FFL Rewind: The Minicamp Diaries, The Great Black and White Hype (2002)

By  Last updated: 27th April 2011

The following piece was originally published on The FFL Online during the 2002 preseason.

The Minicamp Diaries, Part III: The Great Black and White Hype
by Jessie Hester

The New York Z-Force’s practice facility in Hackettstown, NJ is awash with propaganda. Propaganda for winning, that is. Of the twelve FFL franchises, no other team has approached New York’s count of four championships. And let me tell you, they do not let you forget it. Take, for example, the team’s minicamp practice facility. Driving up in the Manfordmobile, we noted the four obscenely large championship banners flying above the security gate. The years 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2000 were plastered on every wall, every door. And the theme continues, as the repeated black and white Z-Force motif gives the building the look of a perverse KISS theme park. Heck, I made the Z-Force’s complex my veritable souvenir store. When I get home my kids can look forward to Z-Force matchbooks, ballpoint pens, coasters and an inflatable Peyton Manning chair. My lone disappointment came when the toilet paper lacked the Z-Force’s traditional interlocking “Z-F” logo. Though, to my astonishment, the tater tots served in the cafeteria do. And last, but not least, is the hardware. Head coach Jason Zieger brandishes his set of Fantasy Bowl rings like they are magical talismans, as if he too were somehow imbued with a divine fantasy football instinct. But the question one always considers about the stout Zieger is whether he is a wizard of drafting talent, or the metaphorical Wizard of Oz, a lucky fool hiding behind the curtain and living off an inflated reputation. The team’s marketing cries out hype, but even the most cynical of FFL aficionados must admit there is some substance behind the hype. Undeniably, the Z-Force have a consistent record of success. But will it continue in 2002? Or is this a bubble primed to burst? That is what I aimed to find out.

Zieger strides about the practice field like an experienced field general, barking out commands and gesticulating wildly at players out of earshot. He gives his offensive line encouragement in true Parcellian cadences: “This is what you lifted all them weights for!” The practice is disciplined, workmanlike, precise. The Z-Force are a team steeped in professionalism; without a doubt they are in it to win it. Certainly, a season without a Fantasy Bowl appearance (such as last year) is deemed a failure. And yet, I find the mood of the practice particularly telling given that the minicamp is an exercise in futility for many of the players on this field. It was no secret when the season ended that the team would be retaining the same three superstars — Marshall Faulk, Peyton Manning and Terrell Owens. And so they are — Zieger made this clear to the players from the outset of camp. So what keeps the practices here from lapsing into a farcical “going through the motions?” Well, to many of the players, it is the loyalty factor.

New York has made a business out of being good to its players. The number one media market in the country helps to fill deep pockets, so certainly the Z-Force’s top players are well paid. But money is not the only factor. Run these names over in your head for a moment: Dan Marino, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, Brent Jones, Sterling Sharpe, Morten Andersen, Terrell Owens, Antonio Freeman. By and large, these players have played nearly all of their careers for the Z-Force. Zieger is fiercely loyal to his players, more so than any coach in the FFL. Zieger rarely trades away his top talent, and often puts the franchise tag on players for multiple years. This, Zieger says, is what he views as his philosophy towards winning — draft well, manage conservatively, foster the talent. But what is one man’s strength is another man’s weakness. While Zieger has ridden the successful years of Smith, Faulk et. al. to Fantasy Bowl success, there has also been a downside. FFL critics will quickly note that he has put too much faith in old Z-Force retreads — the debacle of drafting Herman Moore in 1999, the failed experiment in using Mark Brunell two years in a row at QB, the injury-plagued season of Jerome Bettis in 2001 (Bettis was a N.Y. rookie in ’93). He even kept Rick Mirer bouncing around on the Z-Force bench for a number of seasons. In fact, the same critics would say that his emotional loyalty toward the players will be the franchise’s undoing in the coming years. Emmitt Smith’s eroding skills made him a detriment to the Z-Force lineup in recent years, and any aging of Marshall Faulk may do the same. In an FFL world where fortunes continually change, and loyalty can only go so far, Zieger is, well, old-fashioned.

But don’t tell any of this to his players. To them it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. As I walked the practice field, I looked on as the running backs were going through their hand-off drills with the scout team. Faulk, darting in and out through the holes of the o-line, seemed to have fully recovered from his 2001 knee troubles. At the same time, two non-franchise-tagged players, were going over the fundamentals of ball carrying. Emmitt Smith, such a fixture in the franchise history, was playing the role of mentor — giving tips on avoiding the fumble to second-year back Michael Bennett. I ventured over to the QB’s and receivers, where Manning was running one of the offense’s stock plays: a fake handoff, rollout, and out pattern to Owens. Manning’s first pass lofted just over the receiver’s head. On the second, he connected on the strike and Owens sprinted into the end zone. Among this boy-scout squad, Owens may be the only focal point for any sort of controversy. This offseason he announced his intentions to try out for the FBL, and he attended workouts with the San Diego Zoo and Maine Competition. It rankled Zieger, sources say, but if so, it isn’t showing up on the field. It will be interesting to see if the brash Owens, indomitable Faulk and emerging leader Manning can continue to comprise the top 1-2-3 punch in the league.

That evening, Coach K and I sat in on the team’s playbook session. Just as Zieger shows loyalty to the roster, he also stays loyal to his system. With the exception of circumstances due to injury, the Z-Force have always run the Pro Set 2RB / 2 WR formation. If this minicamp was any indication, it looks like New York will be doing the same in 2002. As we watched, Zieger was scrambling over an overhead screen, drawing out the blocking and route patterns on a play named 2-48 Left Cross Y-Wing 3. As in the day’s earlier practice, I noticed that many of the younger players were chipping in their comments and observations. In the context of what we had seen earlier in the day, the reason for such eagerness soon became clear. While in some FFL camps there is a cutthroat atmosphere (early Predators practices come to mind), here the focus was secondary — make a solid impression on the coach, and he’ll be liable to give you a second look on draft day.

Why such enthusiasm? Simple math. The Z-Force are a winning team, and with the best keepers in the FFL, they most probably will be again. Wide receiver Chris Chambers summed it up for me: “When I came here last year, I was almost overwhelmed by the atmosphere. All they seem to know is winning. There’s just a lot of tradition and positive vibes that coming out of that locker room.” Yet there is another side of playing here. The jackal-like media. The aforementioned commerical hype. The hopeless expectations: bring home a fifth Fantasy Bowl title, or consider it a wash. “In some ways, the expectations they have for you here elevate your game. But if you’re not careful, you know, they ride you out on a rail,” said Chambers. Such is the paradoxical life of the Z-Force player; Manning, Faulk and Owens had to emerge from the shadows of Marino, Smith and Sharpe. And for the next generation of the New York Z-Force? Well, they’ll just have to do the same. “It makes me worried for what it will be like here whenever we start to lose,” says Manning, who won Fantasy Bowl IX in his first full Z-Force season. “When that happens, a lot of uncertainty will be cast upon the whole playoff picture. It will be interesting to see how we can react as a team.”

I would think that the rest of the FFL’s coaches are waiting to find that out too.

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