The 2015 NFL Draft and the Blockbuster Trade That Wasn’t

Despite great anticipation, no blockbuster trade ups to grab a top 5 pick in the 2105 NFL draft were ever announced. Continue reading

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The Unusual Reason an Adrian Peterson Trade Between the Cowboys and Vikings Could Benefit Both Teams

Last updated 6-22-15

Many NFL trades can easily help one team while not really benefiting, or even possibly hurting, the other.

For example, one team assesses the overall situation better, and simply receives more in terms of value for their team than what they gave up; and despite different needs or “philosophies,” the same doesn’t apply to their trading partner.

Exceptions occur when each of the involved teams has very different weak links, and the trade legitimately helps fill both of them.

So, for example, more often than not a trade for a good running back harms one team and helps the other. Or it’s neutral. That is, unless one team has a plethora of great running backs, or backs with particular skill sets – such as great hands and blocking skills – and the other team doesn’t have any. And the team weak in backs in return fills a different need for their trading partner; one that doesn’t give up the same or greater ultimate value to their team (such as a high draft pick for instance) in the process.

But the Adrian Peterson situation is a little unique for a few reasons. And because of the oddities involved, Peterson can elect to bring something to the deal that may make a trade for him between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings – if structured correctly – advantageous for both teams. (The fact that the Cowboys are being reported to have less overt interest in trading for Peterson since the first draft of this piece was written almost two weeks ago, doesn’t mean they aren’t interested, or that the possibly unique factors to a Vikings Cowboys Peterson trade don’t still apply.)

To get a feel for why most of the trade ideas being bandied about (with the exception possibly of John Clayton’s, for instance) would be a gain for the Minnesota Vikings, and a loss for their trading partner, and then how Peterson might be able to make a trade between the Cowboys and Vikings make sense for both teams, let’s take a closer look at the issue:

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Former Cowboys’ running back Demarco Murray’s average yard per carry dropped remarkably in college from his first two, to his last two, college seasons. But he’s been relatively solid since entering the league as a strong value pick in the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL draft. Then he tore it up last season. (1,845 yards, though his ypc, at 4.7, was a little lower than his career high in of 5.1, over the course of 1,121 yards rushing, which he hit the year before.)

The Cowboys, however, recently lost Murray in free agency, They also lost him to a pricey, possibly not too exorbitant contract with division rival Philadelphia. Philly, in turn, had given up their star “Slim Shady” LeSean McCoy, in a startling trade with the Bills in return for star 3rd year linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Yet the team from Dallas may have a better running back right now than people think. (And if the Cowboys truly are a little less interested than they seemingly were, or that people presumed, this could be part of the reason why.) Demarco Murray has consistently been good, and had a great year last season; but he may have also greatly benefited from an exceptional Dallas offensive line.

Cowboys new running back Darren McFadden, who comes over from Oakland at a fraction of the price that Murray commanded, had the opposite “benefit”; repeatedly getting hammered behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, Murray reportedly leads the league over the last three years in total number of times hit behind the line of scrimmage.

Some of that could be McFadden’s doing, but much of it likely wasn’t. And for much of the time McFadden also had the relative detriment of a team that also had a fairly insubstantial passing game, and one of the most consistently challenged offenses in the NFL. (McFadden also holds a lifetime 4.1 ypc average, which behind that Oakland line may not compare too poorly to Murray’s 4.8 behind the Dallas line.)

Though good opportunities or not, McFadden has often not looked as good as the promise he showed very early on (or as good as he looked coming out of college, where he was the 4th pick overall in 2008), and more importantly has been fairly injury prone.

Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, is one of the best running backs to ever play in the NFL, and the best pure running back in the NFL the last few seasons, bar none. (Though Peterson turned 30 toward the end of March. While McFadden, almost two and a half years younger, will turn 28 this August.)

So how could a trade “possibly” benefit both the Vikings and Cowboys? And why would most of the suggestions that talk of high picks going to the Vikings in return for acquiring Peterson under his current contract, would heavily favor the Vikings at the expense of their trading partner?

A fey key considerations that are often overlooked come into important play here:

The first is that it’s not just about how good a player is, it’s about how much a player’s cost is relative to how good he is. In other words, in a salary cap league, it’s about dollar value.

There is a limitation on this though:”Player availability.” There’s no unlimited supply of players for teams that maximize cap dollars to choose from, as most are under contract with other teams. So simply spending the “right” amount is only part of the full equation – the team still needs to get good players, or good potential players, one way or another.

But the free agent, or “available” player pool is relatively small to begin with. since the supply of players actually available is very limited. So sometimes getting the right players is challenging, particularly when combined with utilizing salary space wisely.

Due to its nature, free agency also sometimes results in a casual or de-facto bidding competition. This can further limits teams’ ability to pick up good value relative to the money spent; at least for the more marquee and some of the better known players. And it almost makes it a good strategy to sit back and let other teams pick up pricey offseason free agents.

But doing that then limits the “true” pool of available players for salary cap maximizing decisions even further.

So while teams have to maximize their value in terms of what they pay out in salary, the pool of practical available opportunity to do so is somewhat limited. And but for the rare free agent who has been widely undervalued by the rest of the league, the opportunity to do so for great value relative to the salary spent is extremely low.

That is, with one extremely notable, and extremely undervalued exception: The NFL draft. The draft presents a nearly unlimited pool of potential NFL players, many of whom will turn out to be very good.

And, there’s a second, also extremely important component to the draft that isn’t available to teams when going after free agents: The huge possibility of extra value versus the salary paid.

This exists because new draftees are just entering the league and are paid less, and because their multi-year contracts are usually based on their draft position. (Rookie salaries are also limited by a separate pool, but this pool only places a secondary limit; it’s not exclusive to the team’s overall salary cap, which includes all salaries, including rookies’.) And for most draft choices, these contracts tend to be fairly modest.

This offers tremendous upside relative to salary for most draft picks, and gives limited downside: The salaries are usually already low, and, aside for small signing bonuses in most cases, are unilateral: The team can always let a player go and cut even small losses further. Thus there’s almost no downside risk, and very high upside since a player can easily outperform the value of his contract several times over.

As a result, between the key opportunity to tap into a far wider pool of available talent, and the value side of being able to do so under the modest contract structure, most of the draft slots represent a great but somewhat hidden value. This is because many draft prospects turn out to be either solid or very good, and have very reasonable to excellent salaries relative to what is offered in terms of building and maintaining a dominant winning team.

Note that the top draft slots offer even more in the way of choice, but don’t offer as much of this hidden salary value because these choices often command a much higher multi year contract price. With often far more guaranteed money, meaning more of their “expected” value is already priced in, there is also more downside if the very top draft choices don’t work out well, and also less upside when the player is strong. (Albeit – and the overly focused on point of very high picks – at least this tends to be more often. But a college prospect’s NFL performance is still somewhat unpredictable.)

All of this makes mid to high draft choices extremely valuable – and, if not as valuable as the highest picks (even with the salary priced in most cases) – probably more valuable than most teams are realizing. And certainly more valuable than they are realizing based on examination of every draft trade, and many involving draft picks, going back a dozen or so years. (This gives a pretty good handle on how teams are valuing each slotted pick. Then there is also that “chart,” which is heavily relied upon, and which, along with draft valuation, warrants a book. But short version for NFL teams: Throw that chart out the window. Or hold onto it solely for use in negotiating favorable deals with other teams, who may be looking to the chart for guidelines, and your team can use it for leverage or assessment of what your potential trading partners might do or might be persuaded to do.)

This is also one of the hidden reasons why teams often make big mistakes when they “trade up” several otherwise solid picks, just to move up to one single very high number pick. (This mistake is also covered a little bit in The Hidden Challenge in NFL Draft Evaluation.) Thus normally any team with a high pick that can talk another team into giving them several in return should usually do it.

Yes the first team could have kept the pick and gotten a “star.” But they often pay a pretty hefty salary; so while it’s often worth it to pick that possible to sometimes likely star, a lot of the hidden value of excellent performance well above salary is gone by holding onto the very high selection, valuable as it otherwise certainly is.

And the player may turn out to be average, making the draft choice a negative for the team. Or, worse, and not so rare, the player may turn out out be a bust, or close enough. In either case, the team is paying more than the player winds up being worth, and in the latter far more so, and far more than most other draft choices, which is one of the no no’s of drafting, since drafting is the key value opportunity in NFL football.

On the other hand, while any draft choice can work out poorly after the fact, with far lower salaries the downside is far lower (as is the loss of having to cut a player and thus wind up getting very little from the pick, if the team otherwise has a lot of picks), whilemost of the hidden value of the several picks being lost in exchange is gone by trading them away in return for just one pick, and that real value often isn’t being fully recognized.

Bottom line: Draft choices matter, and are often far more underestimated in value than they are overestimated – particularly the middle and middle high picks.

On the other hand, as important as the draft is, there’s still the ever present issue of simple player availability and “need”: A draft provides broad opportunity. But it’s not unlimited. Giving a pick away for a good player to whom a team is already agreeing to pay a salary commensurate with his ability, is normally a bad move; but, while it does waste the upside value of the draft choice, and it doesn’t represent “salary cap” value, it can fill a perceived “need” for the team.  Well crafted, and when the need filled at least exceeds the cost being paid sufficient to make up for the loss of the draft pick, such a trade can make sense: Meaning the team still got good value for that player relative to their salary, has a huge need for that player in terms of their specific weaknesses and strengths – which also provides a little extra value to them on top of general market value – and these together are sufficient enough to outweigh the pure loss of the most valuable possession in football: A draft pick, and free opportunity to build your team with minimal downside, and huge upside.

But with trades there isn’t necessarily any built in value to the opportunity aside from the value which, by sharp assessment and decision making, teams create from their moves; just as with free agency acquisition. But that value can still be created by fashioning a trade which is at least beneficial to your team.

Aside from finding a trading partner who mis-perceives the value they are both giving up and receiving, the simplest way to do this (particularly since teams often don’t trade much) – is to create a trade which can benefit both teams:

Sometimes specific team needs, in terms of position strengths, weaknesses, depth or overall utilization of that position on the field can be different enough between trading partners so that trades, can be of benefit for both teams: even trades involving the more difficult to value draft choices, as most trades do.

Obviously all of this applies to the most fundamental task of having a successful, or even dominant, NFL franchise. That is, building and improving the team, and beside the key component of training, practice and on field execution and passion, the remaining two key components therein: The draft, and, secondarily, acquisition and improvement through other means – free agency and trades.

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But without Peterson, the Vikings have a need at running back just as the Cowboys do. Possibly even more – though given McFadden’s injury history it’s not a clear cut evaluation. There’s seemingly no major need divergence, and any divergence points to the Vikings perhaps needing a starting running back even more than the Cowboys.

So, barring one team making a mistake (which presently is the most likely possibility), how is value created for both teams?

The first possible relevant distinction between teams is that Peterson apparently doesn’t want to be associated with the Vikings. (So, frankly, if a deal was in theory a complete “wash,” it would be in the Vikings interest to do it, because there’s that unknown for them that doesn’t exist for other teams: The fact that Peterson may hold a bit of a grudge aginst the team, or at least not be very motivated to play for them. And even if that factor bears no relevance to his actual value to them (see below), one could also make an argument that if it’s otherwise no loss for the Vikings, given the situation it’s better from a human and business perspective to respect his wishes, since relative to a “neutral” trade it does the Vikings no good to not do so. Sure, there’s the argument of precedent setting for disgruntled players, but the Peterson situation is unique, as we’ll cover shortly, so it probably doesn’t apply.)

Last season, on the heels of the Ray Rice Roger Goodell Brouhaha, the Vikings suspended Peterson for aggressively using a “switch” – we can pretty much all agree – to greatly over-discipline his very young child. (Most experts, and I concur, say there’s no reason to ever hit a child. But if one disagrees with that, my suggestion is it should certainly be symbolic, mild, never with even a hint of anger, on a soft part of the body, accompanied by clear explanation, and extremely rare.) The NFL was already taking a public relations hit, and sensitive to matters involving NFL players given the Ray Rice incident and the rather poor way it was handled, many were outraged by Peterson’s seemingly medieval ways; and although he otherwise has a record of doing excellent charity work on behalf of children, it doesn’t excuse the discipline which if not in Peterson’s mind, at least in others’, crossed into abuse.

So the Vikings suspended him (before briefly unsuspending him, then doing so again for what ultimately became the entire season minus one game), even before our court system had weighed in on any culpability or recommendations, and before the NFL acted as well.

From Peterson’s perspective, though it’s not clear he had an issue with the idea of some disciplinary response from the team, he thought the Vikings acted hastily, made him into a bit of a pariah, and treated it as if the only thing that mattered was their appearance, regardless of their relationship with him.

Right or wrong, and despite questionable arguments like this one (see number 9, in an Adam Schein NFL article which also, by the way, suggests several draft day “move ups,” all of which are bad ideas for the reasons expressed in this piece and others), Peterson’s perspective in this regard is vaguely reasonable. Whether he should or shouldn’t want to play for the team is another question; but him not wanting to certainly doesn’t seem completely whimsical.

So, would he impart more value to another team than to Minnesota simply due to the fact that he might not play as well for them?

Likely not. Peterson’s a professional and an athlete first on the field, and it’s hard to say what role, if any, all this would eventually play; particularly since it’s a team game and he would ultimately be out there on the field both with and for his teammates as well. Many analysts have suggested he would play well for the Vikings if he remained, and while it’s hard to know for sure if a little something extra in terms of “spirit” would be missing or not, I tend to concur.

Another idea is the “one piece away” theory, common in the NFL. Thus, here, there’s the idea that Dallas is “one piece” away from a championship, while the Vikings aren’t, so Peterson is more valuable to Dallas.

While not worthless, this over relied upon notion should be used extremely carefully. Components to a team matter – improve your weakest links since that’s the room for the most improvement (and normally the easiest to acquire improvement at, relatively speaking, anyway), at the lowest cost.  But it’s a team game, and not usually a “one piece is missing” game. And improve your weakest links applies to all teams, not just “really good” teams.

Additionally, future team performance is usually less predictable than we think. In this case, while my (probably widely held) prediction is Dallas will be a better team than Minnesota in 2015, that’s only if forced to speculate at this moment; it’s not as clear cut as people think. (On the other hand, if they didn’t have such a poor offseason, and don’t also botch the upcoming draft as they have some of the past few drafts, I could say the Rams will be a team to watch out for in 2015, relative to their recent NFL history. They still likely will be to some extent.)

Dallas may continue to win, or fall back to being a strong team that nevertheless manages to toe up with the best in the league yet falls to 8-8. (Recall them in 2013 going head to head with a Denver team that almost no other team matched that year. Not always, but typically when lesser teams hang with a dominant team, it’s a lower scoring game; yet Dallas somewhat outplayed Denver in a major scoring fest, going toe to toe, round for round, the entire game. Remember also that before getting demolished in the Super Bowl, again by their offense being stifled, Denver in 2013 specifically was one of the more dominant teams in recent NFL history.)

Aside from Dallas, Minnesota may surprise, as they were an improving team last year, with a rookie quarterback who didn’t even get in a full season.

Who knows. But team’s are rarely so “one piece away.” And if they are that good, perhaps the lesser team that may not be as “lesser” as we or their management thinks, and for better value in return, could benefit more from that key piece that the better team thinks it’s “benefiting” more from.  And here it’s almost silly to say Dallas is Championship game bound with a great running back while Minnesota doesn’t have much of a chance. We don’t know, nor can they know. (By the start of the season however, players and coaches, if there is a specific intensity, can sometimes know their chances are very strong, despite public perception.)

The fact is, right now Minnesota may need a running back slightly more than Dallas, if anything – or at least the two teams are not lopsided in terms of disparate need.

So on balance – unless Peterson, albeit unlikely, simply wouldn’t give his all if stays with the Vikings – any argument overall that “Dallas will benefit more,”  from Peterson than the Vikings is probably just nice sounding words. (Though granted, there are a lot of those. In fact, the world is dominated by them.) Second year man Teddy Bridgewater, who showed promise in his rookie year at QB, might like having a nice running back to hand the ball off to and maybe entice defenses to crowd the box.

Again, barring a desire on the part of Minnesota to respect Peterson’s wishes despite the fact they clearly don’t have to, or a reasoned belief he won’t play as well for them as he would for another team, there’s really little way for a trade for Peterson to make great sense for one team, while not in reality hurting the other, or otherwise simply being a “neutral.”

But Peterson can do something that can create value for both teams: And at the same time – if at 31 years old he is no longer the same running back next year – decrease the chances of his new suitor accepting their losses and after giving up a high draft pick and nearly thirteen million dollars, waive him next season to save an additional 15 million dollars (plus 17 million for the following season.)
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It’s been suggested that Dallas give up a first round pick for the trade. (One analyst I love listening to for his football insight, even if I sometimes don’t agree, even casually suggested two first rounders – which would be close to highway robbery by the Vikings.)  But a first rounder, under Peterson’s current salary, isn’t even close to equitable.

Peterson has three years remaining on his contract, and a team trading anything of legitimate worth for him would likely lose value if they didn’t employ him for all three years; or at least two, pending the details of the trade. This season he’s due to make $12.75 million. Almost thirteen million. Next season it goes up to $14.75 million; almost 15 million. The season after that – 2017, in which Peterson will be 32 years old – it goes up to almost 17 million dollars.

That’s a lot of coin, to use an already well coined expression.

Seemingly chilling views on child discipline aside (views that have probably now been adequately quashed by input from many, and the experience), given the opportunity Peterson has done a lot for kids with his charity work, was raised to believe his strange discipline tactics were right, and seemingly loves his kid and (not that it makes up for abusive “discipline), otherwise may be a good enough dad. Yet his team didn’t seem to support him in the least.

Community, country, legal system, no one has to support Peterson. But his team could have at least stepped up a bit and had some loyalty to their own player, given that a football team is not our justice system, even if the broader NFL sometimes tries to be.

Players may get uptight or have too many imagined grievances. It’s in our nature as people. And Peterson did a wrong. But if his view is “I don’t really want to play for the Vikings,” it may not be completely unreasonable in one sense.

In other sense, former GM extraordinaire Bill Polian, who called the idea of Peterson playing for another team a “complete fantasy,” has a valid point we all know: he’s under contract. (And Minnesota seems to need a running back.)

But the idea that Peterson may play for another team, although unlikely, is not – as Polian put it recently  “not reality.” (Note, Polian, who usually gives excellent insight and is worth listening to, made the statement, along with the suggestion that Peterson possibly playing for another team was “not reality,” on Sirius’ “Late Hits”probably around two weeks ago; and the first draft of this piece – wherein the line suggesting it was reality, if unlikely, for Peterson to play for another team – was written shortly thereafter. I think Polian was overly keyed in on reasonably refuting the idea that Peterson could just demand to be traded and thus “be traded” simply because he “didn’t like the way the Vikings handled something,” where, aside from a personal wrong, he had more broadly committed a wrong as well under the NFLPA, and got caught.)

Trades are reality, and the Vikings could very easily make a trade, and may have some incentive to do so. And, depending on how badly he wants to play for another team – say Dallas, for example, Peterson’s alleged favorite team and one he ostensibly would really like to play for – and how badly he doesn’t want to play for the Vikings, an unusual but potent wild card enters into this picture that could make the trade manageable, even potentially beneficial, for both teams.

First, recapping why it’s not without something else added to the mix: Minnesota would likely want (and expect) a high draft pick of better for Peterson. Dallas, or any other team, would be giving up too much value on their part to part with such a pick on top of the fact that Peterson already commands a very high salary. (And the fact is, while he’s a fantastic runner, some of his extra yardage came from the fact that he could lower his head and bowl people over – which he was good at. Now if it that’s done in a clear and direct way, it’s a penalty. Could be coincidence, but worth noting: In Peterson’s one season after the new rule was passed his average yard per carry dropped to 4.5, a full half yard below his lifetime average (an average that includes his last year playing – 2013 – where he had that 4.5 average).

But there are two components, the lesser, and first of the two being again that Peterson in theory might not play quite as hard for Minnesota as for another team.

Suppose Minnesota believes, or has reason to believe, that a disgruntled Peterson will play hard for them, but perhaps not with the same fire he might otherwise have. Even if not, Peterson could somewhat convincingly tell them: “I will run hard, but I feel like you – my team – abandoned me in my darkest hour after a terrible mistake, and so I won’t have that deep burning desire I had, and won’t be able to give it may all.” (He could also be bluffing, or mean it when he says it but later realize he’s a football player. You play. It’s what non professional athletes who are competitive and love giving it their all do. And though the hitting can be a little more unpleasant in the NFL – where a focus on hitting hard has sometimes transcended even a focus on correct tackling technique – it’s what football players who are professional, particularly if they love the game, do.)

On the other hand, Dallas has perennially been an average to above average team, and as an unusually good road team and poor home team last season out played Green Bay in Green Bay (where from early mid season on GB was dominant, and Green Bay then should have beaten the Seahawks in the Championship game in Seattle; and as we all know, the Seahawks came within a hair of beating the Patriots in Super Bowl 49.) So, while hard to predict, a Dallas first rounder for 2016 stands a good chance of being a late first rounder. This spring they pick 27th – very late.

Minnesota may not realize the extra value late first round picks present. There is much less salary cost, but almost as much upside player potential as with a higher pick. But they still recognize much of that value, and it is still a “first round pick.”

But on the flip side this is still a huge amount to give up, for the same reasons stated above: Player pool availability is limited, but virtually unlimited draft wise, and low first round picks are near perfect opportunities to tap it, with tremendous upside, and relatively low downside.

Ditto, if slightly mildly, for a second rounder, and, frankly – again considering that for a 30-32 year old running back being paid almost 15 million a year, and the fact that high middle draft picks are undervalued – to some extent for a third rounder as well. (I’m not sure, at least if I was Dallas, that I would even trade a trade a fourth rounder, as John Clayton predicted would be the trade, since McFadden might turn out to be pretty solid, and 15 million per year can purchase a lot of team improvement when used wisely. I think Clayton was more realistic in assessing what a reasonable trade would approach, but I also disagree with it as a “prediction”: I can almost guarantee – barring the extremely unlikely event of teams getting hold of and believing what is in this piece you’re reading, that if Peterson is traded it is for something higher than a 4th rounder.)

Now here’s the twist, the extra value for both teams, in terms of a trade, that Peterson could create if he wanted.

Peterson in theory could sit out. This is normally a bad move, unless a player really doesn’t want to play, and doesn’t care about the money.  If he sat out, he’d make nothing. There also don’t appear to be any real signs this is a possibility (but who knows, strange things do happen).

He could also play for a team he ostensibly really doesn’t want to play for.

Now enter Dallas. It just so happens that given the loss of Murray and McFadden’s recent history and heavy injury pattern, that they may have dropped at running back. (Again, it’s hard to tell because McFadden has upside, and so is a bit of a wild card here, but his salary is relatively low, about $3m/yr.)

Picking up Peterson would strengthen them, and if McFadden isn’t strong any more, or he gets injured – both possibilities, particularly the second given his history of foot problems – it would strengthen them a lot. (And ditto for some other teams.)

So, what if Dallas could get additional “value” for Peterson as well, that isn’t available for Minnesota: That is, Minnesota gains more by letting Peterson go, than Dallas gives up by acquiring him.  And they may be able to, depending on Adrian Peterson.

Another team could do this as well; several need running backs, and the most likely candidate for a trade appears to be the Cardinals, who will likely overcompensate for Peterson if such a trade is announced. Peterson could slightly facilitate such a trade as well, since it means he’s out of Minnesota, but it’s not Dallas, who’s apparently Peterson’s favorite team and a team he would reportedly love to play for. Yet in theory all of this could apply to Arizona as well, if Peterson is willing. And if so it might make more sense for Arizona, because again, the McFadden wild card is not necessarily a large “weakness” at running back for the Cowboys.)

This extra value could come in two forms. First, it could come in the form of enthusiasm. Peterson is a Cowboys fan. How cool to be able to play for your favorite football team. Yet even if combined with the “chance” Peterson won’t reach as deep down to play hard for Minnesota, this is probably slight.

Second, it could come in the form of money. This is not slight.

Though it may seem odd to some, once one has “enough” (different amounts for different people and philosophies) more money doesn’t really matter as much. Living comfortably Peterson can already be set for life. Sometimes people with a lot of money, including some players, see this, and employ it. Peterson may just want to play, and may be willing to restructure his deal to play for the team he wants to play for, and not for the team that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with after last season. (Note also that in 2016 and 2017 he will be 31 and 32, and making near 15 and 17 million, none of which is apparently guaranteed, and barring stellar performance he may be waived or possibly asked to restructure first anyway.)

On the one hand, one could look at this and say “but he’s giving up millions!” But on the other he’s getting paid to play running back in the NFL. You get hit hard, but if you can keep out of the way of concussions (and that new lowering of the head rule benefits Peterson in terms of avoiding concussions as well) and hopefully keep your knees together, running with the ball doesn’t have to destroy running backs, and often doesn’t. (We’re made to run, even cut, despite popular opinion; just not constantly be hit and torqued in the knees by others.)

Getting paid to play running back is pretty cool. It’s like a bonus, since running back, for those who truly like football, including the hitting, is a lot of fun. Playing hard, for hard playing athletes (whether crappy athletes who just like to play and who are rugged, or star athletes), is fun.

And Peterson would be paid millions to do is. A big improvement on last season.

Thus, the wild card twist. Peterson plays a little poker with the Vikings (who may be fully aware he’s doing it, but it still serves its purpose)

I was fine not playing last year. Football bangs up my knees, concussions damage the brain long term, I’ve made money, you guys abandoned me last year as I was made out to be a national pariah, I’m fine – even happy, sitting out. I want you to trade me, but if you don’t, I may be almost as happy just not playing, or just doing my duty, but is it worth 13, then 15, then 17 million to you?

Depending on how well he or his agent delivers it, and how much he means it, the Vikings could legitimately buy into this a little bit. And more importantly buy into the fact that they may have a running back who is perhaps semi-legitimately pissed at them, and doesn’t really see the point in staying loyal, contract or no contract. Businesses break contracts, and teams have the right to drop them while the player’s still  “on the hook.” That is, Peterson can’t break the contract, but they can’t force him to play. He just sacrifices his rights under it.  Better they all make a clean start. It’s what you sometimes do in the NFL.

Enter Peterson again, and now with the key addition:

Why don’t you trade me, that way you win, I’m not so disgruntled – which means you win again – and I might even restructure a bit to make a trade where you get adequately compensated, make sense.”

If the Vikings are thinking, this does make sense. They lose his salary, a gain to them of almost 13, then almost 15, then almost 17 million dollars. A total of a little over $44 million over 3 years (unless they wound up later waiving him anyway, making trading him now more valuable for them, not less). And they pick up value in the form of a draft pick. And they don’t have a guy on the roster who doesn’t want to play for them despite the fact they were paying him a lot of money to.

But the trade has to make sense for another team as well. Enter shrewd Dallas, who recognizes the value of draft picks, but doesn’t have much else to offer the Vikings. They have McFadden, the wild card, but on one hand he’s an unknown to semi disappointment by this point, and there’s that extensive injury history.

How about a running back who can absolutely pound it, who wants to for their team, and who they don’t need to break the bank to get?

Adrian P knocks off a few to several million a year from his current salary.  That represents a few to several million in value per year the Cowboys are getting, at least in theory, for a year or two any way. And since the last two years are the most unreliable in terms of prediction, Peterson and his agent knock more off the back two years, so if he works out reasonably well, the Cowboys save a bundle versus having to keep him at a whopping 15 and 17 million a year in ’16 and ’17 (or even cut him and devalue the initial acquisition, and loss of a draft pick for it, in the first place.) .

Now, unless Peterson gave up a LOT (which he may well do because he doesn’t want to play for Minnesota and does wan to play for Dallas and may want to help them) the deal still doesn’t make perfect sense for Dallas.

A late 1st rounder is still too much. (Minnesota may not see if that way for the same reason that Dallas may be willing to do it even with a modest salary reduction for Peterson; but Peterson can sell it as per above.)

So Minnesota throws in a 3rd or 4th round pick in 2016. Ideally Dallas should press for a 3rd rounder, in which case Dallas suddenly swapped their (late) 1st rounder for a mid 3rd rounder – a significant value drop off, no doubt – but picks up probably still the best running back in the NFL, at a substantial discount, which discount can be used to sign more players. At least in theory, though again it will still take ongoing work given the limited player pool, but opportunities always abound for the prepared team. And at least they didn’t lose a net draft pick. A 3d rounder isn’t nearly as valuable, but its still a pretty strong – and underrated – pick, and at least gives Dallas the same number of choices.

The Vikings lose a disgruntled player who was from one perspective possibly legitimate in his desire to move on from the team after a bizarre 2014 – and gain enormous amounts of cap space and savings – and now have two first round picks this or next spring!

From the Cowboys’ perspective, it could be worth getting the Vikings 4th rounder instead of 3rd (a sizable drop off) if Peterson convinces them he is really to fly and cuts off at least a few million a year, giving them back at least that value they gave up and giving them the additional benefit of then having Peterson – which even at his current (higher) salary, if he still runs well, is probably worth it. (Certainly it would for the Cardinals, and perhaps for another team. But again I would be surprised if the Cardinals or another team doesn’t both pay Peterson more, and give up more, if such a deal does in fact occur.)

Another option is to have Peterson lower his salary for Dallas, and Dallas gives up a 3rd rounder.(Or a 3rd rounder plus they swap a 6th in return for a 7th to give the Vikings a little extra value to boot, since Dallas also only has their one pick late in the round 3rd round this spring, and a late 3rd rounder is different from an early 3rd rounder.)

But again Minnesota may not be as keen on that.Then again they may if Peterson sells his disinterest in football, or at least disinterest in Minnesota, sufficiently; why have a player on the roster being paid a fortune who doesn’t really want to be there, when you can save the fortune and gain some value for it.

The key here is the extra value that Peterson has the power to create given his high salary, and his strong desires (pro – Cowboys, con – Vikings). If offered, and they can’t possibly negotiate for any more from anyone else, the Vikings would probably be foolish or stubborn to pass this up:

The fact that they were not required to suspend Peterson, Peterson was not initially suspended by the league, and yet the Vikings instead suspended him indefinitely and he didn’t play for almost the entire season, means that while it is fine for them to legitimately hold him to his contract, they should also respect his wishes to not play for them if a way can be found to accomplish this that also benefits the Vikings simultaneously, or at the very least leaves them as well off in terms of overall potential and value, as they were.

The deal as just laid out doesn’t hurt the Vikings, and would probably benefit them – they’re saving many many millions. It would, at least based upon potential, likely benefit the Cowboys as well – they’re getting a player plus the extra value of those millions shaved off each year that they can now apply back to their salary cap and later player acquisition or rollover; and it would benefit Peterson, since it gets him what he wants if he was willing to do this. He may not be willing, but it could make sense from his perspective. Easy to miss, money really isn’t everything, particularly when you have a lot of it.

It probably won’t happen. But it could. And more importantly, it would make more sense for all parties involved. Unless Peterson just wants the higher salary. But again, that very high – and on a now aging player, creeping higher – salary, is the wild card here, that, due to special circumstances, can create value. It makes possible what Peterson can bring to the table to make the move worthwhile and get accomplished what he wants – out of Minnesota, in a way that allows Minnesota to do it, and that also benefits his new team:

The Dallas “Darren McFadden” Cowboys.

Week 15 NFL Pick Against the Spread

Update: Season record to date…..let’s see, carry the 1, divide by the hypotenuse, multiply by the square root of the cube… Wait, no, I just found it. Each week in all its laborious glory: Right down to the “who’s gonna play tough” guesswork more relevant than who’s going to stop which player – since stopping x or y guy on the field sounds great, but is present every game for all players as a team.

That is, two things matter in picking games: Which team is better at the moment and where the game is being played. And who is more likely to play hard.

Most of the stuff we hear about who will win because this or that team can “run the ball well” or something similar, sounds great; but doesn’t matter.

If team A, for example, struggling with the pass and relying on the run, andnow facing team B who is “guess what,” good at stopping the run (an analysis I just heard on an excellent flagship football show offered as rationale for why team A would lose), that means team B is weaker at stopping the pass. Which against a struggling passing team who can use the weak pass defense help so they can introduce balance back to their offensive attack, may be even more relevant than the fact their opponents are good at stopping the run.

Or it may not be. And if team B is also stronger at stopping the pass, it simply means team B has a good defense. Which means Team A’s defense catches a break. Or it team B also has a good offense, it means team B simply has a better football team, which is the real reason team A is more likely to lose. Etc., etc.

In contrast to analysis that makes it sound otherwise, it’s extremely hard to pick out in advance which team will play well against another team apart from a) how good they are, and b) how hard they are going to play. And the best way to determine this is history (and even then that’s often because one team tends to play hard, or “charged up” against another one), or on rare occasion a particular talent by one team that offsets a talent by the other that most other teams can’t seem to stop; but trying to figure this out in advance often gets confused with simply focusing in one area of the game and not realizing it is offset by other areas. And that if it’s not offset by other areas, it usually simply means that one team is better than the other one, which is why they are more likely to win.

Thus a lot of analysis we hear about which team is going to win that doesn’t focus on who is actually better, and who is likely to play better in that particular game, sounds great, but isn’t otherwise of as much value as it sounds. That’s why many picks you read even by experts at the country’s leading sports sites, against the spread at least, (or straight up for otherwise very close games) are about the same as a coin flip. Or worse.

That said, the picks here ain’t much better:  Season history to date: Week 14: 4-4. Week 13: 4-4 Week 12: 4-3.  Week 11: 4-2-1. Week 10: 3-3. Week 9 3-3. “Debacle week” 8: 3-5.  Week 7: 2-1 Season record to date: 27-25-1, not counting the 1-0 record this week so far.(28-25 -1, or 29-25-1 including last Thursday, with outside verification that the Browns at +6 were a “pick em” possible upset pick at the Bengals back in week 10, but I didn’t get to this column in time. I ranted about it as if I had 40,000 dollars on the game, 5 million weekly readers, and was in a heads up season long gentleman’s wager with the far funnier Bill Simmons (nice picks column here by Simmons, for example) for post season bragging rights, rather than – well – really no real reason at all.)

Though, we are here sporting a perfect record so far with (sparingly offered) upset picks.

That should change this week however – can’t keep hitting on every one. Plus this week has two outright upset pick calls. And really, they are both close games rather than strong favorites to pull an upset. (Though given the teams involved, as you’ll see below, that doesn’t necessarily mean the games should be close if the upset team loses; but in the case of one at least it should.)

Cardinals (+6) at Rams, Thursday Night Football

This is simple. Over the past several weeks, and notwithstanding a close loss at San Diego 3 weeks ago, the St. Louise Rams have been close to the best team in football. The cardinals have overachieved. And Drew Stanton is not even close to Carson Palmer at quarterback. (Update: Stanton got hurt, and Ryan Lindley – who will likely start next week and probably the week after that for the Cardinals, before Stanton, with the same type of MCL sprain that sidelined Larry Fitzgerald for two games a little earlier in the season, can return for the playoffs – is not even close to Drew Stanton at quarterback. Though when not throwing passes that traveled closer to opponents than his own teammates, he otherwise showed good judgment and quick decision making.)

And, just before the just below the surface potential of the St. Louis Rams (for two seasons now) finally exploded, they went into Arizona in week 10 and were leading 14-10 early in the 4th quarter (against a Carson Palmer led team), before they fell apart (right after, ironically, Palmer tore his ACL).

Since then they’ve beaten the Denver Broncos 22-7 – holding them scoreless in the second half in the process – lost 24-27 at the San Diego Chargers, beaten the Oakland Raiders 52-0, and beaten the Washington Redskins in Washington, 24-0. (The team that traded away half of its draft to this same Rams team back in 2012, so they could draft a quarterback who is now benched.)

But the Cardinals, who still have to face the Seattle Seahawks and who have seen their once dominant division lead fall to a slim one game lead (and they’ve already lost to the Seahawks once), won’t go down without a fight.

The edge to win the game goes to the team who is better right now, and who is playing for something as important to this team as making the playoffs:  The pride of running the table and showing they not only belong in what is still the toughest overall division in football, but that they might be able to soon take it.

Six points, however, is too many against a desperate team that will battle, in a likely lower scoring game between two defensive oriented clubs, in what shapes up to be one of the most interesting games of the season – and will remain so after the fact no matter how it turns out.

Very close, because right now the St. Louis Rams are probably the favorite to win the NFC West next year, and probably the entire NFC, but,

Pick: Cardinals

As always, the remainder of games picked against the spread will be added prior to late Sunday Game Day morning.

Update: Well, that time is now once again upon us.  But also notice how Thursday Night’s Pick went from “this is simple,” to “very close” by the end of the discussion.  It was simple. And, in hindsight, given the Cardinals outright 12-6 win, better if the “very close” was left off, which kind of lamefied my pick. (I’ll check with Webster’s D later to make sure they’ve finally included “lamefied,” as a verb. If not I’ll suggest it.)

Column/post/prattling is still to come on that strong Rams Cardinals contest, which from a pure NFL and football rather than “marquee” perspective, was an excellent one entering the game. And for some who like real defense –  and not just aerial shows up and down the field with less strategy – trickier scores, and defensive balance, was an excellent game as well.

There was also a series of two remarkable strategy decisions in a row in the game by the Cardinals, which will get a separate column/post/prattle fest, since they go to some of the key structural mechanics of the game being overlooked in routine “strategic” game decision situations, and that serve as excellent examples of each.

But that’s later to come. In the meantime, the Rams are, and will remain, next year’s dark horse pick. Watch out for them. And if they pick up some strong receiver and offensive line help, double watch out for them.

Also – though it seems “about as unlikely as if a multi million year level of change to the concentration of the same long lived greenhouse molecules responsible for keeping our earth from being a lifeless frozen ball of ice and rock hurtling to space somehow wouldn’t change earth’s climate” – if they happen to surreptitiously swap places with the New Orleans Saints, and thus clandestinely plant themselves into the thick of the AFC South instead of the current best division in football, triple watch out for them.

Unauthorized division swapping unfortunately is of course a tad bit unprecedented, and highly taboo by the basic rules.  (Though trading division places for draft picks might make for some interesting machinations, as teams foolishly give up draft picks in order to move into “easier” divisions, only to then see those divisions quickly turn strong.) Plus, the guys who makes the NFL schedule, along with the rest of us – and certainly the other teams – would probably need to find out about it at some point.

So okay, let’s face it: The Rams will still be in a division with the always under rated Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers (who will come back tough next year if Harbaugh remains) and the Legions of Boom up in Seattle, who seem to have gotten their boom on recently, and are not a team anybody wants to play right now. (Although Arizona plays them in week 16, just like last year. And, guess who – St. Louis – hits them up in Seattle to close out the season. In a game that might really wind up mattering for Seattle, both for the division title and a first round bye, or an extra game and wild card trip on the road or, pending, possibly even making the playoffs at all.)

But once again, right now, entering next year with the return of Sam Bradford and a young, hungry, improving team under a decent head coach, watch out for the Rams next year.

So let’s do some picks. Buckle up, this week’s are strong: (So I say now. Check back Monday.)

Raiders (+10) at Chiefs

This game is a bit lopsided from a spread perspective. If you follow football, do you really need the analysis here?  When a team is getting 1o points (even in today’s explosive score oriented NFL) and stands a legitimate chance of winning the game, there’s no decision to be made.

If you don’t think the lowly 2-11 Raiders have a legitimate chance to defeat even their now desperate for a win to stay alive, and playing at home, and hated, division rivals, you haven’t been playing close attention to football. (But don’t laugh too hard if the Raiders lose 28-13. Nothing is locked in gold in football except the idea that the Jaguars are awful and should be banished to the CFL, or get themselves yet another new GM (once again Shahid Kahn, I volunteer), or that the Titans didn’t have to be absolutely miserable this season (losing by at least 14 points in an astounding 8 out of their 11 losses so far this season) to prove an idea I suggested months ago in heavily questioning their offseason firing (though “questioning” is a nice word), of then head coach Mike Munchak.)

In week 12 Oakland wins their very first game of the season -against these very same Chiefs, 24-20.

They promptly go the following week and lose, 52-0.  And, lose to our very own dark horse Super Bowl contender for next season, the St. Louis Rams. (Here’s an interesting analysis of that next game, before the fact.)

Then, they apparently try a little harder the following week (last week) and pull off another big upset, against the San Francisco 49ers, 24-13. (24 seems to be their number in those rare instances they win games this season.)

So, now another post big win let down for the currently “over achieving” two win team? Or is it possible that the Raiders have learned their lesson.

Probably not. But being as this is the Chiefs, and the team that Oakland would probably rather beat than any team in the NFL – let alone sweep – for this game, they may have learned it.

And again, 10 is a lot of points for this much potential emotion, with a team that has shown it can beat the Chiefs, and- even if the Chiefs do need a division win badly to keep their season alive – that are playing a little better themselves.

It would be cool, but probably less likely that the Raiders sweep. But between their chances of winning the game outright, and their larger chances of at least playing with some serious spark to try and give their season some meaning by showing they can dominate at least one of the good teams in the division, 10 is still too large a number for this game even with some additional bad injury news for the somewhat depleted Raiders squad.

Pick: Raiders

Bengals (-1) at Browns

As Joey Lawrence used to so accurately say on the hip 90s sitcom “Blossom”: Whoa!

Johnny Football, the guy who stood in front of a more elderly crowd in cute leotards and led them through some dandy exercises before being woken up by an appropriately much older (and hence wiser) NFL player, the guy who captured the country’s sports heart with his swashbuckling style as a devil may care quarterback at Texas A&M who just won baby, gets his first start in the NFL. (While he also appropriately laughed off another set of silly (okay, stupid) comments by the Bengals head coach.) (Manziel incidentally was also the 837th pick of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. Which put him, let’s see… again, carry the 1, divide by pie…. um, infinity spots ahead of me in that particular major league baseball draft.)

Last week, in foolishly picking the Bengals as 3 point favorites against Pittsburgh, this blog boldly stated:

The Bengals are simply a better football team. The question to be answered here is whether they have as much heart as Pittsburgh traditionally shows. Because Pittsburgh, more likely than not, will show it here.

Outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter en route to their 42-21 home loss to Pittsburgh (whom they meet again in Pittsburgh to close out the season in week 17), that question was probably answered.

Now, embarrassed, and if the Bengals lose again this weekend with the Steelers able to vault ahead with a win at Atlanta (as can Baltimore with a win at Jacksonville, where they are 14 point favorites), will they show heart this game?

Maybe, maybe not. But given that they’re going against a still largely untested rookie making his first NFL start, on paper at least are still the better team, and have the strong revenge factor in a key playoff implication divisional game on their side, they’re the call to make here.

But still, how can you not root for Johnny JamBoogie?

I’ll be rooting for him and his semi underdog Browns to make this the wrong pick.

But, after their embarrassment at home to the Steelers last week to put Pittsburgh back into the race, if this Bengals team can’t even up the series against the Browns after getting demolished by them on national TV at home in week 10 (in my best pick on this blog that never officially got made), then Marvin Lewis, with his 0-5 playoff record, should walk out of the stadium and go join the Jaguars in Canada. (Or London, once Roger Goodell gets his way. Though if I was Jacksonville’s GM I wouldn’t let Lewis within 100 miles of the franchise,  unless it was as defensive coordinator, and with a standing gag order to desist from making medicinal related commentary on concussions, and other wildly inane statements that wholly miss the point of what was done wrong and incorrectly assumed with respect to concussions in the past.)

Pick: Bengals – Marvin’s team

Make this the wrong pick Johnny Boogie and a Browns team that repeatedly shows heart, and sweep those Tigers.

49ers (+9) at Seahawks

At some point this San Francisco team has to tailspin. And it looks like while earlier in the year they kept it somewhat together despite a bunch of injuries and rumors about head coach Jim Harbaugh leaving (which have only increased), that tailspin may now be happening. Particularly if the players are resigned to losing their head coach, and know they may be playing under new leadership (or even for a different team) next year.

And the Seahawks, who have gotten over their early post Super Bowl Championship slump (though the return of defensive superstars Kam Chancellor and in particular linebacker Bobby Wagner has certainly helped), would probably like little more than to pummel the 49ers once again; just as they did Thanksgiving evening just two weeks ago down in the Santa Clara area. (The 49ers new “home” digs.)

But this is the 49ers, and Harbaugh’s 4th season as a head coach in the league. He has taken them to the NFC championship game every one of this first three seasons. (And he didn’t take over all that great of a team, either.)

When he says all they really have left to play for at this point is “pride,” it may still mean something with this bunch.  And there’s little more prideful than being able to show that while they may be down and out, they can still go into Seattle and avenge their NFC championship game loss from last season and show they still got that swagger, and in effect declare, “come on 2015, bring it on, whoever leads our charge.”

They just may not have the ability to do it right now. And Seattle knows they’re going against a wounded team with a lot of pride, who have a fierce rivalry with them and who have won an awful lot of games over the last few seasons, with a chance at some serious season redemption. And so the Seahawks, who have lately been showing it anyway, likely won’t lose focus.

But given the rivalry and the potential for enormous passion on the part of the 49ers, which can make any game close – and the 49ers are by no means a bad team, yet are coming off a loss to the Oakland Raiders of all teams – this is a San Francisco call all the way.

Sure they could get pummeled, as Seattle likes to do to San Francisco, and has done to San Francisco a few times now up in Seattle recently when San Francisco was a lot better team even. But for this game, don’t necessarily bet on it.

Pick: 49ers

Broncos (-5) at Chargers

Yeah, Denver Broncos, Bla bla bla bla…

And Peyton Manning, who has suddenly been playing subpar (but the Broncos keep on winning) could at any moment turn into superman with a football (again); but this game is one of the better match-ups of the season, regardless.

And despite many claims to the contrary, when the Chargers played Denver back in late October (though a bit more injury riddled than at the moment, albeit they are still down to their 4th center, having lost a remarkable 3 total successive starting centers to season ending injuries), and lost 35-21, the Chargers actually did get outplayed.

But, while it doesn’t matter too too much where the game is being played when these two teams meet, this is December; it is in San Diego; the Chargers need the game badly, the Broncos don’t (as much, though it’s true they do need it, and they don’t want to have to go up to New England to advance); the Chargers, despite that earlier season loss, know how to battle Denver in general; and, most importantly, “this is Philip Rivers time”: That is, late November and December – with a shot at a playoff berth with wins – is where this quarterback has shone like no one else in the league apart from someone named Tom Brady.

It doesn’t mean he will again, or that the better team here – Denver – won’t win. But this is more likely the Chargers game for the taking. Upset pick; Chargers win outright.

Thus, against the spread, naturally,

Pick: Chargers 

Packers (-5) at Bills 

Yes, the Packers could be facing the Patriots (or someone else) in the Super Bowl later this season. (Or it could just as easily if perhaps not more easily be the Seahawks – with the Lions, Cowboys, Eagles, and the always under respected Arizona Cardinals with decent enough shots to also unseat them.)

But the Bills, by sacking Aaron Rodgers more times than the Packers recently improving offensive line would prefer, and smacking the ball away a few times in the process, send the ‘Pack packing, and pull off the surprise upset.  Even if their normal December “cold Buffalo weather “advantage might be somewhat nullified by a team seemingly from the Midwest’s version of Alaska – aka, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Pick: Bills

Dolphins (+7.5) at Patriots

Yes, the Patriots actually held the Chargers to negative yards rushing in the second half in their win last week in San Diego.

Yes the Patriots have dominated this division this entire millennium, and are on a roll right now to boot.

And yes the Dolphins haven’t dominated anything but the occasional autumn sport news headlines down in South Florida. And are rolling themselves, but off of a resounding 28-13 home loss to the Ravens last week in a game they needed to win.

But Miami probably isn’t done speaking yet this season. And have beaten the Patriots 2 out of the last 3 times the two teams have met. (Though both wins were at home.  And they were swept by the Patriots the season before – 2012, and lost by 10 up in New England last season, and 28-0 the season before to close out the year.)

The points are also a little iffy this game, since it’s really a question of whether Miami comes into New England with its ears pinned back – then watch out, it’s anybody’s game. If not, there’s a pretty strong chance the Patriots win this by well more than touchdown.

Balancing that out, this is a decent number of points, even against a Patriots team hitting its stride, and whose defense is really coming together, against a divisional rival team capable of beating them and who probably wants to, badly.

It’s a tough pick, because under Joe Philbin the Dolphins haven’t really ever taken that full step to the next level. And just when it looked like they may have slipped in under the radar to become a strong team this year, they lost at the end in Detroit in week 10, and have slipped back into a just barely on the outside looking in team, once again – needing that win at home last week against the Ravens, a team that under head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco, has repeatedly beaten the Dolphins.

This might be one of the weaker picks of the week (though by accident it would look genius if the Dolphins pull off the upset).  The reason behind it is the idea that Miami will go in and give it their all and then some, and make it a tough game all around. If that call is wrong – and we’ll know soon enough -well, then, this pick is a pretty bad one:

Pick: Dolphins

Catch you on the flip side, as we sift through the wreckage after the fact of this week’s picks. (Whoever “you are,” as right now the only verified devotedly regular reader of this blog is my neighbor’s cat “Frenchie,” who somehow has learned to read in English, and taken a penchant – very surprising for a cat – toward watching football of all things, ever since Dish TV cancelled his favorite mice marathon racing channel.)

This piece originally consisted of only the pick for Thursday Night’s game to start off the week (pick: Cardinals, +6), and has been updated and expanded to include all of the key picks for week 15 and more, and moved here.

Week 13 NFL Picks Against the Spread, Some Notes on Picking Games, and a Look at Some of This Blog’s Picks

Record last week: 4-3. Season history to date: Week 11 (4-2-1). Week 10 (3-3). Week 9 (3-3). Continue reading

Week 12 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Week 11 record ATS, including Thursday Night Football’s Bills Dolphins debacle (this blog picked the Bills):  4-2-1

Most of the recap of week’s 11 picks – with some extra analysis on the Panthers Falcons game, and a brief comparison of the NFC South (where the top two teams are tied for the division lead at 4-6) and the NFC West (where the bottom dweller lags well behind at 4-6) – is now here.

One of the notes worth re-mentioning from last’s week’s picks:

If there’s going to be an upset pick, this is it. And the Saints, so dominant at home, lose their 2nd straight here.”

Despite ultimately being a favorite in the game by 8 points over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints lost 27-10 for their second straight home loss.

One of the bloke’s I deeply admire – I just can’t remember who, so it would be foul to throw out a name (I WILL find it an update) on “Around The NFL” this week proclaimed the Saints will not lose 3 in a row at home, because “they never have under Sean Payton.” (It might have been Jamie Dukes, now that I think about it, and he’s pretty good with his overall football analyses I think.)

But the fact they never have lost three in a row doesn’t mean they won’t now. Also since they haven’t lost twice in a row that often under head coach Sean Payton (they’ve been a very good team under him and quarterback Drew Brees, AND have won a lot more at home than on the road on top of that) they haven’t been in a situation where they even could lose 3 in a row that much to begin with.  Even less, when considering that the team they face for their possible and unprecedented 3rd straight home loss, is pretty good.

See picks below. Hopefully by the time you (and I) arrive there, I will have a clue to this one of many wild and fantastic NFL match-ups this week – the Baltimore Ravens at the New Orleans Saints. But the game does present at least a reasonable chance of the Saints hitting that home trifecta.

_____

As always, the following picks are either for the purposes of earning enough funds through legitimate wagering in Vegas to start a large non profit organization to find a cure for cancer, or post-facto bragging rights.

But don’t count on this week’s picks too heavily. Several of last week’s picks – most notably the Bengals, who had a very good chance to win that game outright and were getting a touchdown plus – were somewhat easy calls. And even the week before – where this blog had a few huge calls (winning by a lot, and twice calling the Jets upset of the Steelers outright), and a few closes losses for a miserable 3 – 3 – was somewhat easier.

This week, is not.

Chiefs (-7.5) at Raiders

This is a long standing rivalry. The Chiefs know how to win. And after seeing Oakland battle Denver super tough for nearly a full half two weeks ago (batting down a remarkable 5 Peyton Manning passes at the line in the short time span) before, well, completely falling apart, and then putting up a decent game last week against a Chargers team that saw the return to their lineup of Ryan Matthews, Manti Te’0, and Melvin Ingram, they know Oakland can in theory battle with them a little bit.

But at 0-10, and playing Denver tough for a half, and ultimately making it a somewhat close game with San Diego, is not enough. They are likely to give their best effort again.  And this game almost smells of upset. But one would think the Chiefs can sniff that same scent, and do not want to lose a division game.

Close call, but:

Pick: Raiders 

Also (nearly) always, the rest of this football weekend’s picks will be updated later in the week, or weekend prior to Sunday’s games.

(11-23-14) Updated – Voila:

At 1-0 on the week so far, following last week’s 4-2-1, we could just call it a wrap and finish up a a second straight above .500 week ATS. But let’s tangle with a few of these, including the toughest game of all: The aforementioned Saints, taking on that iconic black bird that is evermore.

Ravens (+3.4) at Saints (Monday Night Football)

Two teams who have been very successful under the current respective head coaches and quarterbacks, and both of whom tend to be significantly better home teams than road teams.

The Saints are in a weaker division, and are 4-6, but don’t be fooled by their record. They lost a close game (by a point) against Detroit in week 7, where they actually outplayed Detroit, who needed a break or two at the end to pull out the win.  They lost two games in overtime (against Atlanta in week 1, 37-34, and 27-24 in week 10 against a desperate, if still Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis less San Francisco 49ers).  And possibly lagging a little bit on the fact that Browns are competitive this year, they lost 26-24 to a Browns comeback at the end of the game in Cleveland in week 2.)

And it’s possible the Ozzie Newsome magic has worn off a little bit, and the Ravens really aren’t that good after their long stretch of competitive – and post season competitive -seasons.

And of course the wild card in this game is that the Saints are playing at home.

This will come as sacrilege, as I’m personally a huge Drew Brees fan. I don’t know him, and the rush to presume things about people good and bad is rampant in human nature, but Brees appears to be a truly remarkable guy. And he’s an phenomenal quarterback:

But he’s not always quite as clutch in tough games as some of the other greats, and if some pressure can be gotten to him, he doesn’t always tend to respond as well as a few other quarterbacks. And while the Saints win their share of close games, on average I would take Flacco (who truly has been “Joe Cool” more often than not) – not that he’s at Brees’ level – in a close game at the end.

So getting 3.5 points, particularly in an NFL where – due to a flurry of reasons, but most notably the continual tweaking of the rules under commissioner Roger Goodell to favor offenses, and most notably passing, over defenses – where very high scoring games are occurring with more frequency – is not really a big deal in this game. Still, just to follow up on the Saints last week, and given that this is a heavyweight bout between two seasoned teams looking at a tough road ahead, take them, as, though the odds may be slightly against, the Saints could hit that third straight loss.  We’ll know late Sunday Afternoon.  This is truly one of several fantastic match-ups on the weekend:

Pick: Ravens
Titans (+11) at Eagles

Tennessee played tough against Pittsburgh last week, on Monday Night Football where Pittsburgh, under Ben Rothlisberger, has been dominant for years.  The Steelers were missing a few key players – including Safety Troy Polamalu –  but it was still a better effort by the Titans, who may finally be creeping towards decency.

If they are, and even though we should expect a  strong bounce back after last week’s embarrassment in Green Bay from the seemingly very well coached Philadelphia Eagles, the Titans stand a strong chance of putting up a game here.

Despite my call that the Titans offseason coaching switch (even if they provided their prior head coach, Mike Munchak, a theoretical “out” towards remaining if he fired most of his coaching staff)  was an ill thought out move, it wasn’t clear new head coach Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t at least alsodecent coach. But if by this point the Titans can’t battle in this game, that would, on top of a dismal downturn season – represent more solid evidence in that direction.

Here’s rooting for Whisenhunt, another good football game, and perhaps a sneak surprise that the team from Tennessee has finally clawed its way out of that bottom rung of bad teams. (Though I  hate to pick against Sanchez, who I’ve always thought was a bit underrated; but Philly can still win by 10.)

Pick: Titans

Cardinals (+7) at Seahawks

Last season, in a remarkable final stretch to close out the season for the powerhouse NFC West, a desperate Arizona Cardinals team somehow managed to go into Seattle in week 16 and hand the Seahawks their first home loss ever under then second year quarterback Russell Wilson.

But this year, the defending Super Bowl champs are 3 games behind the Cardinals, have their backs against the wall, and are locked in a tough second place battle with San Francisco – who just got back defensive lineman extraordinaire Aldon Smith, who may still get back linebacker Navorro Bowman before the season ends, and who will probably see Defensive Tackle Glenn Dorsey return to action next week.

And Seattle has still very rarely lost under Wilson at home.  Motivation, especially for good teams with character – and the Seahawks have exhibited this – matters.

In short, this is near or just about a playoff  game for the Seahawks, who simply can’t afford to lose a division match-up, let alone against the front-runner. They also have a lot of pride riding on the line; and by knocking off the division leading champs – Carson Palmer or no Carson Palme – and jumping back into the race, they can show they still legitimately belong.

Still, Arizona is a football team.  They’re a unit. And while they could easily lose by 10 or 14 here, and are at a disadvantage with Palmer sidelined for the duration of the season, they don’t seem like the type of team, under second year head coach Bruce Arians, to just cruise on the fact that they can “afford” this loss.

An, though the edge clearly goes to Seattle in this must win game for them – at home where they do rarely lose – a full touchdown is simply too much against a scrappy division foe playing as a cohesive unit.

Pick: Cardinals

Rams (+5) at Chargers

This game is one of the best games of the season. Sure it doesn’t feature two powerhouses, but for pure football intrigue this is it.

The 4-6 Rams have played well against powerhouse division foes the last few years, but not so much outside of the division. But after going into Arizona and holding the lead until nearly halfway through the 4th quarter (this blog picked them getting 7 at Arizona, but they then turned the ball over, and then gave up two touchdowns to the defense, on 3 successive drives to end the game), the Rams came home and beat the mighty Denver Broncos last week. Solidly.

San Diego meanwhile, which along with New England has been just about the hottest team late November and December in the NFL the last few seasons, this year started strong; and then, suffering a few injuries, has floundered a bit.

The Chargers got three relevant players back last week, a 13-6 victory of the Oakland Raiders (who went on, see pick above, to upset the Chiefs this past Thursday Night for their first win of the season): outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, inside linebacker Manti Te’o, and running back Ryan Matthews.  And if they are the team they looked to be early in the season this is the type of game, at home, where they are going to crush any but a very good football team.

So that’s the question, and the answer is unknown. One win against Denver for a team that has been moderately mediocre with sporadic periods of strong play against division foes here and there does not make the Rams a strong team.

But the book is still out on the Chargers, also.  This is more of a pick made simply because it is just a fascinating football game. And in such a game, a little more than 2/3 of of a touchdown seems like slightly better odds.

But it’s not quite like the Seattle game, where you have to figure Arizona has at least the same, if not a greater, chance of upsetting Seattle than the Rams do here, and a bigger chance – given the way they play and their consistency – of keeping it close. (Maybe.)

But ultimately this is a pick that respects the Ram’s potential, and treats the Chargers like a solid, strong but still quasi middle of the pack team until they show they are back.  It’s an iffy pick, but probably not a horrible one, in a tough game:

Pick: Rams 

Dolphins (+6) at Broncos

Beware 6 point games: Games in the NFL are either close, or they’re not. When they are close, it means that the gap is usually between 3 and 6 points, by the nature of the math of the game.  . Occasionally 7.

Getting 6 versus 3 points in such a game is a tremendous difference. And usually a team favored by less than 7 is a reflection of the fact, or perception, that the better team is not that dominant that a lopsided game is as likely as some others, making the relevance of that 6 points notable.

Denver was dominant last year, until the Super Bowl. (Where, against a good defense – and here they face a good defense in the Dolphins – they got crushed).

They improved this offseason on paper. But they may not have improved in reality.  Something might not be clicking. And the Dolphins have been flying a little bit under the radar.

So if Denver doesn’t get it clicking, not only will this be a tight game, but in a near must win for Miami (while a Denver loss keeps them tied for first atop the AFC West with Kansas City) the Dolphins might pull off the win, suggesting they’ve  “arrived.”

Or they might not have really arrived yet and Denver, after a disastrous loss at St. Louis, might get it together and beat them solidly.  Who knows.  The Oakland Pick and several from last week were, again, easier than this one.  But it’s another truly great football match-up this NFL football Sunday

Pick: Broncos

Cleveland (+3) at Atlanta

Another tough game, and while maybe not as great as some of the others, another good one.

Cleveland is one of four teams in the AFC North to be over.500. While the Falcons, at 4-6, are in a tie with the Saints for 1st place in the NFC South. (Technically, they’re in first place right now, since they beat the Saints heads up; but they still have to play them again.)

The Browns have been without their key tight end Jordan Cameron for three games now, and it looks like it’s going to be a 4th.  They do finally get a guy back who may have been the best receiver in the NFL last season – Josh Gordon. But what kind of football shape is he in? And atop a few other injuries they’ve now lost former 1st round pick defensive tackle Phil Taylor for the season.

Taylor had missed a month before returning last week. But his absence is still a key loss. And the Falcons, until last year perennially very strong under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, have been playing strong of late. And would have even crept up to 5-5 if they Lions hadn’t pulled off a 20 point come from behind over where the natives speak with an English accent, en route to a last moment 21-20 win several weeks ago.  They might well be a better team than the Browns at this point. And they tend to be a very good home team.

And, the fact they are coming off a key, close win against their rivals the Panthers (who usually play them tough) last week probably doesn’t mean too much for this team, – which has repeatedly exhibited it knows how to focus during the season. But the Browns, coming off a solid loss at home to the Houston Texans last week, might be riled.

Still, the 3 points is likely not of much worth here. And a pick for the Browns is close to saying they are going to, or are 50 – 50 or near it, to pull off the upset. This might a “root for the long time underdog” kind of pick. But coming out of a touch division, between two teams that probably have heart, we’re going here with the true underdog in this game, who will need to play with even more heart to pull off that upset.

This might be the worst pick of the week, but,

Pick: Browns

Week 10 NFL Picks Against the Spread Includes Some Whoppers

A minimally frustrating moment for the humble proprietor of this humble little blog, last week finishing up a bit disappointing 3-3, after a poor (but in hindsight ironic) record the week before, and a pretty decent week 7 – the first week these picks started. Continue reading