The 2009 season offered more twists and turns than any psychological thriller concocted in Hollywood. Fantasy owners and fans navigated through a myriad of injuries and varied circumstances, including, but not limited to, coaching changes, suspensions, trades, releases and frequent trips on the quarterback carousel.
Along the way, a number of surprising stat lines were achieved. I’m not talking about those single-week appearances on the fantasy radar accomplished by a number of receivers. I’m referring to those overall numbers or extended runs that helped propel fantasy owners to great heights or allowed them to overcome injuries or one of those issues listed above.
Let’s start in Baltimore, where a sophomore quarterback excelled despite a dearth of options.
Joe Flacco, QB, BAL
Flacco posted a strong rookie season, and we certainly anticipated an increase in his production in 2009 as we drifted into the offseason. However, we also believed the Ravens would make one or more additions to the receiving corps in support of him. When that didn’t happen, his stock in early-season fantasy drafts began to drop. With only Derrick Mason as a reliable wide receiver and frequent dump-off to Ray Rice out of the backfield, Flacco crushed his freshman totals and led the Ravens to another postseason appearance. He improved his passing yardage total by 18 percent (3,613 yards) and his touchdown total by 50 percent (from 14 to 21). Will they add another receiver in 2010? Will the late surge from Todd Heap continue into the new year?
Brett Favre, QB, MIN
I had great expectations for Favre upon his arrival in Minnesota, but I couldn’t have imagined he’d operate at such an efficient level. He finished second in the NFL with 33 touchdowns (his most since 1997) and 4,202 passing yards (his most since 1998). He also threw only seven interceptions in 531 attempts, six fewer than any of his previous full seasons in the NFL. That was the statistic that leaped off the page as you take the season in as a whole. The big collapse never happened, and he also posted the best passer rating of his career.
Alex Smith, QB, SF
Smith gave the San Francisco brass a lot to think about heading into the offseason. He started the season on the bench, but performed quite well down the stretch after assuming the reins from Shaun Hill. Smith averaged 213.6 yards per game in 11 appearances and tossed 18 touchdowns (six multi-touchdown games and only one shutout). He demonstrated a tremendous rapport with both Vernon Davis and rookie Michael Crabtree, perhaps something the 49ers will build on in 2010.
Jerome Harrison, RB, CLE
Harrison closed out the season with a bang and probably helped guide many fantasy owners to titles. He was a true workhorse in the final three games, racking up a total of 561 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 106 carries. He posted four 100-yard games in relief of outgoing tailback Jamal Lewis and made a strong case to be the featured back in 2010 for Mike Holmgren and whomever sits in the head coach’s office.
Cedric Benson, RB, CIN
I always surmised that the talent was there, but Benson certainly hadn’t shown us much in the dedication column prior to the final quarter of the 2008 season. That late-season surge didn’t lead fantasy owners to the bandwagon, and he was routinely drafted in the fifth round or later in 2009. He responded by accruing 1,251 yards in 13 games played this season (six games of at least 110 yards) and scored six touchdowns.
Fred Jackson, RB, BUF
Jackson was on the radar to open the season with Marshawn Lynch on the suspended list, and he did enough during those three games to remain part of a workload split before ultimately seizing the top slot down the stretch. He carried the ball 13 or more times in each of the Bills’ final six games and closed with a phenomenal 212-yard effort. He was one of only 15 running backs to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2009 and amassed 1,433 total yards.
Miles Austin, WR, DAL
For the first quarter of the season, Austin was a non-factor for the Cowboys. He amassed just five receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown prior to a monster performance against the Chiefs in Week 5. He averaged 6.3 receptions and 103.3 yards over the final 12 games to help lead Dallas to the No. 3 seed in the NFC. He also scored 10 touchdowns during this period. More importantly, he scored in eight of those 12 games and finished with 90 or more yards in two of the remaining four.
Pierre Garcon/Austin Collie, WR, IND
Colts fans and fantasy owners let out a collective gasp when Anthony Gonzalez was injured during the preseason. He was to assume the No. 2 role opposite Reggie Wayne following the departure of Marvin Harrison, and there was no obvious heir apparent. As such, fantasy owners had to pull back on some of their projections for Peyton Manning. But Manning more than compensated for Gonzalez’s absence and effectively integrated the tandem of Garcon and Collie into the offense. The pair combined for 107 receptions, 1,441 yards and 11 touchdowns. Collie warranted mention in the Rookie of the Year debates, and Garcon shone as a downfield weapon.
Mike Wallace, WR, PIT
I remember watching Wallace struggle during the early days of training camp, but he became a tremendous downfield option for Ben Roethlisberger as the season progressed. Wallace recorded multiple receptions in 14 of 16 games this season while averaging 19.4 yards per reception (nine of at least 25 yards). We got excited about Steve Breaston as the third member of the Arizona offense and drafted him accordingly. Wallace will be in that 10th or 11th-round range during 2010 drafts based on his big-play ability.
Robert Meachem, WR, NO
We wrote all preseason about the expected efficiency of the New Orleans offense and Drew Brees’ ability to spread the ball around. We couldn’t have anticipated which of the many receivers beyond Marques Colston would emerge as the second target. Lance Moore, the Saints’ breakout star of 2008, experienced a knee injury and was unable to answer the bell, thereby thrusting the second-year receiver from Tennessee into a prominent role. Meachem tied Colston for the team lead with nine touchdowns, including a string of five consecutive games with at least one score. He finished the season with 45 receptions for 722 yards.
Fred Davis, TE, WAS
Fantasy owners were despondent when top-tier tight end Chris Cooley went down for the season in Week 7. Little did those owners realize that a new tight end would emerge as a solid fantasy contributor from the same stagnant Washington offense. Davis caught eight passes for 78 yards and a touchdown in that first game against Philadelphia. He averaged 4.1 receptions and 46.4 yards per game over the final 10 games of the year. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s integrated into Mike Shanahan’s offense with Cooley returning in 2010.
Vernon Davis, TE, SF
Davis was left on the wire in most leagues this season, as owners didn’t quite know how to evaluate his place in the offense or his relationship with Mike Singletary. He earned the tag of captain, then lived up to the top-five fantasy expectations of years past. Sculpted of granite, he started the season quietly, but caught fire starting in Week 3, scoring in six of his final seven games to carry fantasy owners to the many titles. He finished the season with 13 touchdowns to lead all tight ends, four more than he’d produced in his first three seasons in San Francisco. He narrowly missed reaching the 1,000-yard mark (965) and caught 78 passes. To put things in perspective, he’d caught only 103 passes for 1,132 yards in three years.