Will Carroll
Monday December 13th, 2010

In this week's Med Check, I talked about how the injury beat is always changing, thus keeping it fresh. Things I learned a few years ago have been superseded because of innovation, because of the hard work of doctors, trainers and other therapists, and because players are pushing themselves farther. Sometimes that's a positive development, like the laproscopic appendectomy of the type Matt Cassel had last week.

While he didn't play on Sunday, I hope people don't get the idea this wasn't an amazing development. Cassel is very likely to play next week, 10 days after what was once major surgery. A lot of people, myself included, have that three-inch scar in the lower right quadrant of their abdomen. It's one thing to be back at work after that kind of surgery, but entirely another to have big, angry men hitting you with bad intentions, revealing just how badly these players want to be out there and are driven to win. Even at the expense of their bodies.

This week, the Patriots' Brandon Spikes was suspended for the use of a banned substance, reportedly Adderall. Adderall is an effective prescription drug commonly used for the treatment of ADD, but in others without the condition, it's a powerful stimulant. Players with conditions that require the medical use of banned substances have a procedure to allow for the therapeutic use exemption of that drug.

The use of stimulants is pretty well known in sports, but during my discussions with several people about Spikes, one player mentioned another drug he's seeing abused more in the NFL -- beta blockers. They're in practice the opposite of stimulants. Designed to regulate heart rate, beta blockers slow the heart rate in normal people which has caused it to be known as a butterfly repellant, keeping players from getting too amped up or feeling nervous before and during a game. I'd known that beta blockers were used in some sports, such as target sports (archery, shooting) and golf, but the idea that it would be used in a sport like football best known for the pregame rituals like Ray Lewis' gladiator act surprised me. It's actually very widespread in areas other than sports. Still, we can imagine that in a situation where a rookie is going to come in or that a backup is forced off the bench, something like that might be a temptation. Performance enhancers are always a strange line in sports, but the closer you look, the more of a gray area it always is. Let's fast forward around the league:

Darren McFadden is feast or famine. I had a lot of questions in Sunday morning's video chat about Michael Bush, and while I get that Bush is a decent enough RB, it's McFadden who's the more talented, more explosive, more fantasy-worthy player. McFadden had that massive week just a few weeks ago and has done it again, putting up a huge +21 in a tough Raiders loss. He had video-game-looking runs, showing speed, power, vision, and even restraint. The guy has everything you want in an NFL back ... except durability. If the Raiders can figure out how to minimize the damage he takes -- and they do have Bush to absorb some of those touches -- he has to be considered a top-10 talent, if not quite yet a top-10 producer. We also have to at least mention Jay Feely, who pretty much won the game for the Cardinals single-handedly with 28 fantasy points under standard rules, including a TD run. Other big breakouts include: Pierre Garcon (+13), Tim Hightower (+12), Deion Branch (+10), and two solid performances in a Titans loss, Kerry Collins (+18), and Bo Scaife (+12).

Aside from the Metrodome's roof, there were some huge busts around the league in a key Week 14 fantasy week. These guys might have cost a playoff spot or forced a one-and-done for many fantasy teams. Nik Bonaddio from numberFire checks in with his big bust:

This was a tough one to call, because frankly, there were a lot of possible selections for the Minus of the week. There were weather-related busts, such as just about everyone in BUF vs. CLE. There were injury-related busts, such as just about everyone in GB vs. DET, a scintillating matchup of Drew Stanton vs. Matt Flynn. He wasn't the absolute fantasy murderer of the week -- that goes to Kyle Orton for the second week in a row -- but no player had as much of a soul-sucking, parasitic effect on his team as much as Carson Palmer (-11, under projection.) He was simply awful. Everyone who has ever watched the Steelers knows that the way to beat them is to spread the offense out wide and to throw the ball quickly, taking the uptempo template that Belichick perfected in Week 9 and attacking the zone-blitz scheme of Dick LeBeau. Instead, the Bengals tried to force-feed Cedric Benson into a wall of black and gold. This put the Bengals time and time again into 3rd and long situations, giving the Steelers free reign to dial up their endless array of stunt and safety blitzes, allowing all-world Troy Polamalu to wreak havoc on the already poor decision making of Carson Palmer. The result was horrific, not only for Palmer, but also for fantasy stalwarts Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.

Other busts include: Jay Cutler (-12), Brandon Lloyd (-14), and Jamaal Charles (-13).

Aaron Rodgers took a knock to the head during a run Sunday and ended up leaving the game with a concussion. It's his second one this season, so there has to be some worry about how he'll recover. His predecessor, Brett Favre, wouldn't have played on Sunday, and according to Jason La Canfora of NFL Network, Favre might not play Monday night. The Vikings continue to say he's got a chance to play, while sources tell me the needle was ready for a pre-game injection that would free up Favre's shoulder. Antonio Gates didn't play against the Chiefs, but this isn't a planned week of rest. He practiced, but simply couldn't go. He'll try again next week with an injury that's going to be just like this, every week. Lee Evans left the Browns game with an ankle sprain and didn't return, though there's no official word on the severity.

This week, I headed into the fantasy playoffs of one league and faced a choice between Cutler and Matt Cassel at QB. Cassel ended up making the decision moot, but I was looking hard for an option. (Actually, I would have been better off starting Cassel.) There wasn't a good one on the waiver wire -- best available was Jason Campbell or Chad Henne -- so I rolled the dice on Cutler in the terrible weather. One tweeter suggested Sam Bradford and my immediate response was "what, are you in a four-team league?" I was wrong. Bradford, the likely Offensive ROY, is available in over 64 percent of leagues. I was stunned. I've looked again and am still stunned. Even in an eight-team league, how is Bradford not one of the best 16 QBs? Except he's not. He's the 19th-ranked QB under standard rules, just behind Cutler and ahead of Ben Roethlisberger, who played less games due to his suspension. There's a pretty massive dropoff at 20, going from Matt Hasselbeck down to guys like Jon Kitna and Favre. We've known that QBs have a pretty compressed production range, which is why even high scoring, consistent QBs don't get drafted ahead of running backs. This year has proven that true once again, something to remember when you're prepping for next year's draft.

I wondered about the value of stripping the ball here a couple weeks back, but I'm beginning to think that focus is just a symptom of a larger problem. It seems that the fundamentals of tackling have gone by the wayside, focused on strips and leading with the head. I think that physics has caused the shift. F=MA means that bigger, faster backs and receivers are harder to tackle. We've seen players like Brian Urlacher, Bob Sanders, and Troy Polamalu have hit back just as hard, but often end up injured due to the increased forces. So what's the fantasy angle? Do bigger, faster backs break more tackles?

I asked Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders that, but unfortunately, there's no clear-cut answer. While the Outsiders do chart games and try to get broken tackles, the varying definitions of what is or isn't a broken tackle make it difficult to make more than anecdotal judgements, though he does have a lot more information of you'd like to dig a little deeper. The success of Peyton Hillis is going to be interesting to follow. The NFL loves to copycat things, but finding a guy with his mix of size and skills isn't easy. As the NFL gets more quantifiable, this type of thing is going to be an advantage for those who can identify similar trends.

Will Carroll can be read every Sunday/Monday during the fall. Click here to reach him on Twitter.

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