In the preseason, when I would talk up Robert Griffin the Third, people would often dismiss it as rampant Redskins fan homerism. Which I understand. It's one of the reasons I am so public about my fandom of that team. I want anyone considering my advice to understand my biases and objectivity. Or lack thereof.
But I knew.
I had stats to back it up. In my "100 Facts You Need To Know" column in July, I listed the following stats.
"15. In the two years with Mike Shanahan as head coach, the Redskins have been in the top five in passing attempts each season.
"17. In 41 games at Baylor, Robert Griffin III had 2,254 yards rushing and 33 rushing touchdowns."
Lots of good stats to try to shape your opinion. But they didn't matter.
I listed him as a "Love" in my preseason "Love / Hate" article while owning up to my emotional attachment.
"Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins (take in the 8th): They are going to pass a lot and his potential rushing and ... whatever. I am not rational when it comes to Robert Griffin the Third. I am a teenaged girl and he is my Justin Bieber. #ILOVEYOURG3."
But jokes aside I knew.
When the season started, I was the one who ranked him the highest in our Week 1 composite rankings. And he was on my love list that week. And again in Week 2. And Week 3. And on and on as he kept making me look smart as every week, I was continually the highest on him among my fellow rankers and I kept putting him in my love list until he became such a fantasy stud that it was no longer necessary.
I did it because I knew.[+] EnlargeAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesRG3 has gained 80 of his points rushing, which would tie him with Marshawn Lynch for 9th among running backs. And his 78 passing points? More than Tony Romo, Jay Cutler or Philip Rivers have scored total all season.
I didn't predict he would lead the NFL in completion percentage almost halfway through the season (70.4 percent, better than Aaron Rodgers). I didn't predict he would have a higher QBR than Drew Brees or a higher passer rating than Tom Brady and Matt Ryan at this point. That he would have a better touchdown-to-interception ratio than Ryan or Eli Manning. That he would average more rushing yards per game than DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden or Trent Richardson, to name but a few.
I didn't know that, through seven games, when facing five or more pass-rushers, he would not throw a single pick. The other four rookie starters have each thrown at least two under those circumstances. I didn't know that, for all that the critics say he's doing this with dink-and-dunk dump-offs to the running backs, he would have the best completion percentage on throws more than 10 yards downfield at this juncture.
I didn't know that he'd be able to do that behind a line that, according to Stats Inc.'s Protection Index, which charts things like hurries, knockdowns and sacks, is the fifth worst in the NFL. That he'd be able to do that with his best wide receiver out for most of the year with a foot injury, with a remaining receiving corps that is, at best, middle of the road. They've dropped 5.8 percent of their targets, which is in the upper half of the NFL. And there's a few deep balls (Leonard Hankerson!) that, had they been caught like they should have been, would make his numbers even more eye-popping.
I didn't know, even with leaving one game early due to injury, that he would still lead all players in total fantasy points through seven weeks. I didn't know any of that.
But I knew.
Right before the NFL draft, ESPN The Magazine had its annual pre-draft party in New York City and I got to go. ESPN parties are always a lot of fun and usually feature the same mixture of athletes, celebrities, fans and ESPN folks. Loud music, food, drink and a fun atmosphere for all.
But this party was different because of four simple words: Robert. Griffin. The. Third.
He was in attendance and it was a foregone conclusion that, the very next day, he'd be drafted by the Redskins. Now, thanks to a career that started in Hollywood and is now at ESPN, plus a younger brother who's a high-powered entertainment manager, I've been lucky enough to meet and interview a lot of celebrities, athletes and well-known personalities over the years. I'm rarely starstruck.
Rarely, of course, doesn't mean never.
I don't want to get into which pro franchise's fan base is most tortured. Honestly, every team that doesn't win a championship in any given year has a frustrated fan base. But, because of the success of the Joe Gibbs era and because of the money that Dan Snyder is willing to spend, expectations are always high in Washington. And despite a consistently high payroll, there have been just three playoff appearances and just two playoff wins since Snyder took over in 1999.
And since Mike Shanahan took over in 2010, Washington has played 39 games, compiling a 14-25 record. And of those 25 losses, 15 of them have been within seven points. Fifteen games. Within one score. Including all four losses this year.
I don't know that we lead the league in "almost-but-not-quite" losses, but we're on the short list, I know that.
I remember being on "Numbers Never* Lie" last year after Washington jumped out to a 3-1 record. And Michael Smith and Herm Edwards were saying Washington was the best team in the NFC East. And I argued with them more than once. "You guys are saying that because you're not Redskins fans. I know how this movie ends. We're going 3-13, the hard way. Just watch." I came close. Washington would win just two more games all year.
So I generally have a defeatist attitude about the team I've loved since I was a 5-year-old living in Charlottesville, Va. But not anymore. And not at the ESPN draft party.
Now, I had hope. I watched all two hours of RG3's pro workout day at Baylor online. I got into an argument with a high-ranking NFL front-office executive at the MIT Sloan Analytics conference, saying I would have no issue giving up two or three No. 1 picks to get him. In the middle of the ESPN cafeteria, I literally pumped my fist in the air when I heard that the deal with the Rams for the No. 2 pick was official.
I believed. And now here he was, in the same room as me.
I tried to play it cool for a while, but that didn't last very long and eventually, I found a mutual friend who brought me over and introduced me. Like I said, I'm not normally starstruck. But in that moment, I couldn't have been more like a preteen girl meeting the aforementioned Justin Bieber.
I started babbling, talking about how long I had been a Redskins fan, how it seemed like he had an entire city's hopes riding on his shoulders and how that seemed like such an overwhelming thing for anyone, let alone a 22-year-old, but based on everything I'd seen and read about him -- not just his physical skills but hearing him speak in interviews and listening to people who knew him well -- it seemed like he was the right man for the job, and if you think this sentence reads long and awkward, imagine me saying this except more of it, just babbling on and on like an idiot.
It was likeCourtesy of Matthew BerryA picture may be worth a thousand words, but I felt compelled to write them anyway.
What I'm saying: Babble babble babble, Redskins, babble, babble.
What I'm thinking: Shut up! You're making an idiot of yourself. Act like you've been there before.
What I'm continuing to say: Babble, babble, babble, I'm a fan, I already said that, babble, babble, babble.
Maybe 30 seconds later, although it seemed much longer to me, my brain was eventually able to overcome my mouth and I finally shut up with an apology.
"I'm sorry, Robert. I don't mean to go on and on --"
And that's when he put his arm around my shoulder and patted me on the chest as he broke out that megawatt smile with a small chuckle. "You're good, man. Don't worry about it. Let's take a picture."
And I immediately calmed down, we took a picture, I shook his hand and wished him luck.
And then I knew.
It may sound insane to say that based on an interaction of maybe a minute, but that's about 58 seconds more than an NFL quarterback gets to make a decision of what to do with the ball.
I felt so stupid, a grown man, someone in the sports industry who is surrounded by athletes, and here I was acting like some slobbering fanboy. I had just embarrassed myself in front of this guy I so admired and, to be honest, any reaction he had at that moment -- turning his back, laughing at me, having security kick me out, just shaking his head, whatever -- would have been completely justified.
But instead he pulled me closer, he smiled and the way he patted me immediately made all those feelings go away. No longer beating myself up, I'm all smiles now as we take the picture and I walk away an even bigger fan than before, if that was even possible.
He made me feel so comfortable and good in that one instant that I'd have done anything he needed. And if I felt like that, what would his teammates feel like? Especially after they dropped a pass or missed a block? I knew he'd be a great leader and that a player coming back to the huddle feeling like an idiot would get the same pat, smile and "You're good, man. Let's get this" from him. And that player would run through a brick wall for him.
I knew. I've known ever since that night. Not a doubt in my mind.
And while there is no question about RG3, there are many other guys you may be on the fence about, which is why we have the Week 8 Love and Hate.
But instead of my usual paragraph about what love/hate is all about, I thought I'd share this polite but pained email from Renée in Santa Monica. I've edited it for length.
"I'm writing to question your reasoning behind loving Joe Flacco last week, being that he was up against the Houston defense. I understand your point that he had the highest rating for a QB throwing over X amount of yards, and Houston was giving up those yards, but ... I read and love your column every week. I go to it for reassurance, or if I am in a bind deciding who to play. Sadly, this week was a toss-up between a struggling Matthew Stafford and the wall of a Bears D, or Flacco away against the Texans. I struggled in deciding who should play, so I went with your expert opinion. Of the 32 quarterbacks out there, I believe that Flacco should have just been left off the list, that way I would be mad at myself for making the decision versus mad at you for giving me hope. I look forward to reading your next article, and I also look forward to Flacco's bye week. Best, Renée."
TMR: Look, there's no question I blew the Flacco call. But this is why I say check my rankings. Last week, I ranked Stafford 10th and Flacco 11th. If you were going by my opinion, you would have started Stafford. Now, obviously, there were a lot of people I ranked below Stafford and Flacco who did better, so I didn't help those people, but in this case, the fault is not in "Love / Hate," but in how you used it. I was higher than most on Flacco last week; that's why he (incorrectly) made the list. Stafford's rank was right in line with everyone else's rank, where he's normally been ranked for the year, so he didn't make either list. But I appreciate the kind words and wish you, Renée, and everyone else this week, much luck, as we get to it.
As always, a shout-out to John Parolin and the mystery-solving kids that drive the ESPN Stats & Information van for helping me look much smarter than I deserve to.
Quarterbacks I love in Week 8
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Robert Griffin the Third, Redskins: Just in case you're one of those who skip the intro down to the names. I don't love him for this week. I love him for life.
Peyton Manning, Broncos: Everything I love. Hot quarterback with a great matchup playing at home in prime time, coming off of a bye. He's a super-obvious name here, of course (so's RG3, but I did that for the joke), but I have him ranked ahead of guys such as Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, Cam Newton and his little brother, all of whom you could conceivably have on your team as well. So you have a decision to make, and this is about as safe a start as it gets.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: I love my Redskins. But it ain't blind love. They've given up 37 completions at least 15 yards downfield, tied for most in the league. Remember this stat when we get to Mike Wallace. Anyway, obviously, you can throw on them, and if London Fletcher misses this game, it makes them even more vulnerable on defense.
Michael Vick, Eagles: Much has been made of Andy Reid's record out of the bye week (in case you missed: it's really good) but not enough people are talking about the fact that Vick has averaged 20 points a game this year at home. Oh, Vick will turn over the ball a time or two, but this is a Falcons team that gave up 325 yards to Carson Palmer the last time out, while another mobile-but-struggling quarterback, Cam Newton, had his best day of the year against Atlanta (30 points). I expect the rushing yards to balance out the turnovers and then some. I have him as a top-10 play this week.
Andrew Luck, Colts: The Titans have allowed at least 16 points to every quarterback they've faced this year, giving up an average of almost 20 points a game. Andrew Luck, or as I like to call him, "Not RG3," is third in the NFL in passing attempts, averaging basically 42 a game. You throw 42 times a game against Tennessee, good things are going to happen. Said that last week too about Luck versus the Browns, and he promptly ran for two scores, so you can see the analysis is working like a charm.
Philip Rivers, Chargers: I know. I feel dirty. I can't believe I'm putting him here. I've got to stop drinking before I do these. But here we are, let's make the best of it. Which I assume is what most Rivers owners are saying these days. I'm going Next Level in the hopes it inspires Rivers to go to, frankly, any level. Anyway, Rivers ranks sixth among 32 qualified quarterbacks with a 69.6 completion percentage against four or fewer pass-rushers, and only Drew Brees, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Peyton Manning have more touchdowns than Rivers (nine) against a four-man rush. The Browns' defense has given up 11 touchdowns when using standard pressure, tied for third-most in the league. Rivers has actually been better on the road this year than at home and off the bye, with a healthy run game (and Jared Gaither back), Rivers should be a solid "QB2" this Sunday.
If you're desperate: Brandon Weeden has four touchdowns on throws at least 15 yards downfield over the past three weeks. Only Brees and Aaron Rodgers have more and San Diego has allowed six touchdowns on those throws, tied for sixth-most in the league Sam Bradford is going to need to throw and throw a lot against the Patriots, who just gave up 14 to Mark Sanchez and 22 to Russell Wilson.
Quarterbacks I hate in Week 8[+] EnlargeJeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesEli Manning keeps finding ways for the Giants to win, but don't confuse that with elite fantasy performances.
Eli Manning, Giants: Only 12 points against Dallas the first time they faced off, the Cowboys are tied for the seventh-fewest fantasy points allowed to opposing quarterbacks. That includes holding Cam Newton to 15 points last week and Joe Flacco to only 13 in Baltimore, where he normally excels. The loss of Sean Lee really hurts the Cowboys' run defense so I'm expecting a good game from Ahmad Bradshaw (spoiler!) and Eli not needing to throw that much. Hakeem Nicks is getting healthier but is still a little -- wait for it -- nicked up, so that doesn't help either. Averaging only 12 points in the past two games (games that the Giants actually won, mind you), I think Eli will be fine here, I have him at 12 in my initial ranks, but not a top-10 play.
Matthew Stafford, Lions: I think the "Monday Night Football" commercial featuring Stafford is really funny. There, Mom always said if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. So I won't say any more about Mr. Stafford for this week, but I will say that only the Bears allow fewer points per red zone trip than the Seahawks. Seattle has the third-most sacks in the NFL when sending four or fewer rushers. In other words, they can get pressure on the quarterback with just their front four, dropping seven players back in coverage, just like everyone else has done against the Lions this year.
Running backs I love in Week 8
Willis McGahee, Broncos: Who dat!? No, seriously, I'm asking. It's not a run defense, so I'm curious who, exactly, is dat? McGahee a clear top-10 play this week.
Chris Johnson, Titans: I'm going to lie and say I typed his name with a ton of confidence, but to his credit, he has done what elite running backs are supposed to do against bad run defenses. And he gets another one this week in the Colts. One of the big issues when Johnson has struggled is him getting hit in the backfield and the play being over before it gets started. Don't feel that'll be the case here. Indianapolis is allowing 3.07 yards before contact per rush this season, fifth-worst in the league.
Frank Gore, 49ers: Putting him here for a few reasons. Yes, he was in the hate section last week. Bad call (although, overall, I think I had a pretty good week last week here. But Gore was a call that did not work out), but I did rank him 17, which in general is a starter in a 10-team league, especially with six teams on a bye. Now, he finished the week as the sixth-highest-scoring runner, so it was a definitely a bad call, but not everyone should have automatically benched him because I had him in "hate." Again, check the rankings. Also, I thought this was interesting. Not only has Frank Gore averaged 7.2 yards per rush over the past three weeks (best among running backs), but he also has 15 catches so far this season for 110 yards. We discussed this on the podcast; Gore getting involved in the pass game (in 2011, he had only 17 catches for 114 yards) is a good thing. Anyway, to all you Gore owners er, sorry 'bout that. A hundred and eighty-two! Against Seattle. Wow.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants: Here's what the loss of Sean Lee means to Dallas: With Lee on the field, the Cowboys have allowed 3.98 yards per rush this season. Without Lee, that number is 5.0 yards per rush. In other words, without him they would rank third-worst in the league, while with him, they're basically the Bears (3.93).
Vick Ballard, Colts: Remember all the stuff I said about the Titans' pass defense? Well, they're not exactly stout against the run, either. Now I write this with the caveat that I'm expecting Donald Brown not to play in this game. Brown practiced partially Wednesday, so we'll see. But if Brown is out, Ballard makes a solid flex play a week after getting 103 total yards against Cleveland, who actually allow the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game to opposing running backs.
Mikel Leshoure, Lions: As we saw Monday night with the Bears, I think the Seahawks pull seven back in coverage, dare the Lions to run and try to take Calvin Johnson out of this game. And despite the fumble, Leshoure looked solid to me. If you'd normally use him, I wouldn't be scared because of Seattle in this one.
If you're desperate: I know Alex Green hasn't done much yet, but he's getting tons of carries and against the Jaguars' 29th-ranked run defense, that should get him over the hump. We've discussed Jonathan Stewart on the podcast a lot this week. In case you only download and don't listen (we only want the clicks, we don't care if you pay attention to what we're saying), my basic take is that I could see the Panthers committing to Stewart as the full-time back and I think he's talented enough -- even with the issues that they are having on the O-line and with Cam also in the rushing picture -- that he'd be a clear-cut top 20 guy with upside. Ron Rivera has even hinted at this. If that starts this week, because Stewart is a decent part of the pass game as well, I could see a solid flex type game out of him. Pierre Thomas now has at least six points in four of five games this year and he's a good bet to match that total this week as well. Everything I said about Vick Ballard also applies to Delone Carter, who got 11 carries last week and gets a better matchup if Brown sits.
Running backs I hate in Week 8
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Michael Turner, Falcons: 14, 13, 18, 11. Those are Turner's carries the past four weeks. Which one's the outlier, you think? The Eagles have a better run defense than you think, allowing the fourth-fewest yards before contact this year. And for those of you hoping for a goal-line carry for Turner, obviously, it's got a shot to happen. But Philly is tied for third in terms of fewest points allowed per red zone trip. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles should have them fired up as well. I have Turner as a very low-end No. 2 runner this week.
Steven Jackson, Rams: Daryl Richardson is still getting work and the Pats' run defense has allowed 0.98 yards per rush after first contact this season, best in the NFL. They're also one of only two teams (Texans) not to allow a 20-yard gain on a rushing play this season. Maybe he lucks into a close touchdown like Shonn Greene did last week, but I'd hate to count on it. And speaking of Greene
Shonn Greene, Jets: Second week in a row he was useful, but hold your horses, Psy. He averaged only 3.3 yards per carry last week, I'm not counting on the six receptions for 34 yards again (only three receptions total the rest of the year) and Miami is muy caliente! Oh that was bad, but not as bad as Greene will be against the Dolphins, who are second-best in yards per rush (3.3) and best in the NFL in first downs allowed and first down percentage. They haven't allowed a rushing touchdown to an opposing running back since Week 1 and haven't allowed a receiving score from a running back since Week 2.
Felix Jones, Cowboys: You know how you hate starting a player only to watch him get injured early in the game and leave? Well, is there a guy in the entire NFL more likely to do that this week than Felix Jones?
Wide receivers I love in Week 8
Reggie Wayne, Colts: What am I missing? The Titans are the worst pass defense in the league inside the numbers. Pick a number, any number; they've allowed 118 completions, a 78.7 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns, and a plus-12 TD-INT differential, all worst in the league. Wayne has 50 targets inside the numbers, most in the league. To give you a frame of reference on how big that number is, only 24 other receivers have 50 targets in total this season. So he gets a lot of targets inside the numbers, Titans really bad there, Luck throws a ton, he leads the NFL in targets despite having played only six games; I have Wayne at three this week and I might be too low.
Mike Wallace, Steelers: Not worried about last week. See Roethlisberger, Ben.
Randall Cobb, Packers: One of the better calls from both the preseason and last week's Love/Hate (come on, I took it on the chin for Gore and Flacco, I get to enjoy Cobb). I love this stat: Starting when Cedric Benson left the game against the Colts, Jordy Nelson has 243 yards from scrimmage. Randall Cobb has 274 yards, most on the Packers. Only twice this season has a receiver been targeted at least eight times with a perfect catch percentage: Cobb in Week 1 and Cobb in Week 7. But don't just take my word for how awesome Cobb is. Why not take the word of his quarterback?
Denarius Moore, Raiders: Leads the Raiders in targets and he can fly. Chiefs have the second-highest yards after catch percentage allowed in the NFL this year. Very solid No. 3 wideout this week.
Jeremy Kerley, Jets: Available in over 55 percent of ESPN.com leagues, I like him as a low-end No. 3 this week. In the three games since Santonio Holmes went down, he has 238 receiving yards, ninth-best in the NFL over that time frame. And it's not as though they're going to be able to run against the Dolphins.
If you're desperate: The only players with more targets at least 30 yards downfield than Chris Givens this year are Torrey Smith and DeSean Jackson. Over the past four weeks, Givens has six targets and three catches on those throws, both most in the league. And oh yeah, the Patriots have allowed an NFL-most six completions on those throws this season. Josh Gordon has four scores in three games, and with a banged-up Browns run game, the good times should continue to roll versus the San Diego Super Chargers. Only four team have allowed more touchdown passes.
Wide Receivers I hate in Week 8[+] EnlargeJeremy Brevard/US PresswireSteve Smith has disappointed this season almost as much as he surprised last season.
Steve Smith, Panthers: Which one do you want? You want the bad Steve Smith stat? No touchdowns all year, four straight games of single-digit fantasy points. Or do you want the good Bears stat? Last week, Chicago held Calvin Johnson to three catches on 11 targets (27.3 percent) for only 34 yards while allowing Stafford to go 25-of-33 (75.8 percent) targeting the rest of the team for 227 yards and a touchdown. Remember this "rest of the team stat" when we get to Greg Olsen.
Brandon Lloyd, Patriots: Better days are ahead for Lloyd, I just feel it. But sadly, I don't think Sunday is one of them. Lloyd is 0-for-5 with two drops, and is the only player with multiple drops on throws of 30-plus yards. And he's tied with Kenny Britt for the most targets on those throws without a catch. Meanwhile, there are only three teams that have allowed fewer 20-plus-yards pass plays this season than the Rams.
The Titans' wideouts: Oh, I have no doubt that one of them will go off. I have Britt ranked the highest of the three and it's a good matchup; the problem is that, with the three of them plus Jared Cook, it's hard to trust anyone in any given week. Get this: There have been 154 receivers with 80-yard games this season, OK? One hundred and fifty four. Of those 154, the Titans have one of them. (Nate Washington in Week 3, 117). Last week, Washington had the best day. In Week 6 it was Britt, in Week 5 it was Kendall Wright.
Tight ends I love in Week 8
Heath Miller, Steelers: Washington has allowed the second-most touchdowns to opposing tight ends. That I bet you knew. But did you know four of those five have come on throws into the end zone, an area where Miller is tied with Rob Gronkowskii for the league lead in targets among tight ends? Didn't think so.
Martellus Bennett, Giants: Former team, scored against them in the season opener and no Sean Lee.
Greg Olsen, Panthers: See Smith, Steve.
If you're desperate: Dustin Keller certainly looked good last week and does have a two-touchdown game against the Dolphins in his career. Dwayne Allen gets goal-line looks and the Titans have given up the most scores to opposing tight ends.
Tight ends I hate in Week 8
Jacob Tamme, Broncos: So much for that "familiarity." Peyton Manning has attempted 17 throws into the end zone targeting four players this season and not one of them is Jacob Tamme. He has zero targets. Meanwhile, Joel Dreessen is 3-for-3 on those throws. I ranked Dreesen ahead of Tamme this week.
Jermichael Finley, Packers: Making me look good on the hate list for eight weeks now! The anti-RG3.
Defenses I love in Week 8
New England Patriots: Rams' offensive line is just so beat up.
San Diego Chargers: Positive points in every game this year and facing a hurt Trent Richardson (if he plays at all), they've spent two weeks looking at film of the Browns. Haven't they suffered enough?
Kansas City Chiefs: Off the bye, at home, against Carson Palmer? It's not a question of if they'll get a pick, it's how many.
Defenses I hate in Week 8
Pittsburgh Steelers: You read the open, right? Believe Washington will fix the turnover issue.
Dallas Cowboys: The Sean Lee loss is big and Giants are just playing so well right now.
That's all I have kids. I gave it my all and left it out on the paper. Just like RG3 will this Sunday.
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