by Chris Corbellini
Friday News Dump: Week 1 NFL picks
So anyway, yeah, I’m making gambling picks this NFL season. Partly because Medium Happy didn’t wince when I suggested it, partly because I want to stay involved with the NFL, and mostly because it feels like the right time to do so.
Here are my qualifications, such as they are:
-I worked for six-plus seasons at NFL Films, and one of my main assignments there was producing the video-on-demand versions of every game from Week 1 to the Super Bowl. What NFL VOD meant at that time was stripping the games of the commercials and condensing each to just the big plays, with a run time of about 10 minutes. Each VOD version of a game also had a taped lead-in right before the kickoff … a :30 stand-up by one of our on-air talents (at one point, Rich Eisen) … teeing up what you were about to watch. Now here’s the important part: Those stand-up recordings were taped three days before games were played, so the writing involved had to basically predict what would take place. I wrote at least half of those stand-ups and directed all of them in studio each week from the years 2004-2010. That’s 256 regular season games, plus 12 playoff games (Pro Bowl included), divided by two, multiplied by seven … so 938 games, total, of which I was personally responsible to predict. And 1,876 games, total, that I was at least involved with to pump out VOD production each week. If each game is 60 minutes, that’s 112,560 minutes of football. Or 1876 hours. Not exactly Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, but yes, I used to guess winners each week for the NFL, and I got pretty good at it.
-While we’re here, something I learned at Films: The more I listened to the in-house experts talk about the Xs and Os about pro football, the more I realized how little I knew about it. I won’t pretend I’m an expert until I put in enough grind in the film room, and even when that day comes … I still won’t be an expert.
-I still work in football, helping run a developmental league that feeds prospects back into the NFL and Canadian Football League. And finally, after all this time, on film and on the field, I see the benefits of almost hitting a play that is a cornerstone of an offense. Even a near-miss can build a QB’s confidence, especially if everyone is new to the offense. So, when I see it on film — an oh-so-close splash play or five-yard run that almost broke free — I note it for the next week. It’s a positive play. They’re thinking it, they’re talking about it as they walk off the field, and in the locker room. I’ve seen it happen. I always note the “almosts” on game film.
-I once worked at a Daily Fantasy Sports giant, a workplace that taught me basic game strategy in contests that are similar in nature to sports gambling. They now run a sports book as well.
-I worked in features for a major television network last season, producing content for their NFL programming, including the Super Bowl LII pregame show.
-At the same time, I also took Ben Alamar’s Introduction to Sport Analytics course at Columbia University. Alamar is the Director of Analytics at ESPN, got me over my fear of Excel, and started his course with some terrific advice about the intersection of data and sports: “Be willing to go against your gut.”
-I really, really like Pro Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus.
All of this means … I don’t know jack about sports gambling.
I’m a rookie quarterback.
I have made exactly one sports bet in my 45 years here on Earth — a futures wager for the Boston Red Sox to win the 2004 World Series. I don’t expect to be that lucky in the weeks to come. I will make mistakes that will seem laughable to even a casual bettor. For instance, my four Week 1 picks below are all road wins. That’s not great, right?
Still, each week I will put my own money on three or four picks that I feel are solid plays. If I don’t I will tweet out why … most likely because I missed the ferry to New Jersey.
And here we go. Into the gutter, good friends:
My picks: Home team in caps. I went with William Hill odds this week.
Tennessee Titans (-1.5) over MIAMI DOLPHINS
In Week 1 I have so little to go on, film-wise, so I’m really just crunching numbers. Pro Football Focus ranked two Dolphins linebackers well below average when up against a traditional three-receiver set, and an inexperienced slot corner. What interests me most are the linebackers against the Titans run game, and Marcus Mariota’s scrambling ability. The Titans field a massive running back in Derrick Henry, and a water-bug type in Dion Lewis, formerly of the NFL’s golden goose, the Patriots. You’ve probably seen the photo of Henry and Lewis together in training camp; They are the NFL’s version of Schwarzenegger and DeVito. That’s a strange combo to prep for so early in the season, before a defense truly finds its identity. I see Lewis trying to prove himself just as tough as Henry between the tackles, and scoring in the pass game. Henry, meanwhile, without DeMarco Murray in town anymore, will get 100 yards and maybe more.
Jacksonville Jaguars (-3) over NEW YORK GIANTS
It was the Summer of Ramsey in sports media, and with overexposure comes the haters. I’m sure there will be plenty of New Jersey bettors who want to see Jalen Ramsey transform into burnt, smoking toast by newly mega-rich guy Odell Beckham Jr, and note great things in rookie Saquon Barkley, and so they will go with the Giants at home. But I’m looking at the Jags defense at the moment, so healthy and hungry, and I get why Ramsey talks the talk. Interestingly, the Giants rank dead f-cking last against No. 2 receivers (according to Pro Football Outsiders), so with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns now gone, I wonder who will have the bigger day in the Jags passing game, Keelan Cole, or Donte Moncrief?
Pittsburgh Steelers (-4) over CLEVELAND BROWNS
I went qualitative on this one. I really didn’t like the way Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Todd Haley spent the summer screaming at their players. A linebackers coach, or offensive line coach – true assistants in the NFL – yes, it fits. And always will. But coordinators? Hard Knocks doesn’t fake drama that way – capturing, say, Haley in a bad moment and framing it like that happens all the time (Ed. Note: The author is also an alum of the HBO series). This is who these guys are, every day, and I wonder when Browns players will begin to tune them out after a loss. Like in Week 1. The Steelers, meanwhile, will rally around running back James Conner, who gets the start while Le’Veon Bell sits out due to contract demands. I hated that his teammates trashed Bell this week (not cool at all, don’t mess with another man’s wallet), but that’s a side issue as they kick off the season. Conner will score at least once and expect the entire offense to celebrate with him. Haley, formerly a Steelers coordinator, knows enough about Ben Roethlisberger to give Williams tips to get after the QB, but I still see Pittsburgh ultimately winning by a touchdown.
Los Angeles Rams (-4) over OAKLAND RAIDERS
Gamblers will chase this one hard on Monday night if they suffer some bad beats on Sunday. It happened all the time in daily fantasy sports: You try to make up your losses on the Sunday slate of games that have hundreds of thousands of people playing (the millionaire maker game, for example) with a Monday-Thursday combo contest that may not have a huge payout (say, $50k to the winner) but nowhere near as many participants. Those Monday-Thursday combos always fill up quick. So, I envision heavy action on this game, for those behavioral reasons, and also because the game seems like such a mismatch if you do even rudimentary research.
According to Pro Football Outsiders, the Raiders rank 30th, 24th and 29th against the No. 1, 2, and “other” receivers, respectively, and 27th against pass-catching backs. The Raiders will have no problem figuring out who the top passing weapon is in the Rams offense — Todd Gurley — but while that defense worries about him, the receiver trio of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp will think up a new Fun Bunch end zone dance. The loss of Khalil Mack will obviously hurt Oakland, and after this one ends, perhaps LA’s offense will be the talk of the NFL.
Record to date: 0-0!