What is the beating heart of fantasy football? The reason the game that was once mocked as the pastime of the bored and unathletic has grown into one of the most popular hobbies in the country?
Perhaps it’s the challenge. If there’s one thing Americans love more than a challenge, it’s one they can take on from the couch. Or maybe it’s the camaraderie. Yes, you are competing, but you’re also bonding with your fellow man. We’ve got to while away our time on this earth doing something. It might as well be with our friends and family. But while the mental stimulation and relationship forging are nice, they’re not the reason we play. That would be winning. We like our hobbies, and we like our friends, but we really, really like winning.
This brings us to another question: If winning is why we play fantasy football, what’s the driving force behind actually winning? Broadly, you could say having a good draft and making the right pick ups. Philosophically, you could say finding value. Cynically, you could say luck. But perhaps the most basic element of fantasy football success? Finding the right young running back. For all the attempts to elevate other positions (PPR, two-quarterback leagues), it’s still backs who make the fantasy football world go round.
You will almost never win without a good running back corps. This has been made more complicated by the fact that there are fewer accomplished runners than ever. Backs have a shorter shelf life than an unrefrigerated steak, and more and more often, are employed in committee form. The three-down workhorse is a dying breed. This leaves little room for error as you try to identify the next Jamaal Charles or Arian Foster. Invariably, errors are made. In 2013, one of them was Lamar Miller.
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What Went Wrong
You could be forgiven if you were one who made the mistake. On paper, Miller had everything we want and more in a Next Great Workhorse Hope™. A bead on the starting job, impressive measurables, strong rookie stats and uninspiring backups. Dolphins brass and press spent the entire offseason talking him up.
Yet, from the very beginning, there were signs of trouble. If Miller was a prototype breakout candidate, Daniel Thomas was a prototype bum. A 2011 second-rounder, Thomas spent the first two years of his career fumbling and bumbling around the football field. He entered 2013 with just two fewer fumbles (three) than touchdowns, and the owner of a career 3.53 YPC. He was Fumblin’ Dan. But Miller couldn’t separate from Thomas in camp. Miller botched his first snap of the preseason for a Ryan Tannehill fumble, and averaged a modest 4.23 yards on 17 carries thereafter.
By the middle of August, the Dolphins were insisting they viewed Miller and Thomas as a dynamic duo, and that they planned on running a balanced offense. To the surprise of no one, the latter proved false. To the surprise of everyone, the former proved true.
Miller’s problems were manifold. Embroiled in chaos off the field, his offensive line couldn’t block on it. Neither LG Richie Incognito nor starting tackle Jonathan Martin played a single snap after Week 9. Not that they’d been blazing trails before that, but losing two starting linemen for half the season generally isn’t a good thing for a running back. Elsewhere along Miller’s line were RG John Jerry and eventual LT Bryant McKinnie, two players more famous for their eating habits than their blocks. RT Tyson Clabo got washed out more often than an amateur surfer.
But if Miller’s line play was a crisis, his coaching was a comedy. Miami’s pledge to run a balanced offense somehow translated to a unit that dialed up 594 throws (10th in the league) compared to just 349 runs (29th). You could argue that was a result of poor running and poorer blocking, but that wouldn’t be giving since-fired “OC” Mike Sherman his due. For Sherman, abandoning the run wasn’t so much a half-witted, short-sighted weekly occurrence, but a way of life. A passion. What he was born to do. Sherman’s “game plans” essentially amounted to an “Ask Madden” grab bag.
In three of Miller’s best efforts — Week 4 vs. the Saints, Week 8 vs. the Patriots and Week 9 vs. the Bengals — he combined for 34 first-half carries for 209 yards (6.14 YPC). Miami trailed 21-10 at the break in New Orleans, but led the Patriots 17-3 and the Bengals 10-3. So Sherman spent the second half dialing up run after run, right? You can probably guess the answer. Miller ran the ball a total of 14 times in those second halves, including overtime against Cincinnati. That, in a nutshell, was Sherman’s “vision” for his offense, and his “reward” for a young player running well.