terrelle Pryor. If Palmer doesn't pan out, my pal Alex Wise on Twitter essentially believes the Raiders set back their organization another five years.

Sorry bean counters and financiers, but vision has not always been your strength. It's not your fault; many of you are trained to look at things on a quarter-by-quarter basis. Only some of you asked to take a more philosophical, visionary outlook. I apologize it this sounds condescending, but just stating facts even my b-school professors would agree with and they train a lot of you guys.

Philosophically, I love this trade. Sure, the Raiders spent quality picks on Jason Campbell and Terrelle Pryor and they're still likely paying JaMarcus Russell who is either looking for an endorsement deal with Nyquil or he's preparing for the next season of "The Biggest Loser." But just because you swallowed some water learning how to swim doesn't mean you don't keep trying. Especially when you're a 4-2 team with physical running game, talent at receiver, and a defense capable of bullying opponents.

This is a team with its championship window beginning to open. I stress the word "beginning," because those of you still looking at those beans while wearing those green visors might not be able to see that gap separating from the sill. Oakland is not as far away as it might appear. The AFC has weakened this year with Peyton Manning out, the Patriots defense still only fraction as good as its offense, and San Diego coping with its game-changer's bad wheel (Antonio Gates).

The Raiders are a young team on the rise, but Jason Campbell is essentially a quarterback capable of leading a good team to a wild card berth. Carson Palmer is capable of taking a good team to a conference championship. Some may argue there's not much of a difference. My friend Robert Wright, who used to be a good fantasy writer until he quit to become a pepper farmer (Where are those peppers you promised? I need my dose of capsaicin?), contends that the only difference between Palmer and Campbell is that they are quarterbacks with skill levels that are crossing paths before they head in opposite directions.

Based on a combination of Jene Bramel's takes during the two years he wrote Footballguys game recaps and upgrade/downgrade team reports and my own analysis, I think the Palmer has what it takes to provide 4-5 years of production that would at worst rival what Joe Flacco is doing and at best place him a notch below the elite passers in the NFL. Bramel was among the first writers I saw that pointed to poor route running by Bengals receivers:

The split widened over the past two weeks, during which time Owens has seen 27 targets to Ochocinco's eleven. Like the Jennings/Driver discussion just above, frequent pressure on quarterback Carson Palmer has forced him to look to Owens' underneath routes rather than the timing routes of Ochocinco. But I think there's more here than that. Ochocinco isn't where he's supposed to be on many routes. He may be off by only a step shallow or deep, in or out, but when you're looking to hit the small windows between NFL quality defensive backs, that foot makes all the difference.

You can get a good look at this on Palmer's last interception, in which the live television feed is wide enough to watch Ochocinco's entire route. It's very late in the fourth quarter and the game is tied. The ball is at midfield. The Bengals have one timeout, but would probably prefer to attack the sideline to preserve it if possible. Strikingly, the Buccaneers appear willing to give Ochocinco the sideline, as corner E.J. Biggers plays inside leverage facing the sideline as Ochocinco starts the break on a deep in route. Palmer waits until Ochocinco makes his break, then delivers the ball. That's likely not the greatest decision given the inside leverage, but Ochocinco's rounded route doesn't do the play any favors. The rounded route runs Ochocinco into Biggers, delaying the timing a click and Ochocinco doesn't turn his head toward the ball until he's three steps into the break. The ball, on top of him by then, is still catchable but bounces off his hands into Sabby Piscitelli's. On the way off the field, Palmer goes to Ochocinco, who wants nothing to do with the conversation about the route.

I think that sequence has as much to do with Ochocinco's targets than the pressure/timing route issues. Palmer's life has been difficult enough when under pressure, but if he cannot trust Ochocinco (and Owens hasn't been immune to this either) to get to the right spot and compete for the ball, there are enough other options in the passing game in Cincinnati that Palmer may consciously or sub-consciously not throw the ball to Ochocinco unless there are major coverage breakdowns and Palmer can wait to deliver the ball until he's sure he's got a sizable window.

As we've seen with Owens before he arrived in Cincinnati and Ochocinco now that he's left, Carson Palmer was working with receivers that were football heroes physically and football zeros mentally and emotionally. Ochocinco still isn't running the right routes after enough time with the Patriots that patience should be running out in New England. As usual team is maintaining a good party line to the media, but we should expect a good NFL receiver to make a smooth transition. Brandon Marshall, who has actual behavioral issues and got kicked out of Denver last summer, walked into Miami and caught 86 passes for 1014 yards with the worst of the University of Michigan quarterbacks playing in the NFL.

Palmer also had a running game from 2004-2006. Rudi Johnson had 12 rushing touchdowns each season from 2004-2006 and at least 1300 yards. The Raiders' new starter averaged 4000 yards, 28.6 TDs, and 15 INTs from 2005-2007. Even in `07 when Johnson got hurt after gaining 497 yards in 9 starts, Kenny Watson took over and gained 763 yards during the next five games. So we're talking about a ground game that still managed 1200 yards between its two lead runners.

Cedric Benson was effective when Palmer returned to the lineup in 2009-2010, but by then the receiving corps had deteriorated and it based on the Bengals actions they were willing to cow-tow to diva receivers than adopt a hard line and do what was best for the long term. We saw changes in 2010, but I think it was one of those situations where the team had to lose Palmer in order to realize it needed to change. Frequently a dysfunctional organization has to lose a good soldier before it realizes it has problems to address. The Bengals will probably never admit that's what went down, but they don't have to.

Now Palmer is gets young receivers in a run-first offense. Denarius Moore has the ability to do what Chris Henry should have been able to do on the field. Jacoby Ford could be a great slot receiver and Darrius Heyward-Bey…well, let's just say I still cross my fingers every time I see him running a vertical route with the ball in the air, but he is on a good streak right now.

If I'm a decision maker in the Raiders organization, I'm not worrying about the 2012 NFL Draft. I know Andrew Luck isn't falling to us and if he does, the scenario probably includes Luck having major surgery on this throwing arm. And other than Luck, there isn't another quarterback prospect I have seen thus far that has a real chance of leading a good team to a playoff berth unless the defense is dominant and they can "Sanchize" their offense.

This means I have a 4-2 team with a No.1 quarterback lacking 4000-yard, 30-TD upside that just broke his collarbone and will be a free agent in 2012; a No.2 QB had twice the arm of former No.2 QB Bruce Gradkowski but half the skill; and a No.3 QB who was a good college quarterback but from a skills standpoint should still be playing college football. This is not the time to stand pat and worry about the draft pick police. This is a young team that is beginning to be molded into the right type of unit and all it needs is a veteran with the right mindset.

The fact that Carson Palmer has kept his mouth shut through all this craziness in Cincinnati is just one of several signs that he's a leader. I'm sure there will be folks that say if Palmer were a leader he would have straightened out Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco and got them playing at peak performance. Did anyone ever do it? And Steve Young doesn't count for T.O., who was still known as Terrell Owens and having flashbacks of his grandmother's iron-fisted reign.

This could turn out to be a colossal mistake for Oakland, but this is the type of aggressive move they needed to make. Otherwise they'd be mediocre for another 2-3 years when they could have dared to be great. I like it.

"Little and often makes much" (Atlanta Falcons offense)

Last week I essentially panned the Falcons offense as fantasy Fool's Gold. With the hamstring injury to rookie Julio Jones serving as an impetus, Atlanta opted to return to its ground-oriented roots. Turner actually looked a bit retro in the box score to the tune of an A-T-L V103 FM Blue Lights in the Basement House Party jam of 146 yards and 2 TDs.

Carolina sans Jon Beason and Thomas Davis notwithstanding, I saw promising use of the bunch formation with two receivers and a tight end grouped to one side of the line as blockers that helped seal the inside and open lanes in the flat on pitch plays that earned gains of 10-15 yards. When Julio Jones returns, this formation should be even more effective because he's a physical blocker much like Roddy White, and as much as I like Harry Douglas he's not capable of that kind of dominating effort (although if you look at the game he did a good job).

I think head coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey must have gotten this fortune at one of the myriad of great Chinese joints along Buford Highway while discussing the team's woes over Moo Goo Gai Pan. One thing Matt Ryan does extreme well is throwing timing routes to the perimeter. This team was built to nickel and dime you to death and just when they get to the precipice of greatness they overanalyze their fortunes in a loss to big-play offense and decide they need more of what the Packers have.

Human nature to keep in close touch with what your competition is doing (another fortune cookie message by the way), but going 13-3 and losing in the NFC Championship Game shouldn't dictate a change in identity when the team is literally built to win with a power running game, short passing, and the occasional shot over the top.

Julio Jones is more than capable of taking a short out or comeback to the house with one broken tackle. In fact, he might be even more productive if the Falcons stop trying to stretch the field every 4-5 pass plays (Note to stat geeks: I'm just estimating for effect, not giving an exact figure).

I won't be surprised if the "Little and often makes much," approach on offense yields dividends. Especially with the fact I traded Ryan away last week in a deal to get Adrian Peterson.

"A fanatic is one who won't change his mind, and won't change the subject." (Mike Martz)

Mike Martz has some fanaticism to his approach as a coordinator. This is somewhat understandable because he earned his notoriety with his seven-step drop, multiple-receiver, and intermediate-to-deep route game plan. There's no doubt that NFL management sought Martz to bring that style of play to a stadium near them. But if you're a team like the 49ers with Frank Gore, a young offensive line, and receivers that might - and I mean might - star in the CFL, tailoring your approach to the talents of the players seems like a much smarter decision.

That point is magnified with a dose of hindsight. Just look at what former quarterback Jim Harbaugh has done with a power ground game. Admittedly, the loss of Braylon Edwards (in theory) and late arrival Michael Crabtree forced the 49ers to play more conservatively. But did you really expect the 49ers to air it out? Although San Francisco struggled on the ground early, they knew they had the tools to get it right.

That's the difference between the 49ers patience and Mike Martz's fanaticism. When your quarterback has to come to you with suggestions to shorten the drops, incorporate the tight end with greater frequency, and lean on the ground game, you know that you've missed the opportunity to make common sense adjustments. Again, like the Falcons offensive changes against the Panthers, the Vikings might not be the best of opponents to judge the long-term effectiveness of the adjustment. However, Minnesota does have enough pass-rushing talent to make the argument that the Bears made the right move.

I don't think Mike Martz's signature offense is a bad one. However, I think his fanaticism to use this system is. Good coordinators need to be flexible and good personnel managers should hire coordinators capable of not having their egos tied to a system.

"The hard times will begin to fade, joy will take their place." (Andrew Luck)

There is no better way to interpret this statement as an NFL organization than to think of Stanford QB Andrew Luck. I know some of you are sick and tired of the Andrew Luck talk. I bet some of you think Andrew Luck is overhyped.

I want you to think about Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger , and Peyton Manning as rookies. Keep those numbers in mind because Andrew Luck will fall within this range of production in 2012. Luck as the sturdiness that approaches Roethlisberger and Newton and the conceptual understanding of offenses of Manning. He's also as good as these three in the pocket. We're going to see some headline that uses "Lucky" in conjunction with a team earning the chance to draft him. It might be corny, but it will be true.

"Your skill will accomplish what the force of many cannot" (Ronnie Brown)

Ronnie Brown is what the Lions would have gotten if they could have gone into a mad scientist's laboratory and combined Maurice Morris, Keiland Williams, and Jerome Harrison. Fortunately they didn't have to kill three people to get one running back, they just had to dial up the Eagles and give (back) Harrison, who was likely a better fit in the Philadelphia offense (funny thing about hindsight…).

Brown has Maurice Morris' third down skills and balance, Keiland Williams' size and speed, and some of Harrison's vision and decisiveness between the tackles. If Brown can stay healthy, he has a chance to give the Lions a true boost to its offense that they lost when Mikel LeShoure's motorboat sunk in the shallows. By the way, I believe Cecil Lammey and his kids went to the backyard inflatable pool and gave the Leshoure fathead a proper "burial at sea."

"Funny thing about humility, once you've think you've gotten it you've lost it" (Chris Johnson)

I'm not saying Chris Johnson had humility or thought he had it. I'm looking at this statement in a different way. The Titans runner thought he had what it took to get the money he asked for. At the rate he's playing, he's on his way to losing the opportunity that he got to earn it in the first place.

I watched Johnson enough this season to see that he's running more like a wide receiver than a running back. Hyperbole I know, but I think I'd rather have Percy Harvin in the backfield than the tentative, always seeking the cutback runner that is imitating Chris Johnson in Tennessee right now. Johnson deserves the criticism he's earning this year and one way or the other he's going to get a dose of humility. Fantasy owners just don't want it force fed to him.

"A conclusion is simply the place where you got tired of thinking." (I'm done)

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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