Fantasy Football has changed the way many of us watch the NFL. For instance, if I'm not watching the Titans, not only am I looking for games that involve guys on my fantasy team, but I watch with no interest in the outcome. If the Packers have the ball, I'm following Aaron Rodgers' eyes in hopes that he'll throw it to Greg Jennings (which, by the way, he's not doing nearly enough).
It's how we watch, and it's also become how we view players: what's their fantasy value? It's a field that's created "experts" in a short time, who write columns and tape podcasts that I consume in July and August telling me which players are projected to have the best fantasy production.
Those projections are always interesting to track as the season plays on - for instance, in Yahoo leagues Ryan Mathews and Shonn Greene were both projected as Top 10 overall players; through five weeks, Greene is currently 111th on the leaderboard, and Mathews is 150th. And while there are still a few sure things like Chris Johnson, the Top 3 players in fantasy this year were all projected somewhere in the 40s by Yahoo in preseason.
And at the top of that list right now, as the best fantasy football player of the 2010 season?
Cause you saw that coming.
Last week Foster had just 25 yards on 11 carries in Houston's loss to the Giants. That still wasn't enough to move him from the top of the fantasy scoreboard, or the NFL rushing chart, where he is currently the only back in the league averaging more than 100 yards per game.
In the other four weeks, Foster ran for 231 against the Colts, 69 (with another 69 in receiving yards) against the Redskins, 106 against the Cowboys, and 131 against the Raiders. And while sure, he did run for 97 and 119 yards in Weeks 16 & 17 last year, the guy was still an undrafted free agent who was competing for playing time with Steve Slaton and Ben Tate, who the Texans took in this year's draft because they clearly thought they still needed help at the position.
And yet, Foster won the job outright in preseason, and in five weeks is the best running back and most productive fantasy player in the NFL.
You can still make a very good argument that the best player in the NFL also hails from this fine institution; Peyton Manning, age 34, just keeps doing his thing: he leads the NFL in touchdown passes, is third in passing yards, and is sixth overall on the all-important fantasy leaderboard. We've also still got Jason Witten as one of the best tight ends in the game.
But if you're looking for offense? That's about it. Montario Hardesty's knee will have to wait, Robert Meachem continues to play third banana...and that's really it. Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry are out of the league. The Vols still have some defense players making some noise, and we hope that Eric Berry is on his way to becoming the next great All-Pro Vol...but right now? Manning is 34, Witten is 28, and 24 year old Arian Foster isn't just the future...he's the present.
So how did this happen?
How did one of the guys we loved to pick on the most - a guy some of us, if we're honest, openly cheered against to come up short on the career rushing record at this university - become the most productive player in the NFL? Were we so wrong about him? Or were we always simply that unfair?
Hindsight being 20/20, here's how we may have misjudged the most productive player in the NFL while he was wearing orange & white:
1. He started too well
When Gerald Riggs became the latest injury victim at Alabama in 2005, true freshman Arian Foster was forced into the starting role. The Vols were already struggling at that point in the year, and Foster's first real memory was his fumble going into the end zone against South Carolina the following week. He caught heat and the Vols lost 16-15, en route to a 5-6 finish. But perhaps lost in some of that misery was Foster's performance as the starter down the stretch: 148 vs Carolina, 125 at Notre Dame, 132 vs Memphis, 223 vs Vandy, 114 at Kentucky.
As it turned out, the 223 against Vandy and the 148 against Carolina would be the two greatest rushing performances of his Tennessee career. After doing so in the final five games of his freshman season, Foster broke the century mark only six times in his final three seasons. Part of this was because of...
2. Injuries & Inconsistency
When Foster got dinged up against Air Force in 2006 and then again against Florida the following week, he missed all of the next two games and created an opportunity for Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker. In the final five games of his freshman season, Foster got the ball anywhere between 25 and 40 times each week. In his sophomore campaign, Foster never saw more than 15 carries once he returned from injury.
The Vols also had David Cutcliffe back in the fold, and shifted the focus back to the passing game. Though the Vols were improving, Foster's numbers were declining. He failed to run for 100 yards in a single game in 2006, and though he got off to a fast start with 214 yards in the first two games of the 2007 season, his fumble at Florida paved the way for still more opportunity for other backs.
We know now, of course, that Montario Hardesty was a great college back. We also know that Foster still had some moments of greatness, including 98 yards and 3 TDs against Georgia in '07, and 9 catches for 98 yards to go with 118 more on the ground in the overtime win at Kentucky. He finished 2007 with 1,193 rushing yards, and was projected to be a first-day NFL draft pick.
But Foster stayed and Cutcliffe left. Dave Clawson came in to continue the trend of inconsistency; though Foster was gashing UCLA's defense in the opener to the tune of 7.4 yards per carry, Clawson only gave it to him 13 times. After picking up 100 on only 12 carries against UAB the following week, Foster was shut down by Florida like every UT back in the last six years, then again saw his carries decrease as Hardesty and Lennon Creer took their turns. During a six game stretch from Georgia through Vanderbilt, Foster had only 45 carries. He came up short on the rushing record, and in the NFL Draft.
No one really complained when his carries dropped at the time, but looking back, perhaps it was a bad idea. He also suffered with Cutcliffe's emphasis on the pass and Clawson being Clawson (sidenote: Bowling Green is currently 1-5 and is averaging only 23 points per game in their losses. Remember, the Clawfense takes two years!!!!).
3. Fumbles: Quality, not Quantity
The notion that Arian Foster was a fumbling machine at Tennessee is false. The notion that he had extraordinarily poor timing is very true.
The first one was in the South Carolina game in 2005, at the goal line going in with a 12-7 second quarter lead. The Vols lost 16-15.
The second one was in the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2006 season. In a 10-10 ball game with ten minutes left, Foster fumbled at the Penn State 12, and it was returned 88 yards for a touchdown. Penn State won 20-10.
The next one was at Florida in 2007, with the Vols trailing 28-20 with the ball in the third quarter. Florida picked it up and ran it back for six. They never looked back, 59-20.
At UCLA in 2008, Foster fumbled going inside the five yard line with the Vols ahead 14-7 on the first drive of the third quarter. UCLA won in overtime.
A few weeks later at Auburn, another Foster fumble led to another defensive touchdown. The Vols lost 14-12.
Five fumbles in four years. There were a handful of others that carried no great significance in the outcome, though we should note that this is only the case because the most famous one was recovered by Tennessee. But those five plays were the catalyst in five losses.
So you can make the case that Foster's fumbles were blown out of proportion. You can also make the case that if Foster hangs on to the football, Phillip Fulmer still has a job here.
It may have become so big of a deal here that he started speaking in fictitious languages and eventually fell off the draft board...but whatever troubled him in Knoxville hasn't stopped him in Houston.
Here's the thing though: without looking at the picture at the top of the page, can you name Foster's jersey number?
Because I haven't seen too many kids in Knoxville wearing it.
We get attached to these guys when they come through here, especially guys who play all four years like Foster. But he has become such a unique story for Vol fans - when he was at his best, we loved him. When he struggled with minor injuries, loss of carries, and a different offensive system every year, we didn't want to hear it. And when he put the ball on the ground, it was always at the worst possible time.
While Jonathan Crompton was the on-field poster boy for much of Tennessee's downfall the last few years, it seemed at times like Foster was right there with him, even though their on-field performance was light years apart until the end of Crompton's career. We took things out on Foster, fair and unfair, and had no problem doing so at the time. And now that he's the most productive player in the NFL through five weeks? I think it's also making it hard for us to come back and fully embrace him...and how much of that is our own fault?