Fantasy Versus Reality

On a recent road trip with two of my close friends, we had a conversation about the use of technology, the unlimited access to information and the effects on personal interactions and this generation’s ability to communicate face to face (I know, it was a long car ride).

We agreed that in the old days (we will call this “pre-smart phones”), if a question arose that caused debate among the two sides involved, it led to spirited conversation on either side of the argument; each side presenting their case, leading to hours of good-natured (or sometimes harsh) ribbing as to why the other side was wrong.

Today, with the access to the internet and all its glory at the tips of your fingers, those arguments and subsequent conversation can be answered simply by saying, “just Google it.” Argument over. This may make me sound like an old curmudgeon, and don’t get me wrong, I love my technology as much as the next guy, but I love to hear both sides of the argument.  I love to take an opinion and tell you why I am right. And I love to keep it going, even if I know I am wrong. Stubborn? Maybe. Spirited conversationalist? You betcha.

This conversation eventually got me thinking about our access to information and how we evaluate our sports teams. Fantasy football has taken over the attention of the football viewing public. It has become a billion dollar industry and men plan trips to Vegas and bachelor parties around their drafts. The networks run stat lines on the bottom of the screen so fans can monitor “their players”. We judge how “good” a player is based upon their average draft position in our league. Most people conclude that if a guy is not a starter on our fantasy teams, he shouldn’t be a starter in real life. Don’t get me wrong, I play in two leagues myself and have a borderline unhealthy reaction when my team loses, but fantasy football does not translate into REAL football.

Bears WR Johnny Knox

My beloved Chicago Bears have been picked apart by fans and media alike in the past few years for their many shortcomings as a football team. Their offensive line doesn’t give Jay Cutler time to throw, Cutler makes poor decisions in the pocket, their wide receivers can’t get open, and Mike Martz is unwilling to change his offense to fit the needs of his team, just to name a few. All of this might be true in some fashion, but coming off a 24-18 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London’s Wembly Stadium on Sunday, those same Chicago Bears are 4-3, the same record they were a year ago at this time when they went on to win the NFC North.

That is not to say these shortcomings will ultimately lead to the Bears’ playoff hopes being crushed like an NBA labor negotiation. But which team doesn’t have faults? Even the mighty Green Bay Packers give up the second most passing yards per game (289 yds/game) and only the vaunted New England Patriots give up more (322 yds/game). Both teams are susceptible to the pass and rely on outscoring their opponents – a strategy that can work throughout the regular season, but has haunted good teams come playoff time. In this world of fantasy football and “just Google it,” I feel it’s important to highlight a few of the guys that aren’t drafted in most fantasy leagues, but contribute to the overall team as “glue guys” and make it possible for others to be top fantasy draft picks.

The much maligned receiving corps of the Bears isn’t as bad as the pre-game shows would have you believe. While they lack a true #1 wide out as defined by today’s NFL standards (6’4”with 4.3 speed), they possess a collection of quality receivers who do a couple things really well, but nothing elite. Take Johnny Knox, for example. He led the Bears in receiving yards last season, has explosive separation speed, and is a dangerous weapon in the Bears’ special teams arsenal. Knox doesn’t possess the size (6’0”, 185 lbs.) of a prototypical wide out, but he can take advantage of Cutler’s huge arm on go routes past the safeties.

Roy Williams, whom Bears, Lions and Cowboys fans can all find faults with, hauled in his first touchdown as a Bear on Sunday’s win vs. Tampa Bay. While he has been called a disappointment most of his career, I feel people have overestimated his career trajectory. Unfair or not, players are judged on their draft position, and draft position is often based on potential – potential deemed by looking at a player’s physical ability, as well as his body of work in college.

Williams has all the physical tools, 6’3”, 215 lbs, good speed, and the tremendous career at the University of Texas, which resulted in him being drafted with the 7th overall pick in the 2004 draft to the Detroit Lions. He came to the Lions during a transitional time (to put it mildly) in the team’s history. So far, throughout his 8 year career in the NFL, Williams has not lived up to the expectations of the number 7 overall pick. That doesn’t mean he is worthless. And it certainly doesn’t mean he is not a good football player. There are very few who can make it to that level.

On a Bears team that is a collection of eclectic receiver types, Williams fits in as the big possession receiver that draws the defense’s attention downfield. They are not expecting him to be the number 1 receiver, or the guy to save the franchise. That type of faith in Williams at this point in his career would end as badly as playing a drinking game where you take a sip every time someone on TV says the name “Tim Tebow.” (And while I don’t suggest you actually try it for fear of legal repercussions, all you college kids out there should check out the pre-party game that is sweeping the nation.) Williams is most likely not on anyone’s fantasy team (or at least he shouldn’t be), but he fills a role on this Bears team that ultimately opens running lanes for Matt Forte.

Williams and Knox both have had success in the NFL prior to this season. The same can’t be said for the Bears’ two other receivers Dane Sanzenbacher and Earl Bennett. Sanzenbacher, an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, has quickly become a fan favorite; and rightfully so. Sanzenbacher, which incidentally is the most valuable name in the NFL if you were playing Scrabble, has caught at least one pass in each of the Bears’ first seven games. He has become one of Cutler’s go-to receivers and has three touchdowns on the year. Sanzenbacher brings something else to the Bears’ locker room as well. As a senior at Ohio State, he was not only chosen as the most valuable player (over Terrelle Pryor), but also won the award for the team’s most inspirational player. Not since, well, Tim Tebow (drink), has a player provided such a spark on and off the field. (And on a side note – what is the deal with the Dolphins honoring Tim Tebow’s (drink) Florida Gators National Championship team at their NFL game? I am looking forward to my Division III basketball team being honored at the next Knicks game in the Garden…in 2013). And for all you fantasy players out there; up to week six, Sanzenbacher had more fantasy points than high fantasy draft pick Mike Williams of Tampa Bay.

Along with Devin Hester and the three receivers mentioned above, Cutler has many options to choose from. But since week 2, he has been without one of his most familiar targets. Earl Bennett has been out since the New Orleans game with a torso injury. Bennett and Cutler have been connecting since their days at Vanderbilt and that chemistry has carried over into the NFL. Keeping with the theme, Bennett is not a flashy player that wows you in any one area. But as Head Coach Lovie Smith says, “He’s just a dependable guy who does a great job in the slot. That’s one thing I can say about Earl Bennett since he’s been here; we pretty much know what he’s going to do each game. He’s not an up and down type player. He’s a consistent football player in just about any role we put him in. We’re anxious to get him back out on the field.”

And he is expected to be back on the field for the Bears’ Monday night game against Philadelphia in two weeks.  With a healthy Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, Roy Williams, and Dane Sanzenbacher, the Bears have a competent receiving corps that will take pressure off the workhorse that is Matt Forte. The Bears have been averaging 27.5 points per game over their last four games, so something must be going right with this offense.

While many Bears’ “fans” are overly critical of the team as it’s currently constructed and are calling for general manager Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith’s heads, I still believe in the Bears’ chances this year. I am not going to say I am sorry for my stance. There are plenty of quality players on this team that are fighting their way through the season and beginning to gel as a unit. They finally have settled on a consistent offensive line…in WEEK 7!!!

The mark of a good team is its ability to overcome adversity and grow as a unit. Talent alone doesn’t guarantee championships (see: Heat, Miami and Phillies, Flipadelphia [sic]). This Sunday, when many of us are checking our fantasy team’s stats, remember that stats don’t tell the whole story. The fantasy football craze is still relatively young. I still remember a time where the point spread was the only thing gamblers were concerned about, rather than how many yards the Kansas City third string wide receiver had last week.

The Bears are 4-3 and have a bye week to recover and plan for the Eagles next Monday night; a game that will go a long way in determining the direction for both teams. I for one, think the Bears are headed in the right direction. Am I simply believing what I want to and sticking to my guns no matter what the evidence on the opposition is saying? You betcha. And if you don’t believe me, just Google it.

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