Reality meets fantasy in NFL
There was only one good reason for Matt Hasselbeck to run out of bounds at the 1-yard line against Carolina.
To help his fantasy football team, of course.
The Tennessee quarterback set up Chris Johnson for a touchdown, something Hasselbeck said was all part of a master plan. As Johnson entered the media room following Tennessee's 30-3 win, Hasselbeck walked out and yelled, ''Fantasy points!''
Later in the week, Hasselbeck cleared things up.
''I thought it was a good joke,'' he said.
Fantasy football has become a fun reality for many NFL players. It's impossible to know how many are involved, but this much is certain - those that do, fumble through lineup changes and bye weeks just like average Joes. Some players, like Hasselbeck and Green Bay Packers offensive guard T.J. Lang, have teams that are capable of making title runs. Others, like Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew and Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, know their teams aren't going anywhere.
The NFL is fine with players participating in fantasy football, and Jones-Drew even has a radio show about it. Even NFL players who don't participate in leagues get messages from fans through social media. Some, like Philadelphia tight end Brent Celek, like the idea of fantasy football, but won't play it until they retire.
Most understand that fantasy football brings fans closer to the players and the league.
''I think it's great for the game,'' Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
Lineup changes in fantasy football take on a unique look when NFL players who are trying to avoid conflicts of interest while still trying to win have to make the tough choices.
Like benching themselves.
''Last year, I got drafted myself,'' Hasselbeck said. ''The computer drafted me, and then I had like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. It was tough. I had myself on the bench most of the year.''
Jones-Drew, on the other hand, wouldn't bench himself, even when he was out for the season with a knee injury.
He still won the championship.
Here's the best part: He was out during championship week, still started himself and won anyway. His lineup in a touchdown-only league that allows two starting quarterbacks included Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Roddy White, Calvin Johnson, Frank Gore and the Packers defense. It was too much for Jaguars assistant equipment manager George Pellicer.
Talk about bragging rights.
''All the stars aligned for us last year,'' Jones-Drew recalled.
A year later, things have changed. Jones-Drew has lost quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Matt Cassel to injuries, and now he sits in ''dead last.'' Now, he can't brag to the rest of the league's owners, including Jaguars teammates Greg Jones and Terrance Knighton.
''They're dishing it all back to me now,'' Jones-Drew said.
Jones-Drew embraces fantasy football and all that comes with it. The prolific running back garnered national attention on Nov. 15, 2009, when he kneeled down at the 1-yard line on a breakaway run to set up a game-winning field goal against the New York Jets.
''I apologized to all my fantasy football owners,'' Jones-Drew recalled.
That got the attention of SiriusXM, which gave him a fantasy football radio show, Runnin' with MJD, which airs on Friday nights.
''They thought it was pretty cool that I played,'' he said. ''Just kind of hit it off from there.''
Fantasy football offers a seemingly endless supply of fodder for good-natured teasing. Jones-Drew lost a few games last year because his teammates, tight end Marcedes Lewis and receiver Mike Thomas, had big games for his fantasy opponents.
''It's been tough,'' Jones-Drew said, laughing. ''It's been tough.''
Rodgers was a guest on Jones-Drew's show earlier this season year, and Jones-Drew appeared to have successfully lobbied for Jermichael Finley to get more red zone looks.
''The next week, they played Chicago and he threw it to him three times in the end zone,'' Jones-Drew said.
Many players have rules against starting players on opposing teams the week they play.
''If it's ever the team we play, sometimes I try to respectfully bench those guys,'' Dietrich-Smith said. ''And sometimes I'm just like, `Ah, I don't even care,' because I know I have so many guys on bye weeks and I can't even fill my roster if that's the case.''
Jones-Drew has Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and receiver Vincent Jackson on his team. Because the Jaguars played the Chargers on Monday night, Rivers and Jackson hit Jones-Drew's bench. That means he didn't get credit for Rivers' three touchdown passes Vincent Jackson's touchdown catch in San Diego's 38-14 win over the Jaguars.
Decisions like those aren't the only reason Jones-Drew's team is struggling. There's the fact that he picked himself in the first round.
''It's a quarterback-driven league, and since I have to draft myself first, I don't end up picking a quarterback until the end of the second round,'' he said. ''It's been a bad year for me.''
Dietrich-Smith also is struggling. He's a first-time player in a league with other Packers players. Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, LeGarrette Blount and Calvin Johnson haven't been enough to turn the tide in his favor.
''I'm getting my butt kicked,'' said Dietrich-Smith, who is best known for tangling with Detroit's Ndamukong Suh. ''But I tried it out this year. It's pretty fun.''
Hasselbeck has done well this year, though he doesn't follow his league of family members closely.
''I do technically have a team, it's a computer draft,'' he said. ''I'm first-place in my division.''
Celek played in a league with fans from Facebook last year.
''Well, I tried to get everyone on the Eagles,'' he said, laughing. ''That was my whole thing. I was trying to get all the guys on our team so I could root for them.''
He decided he'll start playing again after his career ends.
''Yeah, I don't care to root for anybody else, you know?'' Celek said.
Jones-Drew, on the other hand, is in it for the long haul. He still enjoys his radio show, despite his fantasy team's struggles.
''It's still fun to give advice to people,'' he said. ''Sometimes, you're right, sometimes you're wrong.''
AP Sports Writers Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbruntap