Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On the Other Side of the Ball, the Internet Doesn't Exist

For the past week or so--okay, month or so--I've been doing research for my upcoming fantasy football drafts, like seemingly every man in the United States. I've been playing since the fifth grade, (My first pick ever was Drew Bledsoe--yikes.) so I got to observe the rise of fantasy football from the "send ten bucks in to this newspaper ad and get nothing in return" to its current dominance. Of course, the increased popularity of fantasy football coincides with the rise of the Internet, more than any industry but porn. Before the Internet got all of my friends into the same room and tabulated my scores and gave me a forum for smack-talk and made my research free, fantasy football had a lot more legwork.

I think I also had Jerry Rice, Jake Reed, and a bunch of Saints players.

Anyway, fantasy football has become almost more important to us than football itself. It's one thing to be a winner, but offensive players are expected to produce fantasy numbers too. Tom Brady has won three Super Bowls, but Peyton Manning is more popular in part because of his consistent fantasy performances. Everyone has a story about why he hates TJ Duckett or has a soft spot for Dennis Northcutt, and it has almost nothing to do with those players' success in the real world. Our opinions of players rise and fall with the instant fickleness that the Internet provides: Daunte Culpepper is a savior one season and a pariah the next.

I still remember this because the son-of-a-bitch was my first round pick that year:
Week one: -2 fantasy points
Week two: -4 fantasy points
Week three: injured in the first half, out for season

Every football columnist has written something about this phenomenon, the way we have become more invested in our fake teams than players who actually apply and matter to us in real life (in the process it begs the question whether any of it matters). But this is not that column. What interests me the most is how fantasy football has kept us in the dark on the other side of the ball. Because most people don't draft defensive players, we don't quantify their success in as detailed and urgent a way as offensive players.* Because they're not on our fantasy radar, we end up just taking the media's word for it when they tell us someone's good.

While I know how many yards Tony Romo throws for on a weekly basis, I kind of just assume from Right Guard commercials that Brian Urlacher is still decent. Even in an off season, Ray Lewis can appear on the cover of Madden. At the same time, players who are seriously past their prime--Charles Woodson or Jevon Kearse, for instance--are still hailed as leaders of their position because no one has bothered to re-evaluate the issue.

Lewis' attorneys should have just shown this picture to the jury. Can anyone in a half-shirt really be a murderer?

On one hand, defense is more important to the real life game than ever. We saw in last season's Super Bowl who prevails when the best offense faces off against a top-flight defense. As a result, blitzing on every down is the new west coast offense, and every team is drafting who they hope is the next Osi Umenyiora. For the first time, the most highly-paid players are on D, and some of those guys should be as famous as Deion Sanders. But they're not because no one has them on his fantasy team.

Since we follow them for our fantasy teams, offensive players are subject to more scrutiny than ever, their careers hanging in the balance of their on-field ups-and-downs. Defensive players are still operating in what's close to a pre-Internet age. If they're characters who have a highlight play once in a while, they don't face the same pressure from us. If you've been preparing for a draft, you probably can name five of the running backs the Texans have on their roster. If you buy a Kabeer Bgaja-Biamilla jersey, you're basically a child sending ten bucks in to a newspaper ad.

*- For a year or two, before realizing how worthless it is, some leagues draft individual defensive players. When my league did it, whoever wasted a tenth round pick on Ray Lewis got an extra few points and everyone else had some dumb bum.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the footnotes. Sorry I don't have anything to say about football.