August 25, 2013 11:31:21 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
On Tuesday, when the Chicago Bears' team defense came off the board in about the sixth round, dismayed looks and frustrated comments filled the back of Old Venice's Burgundy Room.
Shouting then filled the place after former Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis' name was announced a few rounds later.
"That's too soon," shouted one football fantasy team manager.
Chaos followed. Managers shuffled their pre-draft research papers, marking through names and rearranging their script; beer orders went through the roof; and a few slices of pizza were lifted in a daring dimmed-light raid.
The tension and drink orders - mainly the orders - did not recede as the draft continued late into the night. Amongst friends, no quarter was given.
Months and miles removed from this year's NFL Draft in New York City, the Old Venice Fantasy Football league provided bar patrons insight to the madness and competitiveness surrounding the growing pastime of fantasy football.
The 12-team league, led by commissioner and OV General Manager Martin Crawford, kicked off its sixth season Tuesday. Most members share ties with the restaurant - many have worked there or are currently employed by the chain - but all are friends.
At least until the competition begins.
Each team manager competes for a significant cash prize and a slightly dinged up trophy. The real prize, managers say, are the bragging rights one can hold over their friends.
Points are determined by a number of on-field results - touchdowns, receptions, defensive plays and return yards - but the league's points-per-reception format and roster setup puts more emphasis on running backs, wide receivers and tight ends.
Managers draft the league's most valuable playmakers early, which is why using an early round pick on a defensive player can cause a run on those positions.
"I started the defensive thing," manager Jaime Davis proudly said after the draft.
This year marks Davis' first season with the OV league.
"The last few rounds are pointless to me," he said. "Sure, there are a couple of sleepers in there, but for me it's about getting the best available pick the earliest. You've got to be quick."
Teams will face each other all season long as their professional counterparts eye playoff spots. Making the playoffs, manager Justin Ammon says, is all about consistency. Ammon, who earned glory and a few ill-willed comments when he hoisted the OV trophy shortly after joining the league in 2009, starts his draft research in the offseason by reading NFL news and following key players' health issues.
"The No. 1 rule is you can't draft an injured player. If you do, you'll get lambasted by your friends," he said.
Clearly, this has occurred before.
"Injuries can be a fantasy nightmare, but it's also amazing how quickly a player can quickly fall into obscurity in the league," Ammon said. "You have to keep up with the gossip and mull through everything to find pertinent information. I like taking a chance on players with good careers who are a little banged up.
"Honestly though, it's a lot like poker. There's absolutely a whole lot of luck with the draft," he added. "Over a long period of time, you'll see the better draft managers consistently making the playoffs - there's definitely a skill there - but you have to have a significant amount of luck on your side."
Fantasy football also adds a new dimension to how participants follow gridiron action. Without a professional team, many Mississippians are divided amongst regional fan bases - the Saints, Texans, Titans and Falcons. Tracking fantasy stars brings attention to many out-of-market games some fans normally wouldn't follow.
"Fantasy football has not necessarily saved the NFL, but it has made it much more popular than it was in, say, the early 1990s," Crawford said. "While we don't have a local team here in Mississippi, it causes the casual fan to become more interested in all of the games because they have players they're invested in and want to see do well. It makes the NFL that much more fun to watch."
"Fantasy football sore of makes managers addicted to the institution of football - the machine, the ends and outs of business," Ammon added. "It's a tradeoff. Sometimes passion toward game outcome - the winners and losers - is negated, but passion toward basic knowledge and stats becomes cult-like. I always know which player is doing what, when he is doing it and why. I appreciate the game more in many ways, even if I'm cheering for players I don't really like."
The 12 managers will continue to meet throughout the season at OV to keep tabs on their players and talk smack about how they will hoist this year's trophy. The winner gets to keep the prize for a full year until next season's draft is held. Most said if they win, it will make many public appearances in the presence of the league's runners up.
Managers said Tuesday they were confident with their draft selections -- at least until they jettison or trade underwhelming players in the coming weeks. That always happens as managers are constantly looking for the slightest possible edge on their opponents.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch