Hillis and Foster New Stars of NFL

Football guru and video game king John Madden has long had a saying about the NFL, which he believes applies to each and every season:

“Just wait ’till Thanksgiving.”

Now that the Madden-approved holiday has come and gone, we can all thoroughly ex­amine the year in football so far. After a little searching, what you will find is very strange – no team has emerged as a clear favorite in either conference. Four out of the eight divi­sions in the league have two teams tied for the lead and the other four have only a game separating the top two.

One could say that the teams that are sup­posed to be blowing away any and all competi­tion are simply underperforming, but I think there’s more to the change than just sub-par play. 2010 has been different because of the outburst of numerous “under-the-radar” players who have taken the football world by storm. These guys haven’t necessarily made their teams con­tenders, but they’ve certainly altered the order of the game with their elevated play. Now in every matchup every week, any team can win and it is because of these players.

Since I don’t have all the space in the world to write about the “under-the-radar” players, I’ll focus on two running backs who have risen to the upper echelons of their posi­tion (and happen to be on my league-leading fantasy team).

The first back is Peyton Hillis, a bruising force for the … let’s call them “feisty”… Cleveland Browns. Hillis has shown that the Browns made a very good deal in trading away Brady Quinn to the Broncos for him in the offseason (Quinn is stuck behind Kyle Orton on the depth chart and deservedly so).

Conservatively listed at 6’1″, 240 pounds, the former Arkansas Razorback has taken over the starting role and won’t be giving it up any time soon. After a promising rookie season in which he totaled 323 yards and 5 touchdowns, Hillis was given less playing time and forced to remedial special teams duties.

Then he was traded.

Hillis started his Browns career in­auspiciously, rushing for only 76 yards through his first two games. Then, out of nowhere, he posted back-to-back, 100-plus-yard efforts against the Ravens and Bengals. A few weeks later, Hillis broke out for the biggest game in his three seasons, barreling over the helpless Patriots defense for 184 yards and two scores.

To date, Hillis has 905 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He hasn’t been a slouch in the passing game either, totaling 46 receptions for 414 yards and another two TDs. Hillis is a fantasy godsend and, in the real world, gives the tough-luck Browns a legitimate chance at victory every week.

The second player, Arian Foster, is my personal favorite “newcomer” of 2010. Foster has been nothing short of domi­nant this season, giving the Houston Texans consistent, high-level performance in the extremely competitive AFC South.

Listed at 6’1″, 227 pounds, the Tennessee alum has truly been astonishing this year, causing trouble for any opponent he faces. What’s just as incredible is that Foster came out of nowhere to claim the starting job from the likes of Steve Slaton and former New York Giant, Derrick Ward. He proved he could play big in col­lege, rushing for nearly 1,200 yards his junior year but, as his undrafted status shows, no one predicted he would turn out to be such a strong NFL player.

Foster showed some spark at the end of last season, posting 119 yards and a score against the Pats. Then, having won the starting job to begin the sea­son against the Colts, Foster led off the 2010 campaign with a thorough demoli­tion of the Indy defense. His 231 yards and three touchdowns were team records and his ensuing games, though not as staggering, have not disappointed with four more 100-yard performances.

For the season, Foster has 1,147 yards on the ground along with 12 TDs and, like Hillis, he has been effective through the passing game as well, racking up 453 yards and another score. Needless to say, Foster has brought Houston’s pass-happy offense back to the ground and I am a proud fantasy owner and supporter.

We may not be able to determine any Super Bowl favorites yet but we can look at this season’s game-changers and bask in their newfound glory. If that’s the case, we’ll just have to hold off a bit longer before making any predictions.

So to John Madden:

“Just wait ’till Hanukkah.”

Plaut out.