Injury bug? No, Week 2 of the 2020 NFL season was not bitten by the injury bug. This was injury Godzilla, laying waste to the dreams of fantasy football managers everywhere. The carnage stretched from New York to San Francisco, from top overall picks to sleepers, from running backs to defensive ends. Matthew Berry’s Week 3 Love/Hate column is here, though, to assure you all is not lost.
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
When Thomas Paine wrote those famous words in 1776, he was, I am almost positive, referring to his 12-team non-PPR keeper league with his buddies from Valley Forge.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite being more than 200 years old, Paine’s words ring truer than ever.
We’ve had to piece together teams these first two weeks as the pass-catchers of our teams — Chris Godwin, George Kittle, A.J. Brown, Kenny Golladay, Jamison Crowder, Sterling Shepard, Deebo Samuel, Jalen Reagor and Jack Doyle — all have missed at least one of the first two games or will miss this week.
We’ve stared in horror as viable running backs sift through our fingers like we tried to pick up sand with our fingers spread apart, as Miles Sanders, Raheem Mostert, Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, Phillip Lindsay, James White and Tevin Coleman all missed at least one of the first two games or they will not play this weekend. And it’s not looking good for Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown, either.
We pounded the table and screamed at the sky when first-rounders starting going down. It started with Michael Thomas and then, this past week, the consensus No. 1 pick in fantasy, in many ways the face of fantasy football for so many of us, Christian McCaffrey, gets hurt and is expected to miss four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain.
These are the times that try men’s and women’s souls, indeed. And as I knelt there on the floor, staring at the tatters of my teams, trying to make sense of what the cruel mistress named fantasy football has put me through in just the first two weeks, the bottom fell out to a depth I never imagined.
Out for the year.
A consensus top-four pick in fantasy football this year, Barkley was drafted either first or second overall in a whopping 55% of the millions upon millions of ESPN leagues this season. More than half of our leagues have seen one of their top two picks lost for the season, with only a game and a half to show for it. Add in that the other top pick, McCaffrey, is gone for potentially half the regular season of fantasy and it’s enough to make even the toughest fantasy player think about calling it a day. What’s the point, you think? Am I really going to sift through the ruins of waivers and try to talk myself into Frank Gore? Hey, he’s a starter, right?
I was despondent. Depressed. Could I go on, I wondered? Did I have it in me?
And while I pondered that, I emailed Dan Bohm, ESPN Fantasy’s director of product management. This has happened once before, you see. In 2017, David Johnson was the consensus No. 1 pick. And he played one game before he was lost for the season.
The No. 1 overall pick.
And people got one game out of him.
So I had Dan go back and look through the records of the millions of leagues we had in 2017.
And in 2017, 6.78% of the users who drafted David Johnson No. 1 overall …. WON THEIR LEAGUE.
If you think about it, in an ESPN standard 10-team league, you start with a 10% chance of winning it all. So you’re telling me people who lost their No. 1 pick in the very first week of the season were able to pull it out 6.78% of the time? That’s not ideal, but you know what? It’s not nothing.
So I started watching. And listening. I spent days on YouTube, watching every motivational speech from the movies I could find. Looking for inspiration. Looking for something to speak to me, to give me the strength to go on.
And I found it. I found it once in 2017, and I have found it again.
So today, brothers and sisters, I want to share it with you.
With apologies to the cast, crew and especially the screenwriters of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Miracle” and “We Are Marshall,” I’d like you to listen up.
Because when I look around at all of you, you know what I see? Losers. I mean, like, people who have lost players. And we have, man, we have. All of us. Our running backs, our wide receivers, our early draft picks and our late-round sleepers. Sometimes fantasy football takes more than it gives. But not today.
Today, fantasy football has given us a chance.
A chance at greatness.
Great moments are born from great opportunity.
And that’s what you have here, gang.
Anyone can win when they luck into Lamar Jackson late. When they have the lowest points against the whole season. When they play the person who loses Dalvin Cook in the final last year. Any player can do that.
But the person who can win his or her league after losing a No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick in Week 2? That person?
That person is a legend.
Now, you look at the waiver wire and that is the final resting place for your players.
This is our past, friends. This is where we have been. This is how we got here. This is who we are. Today, I want to talk about your opponents. They’re healthier, deeper, have better matchups and in the projections, they’re just better. And they know it, too.
But I wanna tell you something that they don’t know. They don’t know your heart. I do. I’ve seen it. I have heard it. I have read it. You have shown it to me. You have shown your leaguemates, by still researching, still reading, watching, listening. You have shown yourself just exactly who you are in your heart.
So when you take that virtual field this week, you’ve gotta lay everything on the line. You will be checking your phone at dinner, in the shower, you’ll sleep with it, ready to jump at the first alert. You’ll wake up at 4 a.m. to make a free-agent claim so you don’t lose your waiver priority. You will work every trade angle until the wee hours, exhausting every possibility. You will research from the soles of your feet, with every ounce of blood you’ve got in your body, laying it on the line until the final whistle blows.
And when you do that, you cannot lose. If you play like that you cannot be defeated. You understand me? How you play this year, from this moment on, is how you will be remembered.
This is your opportunity to rise from these ashes and grab glory.
This is your chance at greatness.
This is your chance to be a legend.
And those don’t come along very often.
So what are you waiting for?
Quarterbacks I love in Week 3
ESPN projected points: 22.0
You won’t worry with Murray! I’m getting highler on Kyler! If it’s fantasy points you curry, time to start Kyler Murray! Yeah, the only thing missing from Kyler Murray’s season so far is a great catchphrase. Clearly we are still in workshopping mode. He’s an obvious name, of course, but he makes the love list this week because I have him as top-two play overall, the highest I have ever had him and ahead of, yes, Patrick Mahomes. The fourth-best QB in fantasy so far this season, Murray has at least 25 completions and eight rush attempts in each game this season. He also leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards and is second in rushing touchdowns behind only Cam Newton. Numbers, eye test, everything is trending to the positive for the second-year quarterback. And now for the Detroit Lions, for whom everything is trending to the … well, where Lions football always trends. Matt Patricia’s defense has given up five touchdown passes in its past five quarters of play and 38 total since the start of last season — third most in the league. Detroit vs. Everybody? In fantasy, it’s Every QB vs. Detroit.
ESPN projected points: 20.2
Two weeks into the season, Allen is QB2. “So what, he’s played two bad teams!” you say. That he has, I say. And stop yelling at your screen. I can’t hear you. But he has been on the love list for two consecutive weeks and he stays on, even facing a good team where he’ll get chased around by Aaron Donald. Here’s why you need to get on board that Allen is legit and not just a guy dominating weaklings who will then hear an inspiration speech and come back to beat him.
2019: 28.8 attempts/game, 58.8% completion, 6.7 YPA
2020: 40.5 attempts/game, 70.4% completion, 9.0 YPA
We know all about Allen’s high fantasy floor due to his legs, but the increase in passing volume — and efficiency — gives him a massive fantasy ceiling, too. He’s more accurate, and the addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs has been a hit. Even if Allen doesn’t keep throwing 40-plus times a game, even a modest increase over his 2019 passing numbers makes him a top-10 fantasy QB every week, regardless of opponent.
ESPN projected points: 19.9
Minshew is apparently taking his beer campaign about deserving to be the No. 1 pick in fantasy this season very seriously. He posted 20-plus fantasy points and three passing TDs in each of his first two games. Currently a top-12 QB on the season, he has all the ingredients to continue to be a fantasy star. Pass-happy offense, nice rushing floor (sixth in rush attempts and yards among all quarterbacks since the start of last season), a terrible defense, and he leads the league in Big Mustache Energy, which absolutely should be a thing. Even if wide receiver DJ Chark misses this game (he’s questionable as of this writing), I love the matchup with a Dolphins squad that has given up the most fantasy points to quarterbacks and just ruled out starting corner Byron Jones. I love Minshew to keep his fantasy managers — and Bud Light brand managers — feeling good on Thursday night.
Matthew Berry explains that Gardner Minshew going up against the Dolphins’ defense gives fantasy managers a better shot at winning than Deshaun Watson, who will be facing the Steelers.
Others receiving votes
Remember back when teams were extra protective of rookie quarterbacks and limited their throwing? Joe Burrow and the Bengals are top five in the NFL in both overall and red zone pass percentage. Cincinnati’s line should be able to protect him on Sunday against an Eagles defense that is 19th in pressure percentage so far this season. When not pressured, Burrow has completed 66.2% of his passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions. … Refuse to believe that Ryan Tannehill is a real thing at your own peril. Nine straight games with two-plus passing touchdowns and now he gets 11 players Minnesota generously describes as a “defense.” Tannehill is a great streaming option for Week 3. … Atlanta allowed the top-scoring quarterback in fantasy in both Weeks 1 and 2. That means those in deeper leagues, two-QB leagues or the QB-desperate might wanna hold your nose and play the Falcons’ Week 3 opponent, Mitchell Trubisky. He’s actually been decent this season; don’t look now but the Bears are 2-0 and Trubisky is averaging 18 fantasy points a game. … I was mean to the Lions’ defense, so let’s be nice to their quarterback. Matthew Stafford had big numbers against the Cardinals last season — 385 yards, three scores — and he should have nice numbers assuming wide receiver Kenny Golladay returns in what should be a high-scoring game versus an Arizona defense that has yielded a whopping 41 passing TDs since the start of last season.
Quarterbacks I hate in Week 3
Long story short: No one.
Short story long: Do I love Houston’s Deshaun Watson on the road against a Steelers defense that brings a ton of pressure and has held opposing quarterbacks to a league-low completion rate? I don’t. But come on, it’s Deshaun Watson. He can explode against anyone. Same with Matt Ryan against a Bears pass defense that has been outstanding so far this season. But every Falcons game has been a shootout and this game is in Atlanta, where Ryan has traditionally excelled. Ryan could easily toss multiple touchdowns. As could the Rams’ Jared Goff against the Bills. Not running out to put him in my lineups considering he struggles with pressure and Buffalo is eighth in pressure rate (30.2%) since the start of 2019, but it’s also unlikely Goff gets completely shut down. And I’m obviously not going to put Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes on the Hate list this week — or any week ever — but he has maybe his toughest matchup of the season on Monday night in Baltimore. The point is, the candidates for this week’s “QB Hate” aren’t guys where I hate their matchup but rather guys where I don’t love them as much as I normally do. Maybe that’s a cop-out, but I’d rather be honest with guys and just own it rather than try to force a few “QB Hates” that I don’t really believe in just because that’s the column name. Mahomes, Watson and Ryan are lower than they normally are this week, but assuming they are your only QB I’d probably still start them all depending on your league settings, etc. As always, check my ranks, which are updated all the way up until kickoff at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Field Yates advises fantasy managers who drafted Deshaun Watson to hang tight for one more week because the Texans’ schedule gets easier.
Running backs I love in Week 3
ESPN projected points: 19.2
Sanders’ managers have been through it so far this season. They risked an early-round draft pick in the preseason on a guy with a limited NFL track record in a crowded backfield … and then he missed Week 1 to injury. PANIC TIME! But then Week 2 came along, Sanders was healthy, and he got more than 75% of snaps, 23 touches — including four in the red zone and two goal-to-go carries — and 20.1 fantasy points. I’m not ready to call my preseason call of him as more of an RB2 for season long a total “L” just yet, but this weekend won’t help my cause as I expect him to crush once again against a Cincinnati defense allowing 32.5 running back carries per game this season and a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. One way to stop Carson Wentz‘s interception problems? Just have him hand off to Sanders. Expect a lot of that on Sunday.
ESPN projected points: 15.7
So Drake recently tweeted, “Lol if you’re mad about my fantasy output the first couple of games, drop me and bless someone else in your league.” Waving bye emoji, laughing emoji. And this concludes my presentation on why Drake and I should never do one of those job-swap things. As an NFL running back, I have the speed of a rock and could take exactly one hit before I was out for the season. Meanwhile, Drake should not be a fantasy analyst, as dropping himself this week would be a huge mistake. RB22 on the season isn’t the start people were hoping for, but with at least 18 touches per game, things will get better against a Detroit squad that just got gashed by Aaron Jones (18-168-2 on just the ground last week) and is coughing up a league-worst 6.9 yards per carry this season. I do like Drake’s ideas of blessing someone else in your league. You know, uh … candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh … maybe a place setting or a silverware pattern. OK, let’s get two!
ESPN projected points: 10.9
By itself, 35 is just a number. It has no meaning, no context, it’s just two digits on a page. But what if I tell you that Kelley has 35 carries through two games and that those 35 carries is tied for sixth in the NFL … and he also leads the Bolts in red zone touches with eight. You’re already starting Austin Ekeler, but Kelley, who somehow is still available in 48% of ESPN leagues, is part of the rare NFL backfield in which both guys are fantasy-viable, especially against a Panthers defense that has surrendered an NFL-worst six rushing scores so far this season.
ESPN projected points: 12.6
Is Davis Christian McCaffrey? He is not. But does he know McCaffrey? Yes. Does he spend time with him in the running backs room in Carolina? Yes. Does he often shower with CMC, with droplets of McCaffrey’s magical fantasy sweat occasionally splattering onto him? Maybe. The point here is that I went too far with that joke and that Davis is very much a worthy flex in PPR until McCaffrey returns. In essentially one quarter of play last week, Davis had eight receptions and 74 yards on eight targets. That means Davis projects to an NFL-record 32 receptions and 296 yards this week in a full game. Wow! Thanks, basic math! OK, fine, I might have gone too far with the projection as well. But on an offense that is pass-heavy due to both its offensive identity and terrible defense, with a QB who likes to throw short, Davis WILL get a ton of targets. And when he gets work, he produces: 15.7 FPPG in eight career games with 13-plus touches.
ESPN projected points: 10.0
The 49ers lead the NFL in running back target share so far this season and, with Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman down to injury, McKinnon is likely to be the biggest beneficiary of those targets (while Jeff Wilson handles the short-yardage role). McKinnon was already bordering on fantasy relevance with Mostert in the lineup — 13-plus fantasy points in each game despite getting nine total touches — so expect him to take a nice jump in Week 3 vs. a Giants squad that gave up 113 rushing yards to Benny Snell Jr. in Week 1 and 127 total yards and a score to David Montgomery last week.
Stephania Bell expects Jerick McKinnon to get more work than the 49ers anticipated solely out of necessity.
Others receiving votes
Heavy Giovani Bernard usage worried Joe Mixon managers on Thursday night. But that was two games in five days to open the season for Cincinnati. I suspect Thursday was about not running Mixon into the ground right out of the gate. Expect his role to return to normal Sunday. … Speaking of usage, look for Devin Singletary‘s to rise in Buffalo. Zack Moss has been dreadful out of the gate — just 2.8 yards per carry and a long run of 8 yards. Singletary might move back into fantasy relevance thanks to his backfield mate moving out of it. … It’s a brutal matchup, but Darrell Henderson ran well last Sunday and as of this writing (Wednesday night) both Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown missed practice. If even one of them is out for the game, I like Henderson here to provide very viable flex numbers. … You’re not gonna use him this week but deeper league players in need of a RB should stash La’Mical Perine of the Jets. Gut call he’s their starter sooner than later.
Running backs I hate in Week 3
ESPN projected points: 12.2
I thought Bill O’Brien would try to justify the DeAndre Hopkins trade by giving Johnson heavy usage. Instead, Johnson has just 27 touches through two weeks. Meanwhile, Hopkins has 22 receptions so far with the Cardinals. You know, I’m starting to think the Texans might not win this trade. They definitely won’t win the line of scrimmage on Sunday against a Steelers team allowing a league-low 2.55 yards per carry to running backs this season and that has given up just one RB rushing touchdown in its past 13 games. Facing the No. 1 run defense in the NFL is never ideal, and when you add in Duke Johnson‘s return to action, David Johnson is outside my top 20 for Week 3.
Field Yates and Matthew Berry agree that David Johnson has plenty of potential, but neither like his matchup against the Steelers defense in Week 3.
ESPN projected points: 13.0
The hope for those of you who spent an early-round pick on Gurley was that he would do well … well, early. His knees might be wearing down, but he’d at least have some jump at the start of the season, right? Wrong. Gurley has only 3.3 yards per carry this season and if you take away his touchdown in Week 1 he has just 13.7 fantasy points TOTAL through two games. Possibly even worse: He has played just 52% of snaps so far, and Ito Smith saw both Atlanta goal-line carries in Week 2. The Falcons score a ton of points; they just don’t seem to like to do it with Gurley on the field. Here’s the craziest stat: Matt Ryan is second in the NFL in passing attempts and passing yards. Gurley has 1 receiving yard. ONE. As in, one more than you or me. That is … (checks notes) … not good.
I hope you didn’t blow your FAAB budget on Devonta Freeman, Dion Lewis and/or Wayne Gallman. The Giants rank dead last in yards per rush before first contact this season (0.90). And that was with a superstar running back. Here’s what they have now:
Dion Lewis: Just 8.7 FPPG in his past five games with eight-plus touches.
Wayne Gallman: 3.6 yards per carry since the start of 2018.
Devonta Freeman: In 2019, ranked last among qualified RBs in yards per rush after first contact.
One of them might wind up with fantasy value this season. I’d say Freeman has the best chance to eventually be “The Guy,” but that’s no sure thing. The only sure thing is it won’t be this weekend, when Freeman is likely to play only limited snaps if he’s even active. This feels like a three-headed committee for the near future, and even with a really banged-up 49ers defense coming to town, I’d rather wait and see than start and cry.
Pass-catchers I love in Week 3
ESPN projected points: 14.5
Evans was targeted on 34.5% of his routes in Week 2. In Week 3, he might be targeted on 134.5% of his routes because the Broncos allow the most receptions and yards to perimeter wide receivers this season. Chris Godwin being back doesn’t worry me, and clearly Evans’ hammys don’t bother him. The only bother this week is from your opponent when he realizes this is the week he has to face Evans, not Week 1. Easy top-10 guy for me this weekend.
ESPN projected points: 14.8
While Denver might have the worst perimeter defense in the NFL, how ’bout them Cowboys? A league-high three touchdowns to perimeter receivers this season, and they’ve also allowed a receiver to go over 100 yards in each game so far. Can he change his name to TD Metcalf? No? Fine. Two of the hottest offenses in the NFL face off against two defenses that are struggling. I’ve got Metcalf here as the most likely bet to be the guy who gets to 100 yards and a touchdown for the third straight game against the should-be 0-2 Cowboys. But Tyler Lockett, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and yes, Michael Gallup should all be in lineups.
ESPN projected points: 15.0 (Schuster), 14.2 (Johnson)
Smith-Schuster has seen 50% of Ben Roethlisberger‘s slot targets this season, and there should be plenty of slot targets against a Houston defense that has allowed opponents to go 15-of-19 for 164 yards and two touchdowns to the slot so far this season. Meanwhile among wide receivers in the NFL, only DeAndre Hopkins has more targets than Johnson. I absolutely love Johnson (this weekend and for the year — he was on the preseason “Love” list) and please ignore any incorrect headlines that say different. By the way, did I have to use Hopkins here? Couldn’t I have just said Johnson was second among WRs in the NFL in targets? Yes, I could have. So was the choice to use him just another way to take a subtle shot at the Texans for trading Hopkins? Hmm. Hard to say. I’ll get back to you.
Matthew Berry isn’t sold on Diontae Johnson, unlike Field Yates, who claims, “The Steelers find wide receivers like they are shopping for a sweater at Old Navy.”
ESPN projected points: 14.6
Through two weeks, McLaurin leads all players on fantasy points from passes thrown between the numbers. That bodes well for huge fantasy numbers against the Browns: On passes between the numbers so far this season, Cleveland has allowed opponents to go 34-of-46 for 323 yards and five TDs. In related news, he’s all Washington has at wide receiver. Terry McScorin made everyone who faded him last week (raises hand sheepishly) look dumb, and he will once again get a ton of looks in a game in which Washington is a touchdown underdog.
ESPN projected points: 12.4
I know I mentioned him briefly above but bringing him up here to suggest we call him A.B. Lamb, because he’s already the A or B option in that Dallas passing game, not the C or D option as we expected. Was that a tortured play on words? It was! And it’s about to continue, as I expect Lamb to torture that seedy (get it?) Seattle defense that is dead last this season on receptions and yards to the slot, which is where Lamb does his damage. I mean … LAMBage. OK, now I’ll stop.
Field Yates and Matthew Berry discuss CeeDee Lamb’s fantasy value and whether he’s a weekly starter right now.
ESPN projected points: 10.1
I talked up Smith all offseason as a potential late-round TE with upside and, well, please address your thank-you mail to: Matthew Berry, c/o ESPN, Bristol, CT 06010. Gift cards accepted. As I wait for my fan mail to arrive, let me tell you that Smith is TE2 so far this season, has scored three times in two weeks, and all of that is without getting to play the Vikings yet. You know, the team that just let Mo Alie-Cox go for 111 yards on six targets? With A.J. Brown either out or not 100 percent healthy once again this weekend, Smith will be one of the focal points of the Titans’ offense.
ESPN projected points: 9.3
Fant looked to have an early connection with quarterback Drew Lock, but even after Jeff Driskel took over last week, Fant still led all Denver pass-catchers in routes run. I don’t expect his production to drop with Driskel under center, especially not after Courtland Sutton is out for the season, especially not against a Tampa D that allows the seventh-most yards to opposing tight ends and especially not when you realize he is FANT-astic. That’s not an actual stat but it drives Field Yates nuts when I use that pun so I am absolutely making it a thing.
Others receiving votes
If you didn’t snag Dalton Schultz on the waiver wire, it’s probably too late now. In Week 2 he was top eight at the TE position in targets, receptions, yards, fantasy points and red zone targets. … Drew Sample got nine targets last Thursday after C.J. Uzomah left with an injury. Sure, that’s a small Sample size (sorry again!), but Joe Burrow does like to throw to the tight end and Sample will get looks. … Always dangerous to suggest guys on Thursday night because lots of people read this Friday and then when you have a prediction not work out people get mean and then you have to rewatch a bunch of motivational movie scenes on YouTube again. But for those in deeper leagues, I like Keelan Cole and Laviska Shenault for the Jaguars and Isaiah Ford for the Dolphins facing each other in what should be a bit of a shootout. DJ Chark being banged up helps Cole and Shenault (Cole has a score in two in a row and leads the Jags in targets; Shenault has seven carries already this season and has caught 75% of his targets), while Ford led his team in targets last weekend on his way to a 7-for-76 day, and more important, I play against him this week in the ESPN War Room league so you KNOW he’s going off. It’s science.
Pass-catchers I hate in Week 3
ESPN projected points: 12.7
It’s not illegal to get old. If it were, I would be writing this column from a prison cell. But Green does look like he has lost a step, with just 80 yards on 22 total targets so far this season. I do believe better days are ahead for Green. Even if you’ve lost a step, massive target share can make up for that. And he is certainly getting looks from quarterback Joe Burrow. Soon, they will be on the same page. But those better days ahead probably don’t include Sunday, as Green will be shadowed by Darius Slay, the guy who just held Rams wide receiver Robert Woods to two catches for 14 yards on 16 perimeter routes last week. He’s merely a shaky, TD-dependent flex for me in Week 3.
ESPN projected points: 13.8
Revenge game! The anger, the passion, the trash talk, it’s … uh … (looks around) nonexistent. Yes, Woods used to play for Buffalo, but that feels like a million years ago and no one remembers or cares. Possibly the most “boring” revenge game ever. Woods will be shadowed by Tre’Davious White for much of Sunday, as Mike Clay notes in his always excellent WR/CB matchup column. White has allowed just five receptions all season. With Jared Goff‘s struggles when pressured (among qualified QBs, Goff had the third-largest dip in pass TD% when pressured compared to when not pressured) and given how well Buffalo brings pressure, I expect this to be more of a Cooper Kupp and Tyler Higbee game. Woods is outside my top 20 for the week.
ESPN projected points: 12.5
Speaking of pressure, when Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson is pressured this season, Fuller has zero catches on one target. Considering Pittsburgh is blitzing a league-high 63.8% of the time through two weeks and is creating pressure a league-high 44.7% of the time, Fuller is unlikely to get enough targets to have much Week 3 value. Add in a potentially problematic hamstring (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) and Fuller is once again a high risk/reward WR in Week 3.
ESPN projected points: 7.8
I don’t think Chris Herndon is going to happen. We hoped it would eventually, but it’s just not. Not while Adam Gase is still there. Through two weeks, Herndon is 26th in the NFL among tight ends on routes run and, despite the Jets’ injuries at wide receiver, Herndon still has only a 16.9% target share. He dropped a touchdown last weekend, which certainly doesn’t help him get more opportunities, either. The Colts have allowed just three receptions for 11 yards so far this season to tight ends. There are too many other higher-floor and higher-ceiling tight ends this week to risk Herndon in a 10- or 12-team league.
Matthew Berry, The Talented Mr. Roto, can finally admit that yes, that was another shot at the Texans for trading away DeAndre Hopkins.
Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home
On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.
Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.
Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.
The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.
“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”
Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.
“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.
Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.
“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”
The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.
“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”
That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.
The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.
On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”
There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.
“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”
For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.
“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”
Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.
“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”
There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.
“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”
Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.
Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.
“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”
With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.
“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”
Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.
Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment
The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.
Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.
“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.
The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.
Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.
“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.
Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”
The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.
Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.
“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”
Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.
The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls
With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.
At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.
What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
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