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NFL Picks of a Thoughtful Fool, Week 16

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Since I spent the weekend through Tuesday at the Mouse House in Orlando for my day job, I’ve only had sporadic contact with reality, such as it is, so I’m going to take the opportunity to clean out the junk drawer of quotes and links and such. Hold on to your hats.

Here’s Gregg Easterbrook (Tuesday Morning QB) on the problems with the NFL Network:

Today, ESPN and its established-channel competitors present NFL games on independent networks organized under journalism standards. That makes the games both more credible to viewers and more exciting. It’s exciting to watch a game on ESPN or CBS in a way that will never happen with NFLN. The NFL Network does some things well for a project that’s only in the third year, but it’s always clear you are viewing an in-house corporate promotion channel. If in the future the NFL was broadcast entirely on an in-house corporate promotion channel, viewer interest would decline. Specifically, the NFL seems insufficiently appreciative of how much value has been added to its product by ESPN. There’s a zany energy about ESPN no in-house broadcasting will ever offer. ESPN made it OK to be a total sports nut, OK to obsess about fantasy stats and the draft, OK to watch sports news during breakfast, OK to tape an hour of NFL highlights and review them slo-mo, OK to say to yourself “I live in the sports artificial universe, and I like it there.” At the same time, ESPN made it OK to make fun of sports — you can only enjoy the sports ecosphere if you admit to yourself it’s fundamentally silly. (In literary terms, you need “ironic detachment.”) The NFL never would have reached its current position of popularity and income without ESPN or something very much like ESPN.

I think I disagree with just about every sentence in that paragraph. I cannot imagine anything being further from my mind while watch a game, than the fact that the networks are independent from the league. Does Gregg suppose the networks are broadcasting something that the league would hide if they had control? Not likely if they have dreams of want to re-up their contract next time around.

But not only that, networks wouldn’t have to end coverage if they had no games. If anything, their total independence would encourage them to go after stories harder.

It is true that ESPN bought a new level of fun to sports, but that was in their early days when they didn’t televise games. ESPN is now the establishment. They are not particularly innovative or interesting anymore. The next innovation in sports journalism will not come from a network that carries games. It will be another brash outsider.

It is also true that part of ESPN’s early insouciance and popularity helped usher out the age of the grave and deeply sincere sports journalist. But that leadership is no longer needed. Everybody makes fun of sports now, including Yours Truly right here.

Really, what would be lost if all the games were on the NFL Network? ESPN would still do pre- and post-game shows, and probably show figure skating in-between. Highlights would still be on Sportscenter. This Week in the NFL would still be on HBO. Print media would be unaffected, as would Web media, which is where most of the valuable info is anyway.

Speaking of disagreement, is there anyone who doesn’t disagree with this quote from (my Detroit homeboy) David Fleming, also of ESPN.com?

…with stat geeks and fantasy analysis trying to take over the game, I cannot budge on this point and neither should you: In the NFL you are not a great quarterback unless you win a Super Bowl. Why not? Because, ultimately, this is a team sport and, fair or not, part of being a great quarterback is leading and inspiring the people around you to achieve things they could not have done on their own.

So a) Peyton Manning cannot be great unless he can inspire the worst rushing defense in the NFL to overacheive. That’s on Peyton, mind you — not Dungy, not Ron Meeks; and b) Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton = not great.

Speaking for us “stat geeks”, Dave, that begs a serious question: Are you insane? There’s an oversized arthropod down here who claims that by wishing on a star your dreams come true. That creature has firmer grip on reality than you.

And while we are on the topic of stat geeks, let me offer you a list of 15 things the Football Outsiders crew has learned of the course of several years of intense stat geekery:

1) You run when you win, not win when you run.

2) A great defense against the run is nothing without a good pass defense. In fact, in general, teams win or lose with the passing game more than the running game. (Note: “good pass defense” may mean “good pass rush” rather than “good defensive backs.”)

3) Ranking pass defenses based on total yardage allowed is phenomenally stupid. Poor teams will give up fewer passing yards because opponents will stop passing and will run out the clock instead.

4) You will score more when playing a bad defense, and you will give up more points when playing a good offense. This sounds absurdly basic, but when people consider team and player stats without looking at strength of schedule, they are ignoring this.

5) Rushing is more dependent on the offensive line than people realize, but pass protection is more dependent on the quarterback himself than people realize.

6) Recovery of a fumble, despite being the product of hard work, is almost entirely random. The same is true of blocked kicks and touchdowns during turnover returns. These plays are not “lucky,” per se, but they have no value whatsoever for predicting future performance.

7) Running on third-and-short is more likely to convert than passing on third and short. This is one of the reasons that good teams need to be able to both run and pass, even though the pass is more important overall. (Another is that if you never run, nobody will fall for your play-action fakes. See: 2005 Philadelphia Eagles.)

8) The most underrated aspect of an NFL team’s performance is the field position gained or lost on kickoffs and punts.

9) The total quality of an NFL team is 3/7 offense, 3/7 defense, and 1/7 special teams.

10) Offense is more consistent from year to year than defense, and offensive performance is easier to project than defensive performance. Special teams is less consistent than either.

11) Teams which are strong on first and second down, but weak on third down, will tend to improve the following year. Teams which are weak on first and second down, but strong on third down, will tend to decline the following year.

12) Running backs usually decline after age 28, tight ends after age 29, wide receivers after age 30, and quarterbacks after age 32, although in the last couple years a few players have had huge years after these general age guidelines (Martin, Dillon, Barber, Dunn, and lots and lots of wide receivers in 2004 like Horn and Muhammad). Note: We have not yet done research on when defensive players or offensive linemen begin to decline.

13) If yards per carry are equal, a running back who consistently gains yardage on every play is more valuable than a boom-and-bust running back who is frequently stuffed at the line but occasionally breaks a long highlight-worthy run. (Common historical misconception: This does not mean FO believes that Barry Sanders was overrated.)

14) By and large, a team built on depth is better than a team built on stars and scrubs. The main reason is that there is no such thing as avoiding injuries in the NFL. Every team will suffer injuries, the only question is how many. The game is too fast and the players too strong to build a team where you say “if we can avoid all injuries this year, we’ll win.”

15) Championship teams are generally defined by their ability to dominate inferior opponents, not their ability to win close games.

I love that kind of stuff. Some of these are verifications of common wisdom, like 4 and 14. Some are surprising enough to wonder whether they are real tendencies or statistical anomalies, like 11 and 15. Just about all of them could be an entire essay on its own.

Delving even deeper into the geeky side of things, over at Pro-Football-Reference.com they cranked up their silicon and actually ran 10,000 simulated football seasons with the goal of finding out how often the best team wins the Super Bowl. The project is spread across 5 articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The outcome: the best team wins about 24% of the time. One of the best three wins about half the time. There was one season in which the worst team in the league won the Super Bowl. Before you scoff at that idea, remember 10,000 is a lot of seasons — it’s more seasons than years of civilized human history, so it’s not all that shocking. I found this series of articles to be fascinating, but you probably won’t. If you do, then you are officially a stat geek. And stat geeks just win ball games.

Oh, and one non-football thing (and then I’ll stop — promise). This is absolutely the funniest Saturday Night Live skit ever, even funnier that More Cowbell: The lyrics are Not Safe For Work, but it is certainly in keeping with the Christmas spirit. (Hat tip: Florio over at PFT).

Results
Amazingly I nailed both the Thursday and Saturday games so I was going into Sunday with a two game cushion. Like that was going to last.

In the end it all came down to Monday Night. If the Bengals won I would be up on both the money line and the spread. If the Bengals lost by no more than 3 points, I would lose on the money line but be up on the spread. If the Bengals lost by more than three — I would be toast.

I am now toast.

3-4 versus the spread, brining us to 24-29 for the year for a net annual loss of $790. I’m really getting this negative indicator thing down.

The money line let me down for only the second time this year, with a 2-4 record, and a return of $520 on a layout of $600 for a mild loss of $80. For the year that makes the money line profit $1111.92. I would have to lose nearly every money line pick from here on to come up negative for the year. Of course, I probably just assured myself of doing exactly that.

Other Notes
I want to thank both the Pats and the Colts for hammering the competition the very week after I went on at length last week about how the big rivalry between them was over and the dynasties were crumbling. That was obviously personal and plainly vindictive.

Along the same lines, here’s an exact quote from last week: “How amazing is it that Steve McNair may make it through a season and into the playoffs without snapping some portion of his anatomy? (Jinx!)” Sorry, Steve. My bad.

No way the Bengals go anywhere with an O-line playing like that. They may stumble into the playoffs, but they don’t go anywhere. And yes, I am bitter.

The Mora family has nearly achieved the impossible. I almost feel sorry for Michael Vick.

Once again, T.O. spits in my face for suggesting a couple of weeks ago that he was growing up. He did it by proxy, hawking a big ol’ chum in the face of cornerback DeAngelo Hall. His “explanation” was that D’Angelo kept “bugging him.” That’s right, T.O. spat at someone because he was trash talking him.

T.O. says he apologized to Hall because he doesn’t make excuses and that’s the kind of man he is, so that’s that and he’s moving on. Just freakin’ amazing. He spews saliva in some guy’s face, says he’s sorry but obviously doesn’t regret it, and then preens about what a great man he is for apologizing. The guy is a real piece of work.

I think I’ll try that in my life. Take credit for the work of the guy in the next office over, then after I’m caught just apologize and point out to my boss what a noble character I am for coming clean about it, and maybe ask for a raise. Skip out on the bartender without paying, then apologize tersely and tell the bouncer it’s time we all just move on and how about a free drink for being such a forthright guy? That oughtta work.

A $35,000 fine means the league didn’t really buy into that strategy. .035 less reasons for T.O. to live. That’s gotta go in 2006 Guinness Book of Records as the World’s Most Expensive Loogie.

By the way, over the entrance to one of the crappy souvenir shops in Downtown Disney is a giant barbaric looking mouse statue that can only be assumed to be Mickey’s evil twin. At random intervals it emits a stream of water from its mouth on to the sidewalk below. Little kids love this. They jostle in the target area in eager anticipation of the next spewing in the hopes of getting drenched. (For those of you who have never been to the Mouse House, I am not making this up. It is a truly bizarre scene.)

So I ask, who is really to blame, T.O. or a society that encourages their children to revel in evil mouse spit?

Monday Night Football capsule review
Sadly, the standard review is not available this week. Through no fault of my own I ended up watching the game at the bar in the Rainforest Caf‚e. So I have no idea what flavor of idiocy the Stooges got into this week, but I can report that Arnie and Jess, who were seated to my right, were from Schenectady, NY, and they were in the area a hanging with the grandkids. They were Patriots fans and they really thought highly of that Tom Brady fellow — oh, by the way are the Patriots doing well this year?

Arnie was under the impression that the best way to for sports teams to recruit players would be to offer them financial consulting instead of cash because of how they are just kids and they tend to waste all the money they make from their big contracts. I really wasn’t up to a lengthly explanation of agents and the salary cap so I was going to say, “Hey, you might be on to something there. They could use a guy like you in that booth,” but his safari of 6 got called.

The guest was Matthew McConnaughey whom I strongly suspect made Joe Theismann look brainy.

Oh, and the other thing that was clear even without the sound was the whole shoe thing at the beginning. Who else but Ocho Cinco would want to wear such butt-ugly shoes? (I hope Tinkerbell wasn’t watching or she would have puked all over her brand new, super-stylin’, leopard print boots.) At the risk of being fired by ESPN, I’d have to say they were “kinda gay.” The money line on Chad Johnson making the cover of GQ either plummeted or skyrocketed, I don’t know which.

On to the second to last picks of the season.

Point Spread

Games with the wrong favorite
The Steelers are giving 3.5 to the Ravens in Pittsburgh. Both teams have something to play for: The Steelers to stay alive in the playoff hunt (technically) and the Ravens with a shot at a bye or even home field advantage throughout. Last time out the Ravens crushed the Steelers. I can’t see the Steelers winning by 4 even at home. I think this spread may partially be the result of a sentimental public seeing the three straight wins over weak teams. Pick: Ravens +3.5

Games where the spread is too high
This is a battle of two teams with equally disappointing seasons. DVOA-wise, Atlanta is only marginally superior to the Panthers and they need the home adjustment to get there. Gotta go with the Panthers to stay within a touchdown. Pick: Panthers +6

Philly is getting a full seven in Dallas in what should be a terrific game. Philly is now in the role of the feisty underdog (although stat geeks know they have been a top team all year). Dallas wants revenge over their loss in Philly. Then there is always the T.O. wild card which could go either way at this point. Oh, yeah, and the NFC East is at stake too. My feeling is that this is pretty close to even up (as DVOA suggests) and therefore, we’ll take the points. Pick: Eagles +7

We’ll pass on the Titans getting 4.5 in Buffalo. The Titans have been riding a wave but I’m not sold. More importantly, it could be very cold in Buffalo.

Games where the spread is too low
Cleveland is giving Tampa Bay 3 up next to Lake Erie. The Bucs have been abysmal and the decent work against Chicago last week was not enough to change my mind. I’ll be looking for some lake effect. Pick: Browns -3

The Chargers are certainly 4.5 points better than Seattle. Probably twice that, even figuring in the home advantage. The Seahawks have something to play for I suppose. They have a magic number of one but really, given that they can likely count on both the 49ers and the Rams to lose at least one on their last two games, they can’t feel all that much urgency. The Chargers are still trying to secure home throughout the playoffs. Pick: Chargers -4.5

With the Colts coming up in the finale, the Jets are likely the last chance for a Fins win. It’s all about the Kool-Aid. Pick: Dolphins -1.5

Games I’m not touching with a 10-foot pole
Pats v. Jags. Two of the most unpredictable teams imaginable. Absolutely anything could happen in this game. The 3-point home field advantage for Jacksonville ain’t going to cut it.

Bengals v. Broncos. You tell me. I would need at least a touchdown one way or the other to bet. The 3-point home field advantage for Denver ain’t going to cut it neither.

Bears v. Lions. Can you imagine the Bears only giving 4.5 points in this game? Yeah, because they have nothing to play for. They can sit every one of their starters the rest of the season.

Money Line Wow. Not only am I jinxing things the week after I make the call, now I am even jinxing myself in the very same column. Note how above I wrote, "I would have to lose nearly every money line pick from here on to come up negative for the year. Of course, I probably just assured myself of doing exactly that."

So what happens but the formula kicks out twelve games. Twelve. That puts all my winnings plus a little more at risk. When it comes to the art of the jinx, I am in the zone, baby! I am operating on a whole 'nother level.

But we do not question the formula (as much as I want to right now). We simply place ourselves in the hands of the football gods. See the recap for the picks.

Pick Recap

Point Spread Picks
Ravens +3.5
Panthers +6
Eagles +7
Browns -3
Chargers -4.5
Dolphins -1.5

Money Line Picks
Tennessee, $200
New Orleans, $130
Carolina, $245
Washington, $120
Baltimore, $165
Chicago, $50
New England, $130
Arizona, $175
Cincinnati, $145
San Diego, $50
Philadelphia, $260
Miami, $74.05

And we kickoff yet another week. Given my current status as jinxmaster and negative indicator, I have to advise you to bet the exact opposite of my choices. And remember: Everything I tell you is a lie.

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About David Mazzotta

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    So do you actually watch games with Tinkerbell? If so, how?

    That is to say, how do you restrain yourself from smothering her with a pillow?

  • david mazzotta

    I regularly watch games with Tinkerbell. She is vastly more entertaining than, say, Bryant Gumbel.

    If I tried to smother her, I would have to find a proctologist to remove the leopard print boot from my ass.

  • Tinkerbell

    Sussman–bite me.

    Fondly,
    Tink

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Er, I meant smother with a pillow in a good way.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    “If yards per carry are equal, a running back who consistently gains yardage on every play is more valuable than a boom-and-bust running back who is frequently stuffed at the line but occasionally breaks a long highlight-worthy run. (Common historical misconception: This does not mean FO believes that Barry Sanders was overrated.)”

    Thank you for that qualification! 😉

    Great article as always.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    So, how’d you do?

  • david mazzotta

    Par for the course v. the spread: 3-3.

    Massive return on the Money line, profit well over $1000. Sweet Fancy Moses!

    Just a note: Column likely won’t be out until Friday this week. I’m way way behind thanks Jesus being born a couple of millenia ago.