Those 33 summers without America's pastime in Washington left locals with a void -- that six-month distraction we need to get from one football season to the next.

Drooling professional football fans know exactly 18 days remain until the regular season begins. For millions of Americans, that means it's crunch time for picking fantasy football squads. There are hundreds of places to play fantasy football online, including well-known sites like ESPN ( and Yahoo ( that allow you to enroll an entire league or as an individual team. Basic play is often free, while premium memberships can get pricey.

For many players, winning isn't just about bragging rights. Most leagues require a signup fee that is put into a pool for the eventual champion. Last year, an estimated 10 million people helped make fantasy football a $100 million industry, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

For the uninitiated, the game's premise is to create a lineup of NFL players who score points each week based on their statistics (touchdowns, yards gained, etc.). The better your players do, the better your team does. In some leagues, the team with the most points at the end of the season wins. In other leagues, teams play against each other each week, aiming for the best end-of-season record.

No matter how your league determines its winner, draft day is the most important moment of the season. Don't worry if you feel overwhelmed by the 1,696 NFL players to choose from. Even if you don't know Priest Holmes from Katie Holmes, you can still be competitive. (Priest is a Kansas City running back, acquired in free agency four years ago. Katie is an actress, acquired by Tom Cruise two months ago.)

Here's how to avoid rookie mistakes:

Got Your Back?

A bad first pick will essentially ruin your chances before opening day. Avoid first-round disaster by choosing the best available running back. Running backs score more touchdowns than wide receivers and they generally earn you more points on a weekly basis than quarterbacks.

"Peyton Manning is a great passer, but he has to rely on receivers to catch it to be productive," said John Hansen, owner and publisher of, a Web site and magazine. "Running backs are guys whose role is to churn out yardage and touchdowns. That's exactly what you're looking for."

A Numbers Game

Do your research and save your hunches for the Oscar pool. On draft day, trust the stats. In the world of fantasy football, statistics are the ultimate truth. Hitting the newsstands and investing five to seven bucks in a fantasy magazine such as Street & Smith's, ESPN or Athlon Sports can help you separate perception (player highlights and shoe commercials) from reality (cold, hard numbers).

For example, you might think that Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick is the league's most exciting player, but that doesn't mean he has a ton of fantasy firepower. Most magazines and Web sites barely have Vick in their top 10 at quarterback, and he's often below the top 50 overall.

To help you on draft day, all fantasy football magazines include a one- or two-page list ranking each player at each position. Just remember to spend some time online the day before your draft at a site such as to cross off players with major injuries and suspensions.

Don't Be a Homer

Every league has one sucker who picks three or four guys from his or her favorite team. Guess what? That owner never wins.

It might seem like a fun idea to take a wide receiver who went to your alma mater or to pick up a few Washington players because you bleed burgundy and gold, but don't do it. There isn't a league in the country that gives you bonus points because a player signed a football for your nephew.

"Being a homer isn't such a bad thing if you're a Colts fan," says Hansen. "But it can be a big problem if you're a Browns fan. Just make sure you're picking the best players and don't outthink yourself."

Sonny Amato

Sonny Amato is a Post sports writer and has been playing fantasy football for more than 10 years. His team, Tom Bosley's All-Stars, will be defending its league title.


Drafting and maintaining a solid fantasy football team requires attention. A good preseason magazine will get you caught up after a long off-season, and informative Web sites allow you to check trends and the status of players throughout the season. Here are some of the best:

* ESPN Fantasy Football 2005: The sports network's magazine offers a good cheat sheet and ranks every offensive player.

* Fantasy Football Index: Serious players read this publication for tons of stats and in-depth analysis.

* With its compre-hensive player profiles, depth charts and NFL rumors, this site will keep you informed throughout the season.

* On this official NFL site, you can take a quick glance at team headlines to see if you're missing out on a good free agent.

* Even hardcore fans think this site has more detailed articles than you would ever have the time to read.

* The entire NFL injury report on one page.

Sonny Amato

will chat online about fantasy football Monday

at 2 p.m. at