Mr. Holland had “An American Symphony.” I have Simbotics.
Like Mr. Holland, I wasted too much time tinkering with my opus — a foolproof way of picking NFL games — and like Mr. Holland’s opus, it will never be finished, may not have been good enough in the first place, and will probably end with ESPN firing me. But not before 500 readers fill a high school gymnasium to say goodbye to me and my family, then a former reader turned senator from California tells the crowd
“I get the feeling that Bill considers a great deal of his life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this NFL gambling system of his, and this was going make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Simmons isn’t rich, not after losing all that money gambling on his system. And he isn’t famous, mainly because he stopped writing columns, did too many podcasts even though his voice sucks, tried to sell out with that book about Tony Kornheiser, “Tuesdays With Tony,” and got bullied by his bosses into doing shows in which sportswriters scream at each other about the stories of the day. So it might be easy for him to think of himself as a failure. But he’d be wrong. Look around you, Mr. Simmons. There isn’t a life in this room that you didn’t touch. See these 500 unemployed guys and college stoners who still read your column religiously? They are your symphony!”
Fine, that’s a worst-case scenario. Simbotics actually worked for me last season: I went 58-32 against the spread through six weeks before my book tour knocked me off stride. I love the system because it can never be proved wrong: If you screw up, the system didn’t fail — you failed. Here’s how it works: Decide which teams you like and dislike before the season, stick to your guns, pick games accordingly and trust that through the first three weeks, you know as much as Vegas does. Check out these layup lines from Week 1 in 2009 (home teams in caps):
Vikings (-4) over BROWNS
PACKERS (-3.5) over Bears
Cowboys (-6) over BUCS
SAINTS (-13) over Lions
And Week 2:
Bengals (+9) over PACKERS
Saints (PK) over EAGLES
JETS (+4) over Patriots
BRONCOS (-3.5) over Browns
Colts (-3) over DOLPHINS
That’s nine of the first 32 games: All lay-ups if you had those teams figured out before Vegas. Even if you finished one game over .500 on the other 23 games, adding your 9-0 for the other ones, that’s 21-11 through two weeks. Do your homework, stick to your guns and good things will happen in September. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop tinkering with the system. I added two wrinkles for my 2010 preparation.
1. Identify not just sleepers but creepers and grenades
Every season from 2003-09 had at least one “sleeper” (a playoff team that finished 5-11 or worse the previous season), one “creeper” (a non-playoff team that jumped at least five wins and earned a first-round playoff bye), and one “grenade” (a No. 1 or No. 2 seed that missed the playoffs the following year). So figure out which three teams will fit those categories.
(Important note: You might be worried that, within 10 years, the terms “creepers” and “grenades” will be obsolete. My response: Did you ever think viewers for “The Jersey Shore” would approach 6 million people? Did you ever think The Situation would earn a reported $5 million per year and get picked for “Dancing With The Stars”? Did you ever think Sammi versus J-Woww would be America’s single most anticipated fight since De La Hoya-Mayweather three years ago? I think this show will have legs. I fully expect California governor-elect Michael Sorrentino to raise my property taxes in 2018. Just wait. It’s going to be a situation.)
2. Incorporate the Three Up/Three Down Corollary
Every season since 2003 (one year after the NFL switched to eight divisions), we’ve seen at least three non-playoff teams from the previous season make the playoffs with a plus-5 (or better) increase in wins, and we’ve seen at least three playoff teams drop out with a minus-4 decrease (or worse) in wins. These were mostly sleepers, creepers or grenades. Check it out.
2009 Saints, 13-3 (+5 wins from 2008, creeper)
2009 Packers, 11-5 (+5)
2009 Bengals, 10-6 (+5.5, sleeper)
2008 Panthers, 12-4 (+5, creeper)
2008 Ravens, 11-5 (+6)
2008 Dolphins, 11-5 (+10, sleeper)
2008 Falcons, 11-5 (+7, sleeper)
2007 Packers, 13-3 (+5, creeper)
2007 Bucs, 9-7 (+5)
2007 Browns, 10-6 (+6, sleeper)
2006 Ravens, 13-3 (+7, creeper)
2006 Chargers, 14-2 (+5, creeper)
2006 Jets, 10-6 (+6)
2006 Saints, 10-6 (+7, sleeper)
2005 Bears, 11-5 (+6, creeper and sleeper)
2005 Bucs, 11-5 (+6)
2005 Giants, 11-5 (+5)
2004 Steelers, 15-1 (+9, creeper)
2004 Chargers, 12-4 (+8, sleeper)
2004 Falcons, 11-5 (+6)
2003 Patriots, 13-3 (+5, creeper)
2003 Chiefs, 13-3 (+5, creeper)
2003 Rams, 12-4 (+5, creeper)
2003 Cowboys, 10-6 (+5, sleeper)
2009 Titans, 8-8 (-5 losses from 2008, grenade)
2009 Panthers, 8-8 (-4, grenade)
2009 Giants, 8-8 (-4, grenade)
2009 Dolphins, 7-9 (-4)
2008 Packers, 6-10 (-7, grenade)
2008 Jags, 5-11 (-6)
2008 Seahawks, 4-12 (-6)
2007 Bears, 7-9 (-6, grenade)
2007 Ravens, 5-11 (-8, grenade)
2007 Jets, 4-12 (-7)
2006 Broncos, 9-7 (-4, grenade)
2006 Jags, 8-8 (-4)
2006 Bucs, 4-12 (-7)
2006 Redskins, 5-11 (-5)
2005 Eagles, 6-10 (-7, grenade)
2005 Packers, 4-12 (-6)
2005 Jets, 4-12 (-6)
2004 Chiefs, 7-9 (-6, grenade)
2004 Titans, 4-12 (-7)
2004 Dolphins, 4-12 (-6)
2003 Bucs, 7-9 (-5, grenade)
2003 Raiders, 4-12 (-7, grenade)
2003 Giants, 4-12 (-6)
Final tally: seven seasons, 11 grenades, 10 creepers, eight sleepers. That’s the National Football League for you. Teams go up, teams go down, parity prevails. That’s what the league wants.
Our 2010 grenade can’t be Indy (still a force) or San Diego (even a little depleted, I can’t see it botching the pathetic AFC West). The Saints should tail off from 13 wins, but all the way to .500 or lower? With the best quarterback and an elite coach? Come on. They’re a wild card at worst. That leaves the Vikings, a feel-good 2-seed in 2009 but now they’re saddled with a tougher schedule, higher expectations, bad memories from January, Brett Favre limping around on a bad peg, Sidney Rice missing for two months, Percy Harvin crippled by migraines, a possible juggernaut lurking in their own division (Green Bay), Brad Childress, Brad Childress and — for a third time — Brad Childress. Feels like a grenade-eligible 7-9 or 6-10.
Who gets those four 2010 playoff byes? I’m writing in Indy and Green Bay with a permanent pen. I’m using a pencil for the Steelers, who suffered a textbook Super Bowl hangover season, then threw everyone off their 2010 scent with Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension. Even if they go 2-2 without Not-So-Big-Anymore Ben and 9-3 with him, that’s a 2-seed unless Roger Goodell rules that Roethlisberger has to play every game while wearing a black ski mask and O.J.’s old Isotoners. Don’t rule this out.
For our fourth playoff bye, house rules require a 2010 creeper. I thought about the Titans (8-8 last season, frisky down the stretch), but that means going against division rival Indy. The Colts are like a cold craps table — once you realize it’s cold, just walk away. Don’t try to be a hero. It will end badly. Always. Same for going against the Colts. Don’t be a hero. Let them tell us when they’re done. Then, and only then, can you start picking against them.
Another team with creeper potential: Atlanta. I see the Falcons flipping places with New Orleans thanks to a killer 2008 draft (in Season 3, the benefits are reaped); some bad 2009 luck (usually evens out); comeback years for Matt Ryan (battled turf toe, didn’t have slot guy Harry Douglas last season) and Michael Turner (banged up last year); an upgraded defense (headed by free agent Dunta Robinson); a quality coach (Mike Smith); a genuine home-field advantage (the Georgia Dome); and a mildly weird streak tilting in their favor (no team has won the NFC South two years in a row). Unfortunately, creeper laws say we need a plus-5 increase and the Falcons went 9-7 last year. Did you know no NFC team has won 14 games since the 2001 Rams? Sorry, Atlanta. I still have you going 11-5.
That leaves San Francisco: Dreadful division. Four games against the AFC West. A creampuff home schedule (toughest game: New Orleans in Week 2) and five potentially tough road games: Atlanta (Week 4), Carolina (Week 7), Arizona (Week 12, Monday night) and San Diego (Week 15, Thursday night). If Zona craps the bed with Derek Anderson — and he’s a serial bed-crapper — then why couldn’t the loaded Niners improve from eight wins to 13?
Now here’s where you say, “BECAUSE ALEX SMITH IS THEIR QUARTERBACK, THAT’S WHY!!!!!!!!!!”
I knew that was coming. Here’s my response
2001 Bears: Jim Miller
2001 Steelers: Kordell Stewart
2002 Chiefs: Trent Green
2005 Broncos: Jake Plummer
2005 Seahawks: Matt Hasselbeck
2006 Bears: Rex Grossman
2008 Titans: Kerry Collins
What do those seven quarterbacks have in common? They all went 13-3. So there.
As for my other postseason picks, the Three Up/Three Down Corollary requires two more newbies with five-win jumps (I’m picking the Giants and my 2010 sleeper, to be revealed shortly), as well as two ’09 playoff teams falling out with a four-win drop (that’s easy: Philly and Arizona). Filling out the postseason spots: two newbies (Atlanta and Miami) and two incumbents (Cincy and New England). That gives us six newbies and six incumbents. Perfect.
(A quick defense for picking New England over the overhyped J-E-T-S Jets Jets JETS! First, I seem to be the only person who remembers that the Jets were 9-7 last year. You’d think they went 19 and minus-3. Second, I don’t trust the Sanchize even a little. Not a smidge. Unless he was trying to get us drinks from a crowded bar and the bartender was a cute female. Third, all the fuss about New England’s admittedly shaky defense obscured its explosive offense: The Pats are loaded at receiver and tight end, they have Brady, they can chuck the ball with anyone and they’re pissed off that nobody is picking them. And fourth, I’m a huge homer. So there. Back to the column.)
Blowing through the other 20 teams: I have the over-over-over-overhyped Ravens (just as shaky a defense as New England, not as good an offense), Cowboys (we’ll tackle them later) and Texans (the NFL’s Tom Cavanagh in that everyone likes them, but they can’t seem to find a hit show) as overvalued; the Panthers, Lions and Raiders as undervalued; the Rams, Bills, Broncos, Seahawks, Bucs and Bears as the league’s doormats; and the Jags, Titans, Chiefs and Browns treading water. So I’m wagering accordingly.
That brings us to my 2010 sleeper. You know the drill. Has to be a team that sucked the previous year (6-10 or worse). Has to be a team getting little to no buzz. Has to be someone with a fairly easy September schedule that you could see making the cover of Sports Illustrated before Week 4 or Week 5 with a headline like “Here Come The Raiders!” Has to be a team that can realistically jump five wins or more. Has to be a team with something of a “new-car smell” — either a newish coach, a newish QB or both. And ideally, it should be a team that makes people say, “Wait a second — really, you’re picking THEM???” Although you can’t force it. If it’s not there, it’s not there.
Only Buffalo, Kansas City, Tampa, Seattle, St. Louis, Washington, Cleveland, Detroit and Oakland qualify for “sleeper” status in 2010. We’re throwing out the first five on principle. The Browns finished 2009 strong and reek of sleeper potential, but we’re eliminating them because God hates Cleveland. The Raiders look enticing because of their division (awful), schedule (only three ’09 playoff teams), QB (even if Jason Campbell is mediocre, that’s a huge leap for them), talent (decent) and “Really!” factor (pick the Raiders for the playoffs and anyone with an IQ over 75 goes, “REALLY???????”). Then you remember that Al Davis is a decomposing Donald Sterling. Scratch them off. And Detroit’s youthful friskiness and the Ndamukong Suh/Jahvid Best/Kyle Vanden Bosch additions are appealing, but only one team finished 2-14 or worse and made the playoffs this decade: the 2008 Dolphins. Too risky. The Lions are a year away.
That leaves the Redskins of Washington. Four wins last season. Slipping under the radar in 2010 because of their division (tough on paper), this summer’s insufferable Mike Shanahan/Albert Haynesworth feud (overshadowed all other Redskins news), high turnover (they cut 10 veterans and signed 27 new free agents) and last year’s embarrassing 0-6 record in the NFC East. But as Football Outsiders points out, the ’09 Redskins were significantly unlucky in two departments: injuries and close games (2-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less). Throw in the Shanahan/Jim Zorn and Donovan McNabb/Jason Campbell upgrades and that’s my choice.
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My Super Bowl pick: Indianapolis over Atlanta. Not a jinx on the Colts. As far as you know.
Third-to-last note: This is the 20th anniversary of my first NFL gambling season — 1990 — when I started betting with a college friend’s cousin’s bookie because I was so bored by another hideous Patriots season. At some point, I realized, “Wait a second, every time I bet on a team, I care about what happens in a football game for three hours! It’s almost like renting a favorite team!” The rest was history.
Second-to-last note: To celebrate 20 magical years of degeneration, I joined the Las Vegas Hilton’s SuperContest for the 2010 NFL season. The stakes? $1,500 per entry and a potential grand prize of $200,000 or more (depending on the final number of entrants). Fellow ESPN writer/Vegas junkie Chad Millman talked me into it. Or I talked him into it. Fine, neither of us needed to be talked into it. But for 17 straight weeks, we’ll make five picks against the spread and compete against the finest group of sharps, wiseguys and seedy gamblers Vegas has to offer.
Last note: If you ever travel back in time and see 1990 Me, tell him that 2010 Me is writing an NFL picks column and battling Vegas wiseguys in something called the “SuperContest.” 1990 Me will be really excited. It’s the little things in life. Also, while you’re there, tell him he’s an idiot, tell him to dump his college girlfriend immediately, tell him to stay single until there’s a diploma in his hand, tell him to sell every baseball card he bought from 1984 to 1990 and tell him he doesn’t have to save all those VHS tapes because something called “YouTube” is coming. Thanks.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.