Football, football, football, football!
If you missed my Thursday column about Roger Goodell’s NFL That Never Sleeps (featuring my winning Seahawks minus-6 pick!), here’s the link.
If you want to send along a mailbag question for my Friday NFL Picks column this season (and I’m going to need good ones as always), here’s the link.
If you want to listen to my Guess the Lines podcasts with Cousin Sal every Monday, here’s the link.
If you want to make fun of my five weekly LVH Supercontest Picks on my Facebook page, here’s the link.
If you want to pick games against me, Ian Ziering, David Hasselhoff, Gary Busey, Mark McGrath and other well-known celebs in the 2014 Celebrity Picks Challenge Presented by Fireball Whisky, here’s the link.
Here’s the good news: My Friday picks column is now old enough to vote for president, fight for our country and maybe even be someone’s freshman roommate in college. That’s right … it’s Year 18. And you think so little of me at this point that you clicked on the link in the previous paragraph. Now you have that detestable “Rude” song running through your head for the rest of the day. And you deserve it. I thought we had something. I hope you feel bad.
Anyway, way back in September of 1997, I was living in Boston and writing for my self-created “Boston’s Sports Guy” website for millions and millions of readers. Fine, it was hundreds and hundreds. But that was the year I unleashed my first batch of mostly mediocre picks on an unsuspecting America. It’s been trial and error ever since. Mostly error. I juggled a handful of handicapping laws before eventually settling for the Gambling Manifesto That’s In My Head.
Why abandon a tried-and-true manifesto? I learned the hard way that football changes too much from year to year to survive too many enduring rules. For instance, the gambling gods conspired in 2013 to ruin everyone who fancied himself a handicapping expert. Every sharp and every degenerate will remember the devastating Great Gambling Train Wreck of 2013 years and years from now, the same way we’ll remember earthquakes, political scandals and unauthorized Saved by the Bell movies. My B.S. Report buddy and future Gamblers Anonymous roommate, Cousin Sal, recently sent me an invaluable link from The Sporting News. The three most relevant quotes from that piece, along with my notes in parentheses.
“In 2013, NFL favorites covered the spread at a 52.2 percent clip, the highest rate since 2005 and the third highest in the last 25 years … since 1990, NFL favorites covered an average of just 48.7 percent of games.”
(That’s bad. That’s very, very, very bad. Every “smart” gambler is trained to grab the points and go against the public as much as we possibly can. That’s how we butter our bread. Swing our luck by 3.5 percentage points and we’re in major trouble ranging from “Crap, I have to reload my off-shore betting account for the third time this month?” to “If I don’t meet some guy named Big Al in the parking lot behind Target on Main Street by 7:30 on Wednesday night, I’m gonna be walking with a limp.”)
“(For) seasons in which NFL favorites covered more than 51.5 percent (since 1990) … the average for those five seasons was 53.3 percent. In years following those seasons (highlighted in green), favorites covered, on average, just 47 percent of games. That’s a 6.3 percent swing (from 53.3 percent to 47 percent).”
(Wait, this is good! Is that why The Sporting News made the real headline for this column “The Year of the Dog”? I think it is!)
“In 2006, the year after the best NFL season for favorites in the last 25 years (57.8 percent of favorites covered in 2005), dogs ruled, with favorites covering just 44.6 percent. After the second best season for favorites (52.9 percent in 1998), dogs again cleaned up, as favorites went just 46.5 percent ATS. The third best year for NFL favorites was last season.”
(Translation: Year of the Dog, Part Three!!!!!!!)
So let’s make that one of our 2014 rules: “When in doubt, always, always, ALWAYS take the points.”
Some other rules that I plan on abiding by in 2014 …
Rule: Diligently avoid taking shaky QBs on the road, bad coaches against good coaches, and, especially, bad coaches coaching shaky QBs against good coaches on the road.
This year’s group of shaky QBs in no particular order: EJ Manuel–Kyle Orton; Geno Smith; Johnny Football; Jake Locker Unless He Shows Us Something Early; Chad Henne; Ryan Fitzpatrick; Derek Carr–Matt Schaub; Matt Schaub A Second Time; Robert Griffin III (sorry, D.C. fans, but it’s true and you know it); Tony Romo During Any Week In Which He’s Just Had An Epidural; Matt Cassel; Shaun Hill; Carson Palmer; Just About Any Shaky Backup.
Not on that list for now: Brian Hoyer (I’m a semi-fan); Josh McCown (I’m a believer); Kirk Cousins (I’m a fan); Teddy Bridgewater (I’m a HUGE fan); Blake Bortles or Derek Carr Unless They’re Playing Somewhere Scary Like Seattle (I don’t mind either of them); and Jimmy Garoppolo (my son’s first future football hero).
Rule: Don’t go against Seattle, Denver, New Orleans, Green Bay or New England at home with a spread under 8½.
Well, unless you have an amazing reason on the level of “Sports Illustrated just put Aaron Rodgers on the cover holding 10 black cats while standing under a ladder and posing with his new girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki.”
Rule: Don’t go against the Pats after a loss and/or when they’re getting points.
We have a 13-year Belichick-Brady track record at this point. In the situation I just described, they are 97,567-2 against the spread (all numbers approximate).
Rule: As always, be superduperduperduper careful of the Obvious Pick.
Whether it’s some allegedly hot team coming off a big win, the team that just looked awesome on Sunday or Monday night, the team that every “expert” is picking on Thursday and Friday, the most obvious candidate for your Eliminator Pool (like Chicago at home against Buffalo this week), or the team that’s getting picked 85 percent of the time on ESPN’s Pigskin Pick’em. Every week — repeat: EVERY WEEK — there’s always one Obvious Pick. Just be careful.
Rule: Always take a beat when you’re just blindly checking off games to ask yourself, “Wait, are we sure … ?”
Like the Jets laying five to Oakland in Jersey this week. When your brain is turned off, you lay the points, right? Who the hell would take Derek Carr and the Raiders on the road? But turn your brain on for a second … should that crappy Jets team be favored by five against ANYONE? Does home-field advantage matter when you’re getting booed because you’re down 17-0 in the second quarter and it looks like Tom Cruise could start at cornerback for you? Why are the Jets such an easy pick there?
Rule: Make a plan for double-digit spreads and stick with it.
Picking double-digit spreads is like having a 12 against a two in blackjack — there’s no right answer, but you’re better off doing the same thing every time. In 2014, I plan on grabbing the points unless it’s a breathtaking scenario along the lines of “The Seahawks just lost last week, they’re pissed off, and now Carson Palmer is coming to Seattle and he’s starting even though he might have a torn rotator cuff.”
Rule: Beware of obvious choices and not-totally-reliable candidates for two-team and three-team teasers.
You should approach every tease with this mind-set: I would feel totally comfortable betting my life on this if it wouldn’t be so bizarre to bet your life on a two-team football tease. I already broke this rule in Week 1 when I teased Seattle -6 (already covered) with Chicago -7.5 at home against Buffalo (looks sooooooooo easy on paper and I did it anyway). When Jay Cutler limps out of the game in the second quarter, blame me. It’s my fault.
Rule: When in doubt, always grab an underdog at home.
During a typical gambling season, home dogs will cover somewhere around 58-60 percent of the time. But during the Great Gambling Train Wreck of 2013? Home dogs started out hot as always (17-11 over the first five weeks), then free-fell into a fiery hell (25-34-2 over the next 12 weeks). Again, we have a solid amount of evidence that 2014 might be the Year of the Dog. I don’t need to spell this out for you.
Rule: Make a list of teams you irrationally like and dislike before the season starts, then stick to your guns those first five weeks.
I broke that strategy down in 2004’s award-winning “Simbotics” seminar — for instance, I love San Diego as 2014’s surprise 12-win contender, Tampa Bay as 2014’s “Nobody Believes In Us” sleeper, Baltimore as 2014’s comeback team, Cincy as 2014’s Slightly Undervalued Contender, and Minnesota as 2014’s super-frisky non-playoff team. I’m also waaaaaaaaay down on Carolina and Kansas City; I think the Falcons, Cardinals and Jets are worse than people think; I’m petrified of the QB situations in Buffalo, Houston and Washington; and I’m worried that San Francisco might have a Year From Hell Season. Throughout September, I am sticking to my guns — that’s how I feel, so that’s how I am picking games with those teams.
Rule: Don’t forget — it’s the Year of the Dog!!!
Write it down! YEAR OF THE DOG!!!!!!!!! Got it?
Before we hit the rest of the Week 1 picks, I wanted to mention my “circle” theory that I keep bringing up in podcasts but haven’t properly explained in print. We don’t have legitimate NFL juggernauts along the lines of the early-’90s Cowboys anymore; the Salary Cap Era makes it impossible. By January, every playoff team just hopes they became one of the seven or eight contenders with a chance to win the Super Bowl.
Think of it this way: You always leave an NBA season saying, “The best team clearly won,” with very few exceptions (2013 and 1988 being the most recent). You always leave an NFL season saying, “One of the best teams caught a few breaks, took care of business and deserved to win.” Most of it makes sense, but not all of it: the Helmet Catch, Rahim Moore, Kyle Williams, Santonio Holmes dragging his feet … I mean, in the words of Tony D’Amato, it really is a game of inches.
So you want to break into that January circle. Seven contenders usually do it, then there’s always that eighth late bloomer/sleeper/surprise team that unexpectedly crashes the party. We’ll call that team the Wonk Team, since things always get wonky as soon as the Wonk Team reveals itself. Check out how the last seven seasons played out. (Teams got two asterisks if they won the Super Bowl and one asterisk if they lost the Super Bowl.)
2013: Denver (13-3, alpha dog),* Seattle (13-3),** New England (12-4), San Francisco (12-4), Carolina (12-4), New Orleans (11-5), Cincy (11-5), San Diego (Wonk Team).
2012: Denver (13-3, alpha dog), Atlanta (13-3), New England (12-4), Houston (12-4), San Francisco (11-4-1),* Seattle (11-5), Green Bay (11-5), Baltimore (Wonk Team).**
2011: Green Bay (15-1, alpha dog), New England (13-3),* New Orleans (13-3), San Francisco (13-3), Baltimore (12-4), Pittsburgh (12-4), Houston (10-6), NY Giants (Wonk Team).**
2010: New England (14-2, alpha dog), Atlanta (13-3), Pittsburgh (12-4),* Baltimore (12-4), New Orleans (11-5), NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), Green Bay (Wonk Team).**
2009: Indy (14-2, alpha dog),* New Orleans (13-3),** San Diego (13-3), Minnesota (12-4), Dallas (11-5), Green Bay (11-5), Arizona (10-6), NY Jets (Wonk Team).
2008: Tennessee (13-3, alpha dog), Carolina (12-4), Pittsburgh (12-4),** NY Giants (12-4), Indy (12-4), Baltimore (11-5), Philly (9-6-1), Arizona (Wonk Team).*
2007: New England (16-0, alpha dog),* Green Bay (13-3), Dallas (13-3), Indy (13-3), San Diego (11-5), Jacksonville (11-5), Seattle (10-6), NY Giants (Wonk Team).**
From 2007 through 2013, the alpha dog made three Super Bowls and lost all three … and the Wonk Team won four Super Bowls and lost a fifth. That makes no sense whatsoever, but it also makes SOME sense if you believe that (a) the “Nobody Believes In Us” factor matters way more than we realize, and (b) the NFL playoffs are a freaking crapshoot.
Here’s what my 2014 circle looks like: I’m locking down Seattle (my 2014 guess: 14-2), New England (12-4), Denver (12-4), San Diego (11-5), New Orleans (11-5) and Cincy (11-5) as my six true contenders. The seventh contender: the NFC North champ (Green Bay or Chicago are both going 10-6 and it will come down to the 17th tiebreaker). And for the Wonk Team, let’s go with either Green Bay (if it’s a wild card) or A Team Coached By A Harbaugh Brother. That’s right, San Francisco and Baltimore — I’m looking at one of you to get your wonk on.
One more note: I don’t think San Francisco AND Green Bay will make the playoffs. At gunpoint, I’d say Green Bay is in, San Fran is out … and Baltimore will be the Wonk Team. My other three playoff teams: Tampa, Indy and Philly. So there you go.
Why didn’t I decide on a Wonk Team to win it all? I believe the Seahawks are talented enough and hungry enough to become our third back-to-back champs since 1994. Unlike so many other defending champs, they didn’t lose three or four key free agents; they didn’t get fleeced of their slightly overqualified assistant coaches; they didn’t have to overpay any of their Super Bowl heroes; and they actually might be more explosive than last season because of Russell Wilson (edging closer and closer to his prime) and Percy Harvin (finally healthy). They have the best home-field advantage in any sport. And best of all, everyone writes off defending champs for all the reasons mentioned earlier — we just assume the NFL is too much of a crapshoot, and that you’re never getting that lucky twice.
You know what? That’s awesome for the Seahawks. In a weird way, they’re almost the “Nobody Believes In Us” champs. I have them beating my beloved Patriots in the Super Bowl, followed by four straight months of my dad complaining, “I can’t believe Pete F---ing Carroll just beat us in the Super Bowl.”
Let’s quickly rip through the Week 1 picks …
SEAHAWKS (-6) Packers
Winner! They can’t make the spread for next week’s Jets-at-Packers game high enough for me.
Saints (-3) over FALCONS
Love grabbing the Saints in any dome, love going against the overvalued Falcons this early. Meanwhile, I know Rembert Browne already covered Bryan Cox’s taste in movies in this week’s Hard Knocks recap, as Cox dropped gems like “I like to watch Shallow Hal and movies like that,” “Adam Sandler movies — I like any movie he put out, I’m going” and “Best Man Holiday is the best movie out in the last five years, I think.” But one Cox quote stuck out for me:
I like the movies that, when you go to the newspaper, and look at the review, they got three stars. ’Cause those damn people don’t know what the hell they be talking about. I wanna go see them movies, I don’t want to go see the ones for the Academy Awards. Them some boring-ass movies. I don’t want to see them movies. Too serious. I don’t want to see them movies. I got enough stress in my life to go watch some more stressful shit. I don’t want to see that.
Can you really say he’s wrong? For Bryan Cox, movies are an escape from the stressful shit of real life. He doesn’t want the realism of Mark Wahlberg fighting for his life on a Middle Eastern mountain in the most realistic war movie since Saving Private Ryan; he wants to see Morris Chestnut improbably deliver his friend’s baby in the backseat of a car in Best Man Holiday, then step out of that same car with no blood or placenta gook whatsoever on his hands, slap those unsullied hands together and stick them in his pockets. He wants to see Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore take their respective kids on a $100,000 African vacation; HE DOESN’T CARE that this trip was improbably given to them by Sandler’s boss for reasons that remain unclear.
You know what? My kids don’t care, either. They love Sandler’s movies. They don’t want any stressful shit in their lives, either. I think Bryan Cox is on to something. After the NFL season is over, I want to hire him for Grantland and send him to whatever the opposite of Sundance is.
Bengals (+1) over RAVENS
Good luck taking the Ravens against Cincy’s D when they’re running the ball for 1.7 yards a carry. By the way, the funniest moment of every fantasy draft this year was the 35 seconds after someone took Ray Rice — millions of times around America, someone talked themselves into it, said the name “Ray Rice,” endured the immediate post-pick ribbing from everyone else in the room, realized they just made the all-time bad fantasy football karma move, then spent the next 15 minutes with the Mike Myers “Uh-Oh, Kanye Is Going Off The Script” Face. I wouldn’t have taken Ray Rice in a 100-round draft, but that’s just me.
BEARS (-7) over Bills
Laying the points while acknowledging the following red flags: Bears fans are secretly about 38 percent too confident about this Bears season even if they’d never admit it; Chicago’s defense couldn’t be a bigger candidate for giving up a garbage-time TD cover; the Bears are Week 1’s A-list candidate to murder hundreds of thousands of two-team teasers, three-team teasers and eliminator pools.
(And with all of that said … you get to go against a head coach who screamed “GO AHEAD AND FIRE ME!” at team officials recently, as well as a starting QB who has looked so shaky that his team just panic-dropped $11 million over two years on Kyle Orton. Take a deep breath and lay the points.)
TEXANS (-3) over Washington, D.C.
Between the never-ending name controversy, the whole “Wait, Jay Gruden is the HEAD coach?” thing and the whole everyone-knows-Cousins-is-better-than-Griffin not-quite-a-controversy-that’s-about-to-become-a-controversy, I’m forced to lay points with Ryan Fitzpatrick. It didn’t feel great until my buddy House (die-hard D.C. fan) sent me this Gruden email:
Here’s the problem with the racist-skins: Jay Gruden appears to be an (expletive) nincompoop. Impossibly small sample-size obviously, but I don’t like his behavior vis-a-vis command of the team, decision-making or ability to adapt to the team’s real-time needs as they develop in games & over the course of the season, his demeanor, how he talks, the way he interacts with the media, the way he interacts with the players or the clothes he wears. Other than that, I think he’s awesome.
Raiders (+6) over JETS
Browns (+7) over STEELERS
Had the Jets and Steelers penciled in until I did the “Wait, are we sure … ?” routine on them. Meanwhile, here’s Week 1’s WTF of the Week: Did you know CBS assigned Jim Nantz and Phil Simms to the Raiders-Jets game? Did they secretly get demoted? Are they being punished? Did they just want to see if Simms snapped after watching two hours of Geno Smith and Derek Carr? Did they forget the Pats were playing in Miami? Did Nantz have great U.S. Open seats for the men’s final that he didn’t want to give up? Did the guy running CBS football suffer a head injury and mistakenly think it was 1968? WTF???
Titans (+3.5) over CHIEFS
You could have talked me into the Titans as this year’s Improbable Wild Card Just Because Of Their Cream Puff Schedule if you bought me two more drinks. Hey, if you had to make a gambling spread for “Number of playoff wins for the 2014 Royals” versus “Number of wins for the 2014 Chiefs,” what would it be? I think it’s “Chiefs minus-2.” And I’m taking the Royals. (Uh-oh, Rany Jazayerli is keeled over his computer keyboard right now — somebody call the paramedics!!!!!!!!!)
Pats (-4.5) over DOLPHINS
I always loved the parallels between the Spurs and Pats — pounded out a steady excellence that peaked in the first part of the last decade, kept cranking out high-quality seasons because of the Brady-Belichick and Duncan-Pop infrastructure, kept hanging around, suffered some bad beats, kept hanging around, and now they’re still contending all these years later. The 2013-14 NBA season became The Last Great Duncan-Pop Season, as you know. Hoping we’ll say the same about the 2014 NFL season for Brady and Belichick. It’s certainly the best defense they’ve had in 10 years. Stay tuned.
Jaguars (+10.5) over EAGLES
12 against a 2 … HIT ME! Meanwhile, here’s the funniest/angriest email of Week 1, courtesy of Stephen in Glendale, CA:
Bill, let me start off by saying I was watching the Ellen Degeneres show a couple days ago because I was stoned and couldn’t find the remote. It occurred to me that you and Ellen could be brother and sister. You’re both very successful with Anglo-Saxon features and have both overcome life obstacles, her coming out and you being exceedingly mediocre. In any case, as a Jaguar fan, I’ve put up with a lot in the past few years. Everything from having to watch Blaine Gabbert try and take on a pass rush to Blaine Gabbert generally existing. When Justin Blackmon was drafted, I thought we had an All-Pro caliber player, but instead we got an All-Pro [deleted by the editors]. Last year, we started 0-8 but ended the year 4-4, a finish that I felt was something to be built on. We even had a great draft. So, upon seeing that Mays and Barnwell had their AFC South podcast, I stupidly thought “Hey, here’s a chance to hear some optimism about the Jaguars.” I sat through a half-hour of Andrew Luck talk before Mays asked Barnwell, “So what do you think the Jaguars will be good at and Barnwell responded “Scoreboard.” I hate you Bill Simmons and your Jaguar hating cronies. I hate you all. You’ll see what happens when the Bortles generation starts, Justin Blackmon finds Jesus, and the Jaguars go 7-9 this year and 11-5 next year. I mean, the defense that just ripped the Broncos to shreds in the playoffs was constructed by the dude that is currently head coaching our team! You and your smug colleagues can go to Hell.
Vikings (+3.5) over RAMS
This week, I participated in an excellent NFL wins pool (described here) in which I ended up with the third, 13th and 30th picks. Seattle and New England went 1-2, so I grabbed Denver at no. 3. I took Tampa over Baltimore at no. 13 as my higher-ceiling gamble. And at no. 30, improbably, I had the Vikings and Rams on the board (with the not-improbable Raiders). My pick? The Vikings! And here’s why …
• I already thought Sam Bradford was going to undermine a talented Rams team, so even if Shaun Hill ends up being 80 percent as good as Bradford (a realistic bet since Bradford was never that good), that’s a super-size undermine.
• I actually like this Vikes team. Ideally, they win this game, blow three of the next four, then Bridgewater steps in and they make a belated playoff run. Lots of weapons, new outdoor stadium under construction, Mike Zimmer, All-Day, great 2014 draft, Teddy with a chip on his shoulder … sign me up. In December, when the Vikes are 9-6 and Dallas is 2-13, we’ll be laughing about how Adrian Peterson wanted to be a Cowboy. Seriously. We’ll have a nice collective guffaw about it.
BUCS (-3) over Panthers
My dream Week 1 matchup: my favorite still-undervalued team playing at home against 2014’s no. 1 regression candidate. Actually, this game is like a hot blackjack table. Just shut up. Don’t celebrate, don’t brag, don’t count your chips, don’t taunt the pit boss, don’t say anything.
Niners (-4.5) over COWBOYS
Three quick notes here: I have Kaepernick on both fantasy teams and can’t wait to trade him right after his 49-point performance in this game; I agree with Bill Barnwell that this Cowboys defense has a chance to be historically abysmal; and Jason Garrett’s +200 “First Coach Fired” odds is the single best NFL wager on the board right now. I look forward to the Niners throwing everyone off their possibly rancid Year From Hell scent with a blowout victory in this one. So many red flags. We’ll tackle this next week.
Meanwhile, here’s the funniest idea of Week 1, courtesy of Luke Peacock in Jacksonville:
I went to college in Dallas and almost all of my friends from there are Cowboys fans. After another 8-8 season, I persuaded my most passionate Cowboy fan friend to start a “league” called The Cowboy Dismount, where we get 16 disillusioned Cowboys fans to agree to stop supporting the Cowboys and be assigned two new NFL teams to root for (one NFC, one AFC). There’s a buy-in fee, and at the end of the season, whoever’s team wins the Super Bowl gets 60% of the pot, and whoever’s team gets the top pick in next year’s draft gets 40% of the pot. The person who gets randomly assigned the Cowboys has to pay an extra buy-in as a form of punishment for continuing to support the most mediocre team in sports.
We did the draft last week and people are legitimately excited to not have to root for the Cowboys anymore. Here’s a link to the Facebook page. Enjoy!
(Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 Dallas Cowboys!!!!)
BRONCOS (-8) over Colts
“Manning in a night game” plus “Denver giving less than eight at home” plus “Indy isn’t that good to begin with” definitely outweighs “Is there anything worse than rooting against Andrew The Giant as he’s driving for a spread-busting, garbage-time TD?” But I don’t feel great about it. Just throw Denver into a tease and thank me later.
Giants (+6) over LIONS
Tampa’s Lovie Smith was this year’s best W.A.R.M. candidate for my “Wins Above Raheem Morris” stat — that’s the “metric” that covers the statistically incalculable upgrade from an incompetent coach to a competent coach. He’s a big reason why I like the 2014 Bucs. Lovie Smith’s teams always compete and play terrific defense. Had Detroit hired him, I would have picked Detroit to go 11-5.
You know who’s NOT a W.A.R.M. candidate? Jim Caldwell … a.k.a. This Decade’s Art Shell. This will not end well.
Chargers (+3) over CARDS
Wait a second … there’s a second Week 1 game pitting an Undervalued 2014 Team That I Love against Another Obvious Regression Candidate? And I’m GETTING points? I love the Year of the Dog so much that I’m posting a picture of my dog. Let’s do this, Rufus.
This Week: 1-0