Patrick Daugherty

Football Daily Dose

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Better Late Than Never

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The NFL has become a passing league.

This is probably the least controversial statement you could make about the sport in 2011.

With 25 percent of the season in the books, 15 quarterbacks are on pace to throw for over 4,000 yards, including rookie Cam Newton and magazine model Mark Sanchez.

In 2010, only five players reached such lofty passing heights. In 2001? Two. (Editor’s note: In 2001, Kurt Warner passed for 4,830 yards, 699 more than anybody else. Only three players came within 1,000 yards of him. One of them was Aaron Brooks.)

So with teams increasingly reliant on the pass, it’s obviously not surprising the importance placed on the running game has waned.  

If we didn’t know better, it would seem some teams put as much effort into finding a feature runner as they do a kicker.

Last year’s Super Bowl winner went with a sixth-round rookie out of the University of Buffalo, while fantasy’s most dynamic back was an undrafted free agent.    

With the mentality being you’re just as likely to find a game-changing back on the scrap heap than in the green room at Radio City Music Hall, teams have shied away from making running backs the centerpieces of their drafts.

That’s just one of the reasons the early career struggles of Beanie Wells and Ryan Mathews were so magnified. With executing the pass and stopping the pass now the two most important keys to success for any NFL team, if you decide to use a first-round pick on a runner, they better be the next Chris Johnson.

Wells was far from it in 2009, while Mathews was even further in 2010.

Beanie was more disappointing in 2010 than he was as a rookie, dampening expectations for his 2011 to the point that he was just one spot ahead of Owen Daniels by average draft position this summer, and eight spots behind Marshawn Lynch.  

Fantasy players were nearly equally unenthused about Mathews, who despite ending 2010 on a strong note was locked into a time-share with Mike Tolbert.

Flash forward four weeks, and where there was once two towering disappointments are now players are the verge of RB1 status.

After rushing for over 90 yards in both Weeks 1 and 2 before missing Week 3 with a hamstring ailment, Wells had his long overdue breakout in Week 4, shredding the Giants for 138 yards and a trio of scores.

Mathews’ arrival didn’t come at any moment, but through a month of solid performances. San Diego’s would-be backup went for over 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the Bolts’ first four games, averaging 4.7 yards on 61 carries while Tolbert wheezed out an average of 2.6 yards on his 31 totes.

Mathews’ play has been so impressive that HC Norv Turner was confident enough to announce Wednesday he’d like his second-year back to receive 24-to-25 carries a game going forward.

Twenty carries would likely be enough to establish Mathews as a clear-cut RB1. Twenty five? You could start bandying about the term “elite.”

Whether or not Mathews will actually see that many carries is up for debate. It also remains to be seen if either Wells or Mathews, who both have checked injury histories, will be able to stay healthy.

But with some of fantasy’s old guard RB1s beginning to fade — most notably Steven Jackson and Frank Gore — you can’t say no one is looking to step up and take their place.

If you snagged either in the fifth or sixth round of your draft, you could be well on your way to a title.

Check out Gregg Rosenthal's fantasy football report from Wednesday's NBC Sports Talk on Versus, where he takes a closer look at Beanie and the Panthers RB situation.

Wells and Mathews are the new guard. Terrell Owens is the polar opposite. That’s not stopping the 38-year-old free agent from trying to remain relevant, however.

Just six months removed from tearing his left ACL, Owens announced Wednesday he expects to be ready to return by November. That would be an amazing feat for any athlete. For a man with 219 NFL games under his belt? It would be downright super human.

But for T.O., proving he’s healthy would be only half the battle. Convincing teams he’s worth the headache would be the other.  

Assuming Owens is ready to return by November — an enormous assumption — would anybody be willing to take on a player with more baggage than Tiger Woods and Charlie Sheen combined?

Considering the fact the NFL is currently a league where Mike Thomas, Nate Washington and Mike Sims-Walker all have the title “No. 1 receiver,” the answer is probably yes.

You could point to the fact that fellow mercurial superstar wideout Randy Moss is currently unemployed as evidence that Owens will be greeted by limited to no interest when he begins to peddle his wares in earnest later this month, but that would be to ignore one thing: unlike T.O., Moss has shame. Through back channels, Moss has made it abundantly clear he’d be willing to play for only a handful of teams. T.O.? If you offer the contract, he’ll sign it as long as somebody else isn’t offering more.

On the surface, it may seem safe to say we’ve seen the last of T.O. In reality, we almost certainly have not.  

On the opposite end of the spectrum from T.O. and Moss is Andre Johnson, a superstar still in his prime who has always kept his mouth shut.

Reports trickled out Wednesday that Johnson has undergone surgery on his ailing hamstring, and will likely remain out through at least Week 7.

Awful news for those who made Johnson a first-round pick, but still better than things looked like they’d be when Johnson crumpled to the ground untouched on Sunday.

Obviously, you aren’t going to find a suitable substitute for Johnson on the waiver wire, but where you really won’t find it is on his own team. Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones will both see increased looks in his absence, but nothing in their respective histories suggest they will be able to do anything with them.

Look elsewhere for your fill-in, and cross your fingers that Johnson is a quick healer.

Danny Amendola (triceps) found out on Wednesday his 2011 season is over. Left in his wake in St. Louis are raw rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, pedestrian veterans Brandon Gibson and Mike Sims-Walker and mysterious sophomore Danario Alexander. Alexander and Pettis offer the most upside. … Vincent Jackson’s “leg” injury has been revealed to be a hamstring ailment. After doing next to nothing in the second half of San Diego’s Week 4 win over the Dolphins after pulling up lame, V-Jax is beginning to look like a dubious play for Week 5. … While Jackson is trending down, Marques Colston is trending up. Limited to just 20 snaps in his return last week, Colston is expected to be in for a full-time role in Week 5. … Stevie Johnson (groin) practiced on Wednesday for the first time in two weeks yesterday, and says he feels as good as he has since Week 2. That’s good news with the Bills set to take on (albeit, a struggling) Nnamdi Asomugha and company in Week 5.

Patrick Daugherty is a football and baseball writer for He can be found on Twitter .
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