Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
by Ian Dembsky and Bill Barnwell
Ian: Howdy, and welcome to the preview article for the second half of this season's Loser League Contest. Before we look ahead, though, it's time to look back at the first half of the season to see which players were truly Loser-riffic!
At quarterback, it simply didn't get any better than Andrew Walter. In fact, it wasn't even close. The best three Loser quarterbacks of the first half were Walter (68), Brad Johnson (85), and J.P. Losman (102). Of course, virtually no one had Walter on their team, since Aaron Brooks appeared to be the man at the start of the season. For those of you who took Brad Johnson, however, that turned out to be an excellent choice.
At running back, the sad but true story of the Buccaneers continues. Cadillac Williams led the other backs in putridity with a measly 72 points for the first half. Never a penalty, and rarely a touchdown helped make his first half of the loser season a great one. Close behind Cadillac was Jamal Lewis, who finished with 76 total points. Despite his recent resurgence, he was simply awful early on. His Week 4 through 6 scores of three, four and four points were an impressive string of poor performances. The third-worst running back of the first half was another player most people didn't bother to draft, and that was Maurice Morris. Shaun Alexander's injury turned Morris into fantasy gold, despite Morris' first two weeks in which he scored 17 and 19 Loser points (with penalty).
At wide receiver, the best of the worst was Eric Moulds, who topped five points only three times (once by pulling penalty in his bye week) en route to only 53 total first-half points. Tied for second at 57 points were Michael Jenkins, who probably would have had many more points if he could hang onto more Vick passes, and Wes Welker, who came out of nowhere to boast an amazingly consistent performance, with weekly scores of 6, 4, 5, 5, 7, 5, 3, 15 (bye week) and 7.
At kicker, it simply didn't get better (worse?) than Matt Bryant, despite his heroic 62-yarder to help Tampa Bay beat the horrifically unlucky Eagles. Not only did Bryant have only nine field goal chances, but he missed three of them! That he made all 12 extra point attempts saves this from being a Loser performance of legendary status. Tied for the second-worst kicker spot are Kris Brown and Mike Nugent, both of whom struggled to score points behind inconsistent offenses.
Bill: We now must give our utmost respect to Daniel Drackley and the Minnesota Viqueens, who rode J.P. Losman, Eric Moulds, and Jamal Lewis to 335 points and the title. As the winner of the Loser League's first half, he will receive a copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2007, free admission to the Football Outsiders Hall of Infamy Exhibit (subject to museum opening, 2034), and, if he's ever in a Chipotle with a Football Outsiders staff writer, we'd be hard-pressed to not buy him a burrito. We'd probably find a way, but there would be hard pressing before that, I can assure you.
As for the Scramble writers, well, me and Ian have had a back-and-forth thing going on this season. I'm winning when it comes to Best Bets, but he's pretty much locked up the Baltimore Ravens jersey we actually wagered on before the season started; advantage by a large margin, Ian. Fortunately, I am perfectly acceptable with useless, hollow victories, like the one I enjoyed in the first half of this year's Loser League, where STEVE HOLT! beat Destined For the XFL2, 384-415. For this, I owe the utmost to Eric Moulds, Reuben Droughns (with a proxy pound for LeCharles Bentley and Maurice Carthon), and Edgerrin James, while Robbie Gould gets nothing but scorn for being the perfect kicker throughout Weeks 1-9. Ian, on the other hand, had a team that oscillated wildly from week to week; despite winning Week 5 with a Loser League season-low 10 points. Of course, when you get a 73 the next week and nearly achieve all-penalty status, that is going to happen. Ian now has beef with Laveranues Coles, Chad Pennington, and Chester Taylor, but he'll still be buddies with Droughns and Rob Bironas. Mmm. .. fungibility.
Bill: So now, we have a second half to play for. Nine weeks in, and we have new heroes with names like "Gradkowski" and "Gostkowski" and "GEdgekowski". Men for whom two catches are a goal and three catches are a sin. For whom the goalposts are an obstacle, not a guide. Sure, kids tonight might not go to sleep dreaming of Mike Nugent shanking extra points and Reggie Bush earning negative rushing points. But you and I do. Ian now previews the grandeur awaiting all of us in the second half:
Ian: Quarterback: First of all, some names to avoid. I'd stay away from Steve McNair, as he has both the potential to put up solid numbers on any given week and a storied injury history with Kyle Boller waiting in the wings. I'd stay away from any Oakland quarterbacks; who knows who'll be taking snaps as the season progresses? I also think that, although he's tempting, Brad Johnson is likely a bad start or two away from heading for the bench. He's breaking down before our eyes (136 yards and an interception at San Francisco?), and before long the Vikings may begin to look at what they have in Tarvaris Jackson. Mark Brunell may also be holding Jason Campbell's clipboard before too long.
As far as who to pick, my money for the best Loser quarterback of the second half is -- and it just kills me to say this -- Bruce Gradkowski. Five of the remaining tilts for Tampa Bay are on the road, including Pittsburgh, Chicago and Cleveland in December, when Tampa's historically struggled in the cold. Gruden also recently gave a strong vote of confidence to Gradkowski, while indicating that he will start for the rest of the season, regardless of growing pains. During the weeks when Joey Galloway disappears (which happens to coincide with every week he's been on my active fantasy roster this season), Gradkowski can put up some lovely low scores.
Other players I anticipate having nice Loser League second halves: Alex Smith, who seems to have seriously regressed since the start of the season; Joey Harrington, who looks to hold off Culpepper until next year; Philip Rivers is a nice dark-horse candidate, simply because the Chargers don't need to throw the ball most weeks.
If you're feeling risky, some sleeper picks include Aaron Brooks and Jason Campbell, both of whom could be leading their teams, and doing it poorly, relatively soon. I know I said to avoid Oakland QBs earlier, but sometimes you gotta play risk/reward. Hey, there's always the possibility of taking Aaron Brooks and Andrew Walter as your two QBs... with no more bye weeks, new strategies are possible.
Running back: There are a number of top-quality loser running backs available, but none of them are higher on my list than Reuben Droughns. Cleveland changed offensive coordinators, and Droughns responded with 33 carries for 125 yards, so everything's great, right? Well, that came against the worst run defense in the NFL (the Jets), and next week it was back to reality with a three-point showing against San Diego. The occasional good game will keep Reuben in a starting role, but the mostly bad games will make him a reliable Loser League performer.
Also near the top of the list is Cadillac Williams of Tampa Bay. He's not going anywhere both in terms of his role with the team, as well as in terms of his running on the field. He and LaMont Jordan have been two of the season's biggest fantasy busts.
My third recommendation at running back is Thomas Jones. The Bears will always remain committed to the run, which means that drawing penalty is extremely unlikely. Jones doesn't find the end zone too often though, and with the emergence of Cedric Benson as part of a committee, Jones is unlikely to have many big games in the second half of the season.
Some names I'd prefer to avoid include DeShaun Foster, who could lose carries and eventually his starting role to DeAngelo Williams, and Edgerrin James, who should benefit from the return of Larry Fitzgerald and a more experienced Matt Leinart to help keep defenses honest.
Wide Receiver: With wide receivers, it's all about finding those "possession receivers" who'll catch a few balls a game for first downs, but do little else. A prime example of that in the first half has been Eric Moulds. As you saw above, he had a phenomenal first half as an outlet receiver for David Carr, and there's no reason to think that won't continue.
One of the true surprises of the Loser League first half that I'm guessing no one actually had on their team is Wes Welker. Amazingly, like Eric Moulds, Welker failed to pull a penalty, while scoring only one touchdown (in a game where he only had 14 yards receiving, no less). With Joey Harrington continuing to attempt a flurry of pass attempts, I see no reason why Welker can't continue his run at Loser excellence.
My third choice at wideout is someone who I was unfortunately pimping before the season began as a starting fantasy receiver, and that's Derrick Mason. He has no touchdowns on the season, and he seems to be the fourth option to score on the Ravens behind the running backs, Heap and Mark Clayton. He's only pulled penalty once, and that was when McNair got a concussion and Kyle Boller took over. McNair looks to be the starter as long as he's capable, which means Mason should get his touches and keep Loser Leaguers happy.
I'd stay away from Reche Caldwell of the Patriots. He's been loser gold in the first half, but Chad Jackson is finally seeing the field, and between Gabriel, Jackson, Brown and the tight ends it's tough to predict when Caldwell will pull penalty. Michael Jenkins is also someone to avoid. Despite his pulling in only a few catches a game, Vick is airing it out more and likes to lob the ball to Jenkins in the endzone. Don't be surprised if you get a one-catch, one-touchdown performance from him on a given week.
Kicker: Surprisingly, the kicker that hit the best field goal of the season is probably your best choice for a Loser League kicker. Matt Bryant is kicking for an offense that simply can't move the ball well. Factor in all the road games, many in cold climates, and it's hard to pass on him as one of your kicking choices.
For your other choice, why stray from Mike Nugent? He's missed three of his ten field goal attempts this season, and an extra point for good measure. Chad Pennington is regressing lately, as is the entire Jets offense.
One tempting kicker I'd prefer to avoid is Sebastian Janikowski. When Aaron Brooks finally takes over the offense again, I expect them to get better, but not very good. Which will mean the same low number of touchdowns, but more field goal attempts, and Janikowski is a very good kicker who's 9-for-10 on the season.
Bill: Finally, it's time to name a Loser League MVP. Ian has come down on the side of Andrew Walter; undoubtedly, he sucks, but not many people actually selected him, either. It'd be like naming a congressional page as the MVP of the Democratic campaign; sure, he may have helped, but it's beside the point. Furthermore, who doesn't like beating a dead horse? My Loser League MVP is Mike Nugent. The Nuge would have been the low scorer for kickers by a whopping nine points if it wasn't for his bye last week -- while he hasn't matched the -3 he started the season with, his line of -3, 5, 4, 4, 0, 8, 7, 5, and the aforementioned 15 have made him a viable Loser League kicker every single week of the season -- it's hard to find another player you can say that about short maybe Wes Welker, who hasn't scored below a 3 or above a 7 all season. I mean, even Matt Bryant had an 11 one week...