Holler: Fantasy meets reality football

Adrian Peterson (Patrick Smith/Getty)

The era of the dominant, consistent running back may be over and the fantasy football world might finally realize it. The top running backs entering last year seem disgruntled by their contracts or are coming off injury, making them risky to the fantasy player.

While the start of the NFL season is just shy of three months away, the hurricane of the coming NFL season is starting to wind up. In meteorological terms, it's not even a tropical depression yet, but it's coming together and those in charge of the NFL are getting ready to assign a name to that storm.

The glut of fantasy football information is starting to come out because the nation's gluttonous appetite for the NFL is bordering on Peyton Manning feeling like a member of the Donner Party – if he doesn't play this year, he may not make it out alive.

Anyone who has played fantasy football – considering this audience, if you haven't, you really should – has forcibly subscribed to the theory of the running back-dominated draft. As someone who has worked in the fantasy community back at a time when the NFL viewed it as the Vegas-laden unseemly underbelly, I can attest to the longstanding draft-day position of the dominance of running backs.

To make a long story short (too late!), running backs have always dominated drafts. In every fantasy league I've ever played in, if you didn't take a running back in the first round, you were picking at scraps by the time the draft came back to you. If you played in a league that had 10 or more players, whether you liked it or not, if you weren't picking 9 or 10, you had to be a lemming running off the icecap and taking a running back – simply because the quality running backs would be off the board. You could pick the best quarterback and wide receiver you wanted, but, by the time you drafted two running backs, you likely had the "Thunder" of one pedestrian backfield tandem and the "Lightning" of another. It's just an unwritten fantasy rule – running backs go first. Period.

It wasn't always that way. My first foray into the fantasy football world was playing head to head against my brother in 1984. I had read a story that basically laid out the rudimentary components of how the game was played and, as brothers often did back in "the day," I read it to him. The publishers of Inside Sports might blame their demise on my tearing that one-page story out of the magazine without paying for it, but it started a fascination with fantasy football that I have had for more than half my life.

That year was 1984. I had convinced my brother that we would both pick rosters of players based on touchdowns and, to a lesser extent, yardage. 28 years later, the premise remains essentially the same – other than PPR meaning something markedly more raunchy that Point Per Reception. The scores of our games were pretty close to NFL shootouts – 48-45 wasn't uncommon. We never had scores of 119.6-114.8 – a byproduct of the Internet soiling the game. My first three picks in that draft – completely on hearing one story about how the chemistry between second-year man Dan Marino was going to light up South Beach – were Marino, Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. I crushed that year and was hooked like a meth addict.

Millions have followed in my primitive footsteps. As it turned out, for that one season, I caught lightning in a bottle. Anyone who has played fantasy football on a regular basis since knows for a fact that the running back was (emphasis on "was") king. That has changed – in a big way. And, considering the Perfect Storm that is taking place as fantasy geeks start foaming at the mouth, we may be witness to the official end of an era.

To capture the full impact of how the running back in the NFL has decreased in value is evident in the current climate of the NFL. Three of the league's top running backs – Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew and Matt Forte – are salty with their contract status and may hold out. Two others – Adrian Peterson and Rashard Mendenhall – are coming off of ACL injuries. Four more – Peyton Hillis, Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles and Darren McFadden – are all coming off injuries or sub-par seasons. What all nine of those running backs share is that they were, in many fantasy leagues, in the top 10 of draft lists last year.

What is going to happen as a result is that, barring significant confirmation that contracts have been signed, A.P. and/or Mendenhall are good to go, or there is reason to believe C.J., J.C., Hillis or McFadden are going to return to form and stay healthy, the top 10 of fantasy running backs are going to be as depleted as they have ever been.

The result is that, in a 12-player league, the first round of the draft may be six running backs, four quarterbacks and two wide receivers. Fantasy owners won't take the risk.

The moral of the story? Fantasy football has caught up to reality football when it comes to making a big commitment to injured or disgruntled running backs. The times are a changin' in the world of fantasy football in 2012. They have been changin' in the real NFL for the last several years. This year, they're going to intersect. The result will be that fantasy owners are going to find out the true value of premium running backs to the success of the NFL. Many will take quarterbacks and wide receivers in the first round and live or die with that decision.

This may be the Mayan calendar "End of Days" for elite running backs in the NFL and the fantasy football world may reinforce that point. The Perfect Storm is at hand to turn the tide and the end result may be that running backs become fantasy expendable.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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