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East Coast Offense: Why We're Still Shocked by Upsets

Chris Liss

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

How It's Easy to Conflate Unlikely, Almost Impossible and Impossible

When Vegas implies (with its moneylines) that the Patriots are an 89 percent favorite at home against the Kevin-Kolb-led Cardinals, it always seems as if they're overestimating the real possibility of an upset. There's just no way the Cardinals are going into Foxborough with their crappy QB, poor offensive line and average-at-best defense and beating the Pats. Logically, we know that virtually any NFL team has at minimum a roughly 10 percent chance of beating any other, that no upset in pro football even approaches Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson (25 to 1) or the Cardinals (8.5 games out in September) winning the World Series (90 to 1). But I don't think we usually grasp the difference between unlikely, almost impossible and impossible.

Now that Arizona won, we can talk about how the Patriots offense was built on moving Aaron Hernandez around or how the Cardinals defense is quietly one of the best in the league, but it's very easy to make up explanations after the fact. Beforehand, these grounds for an upset would have been considered farfetched at best.

But because this upset already happened, and it's hard to put the "mind-set" genie back in the bottle, so to speak, consider whether you think the Jaguars could beat the 49ers if they played in San Francisco next week? The line would be about the same as the AZ-NE one, and of course it's unlikely Jacksonville would win that game. But it's only 9:1 unlikely, not 25:1, 90:1 or a million to 1. There are massive differences between these odds, but once we get to about 5:1, it seems there's a tendency in our brains to think something won't happen and treat it as an impossibility.

My theory is what we think about a given game is often distorted by our need for a binary yes or no answer and so we're not appropriately sensitive to the fluctuations in probability that better describe the likelihood of certain events. For example, I picked the Seahawks to cover a three-point spread at home last week against the Cowboys, and some people in the comments acted like I was crazy. But not only was that a 50/50 proposition not bold in the least as no pick against the spread is bold but even Seattle winning outright was only about 60/40 according to Vegas. Because people had already decided that Dallas was good (beat the Giants on the road) and Seattle was bad (lost to the Cardinals), there was no way the Seahawks could stay within three points of the Cowboys, let alone win outright, even if the Vegas professionals whose livelihoods depend on grasping these probabilities disagreed.

As a result, we're far too certain in our conclusions and unduly surprised when we shouldn't be. The antidote for this is of course an open mind and a constant challenge to the settled propositions we carry around in our brains. One technique I use for myself is the "Airplane Test." If the Cardinals can't beat the Patriots, then would I be willing to get on an airplane with a Cardinals-beating-Patriots chance of crashing? If the answer is no, as it always is, then I'm forced to consider the Patriots losing as a possibility, separate from the far less likely possibility of a plane crashing. I can't just lump these events into one boat of "not gonna happen."

Football is a Game of Failure

I know it's tempting to see a good matchup for the Cowboys at home against the Bucs and think DeMarco Murray, Tony Romo and Miles Austin should go off, and they might. But so often, the games and the matchups simply don't go as we think they should. The Falcons-Broncos should have been a shootout with Julio Jones going off and Peyton Manning having a great game in the dome against a secondary missing its top cover corner. Of course, that didn't happen. The Packers-Bears game should have been a shootout, too, but unless you owned Mason Crosby, it was a total dud for virtually every skill player and viewer.

So much of the NFL is determined by fumbles, dropped passes, bad play calls, bad officiating, missed tackles, stupid interceptions, missed field goals, field goals that never should have been attempted, bad bounces, sacks from holding the ball too long, injuries and bad clock management. Every now and then your receiver scores twice on acrobatic plays, or your running back makes two guys miss and trucks a third. But more often than not, something bad is happening. I'm still trying to get used to it, but somehow I'm just as frustrated and enraged as ever when things inevitably don't go my way.

Replacement Referees

After the poor showing by the replacement refs on Monday night, Steve Young had a great comment about the situation, essentially explaining that because demand for the product is inelastic, i.e., because we're going to watch even if a bunch of chimpanzees were refereeing, the NFL has no business incentive to cough up the extra money for the real refs.

Maybe that'll change after last night's embarrassing showing, but if it doesn't as Young alleges it won't then there might be some ways to game the system. For one, studies have shown the home crowd has an effect on referees even real ones. In Week 2, while Vegas odds projected 55 percent of home teams winning, in fact 87 percent of them won (Hat tip: R.J. Bell, Pregame.com). That's obviously a tiny sample, and only a few games difference in a 16-game slate. But one could imagine that the less confidence and expertise a ref has, the greater his potential for unconsciously leaning toward the popular call. All other things being equal, i.e., only as a tiebreaker, I'm leaning a little more toward the home teams in my picks this week, and for fantasy, that means leaning a little more toward home running backs and road receivers and QBs who could be playing from behind.

Things to Take Away from Week 2

The replacement refs are also allowing a lot of holding and grabbing by defensive backs and then calling penalties on them almost arbitrarily. In particular, one of Eli Manning's first half picks the one that was returned for a score was in part due to Victor Cruz being grabbed and prevented from making his break. Manning threw to the spot, and it was picked off.

Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are both top-10 receivers, possibly top 5. There is no better tandem in the league, though Roddy White and Julio Jones are arguably equal.

Andre Brown ran north-south with plenty of power and little hesitation. Even if Ahmad Bradshaw were to miss time and it's not clear whether he will David Wilson's role might not increase that significantly. I'd pick up Brown ahead of him.

Martellus Bennett is a better pass catcher than any tight end the Giants have had since Jeremy Shockey. At 6-6, 270, he's also a massive red-zone target.

Even though Stephen Gostkowski's shanked field goal knocked me out of all five of my survivor pools, it didn't affect me the way it would have were it not preceded by an unbelievably bad fumble by Ryan Williams that made the attempt even possible. Once you've already accepted your fate, you no longer dread it in the same way. And even the possibility that I would survive the New England pick cheered me up to the point that the eventual loss didn't especially bother me. It also helped that the Giants had just had their own dramatic comeback and unlike the Patriots saw it through.

For all the talk of drafting quarterbacks early the top five (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Stafford and Cam Newton) have been ordinary, certainly not much better (if at all) than Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Robert Griffin III, Peyton Manning and Michael Vick. Maybe the big five or at least the big three will kick it into gear, but at this point maybe we should have been talking about a big 12.

Chris Johnson simply has nowhere to run on a team that seems lost from its blocking to its play calling. Even down 28 with 28 seconds left in the game, Johnson was met in the backfield by a defensive lineman when he carried the ball.

It's shocking in retrospect that the Sean Payton-led Saints of all teams were unable to mine Reggie Bush's talent. Bush is a top-15 back right now, and probably top-10 in PPR.

If Fred Jackson were out for the year, I might rank C.J. Spiller ahead of Ray Rice or LeSean McCoy. Certainly over Maurice Jones-Drew.

While Ben Tate (2 TDs, 97 total yards) cut severely into what could have been an all-time monster game for Arian Foster, it's hard to complain after Foster got 28 carries, six catches and a score of his own. The Texans love to run, and Foster will probably get more work than McCoy or Rice even with Tate around.

Didn't the Chiefs lose their first two games last year by a combined score of 89-10 before going 7-7 the rest of the way? This year, they're down only 75-41.

I wasn't pleased to see Dante Rosario score three touchdowns while starting Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem in the Stopa Law Firm league. With teams like the Chargers and Packers, you really can't guarantee yourself the receiving production even when key players like Antonio Gates and Greg Jennings are scratched. I made the same mistake with Randall Cobb on Wednesday night.

Speaking of which, the Bears/Packers game was nearly as bad as the Raiders/Chargers abomination last Monday night. Mike Tice has to be the worst offensive coordinator in the NFL (with the possible exception of whoever's calling plays for the Titans). The Bears receivers simply weren't getting open down the field, and Tice seemingly never thought to call a screen or a quick slant to get the ball out quickly. So Jay Cutler alternated between throwing picks and holding the ball too long and taking sacks in between running for his life. Cutler made some stupid decisions, too, but he was largely set up to fail.

The Bears followed the Niners and Giants template of taking away Green Bay's big plays, and once again the Packers struggled to move the ball down the field. The Packers scored on a fake field goal which was insane because it was something like 4th and 17, so if the play succeeded in gaining 15 yards, it would have cost the Packers three points and turned it over to the Bears.

Something's wrong with Brandon Marshall when he gets into the red zone. It's like a reliever who pitches well as a setup guy, but can't handle closing.

The NFC West could be tough this year with the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams looking a lot better, and the 49ers arguably the best team in the NFL.

The 49ers offense has some upside, but we're likely only to see glimpses of it because the defense is too good.

Of course, I didn't start Brian Hartline in my PPR leagues this week (have him on three benches), but I did start Stephen Hill in one.

The Eagles were minus three in turnovers but still beat the Ravens.

The Browns lost by just seven points in Cincinnati despite the Bengals getting a kick return for a score and star cornerback Joe Haden not playing. Brandon Weeden looked like a different player than the one who debuted with a QB rating of 5.1, and Trent Richardson is a top-10 back again.

Things to Look for in Week 3

The Cardinals get another big challenge with the Eagles at home.

The undefeated Falcons travel to play the undefeated Chargers.

The Texans take their perfect record to Denver.

Can the Patriots bounce back in Baltimore?

The Packers travel to Seattle on Monday night.

Beating the Book

Steelers -4.5 at Raiders

Other than maybe the Chiefs, is there any team that's gotten off to as ugly a start as the Raiders? And yet this line is only 4.5 and not seven or even 10. How can that be? It's certainly not because the public is supporting Oakland only seven percent are on the Raiders. Someone else is holding the line here, and it's got to be the sharps who know how hard it is to win on the road and that no team is as good or bad as it looks on a given week. Back the Raiders who keep it close enough.

Steelers 21 20

Last week we won with the Seahawks to put us at 1-1 on the season in this forum and 17-14-1 overall. Last year we went 10-7 in this forum and 124-125 overall. Over the last five years we've gone 50-34 in this space. You can read the full Week 1 column here.

Surviving Week 3

The Patriots lost last week, taking out a substantial portion of survivor pools (48 percent) by my count, including all five of my entries. (I've bought back into one that allows it so as to have a live stake as I write this column). Several useful things can be learned from this:

(1) There's no such thing as a lock in the NFL (see opening section of this article);

(2) Fading the most commonly-picked team results in a good payout, i.e., those who avoided the Patriots this week have far more pool equity than those who picked the Pats would have had if the Pats won and say the Giants or Texans had lost; and

(3) The Vegas odds (and my odds) making the Pats such a heavy favorite were wrong.

I want to make two comments on this before turning to this week's slate. First, it's odd that I lost with the chalk because I so often fade it in favor of the better payout. But because the Pats (according to Vegas' and my own odds) were such big favorites to win, I felt the greater payout from the Giants didn't justify the what I took to be the added risk. I stand by this process 100 percent.

Second, while my process was good, my assessment of the teams was not. This wasn't a game where the Pats completely dominated, and the Cardinals got lucky. In fact, the Pats were lucky even to be in the situation to attempt the game-winning field goal. And even if you thought the Pats outplayed them generally, it certainly wasn't by the margin that the odds implied. Simply put, it looks very much like my 89/11 framing was wrong.

I make this point not so much to take responsibility for other people's pool deaths though I'm sure some at least relied on this advice but to distance myself from a weak tendency in our industry to blame losses on bad luck. A poker player who shoves his chips in as a 90/10 favorite can lose on the river and justifiably curse his bad luck, but in poker the odds of making a hand are knowable with certainty. The cards are always the same, and we can replicate the situation as many times as needed to figure it out precisely. In the NFL, we are still only estimating, based on inexact precedent, often incorrectly.

There was one numbers-based site that said of the Giants-Patriots first Super Bowl that it was one of the most lopsided match-ups in history and gave the Giants something like a 13 percent chance to win it. When the Giants pulled it out, they addressed their error by implying that the 13 percent had simply happened, and that they weren't wrong since 13 percent can always happen. But if you watched that game, it wasn't as though the Giants got two kick return TDs and a blocked punt. It was a tight game. The right response was to admit they were wrong, and that number crunching which is always based on the past is sometimes behind the curve, particularly when teams like the 2007 Giants make a quantum leap in a short time.

Likewise, I was behind the curve here as my numbers on this game were off. As a result, I'm a donor for most of my pools this year (though I intend to recoup that investment by winning the re-buy one).

That out of the way, let's take a look at the Week 3 slate:

Team Opponent % Picked* Vegas ML** Vegas Odds
SAINTS Chiefs 36.10% 375 78.95
49ers VIKINGS 17.10% 310 75.61
BEARS Rams 16.70% 350 77.78
COWBOYS Buccaneers 10.30% 320 76.19
Steelers RAIDERS 5.30% 200 66.67
Colts Jaguars 3.20% 150 60.00
Home Team in CAPS
* according to OfficeFootballPools.com
** average of the two moneylines

Looking at these numbers, the Bears seem like the play to me. The Saints have a slightly better chance of winning (79 to 78 percent), but 36 percent of pools are on New Orleans vs. 17 on Chicago. In other words, according to Vegas, the Saints have a 21 percent chance of losing, while Chicago's is 22. That's a ratio of 1.05 to 1.

If we imagine our hypothetical 100-person pool at $10 a head, then the payout for taking the Saints if the Bears lose is to have 17 people knocked out (83 left) versus the payout for taking the Bears if the Saints lose (36 knocked out, 64 left).

With 83 left (Saints win, Bears lose), one's equity goes from $10 to $12.05. With 64 left (Bears win, Saints lose), one's equity is $15.63. The ratio of $15.63 to $12.05 is 1.3 to 1. In other words, you are very well compensated for taking on ever-so-slightly more (1.05 to 1) risk.

If you've used Chicago, the Cowboys are a closer call, but I'd take them over the Saints, too. So my picks are Bears, Cowboys, then Saints. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind when the full article comes out Wednesday night.