Sunday, September 18, 2011

Week 2 Pick: Cowboys -3 @ Niners

Sincere apologies for last week's failure to make a pick; I was in Vegas losing real money on my bad sports picks! Never fear though, I'm back this week (just in the nick of time)!

And with my inaugural pick of the 2011 season, I'm ignoring my own previous promise and picking the Cowboys. The reasons are pretty simple:

1. The luck disparity: my season preview echoed a sentiment that is common among sharps this week -- value emerges from lines based on fluky results the previous week. Thus, there have been some wild swings in the lines this week, as handicappers try to determine whether surprising week 1 results reveal fundamental truths about teams, or whether they merely reflect the quirks of one solitary week in the NFL. For the most part, I'm going with the latter.

In that vein, the 0-1 Cowboys look much better than the 1-0 Niners. Yes, the Cowboys lost the game. But they dominated the game for 3+ quarters, and lost on an excruciating series of unlikely events: a fumble at the 1 yard line, a blocked punt, a great penultimate drive by the Sanchize (itself hard to believe), and a 50 yard game winning FG from the shaky Nick Folk. Of course, there was also the painful interception thrown by Romo to Revis with a minute left that set up that field goal. Peter King called that interception a "total, absolute, utter debacle for Romo." It does look horrible, but several scouts have suggested that it was actually more the result of a sterling coverage disguise by the Jets than any unforgivable brain freeze by Romo. 

And on top of all of this, let's not forget the difficult environment facing the Cowboys: going into the Meadowlands on 9/11 and playing a primetime game on the road against a team that has been to two straight AFC Championship games, one that is generally considered a top-5 team in the NFL.  Even though the loss was excruciating, all in all it reflected a pretty solid level of play by the Cowboys.

The contrast could scarcely be any more stark with the Niners uninspiring win week 1. Yes, the final score read 33-17, but that score was significantly inflated by two late consecutive returns by Ted Ginn Jr. In reality, this game was essentially 19-17 after 57 minutes. This should trouble Niners fans, as they were playing the Seattle Seahawks, a truly putrid team, one with a miserable offensive line, inexperience at almost all the key positions, and a rebuilding mindset. Not only that, but it's a team that has historically been decent at home but atrocious on the road. And I haven't even mentioned that they started Tavaris "why is a rebuilding team starting him?!?" Jackson at QB.

In other words, color me not impressed at all by the Niners week one win. I think the Cowboys are a significantly better team, and that this line would normally be -6 or even higher were it not for the fluky week 1 results. Thus, it's a perfect time to jump on the Boys.

2. The Hilton 150 theory.

I've explained this ad nauseum on this blog (most recently here), but the Hilton contest theory strongly counsels in favor of making this pick. But first, a proviso: we're going to need to up the number of picks that we require from 100, because the number of entrants this year is significantly higher. In fact, it looks like the contest has grown from 345 to 517. This is a 49% increase, which suggests that we boost the requirement from 100 to 150. So that's what we'll do. Of course, I'm a little concerned about this simple fix, given that the growth in the field could have diluted the quality of the entrants and thus devalued it as a prediction market. Case in point: last week the Hilton 150 theory went only 1-1, with the Bills easily covering but the Steelers falling woefully short.We'll have to continue to monitor it.

In any event, the Cowboys got a whopping 208 picks in the contest this week. That bodes well for them, even if the contest has been devalued (which I'm not prepared to admit yet). 


There has been endless media speculation this week about whether Romo and the Cowboys are becoming accustomed to losing and are psychologically unable to recover from this game. These types of reports are exactly why I'm picking this game. The Jets game was frustrating for fans but was really pretty fluky; those types of close games, Football Outsiders pointed out repeatedly in their Almanac this year, turn essentially on chance. Plus, Romo actually has a pretty favorable history in big games, and in bouncing back from bad losses. Beating the Niners is a much easier task than beating the Jets. Boys will cover this line.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

2011 Season Preview!

Hello world, it's the news that everyone's been waiting for: BadNFL is back! Boy did I need these last 8 months off, after an extremely rough 2010 season. But I'm going to choose to take the view that the misfires last year reflected a mix of a) correctable mistakes and b) bad luck. Thus, it's a whole new season, and BadNFL has a clean slate. Before the week 1 pick, which should be coming soon, I wanted to recap some of the things we learned from last season.

1. The Hilton 100 theory:

For those who are new to the blog, I explained the basic theory here and tracked the results throughout the season. The results were freakish; 15-4 ATS, with a massive median margin of victory. It will certainly bear watching this year. Of course, if lowly BadNFL has spotted the trend, there is no question that sharps and linemakers have as well. Thus, I imagine that lines will shift rather quickly once the Hilton picks are released this year. Of course, if you were a professional bettor who monitored these things in real time, you may still have time to get in bets on the Hilton 100 candidates. But for an amateur blog like BadNFL, which is just for fun and which I usually don't publish until Friday or Saturday, there's not going to be that opportunity. Accordingly, it seems likely that the pattern of my Packers/Bears pick from last year will repeat itself: Hilton 100 says that Packers -6.5 is a lock, but by the time I wrote my entry the line had shifted to Packers -9, and of course the Packers won by 7.

Nonetheless, I will continue to monitor the viability of the Hilton contest as a prediction market. Somewhat relatedly, I will monitor the contrarian theory -- the idea that the public serves as an inverse prediction market (in short, the public is usually wrong about NFL games). Although I had mixed results deploying that logic last year, the overall stats still seem promising.

2. East Coast Travel

This theory is as simple as it is well-known: west coast teams struggle in early games played on the east coast. I documented some of the evidence supporting this theory here. I also performed some of my own calculations on the data ranging from 2008-2010, and West Coast teams traveling east are 17-24 ATS. Not bad, although hardly definitive over such a small sample size. Given that so much of the NFL is luck, I also focused in on those games where the west coast team failed to cover by over a TD -- i.e. those games where they severely underperformed. A good 16 of those 24 losses were by over a touchdown, and a shocking number of those games were complete blowouts. This bears further watching.

3. Picking against lucky teams

This year I'm going to focus on finding teams midseason that have either been significantly lucky or unlucky. I demonstrated this approach last year in a successful pick against both the Jets and the Redskins. The theory is that those teams will be misvalued based on their record, as opposed to their true ability, at a certain point in the season. You'll likely see my attempt to employ this logic in week 1.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Upon Further Review: Packers win but don't cover, 10-3

A disappointing end to a disappointing season. The Packers struggled all game and eked out a hard-fought 10-3 win. This game was slightly frustrating in that, as I said, the Bears had nothing to play for, but yet they still played their starters the entire game. The Bears' defense looked pretty impressive, though, and the Packers looked fairly out-of-sync on offense. In fact, the Packers probably won this game by virtue of the big performances by some of their unheralded defensive backups.

One thought about why this game turned out poorly: the blowout theory. Indeed, the Packers were coming off a 45-17 drubbing of the Giants, and I've previously hypothesized that teams emerging from such blowouts rarely win big the following week. It's something that, if I have time, I'll check on in the offseason.

I plan on unwinding from this season and doing a little big picture thinking about what went wrong. I may then do a few offseason posts explaining the main lessons learned from this season and trying to regroup for a better season 3 of BadNFL. Until then.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Week 17 Pick: Packers -9 vs. Bears

I think that the Bears will have little more than pride to play for, and the Hilton contestants overwhelmingly picked this game (albeit at -6.5, which is quite a bit better).  I wouldn't be shocked if the Bears, should they fall behind, plug in their backups in the 2nd half. Packers will turn this one into a blowout late.

It's way too late to salvage a respectable season for BadNFL, but it'd be nice to at least end on a high note.

Upon Further Review: Raiders Lose 26-31

Well the Raiders made a game of it, but didn't quite cover the 3-point line.  For the second time (including my Chiefs/Seahawks pick), picking a strong running team against a porous run defense didn't work. The Raiders' top two RBs were held to a lackluster 64 yards on 14 carries

Indy looks good heading into the stretch run. Other than that, I don't have a ton to say. This wasn't a great pick; I'm really running out of steam at the end of the year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Week 16 Pick: Raiders +3 vs. Colts

Well after Comcastgate last weekend, I won't be able to get back to .500 for the season. Disappointing, but hopefully things will still break favorably down the stretch. To try and bounce back from last week's loss, I'm going with the Raiders +3 at home against Indy. Here's why:

1. Raiders will control this game on the ground.

The Raiders are 2nd in the NFL in yards per game on the ground, and they also rush for the 2nd best per-carry average at a healthy 4.7 YPC. On the other hand, the Colts have surrendered the 5th most rushing yards in the league, and they also yield a healthy 4.7 YPC. These stats are not misleading in the aggregate, as the Raiders' ground game appears to be peaking at the right time. They absolutely destroyed the Broncos' rushing defense last week, which was typical of their ground dominance over the past 2 months. Moreover, the Colts have struggled against even mediocre rushing teams like the Cowboys; I don't see them patching up their undersized and injury-riddled defensive front this week. It's true that they stacked the box on over 40% of the Jags' offensive snaps last week, effectively shutting down the Jags' powerful run game. But that game seems like an outlier, and I don't think people should overreact to that one performance. The Raiders have run the ball well against all different types of fronts, and I think they'll have substantial success there on Sunday. 

On the flip side, the Colts offense isn't powerful enough -- like it has been in years past -- to take huge leads and nullify the opposing ground game. For one, their own running game, notwithstanding one good game by Donald Brown last week, has been non-existent, which in turn has nullified Manning's play action fakes. In addition, they've now lost Austin Collie -- arguably their most effective receiver -- for the season. The Colts have admittedly won two in a row, but one was a narrow, pretty lucky win against Jacksonville, and the other came over a spiraling and decimated Titans' club. This is not the same Colts' team we remember; they'll struggle to overcome the Raiders' ball-control offensive gameplan.

2. This is a perfect opportunity to deploy contrarian logic.

I've written about the contrarian theory of betting before: the theory posits that popular conceptions about the NFL are usually wrong, and that therefore smart prognosticators pick against the crowd. This week, nearly 80% of the action is on the Colts. In games like that this year, the team receiving fewer bets has a record of approximately 60% against the spread. Nor is this a statistical anomaly, as shown in a nice writeup on the theory in the WSJ this week -- since 2003, the more popular a team is, the worse it performs against the spread. And the person who popularized the theory and runs the great website said this week that Oakland presents a perfect opportunity for bettors to utilize the insight of the contrarian logic. Indeed, Indy is a historically successful team who looked good last week (a week in which everything that hadn't been going well for them went well); both factors may lead many bettors to foolishly take them this week.

Moreover, Oakland is getting 3 points. Millman points to research this week showing that home dogs in weeks 15-17 cover about 60% of the time. I like that trend to continue here; this is a cross-country road trip for an Indy team that has always played better on turf.

The counter-argument is simple: Peyton Manning is a formidable QB whom I don't like picking against. But I think he has the worst team around him in quite a while, and while many people's first instinct may be to take the Colts, I like the Raiders getting the points.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Upon Further Review: Cowboys win, but don't cover, 33-30

Thanks a lot, Comcast. Because of my non-existent Internet last week, I was unable to put together a well-researched prediction, and now I'm paying the price.  The Cowboys won the game 33-30, but failed to cover the 7 point spread. The most frustrating part of it was that the Boys looked like they had this game well in hand, leading by 20 points midway through the third quarter. But then Rex Grossman went to work, ultimately throwing for 322 yards and 4 TDs. How the Cowboys allowed him to throw it so prolifically escapes me, given that the Skins mounted no credible rushing attack (only 14 attempts). But the Dallas secondary looked quite poor, especially after Gerald Sensabough went down with an injury. Not only that, but the Cowboys reverted to some of their stupid, penalty-inflicted habits characteristic of the Wade Phillips era. The result was a narrow 3-point win in what should have been an easy cover.


1. As a commenter implored me, stop picking the Cowboys. The stats are undeniable: they are now 0-3 ATS when I pick them, yet I am 2-0 when I pick against them (the commenter forgot this game from last year).  On the one hand, I know more about the Cowboys than any other team in the league; I follow them more closely, and I feel more attuned to their strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, emotion might very well cloud impartial judgment when it comes to predicting their games -- this week I think I gravitated to it because my internet was out and it was the game with which I was already most familiar.

I hate to make a strict rule forbidding any picks of the Cowboys anymore (as I basically have already done for the Seahawks and Chiefs this season), but I should certainly not knee-jerk focus on the Cowboys like I did this week.

2. Beware the backup QB. I thought that the Redskins were in shambles -- the Shanahans had lost the team, they were forced to jettison their expensive and celebrated veteran QB, and they were coming off a brutal loss, courtesy of a bobbled snap on a PAT. But Grossman played pretty well, appearing to energize the sorry Redskins. I've said before that picking heavy favorites playing against backup QBs can  be risky (witness the 14-point favorite Pats barely escaping Johnny Flynn last week). It's hard to say exactly why the Boys blew the lead like they did -- maybe they're just bad, or maybe the game demonstrated their resilience in winning a close one -- but they did appear to coast for a while in the second half, thinking that they had sealed things up.

3. The Hilton 100 theory went only 1-1. The Cowboys (at -6) amassed the most picks, followed closely by the Bears over the Vikings. The Cowboys obviously did not cover, missing by 3, while the Bears dominated the Vikings by 26. The theory now moves to 12-4, with a still impressive average margin of victory. Too bad it couldn't have come through for the Boys this week, since BadNFL really needed it.

I'm wishing that I had picked the Jets +6 @ Pittsburgh instead. I think that Troy Polamalu may be the most valuable player in the league, and I've really hated the way that the Steelers' offense looked. That game was the most picked game, by a wide margin, among Hilton top contestants, and it's one that I was strongly considering taking. Oh well.

4. East Coast Travel Theory is validated: the Cardinals had to travel for an early game at Carolina, whom I've said (and most agree) is now the worst team in the league. The Cardinals easily failed to cover that game, losing by a touchdown, and most analysts agree that they essentially self-destructed against a team that's generally even worse than they are. Interesting.