Fantasy football: Glory can hinge on backup QB

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I once won a fantasy championship game with Peyton Manning as my quarterback. In 1998. That’s right, I won a league title by starting a rookie with 25 interceptions at the time. Worse, my regular quarterback was the best in the game and in his prime. Why did I sit Brett Favre? A mixture of youth, arrogance and stupidity.

I relay this anecdote to remind fantasy owners of two things:

1) You can stumble to victory any number of ways in a given week (I once started John Friesz over Mark Rypien on a victorious Sunday in 1991).

2) There are only a few ways to win consistently throughout a season, and getting good QB play tops that short list.

Starting Manning in that championship game 14 years ago wasn’t risky; it was foolish. I got lucky. Don’t leave your success to luck (no Colts pun intended); find a QB you can count on and stick with him. By the way, had I left Favre in my lineup that day, I would have won easily with his three TD passes. Instead, I had to sweat out the Monday night game after Manning threw just one TD.

The advice to stick with the hot hand seems like a no-brainer, but not everyone gets to draft an Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees. Sometimes, your best-laid QB plans are destroyed by injury. Isn’t that right, every person in America who had the first pick in a 2008 draft? Sometimes, the QB you think you’re drafting is not the QB you end up with. Isn’t that right, every person who drafted Michael Vick in the first round last year? Sometimes, to win it all, you need a contingency plan. So with that in mind, here’s a list of QBs to keep on an eye on in case injury or less-than-expected performance leave you in need of a dependable starter.

Jay Cutler: I may or may not be wearing my No. 6 Bears jersey as I type, but allegiances aside, I believe the Chicago quarterback is set up for a career year. The offensive line remains a question mark, but Cutler has spent the past three years adjusting to that, and there’s hope that Mike Tice’s move from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator will help the unit continue its development (it also would help if JaMarcus Webb woke up tomorrow as Joe Thomas). Anyway, if there’s a legitimate reason that Cutler — who has cut his interception rate in each of his three seasons with the Bears — could become a reliable fantasy starter, it’s the arrival of WR Brandon Marshall. The two have a history, and it’s a history of success. If Cutler gets decent protection, he could surprise, especially those who think he’s a jerk. But jerks win titles, too. Isn’t that right, Steelers fans?

Ben Roethlisberger: Excuse me for a moment while I congratulate myself for such an awesome segue. Pittsburgh’s Unfrozen Caveman Quarterback faces the same primary challenge as Cutler: a weak offensive line. Unlike Cutler, however, Roethlisberger has been a top fantasy quarterback before. He threw 32 TDs in 2007. There’s likely going to be an adjustment to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system, especially with WR Mike Wallace not reporting until last week. But with Wallace back and WR Antonio Brown having a full season under his belt, Roethlisberger has his best receiver tandem since that aforementioned 2007 season, when he was throwing to Hines Ward in his prime and Santonio Holmes when he cared. Two other related items: The last time Haley was coordinating an offense, he helped the Cardinals reach the Super Bowl. And as head coach of the Chiefs, he wrung a 27-TD season out of Matt Cassel.

Matt Cassel: Another moment, please. OK, here we go. I really have no idea who Cassel is. The guy who made himself millions by stepping in when Tom Brady went down in the 2008 opener and playing very well for New England or the guy who sandwiched that 27-TD season with two awful seasons in which he threw a combined 26 TDs in 24 games for Kansas City. No one drafted Cassel as a starter, but he’s on plenty of benches. If he’s on yours, it might be wise to keep him around. If nothing else, if he stays healthy and you can afford the roster spot, he has great matchups during the playoffs — at the Raiders and home against the Colts.

Joe Flacco: After the Baltimore QB threw seven TDs in his first three games, I was sure he was becoming the consistent starter I had hoped when I drafted him. So sure that I wrote he already was. Name 10 better fantasy QBs, I said. I wrote that with a grain of salt, not expecting him to keep up his early pace, which included two three-TD games. But I still figured he would be a dependable No. 1 going forward, epecially in the 12-team league in which I was counting on him. I was wrong. About as wrong as that mustache he sported all season. Over the next nine weeks, Flacco threw six total TDs, including four weeks in which he didn’t throw a single TD. He did follow up that horrendous stretch with three straight two-TD games, and he outplayed New England’s Tom Brady in the AFC title game. So that means he’s either finally poised for his breakout season or once again on track to tease fantasy owners who draft him. I’m not sure why, but I’m leaning toward the former. Flacco has too much talent to play like Mark Sanchez again for so long. I think he puts it together this year and will reward those who kept the faith.

Jake Locker: Kenny Britt. Nate Washington. Kendall Wright. Jared Cook. Remember those names, because you’re going to be hearing them a lot. They make up one of the league’s more underrated WR corps, and they will help make Tennessee’s second-year QB a big hit in fantasy leagues this year. RB Chris Johnson won’t need until November to round into shape this year, so with him taking the pressure off, Locker will have plenty of opportunities to make plays in the passing game. And while he’s no Cam Newton, he’s more than athletic enough to make plays with his feet as well. Locker doesn’t do anything really well, but he seems to have “IT.” He strikes me as the kind of QB who becomes a better player in the NFL than he ever was in college. I refuse to say, “Joe Montana” right now. Oops. Locker is sitting there on the waiver wire in many, if not most, leagues. Take a chance on the kid. I think he’ll deliver.

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