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NFL Picks of a Thoughtful Fool, Week 15

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I have virtually no interest in college football, and that is rather odd. I graduated from the University of Michigan. I live very close to Ann Arbor, and consider it my home. It’s hard to imagine a location more focused on college football. People even gladly accept that for a half dozen or so Saturdays out of every year, they will not be able to get anywhere in the city for the span of about six hours as streets are closed to general traffic and endless throngs of outlanders in $200 throwback jerseys with blue & gold flags on their cars make their way in and out of town for the game. 110,000+ Wolverine fans from far and wide go to great effort to get wedged like sardines into the Big House and cheer wildly. Meanwhile, I could get alumni tickets and easily drive the fifteen minutes into town for the game yet I can’t be bothered to even watch the game on TV.

I don’t hate college football, as many of my friends keep accusing me of. (I’ve never understood why not sharing someone else’s enthusiasm equates to hatred.) I just don’t have any interest in it. There are a few reasons for that. One is that there is no permanence of players. Yes, free agents move about in the NFL, but in the pros you can watch a team being built for the long term (unless you’re a Lions fan). How long have the Colts been laboring to build a base of talent and then fill holes to get where they are today? You also get to see teams go in the opposite direction as the league catches up to them — think of the Rams days as the greatest show on turf. In college they win the National Championship and if you get one more year out of them before they go pro, count yourself lucky.

Since you aren’t really a long term fan of the players in college, to make it interesting, you have to be true to your school to get enthusiastic about the games. Rah-rah-sis-boom-bah, and so forth. I’m not like that. I like living in Ann Arbor, and I think I got a decent education at Michigan, but then, that’s what I paid them for. And I paid them a lot. They had no particular interest in me as a person and I have no particular interest in them as an institution. As far as I’m concerned, going to school was roughly equivalent to a business agreement. I gave them money; they let me into some classes. I completed some assignments; they gave me a degree. That’s about it.

Not only that, it’s very hard for me to look at a college game and not see the enormous diminishment in the quality of play compared to pros. To put it as pretentiously as possible, if you appreciate the artistry of football, the NFL is the Louvre, the NCAA is the Fargo Museum of Contemporary Art.

This related to a problem the NFL had this week. Lucky for me, the Lions were playing on Sunday night. That freed up three network time slots for afternoon games, which is rare. Usually you get two games either in the 1pm or 4pm slots, whichever one the Lions game is not in (as the local team they get sole possession of their time slot) unless the Lions have a bye, or one of the networks is self-destructive enough to put the Lions on in prime time. (I could go on about the lofty asswit quotient of the NFL TV schedule for about 8000 words, but I’ll spare you that for now.)

So this week we had Indy/Jacksonville and Chicago/Pittsburgh at 1pm and KC/Dallas at 4pm. Best line-up of games all year. Kind of made up for the horrible prime time match-ups. Yes, I know you guys with NFL Sunday Ticket are pointing and laughing at me now. The fact that it is only available for Direct TV subscribers means, quite frankly, that you are supporting an illegal monopoly and I am appalled at your callously selfish behavior at the expense of the civil rights of your fellow citizens. But I digress.

Watching the Indy game I was, if possible, even more impressed with what an incredible team they are. Even if you, like me, are not-so-secretly hoping for them to suffer a loss somewhere along the line, you just have to be mesmerized by the quality of play. After watching Indy, seeing the other games was like watching college football. There is that marked of a difference. I have reached the point where I will be surprised if they don’t run the table this year. It kind of took a bit of the intesity out of the remaining games.

Interestingly, a number of columnists over at ESPN.com seem to think the correct thing for the Colts to do is rest people for the playoffs.

Jason Whitlock writes:

Going undefeated does not give you football immortality. Not one member of the undefeated Miami Dolphins is a true NFL legend. Not even Don Shula. No one even believes that the undefeated Dolphins are one of the all-time great teams.

I’m not trying to disrespect Shula or what his team accomplished. I’m just asking people to put Dungy and the Colts’ mission in proper perspective. If sitting Manning, Edgerrin James and Dwight Freeney will help the Colts win the Super Bowl, then that’s exactly what Dungy should do.

Going undefeated is not remotely important. You know what going undefeated gets you? An interview on ESPN 30 years later that makes sports fans rush to the Internet to figure out who Mercury Morris is.

Whitlock (one of my favorite columnists at ESPN.com) contradicts himself directly. None of the undefeated Miami Dolphins are truly legendary, then we must still remember them for some other reason. Could it be because they went undefeated?

Clearly, just winning a Super Bowl does not give you immorality. Mercury Morris is getting front page headlines. When’s the last time anyone interviewed, say, Kenny King?

You can even be one of the all time greats without winning a Superbowl. Ask Dan Marino about that. Too recent an example? Ask Thurman Thomas. Ask Fran Tarkenton.

In fact, the 2005 Colts are probably already set-up to be considered one of the best teams ever, even if they don’t win the Superbowl, simply because there is no other NFL team that has been so totally dominant in recent memory. They are likely going down as a revolutionary team in the history of football, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

Take it a step further. The comparison to the ’72 Dolphins is probably not even adequate. Were the Colts to go 19-0, any debate about the best team in history would probably be moot. A better comparison would be the 1985 Bears if they had gone undefeated. They, like the present day Colts, occasionally toyed with the opposition (Fridge as a running back). Would anybody give other than lip service to another team as the best ever? The stakes are extraordinarily high.

Dan Shanoff writes:

[An undefeated season is a] misguided as a goal. Immortality is a siren, even if it IS within sight. 19-0 is just the type of eye-OFF-the-ball thinking that leads to stumbling before they reach the real goal, a Super Bowl title.

And make no mistake: At this point, if the Colts don’t win the Super Bowl — whether they go 16-0, 15-1, 14-2 or 13-3 along the way — they are utter failures.

[Columnist Adrian Wojnarowski] says people don’t remember individual year’s Super Bowl champs? Give me a break. Know who people really don’t remember? A season’s top contender that doesn’t win the Super Bowl. Oh, wait. Except, as chokers.

So why try for immortality when you can potentially increase the odds of having everyone admire you as one of 40 (and eventually 50, 60, 70…) Super Bowl winners? Why not take a day off Cal? You’ll still make the hall of fame. What’s the point of taking that mountain stage Lance? You’ve already matched Merckx.

The point, of course, is that if everyone took the safe route over a shot at immortality, there would be no immortality. The dare always comes before the win. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” There’s a reason they call they guy who originally said that The Great One and not Some Hoser Who Won the Stanley Cup a Few Years Back. (OK, the semantic logic in that quote is a little rough. And you can think of Kobe Bryant as a counter-example. But apart from it not making logical sense and being misused by some people, it’s perfect.)

One more thing about the Colts. Win or lose, I am convinced they are going to be remembered as revolutionary. Much fun has been made of Peyton’s spastic thrashing about on the line of scrimmage, but the business of giving the QB a lot of latitude to audible and adapt works amazingly well. So well, in fact, that the Bengals work really hard to imitate it. Over at Texas Tech they have had outsized success with something similar, as discussed in this excellent NYT article (not that I follow college football). To wit:

[Texas Tech Coach Mike] Leach is unusual in giving his quarterback the authority to change every play, wherever the line of scrimmage. “He can see more than I’ll ever see,” Leach says. “If I call a stupid play, his job is to get me out of it. If he doesn’t get me out of it, I might holler at him. But if you let him react to what he sees, there’s a ton of touchdowns to be had.” All Leach is really saying to Hodges when he sends in the play is, “Line up in Ace, see how they line up against it and call a good play.”

I think this is a terrific development. The pendulum is swinging back to the days when QBs called their own plays. It does mean serious environmental changes. Right now, the premiums are on QBs who can make decisions once a play has started and change their passing targets in response to a play developing — footwork and quick release are keys to success. Audibles typically occur a handful of times over the course of the game. Expecting, and even requiring, the QB to make adaptations before the start of the play is going to be require an awesome depth of knowledge on the part of the QB. The West Coast offense will look like child’s play.

Premiums will go up on QBs who have mental creativity. We’ll reach a point where you’d trade athletics for brains. You’ll give up the 6’4″ 230 lb. guy who can throw a perfect 80 yard spiral, for a 5’10” 180 lb. guy who can read a defense and build a game plan. Offenses will get more complicated and varied and teams will no longer huddle unless the clock is stopped. Defenses (lineman anyway) will get smaller, because of the endurance necessary to keep up with the rapid pace of the game, the lack of opportunity for substitution, and the need to play more generalist roles from more varied formations. Rookies will suffer even more.

It will be a fascinating thing to watch and make for some serious entertainment. Especially if NFL Sunday Ticket comes to Comcast (we shall overcome!) and you can watch, and TIVO, the complete field view to see how a play develops and where it succeeds and fails. Peyton Manning’s seizures are a harbinger of things to come. OK, when I say “you” I mean “me.” I doubt many of you are pathetic enough to spend your weekends like that.

That said. I still hope the Colts lose a game. If I have things figured correctly, as long as Chicago beats Atlanta next week, the Seahawks will need to beat the Colts to be assured of home field advantage in the playoffs (that’s a qualified statement since Stephen Hawking has not returned my email requesting he explain the potential playoff scenarios). A motivated Seahawks team, whom I wrote off as in their late year swoon a couple weeks ago, is one possibility to defeat the Colts in the regular season run. Once in the playoffs, the Colts may find themselves facing New England again. It’s one thing to beat a decimated Patriots team early in the season. It’s quite another when it’s not your entire team versus Tom Brady. What a game that will be.

(By the way, is there any reason nobody at ESPN has put together a montage of clips of his more dramatic convulsions and set them to Footloose yet?)

Last week amounted to a sister-kissing versus the spread — 2-2-1. That brings us to 20-15-1 for the year. So for an outlay of $3960 we have been returned $4310 giving us a profit of $350 or approximately 1% of the in-state tuition cost for a four-year undergraduate degree at The University of Michigan. (According to this email I just got, I could have gotten a degree from a leading university based on life experience without ever leaving my home. I wonder if they have a football team.)

Also, partially thanks to the utterly improbable occurrence of the Jets actually winning a game (effectively removing themselves from the Reggie Bush Sweepstakes) and partially thanks to Pittsburgh showing no fear whatsoever of Kyle Orton’s deadly neck beard, we had our first losing week in the Line picks. I’m willing to let it slide this week, but if it happens again the formula must be adjusted.

More interestingly, our hypothetical dropping of a c-note on the four enormous money-line long shots paid off when Miami hung on for a victory. It almost came through really big when the Cleveland/Cincy game went down to the wire. We had a return of $950 for a $400 layout, which is about as sweet as it gets in this racket. Certainly a strategy to keep in mind if there is ever another week with four money lines in excess of 7-1 return.

On to this week’s picks. Here is the DVOA comparison summary for this week. Here is the document to read if you think ‘DVOA’ was just me making a typo.

This week we add a new complication: Home Team Adjustment. I mentioned this briefly last week. The specific issue is that DVOA numbers do not take into account home field advantage. There are, I think, two reasons for this. 1) The Football Outsiders guys, like so many of us, are severely limited by having no more than two hands a piece, and 2) what investigation that they have done into home field advantage has suggested fairly major variability from season to season and even team to team; enough variability that they have left it for future study (maybe this off-season).

What we are left with for now is preliminary investigations that suggest that, for team comparison purposes, you could quantify the (highly unreliable) home field advantage by adding 17 percent to the home team. Also, they found that that advantage becomes more reliable if we are talking about a warm weather team on the road against a cold weather team.

I have, very informally, taken the warm-team-in-cold-weather idea into account in my judgment over the past few weeks. For this week I have also created an alternate set of DVOA comparisons. In these I have simply added 17 to the DVOA of the home team. Here is the modified comparison document. I am not entirely sure in what way this is going to change things, other than just looking at them and using the data as another piece of information in the analysis.

Plus, I didn’t think this mess was complicated enough as it was.

We start, as always, with games where the DVOA superior team in the spread underdog. There are lots of them this week.

==Tampa Bay is getting 4.5 points at New England even thought their DVOA is 10.4 higher. Not going near that. No way. a) NE at home, meaning warm team in cold weather, b) home adjustment puts NE on top, c) as folks return from injury, NE is returning to championship form, and it will be a while until DVOA incorporates the effect of the players returns. Maybe I should take NE. I think I will. The Pats may yet turn out to be the Colts worst nightmare. Pick: New England -4.5. (Note: I took the spread for this game from Pinnacle Sports instead of Vegas.com. Vegas.com didn’t have a spread posted at the time I was writing this.)

==Pittsburgh is giving 3 at Minnesota. DVOA says the Vikings are the better team and even more so after the home adjustment. Both these teams are fighting like hell to get to the post season. This is one of those agonizing situations where there are plausible scenarios both ways. My heart says it’s going to be Pittsburgh, but my head says the Bus doesn’t crank out a game like he had last week so I’ll have to pick the Vikings. Pick: Minnesota +3.

==Philly is getting 3.5 at St. Louis. Even after the home adjustment Philly is still the better team per DVOA. Of course, that doesn’t take into account the loss of Brian Westbrook yet, which officially turns the Eagles roster into an outright disaster. Funny though, despite all the injuries and the T.O. mess, you don’t get the sense that Philly has imploded, as opposed to the Imploded Rams (they are no longer ‘imploding,’ the process is complete). Still I can’t pick Philly, not only because of Westbrook but also because, for the first time in years they have nothing to play for. And ex-Lion QB Mike McMahon keeps getting lost looking for Ford Field. Pass.

Here’s a question for you: Who do you take as your starting QB, Brad Johnson or Donovan McNabb? If I thought McNabb was reliably going to achieve 2004 form again, I’d take him, but I don’t so I guess I’d take Johnson. In fact, I’d bet if you compared them over their careers they would come out pretty equal — McNabb is the better runner and had a better single year, but I bet Johnson has the edge in accuracy and frankly, he makes fewer mistakes. Plus, he has a ring.

I’d also bet that I’m pretty much alone in that assessment, which shows you the value of charisma. Donovan is the face of Campbell’s Soup, while Brad Johnson was probably a wallflower on the love boat.

See how easy it is to dis’ Donovan McNabb without bringing race into it? Why do people have such trouble doing that?

==Arizona is pick ‘em at Houston despite being 14.8 superior in DVOA. That seems to indicate Arizona is the good bet. But the home adjustment puts Houston up a bit and because of the range of possible point spreads I could get Houston +1.5, so that seems to indicate Houston is a good bet. Here’s the key: The only thing Houston wants to win is the Reggie Bush Sweepstakes. Did you see that kick last week? I believe NFL Films has sent a copy to America’s Funniest Home Videos. It was like Rodney Dangerfield was behind Kris Brown saying “Hey, Smails! I bet you slice into the woods — a hundred bucks!” Pick: Arizona straight up.

==Green Bay is getting 3.5 in Baltimore. Brian Billick wears sunglasses at night. Green Bay needed an assist from the zebras to beat the Lions. Baltimore is the worse team before the home adjustment, Green Bay the worse team after. My thoroughly researched opinion is that they both exhibit restaurant quality suckitude. I can’t possibly differentiate between the two enough to make a pick. Pass.

Next: games where a large DVOA differential is accompanied with a disproportionately small point spread.

==Seattle is only favored by 7 at Tennessee. This is tempting. The only potential trouble is if they are looking past this to Indy in week 16, but Seattle appears to be on one of those every-game-is-a-statement type of streaks. Has there been a player more devastated by injuries than Steve McNair? A real loss. A healthy McNair would have had many MVP caliber years. He’s still got nagging injuries and can’t practice. Meanwhile, Seattle has only had minor injury problems all year. Pick: Seattle -7.

==San Francisco is getting 15 points in Jacksonville. When you factor in the home adjustment Jacksonville’s DVOA advantage is over 100. For SF, every game is a must lose in the Reggie Bush Sweepstakes. Of course, trying to lose as effectively as the Texans is kind of like trying to beat the Colts — your opponent is operating on another level. Pick: Jacksonville -15.

==Denver is giving 9 to Buffalo, but this is another case where mitigating factors come into play. The big DVOA difference is mitigated by the home adjustment which brings the DVOA difference more into line. Not only that we have weather issues again. But the mitigation is mitigated by the fact that the Bills are starting their back-up QB. More importantly Denver is a great running team and the Bills are lousy against the run. I’m going to stop before I talk myself into the Broncos. Pass.

==A special case here is Atlanta getting 3 at Chicago. At first glance it seems the spread is in line with DVOA, but once you add in the home adjustment, the warm team in cold weather factor, Ron Mexico’s bruised ribs, and the fact that Atlanta tends to beat bad teams and lose to good teams, the favor goes to Chicago. Fun fact: I was old enough to drink legally before Kyle Orton was born. Another fun fact: If I had a neck beard it would be gray. Yet another fun fact: I just took a Prozac. Pick: Chicago -3.

Finally we get to games where the teams are close in DVOA, but the point spread is outsized. The games in this category are marginal.

==Carolina giving 8 at New Orleans seems to make the Saints look promising after figuring in the home adjustment — but that would be like giving a mortgage application to a guy living in a refrigerator box. New Orleans will also be starting their back-up QB, but that’s really not a detriment in this case. Pass.

==Likewise, home adjusted DVOA suggests that the Lions may be a good pick over Cincinnati at +7.5. Ha ha ha. Ha Ha Ha HA HA HA HA {cough, cough}. Oh, I do make my own fun. Pass.

On to the money line. I’m going to stay with the formula that has only betrayed me once so far (last week). The question is whether to use standard DVOA metric or the home adjusted DVOA.

In both case we have:
Minnesota, $146.00 return
Philadelphia, $159.00 return

Standard DVOA says to take:
Tampa Bay, $178.00 return
Kansas City, $126.00 return
Arizona, $95.24 return
Green Bay, $165 return

Home adjusted DVOA says to take:
New York Giants, $73.53 return
Houston, $95.24 return
Washington, $74.63 return

So incorporating the home field advantage we would drop TB and GB, pick up WAS, and switch sides on the KC/NYG, AZ/HOU games. That’s a pretty big difference. I’m going to stick with the standard DVOA for consistencies sake, but if the adjusted one turns out to have been more accurate, we change for next week.

Pick Recap

Spread Picks

New England -4.5
Minnesota +3
Arizona PK
Seattle -7
Jacksonville -15
Chicago -3

Line Picks

Minnesota, $146.00
Philadelphia, $159.00
Tampa Bay, $178.00
Kansas City, $126.00
Arizona, $95.24
Green Bay, $165

So we just press play on another week. And this week, we actually have interesting football on a Saturday.

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About David Mazzotta

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

    “there is no permanence of players”

    Totally agree. That is the main reason I am more of the pro football (and basketball) fan than a college fan…

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

    “So for an outlay of $3960 we have been returned $4310 giving us a profit of $350 or approximately 1% of the in-state tuition cost for a four-year undergraduate degree at The University of Michigan. (According to this email I just got, I could have gotten a degree from a leading university based on life experience without ever leaving my home. I wonder if they have a football team.)”

    ROTFL! :)

  • Bennett

    I know you don’t bother to read our comments, but I have to say, again, what a great job you do with this. That your writing is entertaining as well… It’s quite an asset to BC.

    Thanks!

  • themurph544

    “but that would be like giving a mortgage application to a guy living in a refrigerator box”

    So wrong … but sooooo right !!

  • David Mazzotta

    Thanks Bennett. I do read, and appreciate, all the comments.

  • David Mazzotta

    Homer Nods: For some reason I indicated above that Dan Shanoff was responding to Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports writer who occasionally contributes to ESPN, but I’m pretty sure Shanoff was quoting Gene Wojciechowski, also a sports writer for ESPN.

    My short attention span often prevents me from reading past the third letter of words.

  • David Mazzotta

    Somebody, please, put me out of my misery.

  • Bennett

    You and me both.

    It’s a good weekend to NOT be in Vegas.

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

    Spread Picks

    New England -4.5 – WIN
    Minnesota +3 – LOSE
    Arizona PK – LOSE
    Seattle -7 – LOSE
    Jacksonville -15 – LOSE
    Chicago -3 – ???

    So, 1 win, 4 losses, and 1 unknown.

    Line Picks

    Minnesota, $146.00 – LOSE
    Philadelphia, $159.00 – WIN
    Tampa Bay, $178.00 – LOSE
    Kansas City, $126.00 – LOSE
    Arizona, $95.24 – LOSE
    Green Bay, $165 – ???

    So, 1 win, 4 losses, and 1 unknown.

    Uh…I feel for ya buddy… :-/

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