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The Thoughtful Fool’s NFL Preview: Part 1, the NFC

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Could you imagine an IPO on the NFL? Suppose all the owners got together, sorted out a stock plan that represented their current ownership percentages, then went and got listed on the NASDAQ. I’m not talking about an individual team going public; I mean the whole shooting match, the teams, and the organization itself.

You want to talk branding? Who sells more licensed clothing, the NFL or say, Coca-Cola?

You want to talk popularity? NFL franchises were selling out scrimmages in August. Scrimmages! Not real games. Not even pre-season games. Scrimmages.

You want to talk symbiotic ventures? The NFL Network begins broadcasting games this year. How long before the NFL Network is the only broadcaster of out-of-market games? No point in letting actual media firms capture that revenue, is there?

You want to talk cost structure? A) NFL player contracts are not guaranteed; just like you, they can be fired at minimal cost to their company. B) You can usually get politicians to palm off your fixed costs on confused and misinformed taxpayers.

You want to talk competitive advantage? Well, let’s see Toyota has Honda, Google has Microsoft, and the NFL has, um, well … you could count college football as a competitor but when your chief rival is forbidden to pay its primary employees, advantage: you.

Nothing would compare to an NFL IPO. I believe it was General George S. Patton who said, “Compared to the NFL all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God help me, I do love it so,” although I may have misread that.

The off season was filled with all sorts of antics, from Matt Leinart and (to a lesser extent) Reggie Bush suffering some dissing at the draft, to Ben Roethlisbergermeister assaulting a moving vehicle with his face, to the usual palette of trades, injuries and arrests. Now that we are finally on the cusp of actual NFL football being actually played, it’s time for a not-so-quick walkthough of the teams to see where we stand. Of course, here at Thoughtful Fool Orbiting Headquarters, we are always looking at the odds, so we’ll snag the latest Super Bowl Championship odds from Pinnacle Sports (as of 8/28), and march through the teams in that order.

(A word about the lines from Pinnacle Sports: They are quoted in the form of the return on a hundred dollar bet. So a line of +856 means your $100 bet would win $856 — total money back of $956 inclusive of your $100 wager. You just divide by 100 to get the traditional odds. +856 translates into roughly 8.5/1, or more properly, 17/2. I’ve included both the line and the rough translation.)

But before we start let me offer a piece of advice. Do not make any futures bets, ever. They are lost causes. You will lose almost all of the time mainly because there is no real information and there is way too much time for all sorts of random disruptive events to occur between now and February. You are only betting hunches and suppositions. You aren’t actually playing the odds so much as outright guessing. It’s like playing blackjack without following the basic strategy. You may think your intuition will tell you when it’s right to hit 14, but the universe is probabilistic; it will not be defeated by your gut instincts.

Keep your gut out of it. You are not smarter or more insightful than anyone else because you won your fantasy league last year. Better to wait until about mid-season, when you have a good solid statistical sampling and bet the games week by week. Every year I have made futures bets and every year I have regretted it. Not this year. No way. Not gonna happen.

We’ll start with the NFC; the AFC will follow in a couple of days.

Dallas Cowboys +741 ~13/2

Shortest odds in the NFC? Second shortest in the entire league (only the Colts are shorter)? Come on. 13/2 is way out of line. This is a classic example of popular opinion not reflecting reality. Everyone is obviously thinking that Parcells and Jones can control T.O.’s bad behavior thereby giving the ‘Boys the talent without the baggage.

My flaming arse.

First, the addition of T.O. is really oversold since the Cowboys already had a solid receiving core. (In a recent pre-season game, Terry Glenn made what was probably the most spectacular catch I have ever seen, catching the ball behind the back of the guy who was covering him. Someone should put that clip on YouTube.) T.O. is not going to elevate them all that much. He will certainly piss the other receivers off when he starts demanding the ball all the time.

Second, no matter how well Jerry Jones spins things, no matter how big a gash Parcells bites in his tongue, T.O. will cause trouble and conflict. He is the ultimate attention whore and acting out is his stock in trade. It will happen. In fact, it has already started with the phantom hamstring pull. There is nothing a player can do to piss off Parcells more than cower behind a suspicious injury excuse.

In a recent ESPN column, Peter King described Peyton Manning passing to Reggie Wayne. From where King was sitting, he could see what Peyton saw. Neither actually saw Wayne make the proper cut, but he still threw the ball at the target, and sure enough Wayne cut to the ball, catching it for a first down. Later Peyton told King about the pass: “You know what that is? That’s hundreds of throws in April and May. That’s me knowing exactly where Reggie’s going to be and then him being there.”

Get it now, Terrell? See why they schedule practices?

There is simply no way this ends well. Especially not a 7.5/1 chance at a Super Bowl victory. T.O. is one slip of the lip away from destroying this team. There are two possible outcomes. 1) Parcells wins, and T.O. rides the bench or hits the bricks at some point during (or possibly before) the season. That, by the way, is the good outcome for the Cowboys. It may even motivate the team who, by that time, will be as full of T.O. as the rest of us. 2) The bad outcome is that T.O. wins, Parcells says screw it and runs out the season in a passive aggressive snit and demoralizes everyone. In that case the ‘Boys are lucky if they end with a winning record.

I repeat: T.O. will self-destruct. Platitudes will be emitted and spokespeople will dissemble, but it will happen. Being T.O., he cannot do otherwise. The only question is if he brings the whole team along with him.

Of course, it will be highly entertaining to watch. I think I would pay $500 to hear Bill Parcells refer to T.O. as “she” in a press conference.

Seattle Seahawks +1074 ~11/1

I was just in Vegas a couple of weeks ago and in the season opener, the Seahawks were -3.5 at Detroit. That’s all. 3.5 points. Needless to say, I’d give the points. If I was going to bet before mid-season I would, which I am not.

Seattle is a mixed bag. I am a huge proponent of the idea that offensive line is the most important part of your football team. The Seahawks messed with one of the best. Steve Hutchison hasn’t really been replaced. It’s not like they have nothing left. It’s not like they are a pack of Pop Warners. It’s not like Walter Jones started eating quiche. But it’s not like what it was last year.

Here’s a personality test. How much stock do you put in the historical performance of teams that lost the Super Bowl in the previous year? Since 2000, no team that has lost the Super Bowl has won more than 7 games the following year. Do you look at that and say, “There must be a reason” and assume the same for the Seahawks, or do you look at it and say “I can’t think of a good reason,” so it must be a statistical anomaly?

That’s it for today’s workshop, Self-Discovery for Monday Morning Quarterbacks.

Carolina Panthers +1085 ~11/1

The Panthers big off-season move was to add Keyshawn Johnson to fool the League into thinking they have a play in their playbook that doesn’t involve Steve Smith.

If there is a suspect area for the Panthers it is their running game. DeShaun Foster is about as reliable as a Saturday Night Live skit. Their prospects show only marginal promise. But that’s OK; a passing team needs only a solid running game, not a great one. The run just keeps the defense honest so you can hit your receivers.

The Panthers will still be one of the elite in the NFC and may even be the cream when all is said and done, but they are not in the same class as the best of the AFC.

On the other hand, the Super Bowl is just one game and there is a 100% chance that one of the teams will be from the NFC. Once you’re there, anything can happen, right?

Washington Redskins +2139 ~21/1

The defense made some minor upgrades and as a rule, faith in a Gregg Williams defense is justified.

The offense should hold together without the injured Portis for a few games if necessary. With the addition of T.J. Duckett it might not be much of a problem at all. When Portis returns it will be a well balanced squad with Santana Moss at receiver and Antwaan Randle El to pull the crazy stunts he pulled at Pittsburgh last year.

In my first draft of this column I wrote, “The Skins are still a good dark horse mostly because their ace coaching staff will always give them a chance to succeed as long as they don’t blow it.”

Then I saw them play the Pats in the pre-season. Now, I know the pre-season means nothing. It doesn’t count for anything, the point of it is strategic and personnel experimentation. But the ‘Skins didn’t look like a pro team that is experimenting, they looked like JV team for a suburban Virginia high school. What could they have possibly learned except that they are doing everything wrong?

Big question #1 is will Mark Brunell be able to put it all together. He is, well, let’s call it unproven. It’s important to remember The Thoughtful Fool’s First Law of Quarterbacking: Don’t Make Mistakes. It’s not screwing up that allows your game plan to succeed. Brunell is not a great QB, but can he not make mistakes? I have no answer.

Big question #2 is their depth. Not a very deep team and one bad injury to the O-line and Brunel will not even have a chance to be mediocre.

Still, there is top notch starting talent and what may be one of the premier coaching staffs ever assembled.

By the way, did you see the video of Joe Gibbs running drills with the team the other night? That was a deeply ugly sight. He’s trying to shuffle run sideways across the field and he just looks like a guy who should be bend over a plumbing fixture with half his butt crack showing. It was awful. It seemed to entertain the players though. Perhaps they’ll be motivated to do well in the future so Joe doesn’t decide they need another demo. For all our sakes.

New York Giants +2308 ~23/1

I’m still mad at the Giants, and Jay Feely in particular, for busting my Thanksgiving weekend in Vegas last year.

Tiki Barber had a killer season last year, but 30-something running backs don’t do that two years in a row. The D is probably fine, on par with last year. But what about Mini-Manning? What can we expect from Little Bro?

Eli put together some amazing games last year, but he also dropped some big steaming turd piles. In what will be his fourth year, if Eli can get polished and solid, if he can avoid firing passes like he was playing Robotron 2084, and if Tiki doesn’t start shedding body parts, the Giants should be right in the thick of things. But I can’t see why we should expect those things and there is no room for slip ups in the NFC East.

Hopefully sleeping on a handsome TV Doctor’s couch on the Upper East Side — in a completely platonic capacity — will not have had any ill affects on Michael Strahan.

Chicago Bears +2322 ~23/1

To continue the theme from above, when it comes to QBs, those with incredible talents often fail in the end because their mistakes end up killing them, whereas the steady, reliable, if mediocre QB who is surrounded by good talent and a sound plan can find himself with a ring.

The metaphor extends to defenses also. The Bears D is beyond talented, beyond scary for opponents. They kept Kyle Orton and his neck beard at the top of the heap all last season.

And then they ran into the Panthers in the playoffs. Remember that game? The Panthers had one weapon: Steve Smith. Everybody in the world knew that the Panthers were going to throw to Smith. And that is exactly what they did. What everybody knew was going to happen was happening right before the Bears eyes, so what did they do about it?

I once took an extended trip on a sailboat. Everyone would take a shift on the helm and hold the course that the captain determined. One morning we were coming up on an island where we had intended to dock for a while. It turned out there were some obvious but unmarked rocks that needed to be dodged at the entrance to the harbor, but the guy at the helm just held his course as the rocks came closer and closer. A number of us exchanged worried glances wondering at what point he was going to steer to avoid a collision. The helmsman looked just as worried, but in spite of his fear, he held his course like he was told. Fortunately the captain came on deck and, expertly covering up his ironic tone, explained patiently, “I should have mentioned, if the course I give you is going to cause us to run into something solid, you have my permission to steer around it.”

Lovie Smith never came on deck in that game.

The offense is supposed to be greatly improved with Rex Grossman taking the reigns, or possibly Brian Griese; as of this writing the issue appears open. But I can’t see more than a marginal improvement unless Grossman turns out to be something special, or Griese takes the opportunity to turn his career around. The Bears will go as far as the defense takes them, which could be pretty far if they learn to steer around things like Steve Smith.

Philadelphia Eagles +2990 ~30/1

By the end of last year, they were playing scrubs. And that was on top of T.O. destroying them. So it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be significant improvement from last year.

The pre-T.O. Eagles lost three straight NFC Championships. Will the healthy post-T.O. Eagles be at that level? Not a chance. The division is vastly better now, and though the Eagles project to be a slightly above average team, in the NFC East, that a ticket to palookaville. (In the Norris, these guys would be dogging the Bears every step.)

The most interesting day will be Sunday October 8th, when the Cowboys come to Lincoln Field. T.O. should think hard about wearing a suit of armor on the sidelines. What’s the over/under on errant passes from Donovan McNabb that just happen to hit T.O. in the skull during warm-ups? I’d say 4.

Arizona Cardinals +3021 ~30/1

Matt Leinart looked reasonable for his first pro game after having about an hour and a half of practice. He was certainly confident and in control of the huddle, judging by the body language of the rest of the offense. He actually called an audible in like his second or third series. If I was Kurt Warner, I’d be prepping my grocery clerk resume.

Some have said Edgerrin James will transform the team into a big winner. Signs point to “No.” Edge is going to run behind one of the worst O-Lines in the league. The receivers are top notch, so maybe they will win through air dominance. Whatever the case, they better figure something out because the defense is little better than serviceable.

They got hammered beyond all reason in their pre-season game against the Pats. Isn’t the point of pre-season to get a lot of snaps in and make it a learning experience? It got to the point where they had so many three and outs that they game had to be become pretty much useless to them. They would have been better off forfeiting and running a scrimmage against themselves. But by their final pre-season game, they looked like they were putting something together.

By the way, it was just astounding listening to Sterling Sharpe call that Pats game. He speaks with near perfect diction. He never uses fillers like “uhs” or “like” or “you know.” He’s never caught by surprise; never allows an awkward silence.

And he never says anything that is not utter bollocks. It’s a lesson in how you can be completely coherent, yet not remotely cogent. But unless you are playing more attention than usual to the inane patter of the announcers you really don’t notice; it is absolutely pitch perfect for a color man. The guy was born to be a salesman or a politician.

Minnesota Vikings +5547 ~55/1

I would not be so ready to christen the Bears the champs of the NFC Norris division. The Vikes get an O-line upgrade courtesy of Seattle and we know Brad Johnson is steady as all get out. While the Bears are certainly the favorite, the Vikings are not so far behind in the pathetic NFC Norris as they seem.

Minnesota is actually a decent NFC long shot. In the weakest division, they will get four pushover games against the Pack and the Lions. They closed the season 7-2 last year, and they have improved from that, at least on paper. I wouldn’t be shocked if come December, when everyone is enthralled with the monsters of the AFC battling it out, the Vikes pull out an upset over Chicago.

The most impressive thing about the Vikes off-season was how Zygi Wilf cleaned house after the scandals of the previous year. The Original Whizzinator? Gone. Mike “I got two” Tice? Outta there. The Love Boat crew? Well, Smoot and McKinnie were fined by the courts and will be fined by the League, and they are likely lucky that the fines won’t come from Zygi. (Culpepper is gone but it looks like he was more of an innocent bystander.) Now they are dumping Koren Robinson after his run in with the poe-lease. Going forward, the team has a 77-page Code of Conduct to adhere to.

Yes, the moral character of your team is important to your fan base. Especially if you aren’t winning. Smart work by The Wilfster. It’ll be interesting to contrast that to what happens in Cincy this year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers +6074 ~61/1

What to make of the Bucs? They won 11 games and the division last year and yet they sit here at more than 60/1. The D will be fine again. The O will likely be anemic again. How far they go will depend on how well Coach Chucky can cover their weaknesses. I don’t see how they can avoid regressing to the mean, but I still think they are as likely to get a wild card berth as any other team. 61/1 is sweet long shot.

Atlanta Falcons +6221 ~62/1

I don’t want to hear another word about Michael Vick until the Falcons win in the playoffs. Not another word. I don’t want to hear about how he scrambles and freelances too much. I don’t want to hear about how he is being held back by the system and should be turned loose. Just not another word. We’ve reached a level of saturation and the only excuse to make an issue of him anymore is if we see the Falcons in the playoffs.

I might allow a little something if they get 10 wins and don’t make the playoffs, but until then any ground you cover will be well-trodden. So just find something else to talk about.

Still, 62/1 is awfully long. That puts them deep in the rear-echelon which they probably don’t deserve. This is a team that was thought to be in contention at the beginning of last year. Talk about a falling out of fashion — wow.

Green Bay Packers +10000 ~100/1

The Packers are doomed. Just doomed. In fact, I think 100/1 is way too generous. Seriously, is there a team that has less going for it? It’s that bad. Everything is brand new, except Favre — new coach, new system, etc. If you are going to rebuild, rebuild. If you wan to keep a vet QB around as a character influence and educator, that makes sense. But don’t rebuild everything except for the QB position because Brett wants to have a place to go in the morning for another few months.

Even Brett knows this is a disaster. He called the team the most talented he’d seen, but then immediately qualified it with “we may not win a single game.”

It’s hard to imagine what Brett will do after football. He doesn’t seem the announcer or analyst type. He’s doesn’t have Peyton’s comic timing, witness There’s Something About Mary. Coaching? He might be too good. I doubt he could explain what made him good; he’d just get frustrated with all the lesser talents he had to deal with. I’m guessing he opens a sports bar franchise across the Midwest where you get treated to things like Brett’s Favre-ite Sampler Platter.

Now I’m depressed.

Detroit Lions +10000 ~100/1

The Lions have been trying to do achieve competence for a half a century and have never managed to pull it off. I’m not talking about winning the Super Bowl; I’m just talking about being a great team for a couple of years. With one post-season victory since Eisenhower was president, the Lions are like a guy who keeps failing to fill an inside straight and never realizes it isn’t just bad luck. If you don’t get it after almost fifty years, you really shouldn’t be playing poker.

Now, William Clay Ford is not going to sell the team. He will continue to delude himself that he can fill that inside straight to the day he dies.

The Lions aren’t going to be winners. Marinelli’s hard nosed approach is not going to inspire great performances. Martz will not wave his magic wand and make the offense the Greatest Show on Turf II. The draft choices will not pan out. The Lions will never be winners.

With clever marketing, the Lions could be lovable losers, like the Cubs in baseball. They have a good logo, pretty colors for their uniforms, an inoffensive mascot. They could become symbolic of a sympathetic view on the world. They could be the choice for fans who want to use their football team demonstrate that they are loyal and genuine. They could leverage the primal the emotional attachment to the tribe, not just temporary fair-weather fan impulse. Recruit colorful characters. Pull wacky half-time stunts as if you were a minor league baseball team. Have Hooters girls work the concessions. Do anything fun to distract from the performance of the team.

Sadly, even that will never happen. That would take creativity, open-mindedness, and an appreciation of your own absurdity. Why waste time with that when you could be working on filling that inside straight.

St. Louis Rams +10000 ~100/1

The Rams have a new coach since the Mike Martz soap opera of last year. A new offense with old personnel sounds like a year of adjustment to me. The D was bad and shouldn’t be any better. The Rams had the honor of being responsible for 50% of the 49ers wins last year. A below average team headed for a below average record. Yawn.

I have no doubt that, come December 17th, when we are in the heat of battles for the playoffs, my local market will get the Rams at Oakland. Then you’ll get a below average column.

New Orleans Saints +10000 ~100/1

Not an impressive O-line there in the Crescent City. Houston actually would have been better for Reggie Bush. Despite the fact that the Texans pass protection is like the O-line in The Longest Yard when Burt Reynolds returned after trying to throw the game, they are actually a middle-of-the-road run-blocking crew.

The Saints are nothing of the kind. Reggie will have to get what he gets by himself. And Reggie is not what you’d call a stout guy. Size wise, he is comparable to one of Jerome Bettis’ thighs. He could spend the year getting beaten like the red-headed step child of a rented mule.

Judging by his pre-season (which you should never do), he might be able to create something on his own. In that case, he could be the next Barry Sanders: 2 yard loss, 4 yard loss, and then — Boom! — a 50 yard TD. We all know how well that translated into success for the Lions.

San Francisco 49ers +15000 ~150/1

Last year, the ‘Niners were one of the worst teams in the history of the NFL. That they won four games was no minor miracle — of course one of the games was the (erroneously named) Reggie Bush Bowl which they lost by beating Houston.

They probably can’t be as bad as they were last year, so maybe they will only need a minor miracle to win four this year.

Most Attractive Bet: Carolina Panthers +1085
Most Attractive Long Shot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers +6074

Stay tuned for the AFC roundup.

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About David Mazzotta

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

    Welcome back David. I’m officially half ready for the NFL season now.

    Thing about Owens, though, is that he did pretty swell in his first season at Philadelphia before the team imploded the following year. And twice before Parcells took a team to the Super Bowl in his fourth year there. He’s in his fourth year at Dallas.

  • david mazzotta

    Nobody can question TO’s talent, only his head.

    He played extremly well in the Eagles run to the Super Bowl, then promptly dissed Donovan McNabb over the loss and set the scene for the following year’s meltdown.

    He’s actually playing right now as I type this. Strange that the hamstring suddenly got to 100% like that. Could it have anything to do with the round about $5 million the Cowboys would have saved if they cut him before the first game?

    Maybe it will all work out. Maybe he will come in cold and find an instant rapport with Bledsoe. Maybe Parcells will let bygones be bygones.

    But even if everything works out with TO, I don’t see that he brings a big benefit to a team that already had a great receiving staff.