It started with a quiet shake of the head.
He was filled with bewilderment, disappointment and confusion, and there was a hint of anger in his voice as he asked a simple question.
The "he" in, er, question, is Michael Smith, host of the ESPN2 afternoon show "Numbers Never* Lie." You've seen him all over your TV, including on "NFL Live," "Around the Horn," "First Take" and more. He does ESPN radio, he's written extensively for ESPN.com and, last but certainly not least in my eyes, he has been a frequent guest -- one of the most popular we've ever had -- on the Fantasy Focus podcast.
A longtime fantasy football fanatic who plays in multiple leagues every year, Michael is also one of my all-time favorite people at ESPN.
When my daughters were born, Michael (and his NNL co-host Charissa Thompson) was among the first to send a gift and a thoughtful note. A gracious host and analyst, Michael wants the best show, period. So he is always working to make sure you look good and isn't worried if something will make him look bad as long as it's good TV. He's fun to have a beer with, argue superheroes with and he's given me good career advice over the years. If you're ever feeling down, I highly recommend a Michael Smith pep talk. I enjoy a lot of the people I work with but no matter how I slice that list, Michael's near the top of it.
I bring this up because Michael and I play in "The War Room" league, which some of you have probably seen us refer to on Twitter, the podcast or on "Fantasy Football Now" (Sundays, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2). It's a 16-team PPR league made up of ESPN NFL personalities (Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, Trent Dilfer, Trey Wingo, Mark Schlereth, Tim Hasselbeck, Stephania Bell and Ed Werder along with Michael and myself) plus the top producers of our NFL programming, including the people who oversee "Sunday NFL Countdown," "Monday Night Countdown," "NFL Live," "NFL 32" and "Fantasy Football Now."
It's a very intense league. Everyone in the league has sources in the NFL and talks to players, coaches, executives and other reporters. So every move gets scrutinized. Recently, Adam Schefter was offering Alfred Morris to lots of teams in the league, ultimately sending him and Stevie Johnson away for Julio Jones. You see that and suddenly it's like ... whoa! Does Schefty know something about Morris? When it comes to the NFL, he's one of the most plugged-in people in the universe. Or was he just selling high on an unproven Mike Shanahan rookie running back like any good fantasy owner? Or does he really believe in Morris (the way Adam says Washington does) but Julio Jones is just too good to pass up?
Drives you crazy trying to figure it all out. Anytime I see Adam or Mort make a surprising pickup, I'm always, like ... what do they know?
I remember talking trade once about a wide receiver. The other owner passed on the deal. "I talked to [the wide receiver's real-life quarterback] and he doesn't like him." Yeah, that happens in your league, right? Your potential trade partner just calls an NFL starting quarterback to ask about one of his receivers? And gets an honest answer?
I remember another guy in the league sent me a text a little bit before the NFL draft this past April. "You're going to be very happy today," was all the cryptic note said. Eight hours later, my Washington Redskins made the trade with the Rams to get the second pick in the draft, which they'd then use to select Robert Griffin III.
It's that kind of league. Everyone is plugged in, but in a slightly different way. Reporters like Mort, Adam and Ed, former players like Trent, Mark and Tim, the producers who hear everything from all of our NFL people and also from team executives; it's super intense but tons of fun. It has quickly become my favorite league I play in, and by far the most competitive. (In case you're wondering, I finished last season with the second most points in the league, only to lose in the semis to Schlereth when, in Week 15, my Ray Rice/LeSean McCoy combo -- I traded for Rice -- did nothing, while Stink's Brent Celek had the game of his career).
But back to Michael Smith, member of this league and a man with a question.
Specifically, he wanted to know, why was his team 0-4 in this league? "I think I've got a good team," he told me. "Am I crazy?"
He's not crazy. It's a good team for a 16-team PPR:
Michael Smith's current roster includes Andrew Luck and Kevin Kolb at quarterback, Darren Sproles, Doug Martin, Stevan Ridley, Ronnie Hillman, Lamar Miller and Jahvid Best at running back, a wide receiver corps of Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Justin Blackmon and Kevin Ogletree, tight ends Antonio Gates and Greg Olsen and the Vikings' D.
He'll no doubt grab a kicker before kickoff Sunday and waive one of his guys. Now, he's made some moves since the draft, trading for Blackmon and Gates in separate deals along with playing the waiver wire (the Vikings' D is a nice add for this week), but the core of this team -- the top three running backs, the two wide receivers, Luck and Olsen -- were his from the draft.
And to me, in a 16-team PPR, this is not an 0-4 team.
Except it is. Sure, Michael has had some bad luck, with Decker and Welker struggling early, Ridley tanking in Week 3 and so forth. But that happens to everyone. Why is Michael 0-4?
And the reason, I told him, is very simple.
The fantasy gods are angry with him. He has upset them. Fantasy karma's a real thing, brothers and sisters, and Michael Smith is on the wrong side of it.
It started the night before the Wednesday night game between the Cowboys and Giants that kicked off the season. Wanting to stockpile running backs with upside, Michael picked up Ronnie Hillman. To make room, he cut a wide receiver who he had drafted based on the player's good preseason.
Ogletree, of course, went bananas, mere hours after being made a free agent in our league. His eight receptions, two scores and 114 yards receiving were good for 31 points in our little league. In a 16-team league with 16 roster spots each, there's not a lot out there on the waiver wire. And Michael Smith had just dropped what would be the hottest Week 1 free agent right into the pool.
We've all dropped a player who, much to our embarrassment, then went off, so perhaps you can sympathize with what Michael was feeling as he watched Ogletree go off. What you may not be able to relate to, however, is what he did next.
Our waiver order is determined by worst record to best, tiebreaker being fewest points. So Michael pulled his team. That's right. In order to assure that he would get the No. 1 waiver priority, he benched the majority of his team, scoring just 40 points in Week 1 with Tim Tebow as his starting quarterback, Isaiah Pead as his starting running back and so on. A gift to his opponent, Mark Schlereth.
With only six teams making the playoffs and everyone in the league being a very smart NFL mind and fantasy player, one win is often the difference between making the playoffs and not. And to virtually spit at that? Because Mark's team (now 3-1) didn't have a great Week 1. Had Michael used his logical starting lineup that week, he would have won.
So I asked Michael the same question I am sure you would. Why?
"Simple," Michael responded. "You should know that I tend to obsess over things to begin with. So it killed me to watch Ogletree go crazy against New York, having drafted the guy with a hunch he could be pretty good based on the preseason he had. I figured I had a 50-50 shot of losing Week 1 anyway, so if I'm going to lose, why not get two things for it? I got (1) peace of mind and (2) a potentially productive wide receiver, given what [Laurent] Robinson did as Dallas' No. 3 last year."
Well, the fantasy gods did not like that. To virtually spit on a game? To throw a win away? Oh, he's cursed, Michael is. There's no way that team should be 0-4. But it is. Michael's team put up 121 points last week, a score that would have beaten most teams last week. Except the one he played.
"Sunday NFL Countdown" producer Greg Jewell, beset by injuries and byes, had to start the likes of Donald Jones, James Jones and Joel Dreessen. Between the three of them? Seven receptions, 163 yards, four touchdowns and 48 points. Huge numbers in a 16-team league, especially in support of Greg's studs; Drew Brees, Larry Fitzgerald and the Texans' D. This is how much the gods hate Michael. Greg also owns Michael Turner, who had his first career receiving touchdown in this game, a 60-yard scamper that was worth 13 points.
I tried to console my friend. I've told him not to blow the team up. That it's a good team and he needs to just keep the faith. But between us? No team is good enough to overcome bad fantasy karma.
You don't throw a match. You don't cheat to win. You don't start celebrating your victory until the final gun of the final game. And even then, wait for Elias to confirm it. You don't agree to a trade with a handshake and then renege on the deal when it comes through the website. You don't take an opponent lightly, no matter who they might be starting (Donald Jones!). You don't cheer for an athlete to get injured. Yes, it's a violent game and injuries provide fantasy opportunity, but they are human beings first and their health is their livelihood.
You don't say anything on your league's message board or any social media that you wouldn't say to someone's face. The people who send death threats to athletes on Twitter (and even, ahem, to fantasy analysts) are cursed for life. As they should be.
You can root for your fantasy team over your real-life NFL team if it's more important to you, but if your NFL team starts winning, you can't jump back on the bandwagon. Pick a lane and stay there. You don't miss the draft. You don't forget to set your lineup. You play the whole season out, no matter what. You respect the hallowed virtual tundra of your playing field and pay respect to it every week.
Because if you don't, you will have angered the fantasy gods. And you won't like them when they are angry.
Just ask Michael Smith.
Time now for this week's players who I like more than normal (the "loves") or dislike more than normal (the "hates"). Don't use it as a pure "start/sit" column (that's another way to anger the fantasy gods) but rather, consult my rankings for specific suggestions on which players to start or sit and then make your own informed opinion. Because being a "rankings slave" is also bad for the karma. Hey, I didn't make the rules. I'm just letting you know about them.
With a shout out as always to the amazing John Parolin and all the wacky kids at ESPN Stats & Information for their research prowess, away we go.
Quarterbacks I love for Week 5
Peyton Manning, Broncos: Think this is a shootout? Me, too. I'm the highest on Peyton this week among our rankers, and despite so-so protection from the Broncos' line this year, I have confidence for a few reasons. Lots has been made about Peyton's arm strength and while the jury is still out on that, a few things are still very much intact: If I see back-to-back-to-back commercials that don't involve Peyton, it's an upset. He's still got spokesman down, he's still got fantasy star down (20 points or more in three of four) and he's still very good dinking and a dunking, which should work against the Patriots. Five of the Patriots' six interceptions this year have come on throws at least 15 yards downfield. Four scores for Peyton in each of his past two games against Bill Belichick's Pats, who have given up seven touchdown passes in their own past two games.
Joe Flacco, Ravens: Finally, RG3 is such a no-brainer that I no longer need to write about him. Gonna keep writing about Joe Flacco until the same thing happens here. Getting dangerously close to that point. I love this stat: Joe Flacco leads the NFL in attempts of more than 20 yards and he has three touchdowns on those throws, tied for the league lead. (Cough, Torrey Smith, cough, talked about Flacco throwing deep in preseason, cough). Bet you didn't know Flacco already has 11 completions on throws of 20-plus yards this season, which is as many as he has the past two seasons combined. The Chiefs have allowed 13 passes of 20-plus yards this year and have given up the third most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks.
Andy Dalton, Bengals: Andy Dalton ... fantasy stud? Starting to look that way. Three straight 20-plus point games, you can't run on the Dolphins, which, as our player card notes, means more throwing against Miami's 30th-ranked pass defense, which has allowed 314 passing yards per game in the past three weeks.
Andrew Luck, Colts: A defensive struggle, this will not be. Meanwhile, did you know that Andrew Luck has 10 rushes for 80 yards this season, all on scrambles? Only Michael Vick and Griffin III have gained more yards on such plays. That ability to extend plays, maintain drives and to get a few rushing yard points is underappreciated when we talk about Luck's fantasy potential. That's if we even do talk. All you do is look at your phone, your computer, watch TV. Why don't we ever talk anymore? I don't know what's going on with you at all. If it wasn't for the kids we'd never talk at all. I ... I miss us.
Christian Ponder, Vikings: Bad fantasy week last week because it's hard to throw a touchdown pass when you're watching your special teams score. But I'd start you against the Titans. Ponder gets back on track Sunday.
If you're desperate: Kevin Kolb was in this section last week and, while I don't think another 300-yard, three-score day is in store again, he's good for a solid double-digit game against the Rams. ... It won't be pretty and there will be a turnover or two in there, but make no mistake, thanks to their defense and Chris Johnson's struggles, Matt Hasselbeck is gonna have to throw against the Vikings and will have double-digit points by the end of the day.
Quarterbacks I hate for Week 5
Michael Vick, Eagles: Have him just outside my top 10 this week and, while the rushing yards will always be his salvation, the Steelers have had two weeks to prep for their home game with Vick. Plus, I'm getting my nerd on and going next level here: Michael Vick is completing 45.8 percent of his passes against at least five pass-rushers, the third worst percentage in the league. Vick has been under duress, sacked or hit while throwing on 48.2 percent of his drop backs against such pressure (most in NFL), and faces a Steelers defense sending added pressure more than any team in the league (47.3 percent). In short, he doesn't do well when he gets 5 or more rushers, he gets 5 or more rushers more than anyone else, and the Steelers use 5 or more rushers more than anyone else.
Matt Schaub, Texans: It's not that I think the Jets are all that. They aren't. And Schaub is a very safe bet for double-digit fantasy points. But not much more than that. Between the rushing and the defense of the Texans, there will be no need for Schaub to throw a lot in this game, and the lack of upside (16 points or fewer in three of four) is what keeps him low for me.
Jay Cutler, Bears: He was very good against the Cowboys. But that doesn't erase his Jay Cutler-ness. Traveling on a short week, expect Chicago to get back to focusing on the run in this game (the Jags are 30th in the NFL against the run) and Cutler to have a decent game, but not the huge game you might expect given the matchup. He's a QB2 this week.
Running backs I love for Week 5
Trent Richardson, Browns: Trent, or as he is more affectionately known, "All they have," is a very solid three-down back who is touching the ball basically 20 times a game. The Giants are giving up 4.5 yards per carry on the year and gave up 5.3 last week. Have Richardson as a top-10 play this week.
Matt Forte, Bears: You might be shy about using him after last week. Injury, short week, wasn't great. I get it. You'd be wrong, but I get it. They're gonna run all over Jacksonville, and Forte will do much of the damage. Don't get cute here.
Alfred Morris, Redskins: So, remember earlier, when I mentioned how I was wondering what Adam Schefter knew about Alfred Morris? This is what he told me when I asked him about the deal: "For the record, I did know something on Morris. I knew they really liked him and knew I wanted to draft him. Don't like giving him up but you don't get Julio Jones for cheap." The SWAN, Zach Jones, points out that Morris has now carried the ball at least 16 times in every game this year. Since 2001, only one Redskins running back has gotten that many carries in four straight games to start a season; Clinton Portis in 2004, 2005 and 2008. Against the Falcons' high-flying offense, Washington will want to slow the game down, down, down.
Ryan Mathews and Jackie Battle, Chargers: On behalf of all longtime Redskins fans, I have a message for all Chargers fans and/or Ryan Mathews owners: "HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA." Oh, we've been there with Norv. We've been there. If you read me at all during the preseason or listened to the podcast, you know I was much more bearish on Ryan Mathews than the rest of the fantasy community, touting his injury history, the late game starts for San Diego, the fact he had never done it at an elite level for long periods of time. And now there's this whole thing with the Chargers officially listing Battle as the starter on their depth chart. But as much of a non-fan as I am, the hate has gone too far. They need Mathews. He's by far the most talented runner they have. And the Saints' run defense makes most people look good. Mathews isn't the stud No. 1 RB you drafted, but he is a solid No. 2 this week against the Saints. If I have him, chances are I'm starting him.
Now, all that said, Jackie Battle is a very interesting flex play, as well, and while I think the Mathews stuff is overblown, there is something there. So basically, San Diego has had two main running backs since 2008. LaDainian Tomlinson ('08-09) and Mathews (2010-12). Those are the two guys who had/have the majority of the team's carries during that time. On rushes at or inside the 5-yard line, from 2008-09, Tomlinson had 75.9 percent of San Diego's rushes. Makes sense, right? LT was an amazing scorer. But it goes to show, Norv is not opposed to giving it to one running back at the goal line, especially if it's a Hall of Famer.
Mathews? On rushes at or inside the 5-yard line, from 2010 to 2012, he had just 10 of 65 rushes (15.4 percent of rushes). That's not a lot, kids. Especially when you consider Jackie Battle did not play in Week 1, so it took him three games this season to get nine rushes and three touchdowns at or inside the 5-yard line ... or one fewer of each than Mathews has had in his career. It's a real thing, kids.
If you're desperate: I know he didn't do much last week, but the sledding should be a lot easier for Ryan Williams on Thursday night. ... I still believe in the talent of Andre Brown, who will get some work against the 20th-ranked run defense of the Browns. ... If Brandon Bolden taught us anything (beyond, you know, peace and love), it's that junk-time running against the Bills can be beneficial. Kendall Hunter had 56 yards and a score last week.
Running backs I hate for Week 5
Chris Johnson, Titans: If he does it again this week, then I'm back in. But while he looked a lot better, obviously, I'm not convinced it's "for reals" or anything. Last week, Johnson got 140 of his 141 rushing yards inside the tackles. And now he gets the Vikings, a team that leads the NFL with a 2.64 yards per rush average inside the tackles. The Vikings also have hit rushers in the backfield 18 times this year, second most in the league. Johnson remains a low-end No. 2, and only because it's a bye week.
Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers: First game back and it's a much-better-than-you-think Philly run defense (just one rushing touchdown allowed this year, giving up only 91 yards a game on the ground). He needs to be owned in every league but I wanna see it first before I start him with any confidence.
Steven Jackson, Rams: Still banged up, four straight weeks of fewer than 60 yards rushing and no scores doesn't give me tons of confidence, especially on a short week against a good defense.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bengals: You know that whole BJGE-has-never-fumbled stat I kept bringing up in the preseason? Yeah, I'm gonna stop using that one. I will, however, keep hammering how good the Miami run defense is, a D that is allowing just 2.4 yards per carry, and that comes after facing both Arian Foster and Darren McFadden. He's a flex play at best this week.
Wide receivers I love for Week 5
Julio Jones, Falcons: A message for everyone who has sent me an email, tweet or Facebook post about Julio Jones: Just stop. Just ... stop. He's gonna be just fine and it starts this week against the ridiculous thing my Redskins call a pass defense.
Demaryius Thomas, Broncos: So, this is kind of interesting. Thomas' average target distance is 7.6 yards downfield, and he averages 10.2 yards after catch per reception. By comparison, Eric Decker's average target distance is 11.1 yards downfield, and he averages just 3.1 yards after catch per reception. Why do you care? Because the Patriots' defense ranks 29th in the NFL with 5.9 yards after catch allowed per reception. Ah ha! And, as noted in the Peyton write-up, Pats are better against the deep ball.
Reggie Wayne, Colts: In a game in which the Colts are going to need to throw, why not use a guy who is eighth in the NFL in targets despite having played one fewer game than almost every other team? Top-12 play this week.
Lance Moore, Saints: Top 20 in the NFL in targets and just three behind Saints team leader Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore is healthy and a big part of the pass, pass, pass, uh, we're down big, gonna have to keep passing, pass, no, seriously, Mark Ingram, don't call us, we'll call you, we gotta pass offense they are running in New Orleans. Very safe flex play with upside. (Update: Obviously, this was written before Moore showed up on the injury report with a hamstring injury. He's a much riskier start this week and since it's the Sunday night game, it's gonna be hard to trust him. Unless you know for sure he is playing that night, I'd bench Moore, despite the solid matchup.)
If you're desperate: I don't expect Greg Jennings to play this week, making both James Jones and Randall Cobb interesting No. 3 wide receivers this week. ... I talked up Brian Hartline in the preseason as a deep sleeper and have mentioned him a bunch on the podcast. He isn't that good, but he is closer to it than you think. I'm a believer and the Bengals are a decent matchup for him. ... With both Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden banged up, the light don't get any greener for Domenik Hixon than facing a Joe Haden-less Browns team. ... Even though T.Y. Hilton had the better game last week, Donnie Avery still had more targets and I like him more than Hilton this week against the Pack.
Wide receivers I hate for Week 5
Steve Smith, Panthers: Chances are, if you have him, you're starting him. But I'm the lowest on him and have him outside the top 15 because of two words: Seattle. Seahawks. Best secondary in the NFL, they held Larry Fitzgerald to 63 yards, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant to a combined 80 yards (though Austin did score) and Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson to a combined 54 yards. Smith hasn't scored yet this year and, in fact, his yardage totals have gone down every week this season. Seattle is top 10 in the NFL in sacks, so I expect a decent amount of pressure on Cam, making it tough for deep plays to develop. I expect Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman to get physical with both Smith and Brandon LaFell, throwing off the timing. Smith is not a top-10 play this week.
Eric Decker, Broncos: See Thomas, Demaryius.
Steve Johnson, Bills: Let's go next level once again: Stevie Johnson was targeted 10 times by Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 4 but had just two receptions. That's not a one-game thing. Fitzpatrick and Johnson have the lowest completion percentage of any of the 75 QB-receiver combinations who have had at least 20 targets this season. Don't see that getting a lot better against the Niners. I have him outside my top 20.
Jeremy Maclin, Eagles: Hard to trust him until we see it out on the field again, you know?
Anquan Boldin, Ravens: He had one good game. At best, he's the fourth option on offense, after Rice, Smith and Dennis Pitta, and at worst, he's "just a guy" at this point in his career, someone who is more likely to produce in single digits than he is to explode. Not someone you can trust in standard leagues.
Tight ends I love for Week 5
Antonio Gates, Chargers: Bad matchup (Saints allow the fewest fantasy points to opposing TEs) and he hasn't done anything yet. I get it. Just think he's due. Total gut call.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings: Last week was weird because of the special-teams scores. This is a really nice matchup for Rudolph. Titans have allowed a 77.3 completion percentage in the red zone (worst in the NFL). And only the Raiders have allowed more red zone touchdowns than the Titans. Rudolph remains a big part of what they want to do on offense and is a top-10 play this week.
Scott Chandler, Bills: If you're looking in the second tier for a guy, Chandler has caught all four of his end zone targets, the only player with four targets and a perfect catch percentage. And as good as San Francisco has been, the 49ers have allowed a league-worst 83.3 completion percentage on end zone throws (5-for-6, 5 TDs, 0 INT), not to mention the fact they've given up four scores to opposing tight ends in four weeks.
Greg Olsen, Panthers: Not a great matchup, but when teams take Steve Smith out, Cam seems to find Olsen. But mostly, I just threw him in here because I wanted to link to this fantastic, heartbreaking story about him and his family: pain. Kudos to Olsen for playing so amazingly well with very heavy things on his mind.
Owen Daniels, Texans: At least eight points in three of four games.
If you're desperate: The Patriots give up the second most points to opposing tight ends, so I could see Jacob Tamme getting a cheap touchdown here ... Super desperate time, but Marcedes Lewis does have a score in two of four games this year and the Bengals are tied for fifth most fantasy points allowed.
Tight ends I hate for Week 5
Heath Miller, Steelers: He's been a stud so far, but not convinced it continues against a tough Eagles secondary that is allowing the third fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends.
Brent Celek, Eagles: Not like the guy on the other side of the ball has a good matchup, either.
Defenses/Special teams I love for Week 5
Minnesota Vikings: Tied for the third most points among defenses, they are available in more than 60 percent of leagues and you have to like the matchup with the Titans. Well, you don't have to. I'm not gonna force you. What am I, your mother? But they get pressure on the quarterback, they have a good schedule the rest of the way and it starts this week.
If you're desperate: The Miami Dolphins have a very strong run defense, I could see them following up last week's 14-point effort by having a nice day against the Bengals.
Defense/Special teams I hate for Week 5
New York Jets: Remember when they were the Jets?
That's all we got for Week 5, gang. Good luck this week and try not to upset the fantasy gods.
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- believes the easiest way to gain good fantasy karma is to read this whole column. Congrats for making it this far. You are now blessed. Berry is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off.