Over the past decade I haven't done as well as I used to
handicapping the games against the spread. At first, I chalked it up to variance/regression to the mean, then I decided it was because I stopped going over the games with my brother before committing to them, and I also thought maybe the lines had tightened up.
To remedy this, I tried various tricks like fading the team the majority of the public picked, going heavily with home underdogs, or looking at key stats like net yards per play or net yards per passing attempt. But the deeper I got into various methodologies, the worse my results became. I was no longer handicapping the games based on what I observed, but trying to handicap the oddmakers, the public and the market. I was playing some kind of meta game rather than looking at contests themselves.
Heading into this season, I wasn't sure exactly how I would go about making my picks, but I realized two things: (1) My process was garbage - there were many sites and handicappers
with far more rigorous ways of generating picks; and (2) My results were bad - my once stellar long-term record had eroded closer and closer to .500 every year.
The first week I wrote up the column this year
, I decided to switch it up. I'd simply trust my own personal observations and thoughts about each of the games, and I'd grade myself not by how I did against the spread, but whether I picked the game the way I actually saw it. I'd record my actual ATS record that other people care about, of course, but I'd score it for myself simply based on whether I was able to cut through the noise and pick the team I thought in my heart of hearts was the best bet to cover, irrespective of where the public was, whether it was a "square" or "sharp" play or whether someone smart with a great algorithm posted it as his best (or worst) bet on Twitter.
For Week 1, I gave myself a 15-0 mark, even though the picks went 5-9-1 ATS, and in Week 2, I went 13-3 (by my count), 10-6 by the traditional measure. (My three mistakes were: Packers over Falcons Seahawks over Niners and Giants over Lions) And I wrote this about the Giants-Lions before the game was played as I knew the Lions were the side I thought was right, but fooled myself with "Vegas is begging me to take Detroit" in order to align my pick with my rooting interest (I'm a Giants fan.)
Saying I'm 28-3 might be overly generous as there are probably more games than I realize that weren't really my observation-based choices, but distinguishing between your own observations honestly acquired and those you've borrowed or appropriated from others isn't that easy.
But that's the task I've set for myself. To figure out precisely what I - having observed the NFL closely since I was a kid and watching so many games and plays every year- believe based on my observations, stored knowledge and judgment, irrespective of outside influences and methods. It's impossible to do entirely, but I'll take it as far as I can.
The downside is I'll miss out on some potentially useful information, but as in fantasy football, you don't need to get everything right. You don't need to be in on every breakout or avoid every bust. You simply need to be in on more than your share, and getting the ones in front of your face right should more than offset not seeing everything that happens.
I'm applying this philosophy across the board this season, and I'm calling it "radical subjectivity" because it dispenses with even the pretense of finding an "objective" basis or method. If there's a scientific basis for what I'm doing, it's found in quantum physics
, where "all roads lead back to the observer."
One side effect of picking the games this way again is it's a lot more enjoyable. There's no more agonizing over which stat is important or where the sharp money is likely coming in. The only agonizing I'm doing is drilling down on what I really think. And if I get that right, by my scoring, it's already a win. We'll see how it plays out in the much less important "objective" reality.
Rookie RB Class
There's been a lot of talk about the rookie running back class potentially being a historic one, but as I'm not a college football guy, I had no feel for whether it was likely to be true. After two weeks, I'm buying in.
There's the obvious: Kareem Hunt
, Dalvin Cook
and Leonard Fournette
, all off to strong starts. And high pedigree players who haven't done as much in Christian McCaffrey
and Joe Mixon
But it struck me how many other rookie backs could have prominent roles so quickly. Already, Samaje Perine
could be the starter in Washington with Rob Kelley
hurt, Tarik Cohen
is the Bears' top receiver and change-of-pace option (and Jordan Howard
is hurt), Chris Carson
looks like the Seahawks' early-down option, D'Onta Foreman
is in line for more work in Houston and Alvin Kamara
is the Saints third-down back.
Moreover, Jamaal Williams
, Matt Breida
, James Connor, Marlon Mack
and Wayne Gallman
might be one injury away from prominence. All (except for maybe Mack and Gallman) are the clear alternatives to injury-prone starters. Finally, with the Jets in rebuilding mode, and both Matt Forte
and Bilal Powell
on the wrong side of 29, Elijah McGuire
has a good shot to be the starter at some point. Essentially, half the league could be starting rookie running backs by midseason.
Week 2 Observations
• Jordy Nelson
needs to have the decency to get hurt in the fourth, rather than the first, quarter. At season's end it'll show as a game played, but it's crushing to fantasy owners.
• Aaron Rodgers
did his best behind an injured offensive line that collapsed around him all game, but it was borderline Russell Wilson
bad. Rodgers always gets his fantasy points, though, even without Nelson.
• Ty Montgomery
will be a monster in PPR for as long as he holds up.
• Martellus Bennett
didn't have much to show for it, but he got 11 targets, something that should continue if Nelson misses more time. Obviously, Davante Adams
and Randall Cobb
(if healthy) move up a few slots too.
• Devonta Freeman
is peak Ray Rice
. Just a rock solid, durable, consistent fantasy option at RB who produces on the ground, through the air and at the goal line.
Would it kill Julio Jones
to score a TD?
I like the idea of Austin Hooper
, but he simply isn't a big enough part of the offense yet, and Matt Ryan
doesn't mind spreading it around to scrubs like Mohammed Sanu, Justin Hardy
and Taylor Gabriel
For a second straight week, Russell Wilson
was running for his life on every play – and this time during a home game against the Niners. The Seahawks won only because of an amazing throw the right-handed Wilson made while running full speed to his left. If an Eli Manning
-type were the Seahawks QB, the offense would give up more points than it scored.
• Chris Carson
is the Seahawks' lead back, and why not? Thomas Rawls
is always hurt, and Eddie Lacy
's a plodder. C.J. Prosise
was on the field a lot and got six targets, but it certainly looks like Carson is the early-down option.
No Seahawks receiver can make a big play because Wilson has no time to throw. At some point, one of Doug Baldwin
, Tyler Lockett
and Paul Richardson
will catch a long TD on a broken play, but it won't be by design until they fix the line.
What is wrong with Jimmy Graham
? I realize he left the game with an injury before returning, but would it kill him to have a role? What was with all the talk this past summer that he feels better than ever and dropped 20 pounds?
• Carlos Hyde
had a good game thanks to two long runs. But there's nothing else to say about the 49ers offense.
• Rob Kelley
might have broken a rib which means Samaje Perine
could see regular work going forward. Perine wasn't efficient (22 carries, 3.2 YPC), but he's physical and passed the eye test. Chris Thompson
scored two more times and has been off to a monster start, but he's small and injury prone, i.e., I doubt he's an option for more than a handful of touches per game.
• Jordan Reed
left with a chest injury and came back, but Terrelle Pryor
still had only four targets. It's unclear as yet who Kirk Cousins
will feature, and Cousins himself hasn't been good.
• Todd Gurley
had another big fantasy game. Don't worry about efficiency – regular carries, targets and goal-line work will always pay the bills. For what it's worth, Gurley did average 5.5 YPC, though.
• Trevor Siemian
showed it was Eli Manning
and Ben McAdoo, not the Dallas defense last week. (I wrote this before the duo doubly confirmed that fact Monday night.)
• C.J. Anderson
can be a top-seven back – durability is the only issue for him. Jamaal Charles
is a good change-of-pace partner because he's unlikely ever to push for a big workload.
• Jason Witten
gets so much praise from the booth every week, but targeting him 13 times is partly how Dak Prescott
managed just 4.8 YPA. The booth always loves its elder statesmen, though, and if they're white, it's a virtual orgy of sycophancy.
• Aqib Talib
's pick six long after the game was sealed (with a minute left) was a nice gift to those who started the Denver defense.
The Cubs suffered from the curse of the billygoat, and the Chargers are reaping bad karma for ditching their kicker for a Younghoe. (As if their bad karma started this year.)
• Jay Cutler
looked fine in his debut, showing cardiovascular fitness has little correlation to quarterback play. Unless you're playing behind the Seahawks like in which case you better be able to win the Ironman.
Jai Ajayi is peak Marshawn Lynch
. He's the most physical, tackle-breaking runner in the game right now.
• DeVante Parker
went 4-for-85 on nine targets, but got jobbed out of a 20-yard reception he obviously caught and fumbled (and subsequently recovered) that the moronic replay officials somehow upheld as an incompletion. He's going to have a 1,000-yard season if he and Cutler stay healthy.
• Jarvis Landry
caught 13 of 15 targets for 78 yards. That's dreadful efficiency, but Landry is such a rock who catches everything that Cutler, like Ryan Tannehill
, will use him as a security blanket.
• Keenan Allen
is a fragile Golden Tate
. He's clearly his team's No. 1 receiver, and he catches everything. Just don't expect many big plays or TDs.
It was nice to see Hunter Henry
get involved after an invisible Week 1. He caught all seven targets for 80 yards. He's the team's No. 1 TE, especially now that Antonio Gates
' carcass has the TD record.
Like Gurley, Melvin Gordon
doesn't require efficiency to produce. Only 13 yards on nine carries Sunday, but a rushing TD and seven catches for 65 yards.
What a monster kick from Cody Parker – 54-yarder with the game on the line. And it wasn't a tie game, the Dolphins were down two, meaning they lose if he misses.
It looks like Jermaine Kearse
really is the Jets' No. 1 receiver and Matt Forte
their No. 1 running back.
• Marshawn Lynch
had a modest day, but he avoided and broke tackles like the player we remember from a few years ago. We'll see how long he holds up, but so far so good.
• Michael Crabtree
looks like peak Cris Carter right now, catching everything in sight and making Derek Carr
opt for him over the much more explosive Amari Cooper
. Crabtree isn't this good, though, and Cooper did get another red-zone target.
Facing the Ravens in Baltimore is a tall order, but DeShone Kizer
doesn't look ready. Cody Kessler
would have been a better choice, but it was Kevin Hogan
who came on in relief when Kizer left with a migraine.
• Duke Johnson
had a bigger role – three catches for 59 yards and four carries. It's unclear why he wasn't used in Week 1.
• Corey Coleman
broke his hand again, and Kenny Britt
is in the doghouse, so Rashard Higgins
led the team with 11 targets and seven catches. There's a role for Josh Gordon
should he ever be reinstated.
• Javorius Allen
(14 carries, 66 yards, six targets, five catches for 35 yards) looks like the back to own over Terrance West
(six carries 22 yards, 1 TD) and Alex Collins
(seven carries, 42 yards.) Ben Watson
(eight catches 92 yards), looks like the top TE. Of course, the team lost Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda
for the year, so it might get ugly all around,.
• DeMarco Murray
missed snaps due to a tight hamstring, and Derrick Henry
went 14-for-92 with a TD in his absence. There's a chance this marks a permanent changing of the guard, but keep in mind Matt Forte
is still the starter in New York – some veteran backs are hard to kill off. (Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Murray is still the clear starter, for what it's worth.)
With Allen Robinson
gone, Allen Hurns
and Marqise Lee
should benefit about equally from Blake Bortles
' garbage time production.
• Marcus Mariota
might spread the ball around to his various weapons to the point that none will be especially valuable. Corey Davis
still probably has the most upside, but his Week 2 was derailed by a minor hamstring injury.
• Cam Newton
was sloppy in this game, and even left briefly with an injury, but Carolina's defense carried him again. In particular Newton missed an easy TD throw to a wide open Christian McCaffrey
at the goal line.
"Riverboat" Ron Rivera botched the very next play, opting for a field goal to go up six, rather than the (spread-covering) TD to go up 10. The case against the FG is (1) If you get the TD, it's game over; (2) If you fail to score the TD the other team is backed up to the shadow of their goal line rather than receiving a kick off; (3) If the opponent is down six, they play for a game-winning TD rather than a game-tying FG, i.e., you lose if they succeed rather than simply going to overtime; and (4) There's some small chance of missing the FG, in which case you got nothing. and they get the ball seven yards closer to FG range. Of course, it's easier for the other team to drive into FG range than score a TD, but (1) The distance is roughly the same when you consider the field-position you gave up kicking off rather than having them start at their goal line; and (2) Even if they do get into field goal range, they might still miss the kick. Rivera is on the long list of coaches who are actually underrated in their terribleness. Others include: Chuck Pagano (absolute worst), Sean Payton (when is he getting fired already?), Marvin Lewis, Ben McAdoo (people will figure it out this year, hopefully), Mike McCarthy, Jason Garrett and Bill O'Brien. I'm sure I'm leaving out a few.
Like Reggie Bush
, Christian McCaffery looks like a potentially useful NFL player, but not someone a team should have taken early in the first round. It's only been two games though, and Newton has been a drag on his production.
• LeSean McCoy
did very little, though he led the team in carries and targets.
The Bears WR corps is so bad, Tarik Cohen
might be their best pass catcher. Cohen fumbled and was bottled up as a runner, but had eight catches for 55 yards.
• Jordan Howard
had nowhere to run and wound up on the sidelines with a sling on his arm.
Kendall Wrong led the team with 10 targets, but it was all dink and dunk. Markus Wheaton
could be the team's No. 1 if he ever gets healthy.
• Mike Evans
had a solid game, but the Bucs' passing game wasn't needed much – Jameis Winston
attempted only 30 passes.
• Le'Veon Bell
was inefficient again this week, but he faced a tough defense and saw 27 carries and four catches.
• Antonio Brown
was supposed to be matchup-proof, especially at home, but had only five catches for 62 yards against Xavier Rhodes
. Martavis Bryant
had 91 yards and a TD on four targets. Like the Bucs, the Steelers didn't need to throw much against a weak opposing offense.
With Case Keenum
under center, Adam Thielen
, Stefon Diggs
, Kyle Rudolph
and Laquon Treadwell
each had six targets.
I'm getting slightly worried about Brandin Cooks
. Last week he had only three catches, but drew a holding penalty and two PIs at the goal line. This week, he saw only four of Tom Brady
's 39 targets. I haven't seen the snap counts yet, but while it looked like Cooks was on the field most of the time, the plays simply were not designed for him. I still think his talent wins out, but it's well known free agent (or traded) receivers often struggle with their new teams in Year 1, and maybe Cooks, despite the rave reviews this summer, won't be an exception. I hope that's not the case as I have a few Cooks shares, and he was one of the players I touted most
• Mike Gillislee
looks like a plodder to me, but he's their plodder, scoring his fourth TD in two games.
• Rob Gronkowski
dominated the game until he hurt his back in the third quarter. He was in uniform on the exercise bike, so it doesn't look too serious, but you never know. Gronk's TD was a good illustration of why he's so good after the catch despite being slow. He ran as far as he could before the DB caught up to him, stopped and easily stepped out of the smaller man's attempted tackle. Most players simply run until they're caught, accepting the death of the play, while Gronk, knowing he'll be caught, readies for some hand to hand combat in an effort to stay alive.
• James White
caught all eight of his targets for 85 yards. The Super Bowl hero should be among the league leaders in receptions and yards for backs by season's end. If Rex Burkhead
(ribs) misses any time, White's reps should only increase.
• Tom Brady
went 30-for-39 for 447 and three TDs, without involving big-play WR Cooks, but it was against the Saints, so let's wait another game before we get too excited for an all-time season. (Consider what Sam Bradford
did to New Orleans last week.)
• Carson Wentz
might be a star fantasy QB because the Eagles simply don't run very much. Darren Sproles
led the team with 10 carries, and LeGarrette Blount
had none. Wentz had 55 yards rushing and 333 passes on 46 attempts.
• Nelson Agholor
caught a last minute TD, but Zach Ertz
and Alshon Jeffery
are the team's go-to targets, and Torrey Smith
is probably No. 3.
After a slow start, Kareem Hunt
managed 109 YFS and two TDs. He's arguably the No. 1 overall fantasy player right now with David Johnson
out and Le'Veon Bell
• Tyreek Hill
had six targets and four catches for 43 yards. He added a six-yard rush, but the verdict is not yet in as to whether he can be a legitimate No. 1 outside WR. Aside from a play where the Patriots defensive back fell down, and Hill ran 75 yards untouched for a TD, he's had 13 targets with 11 catches for 101 yards through two games.
• Travis Kelce
led the team with 10 targets, eight catches, 103 yards and a TD, while Chris Conley
led the wideouts with 55 yards receiving.
The Cardinals and Colts are both terrible. J.J. Nelson
had a good game in John Brown
's and David Johnson
's absence, but he's too small for a huge role. Jaron Brown
had more targets (11) but caught only four passes for 73 yards.
• Chris Johnson
led the miserable Arizona RB committee, and I don't expect that to change.
• Carson Palmer
's arm looked okay – from the plays I watched.
• Larry Fitzgerald
caught three of six targets for 21 yards against the Colts. There's a decent chance he's done
• Jack Doyle
looks like Jacoby Brissett
's security blanket, and it should be Brissett's job for the foreseeable future unless the team finds the courage to sign Colin Kaepernick
• T.Y. Hilton
deserves better, but it's T.Y. Econolodge for the time being as Andrew Luck
is reportedly at least four weeks away.
• Eli Manning
has the pocket awareness of a horror-movie victim, hiding in the worst and least escapable place, waiting for certain death. Manning took five sacks, and some of them were of the 10-yard variety. He also got a delay of game penalty when the team was trying to go for it on 4th-and-goal from the two, forcing them to kick a field goal. Moreover, on at least three occasions, two on third and one on fourth down, he completed passes short of the sticks. What's the point of completing the pass at all? Even on the TD to a wide-open Evan Engram
, the pass was inaccurate, and Engram had to spin around to make the catch.
The Giants line isn't good, but at least two of the five sacks were on Manning.
• Brandon Marshall
dropped perhaps Manning's best throw of the night, an intermediate sideline route that would have given the Giants a key first down.
• Paul Perkins
has nowhere to run when he touches the ball, but part of that is coach Ben McAdoo's vanilla play calling. Perhaps he should consider a pass on 1st-and-10 and run in less obvious downs and distances.
The Giants defense played decently, holding Matt Stafford to 5.8 YPA despite one lapse on a 27-yard TD to Marvin Jones
. The Lions got one of their TDs on a punt return.
• Odell Beckham
was quiet in his debut, but he didn't looked hampered by the ankle injury. The McAdoo/Eli tandem is a lot to overcome, however.
Engram looks like a player, but expect his use to be sporadic – the Giants have a lot of mouths to feed in the offense and not much food.
• Eric Ebron
had a good game, catching all five of his targets for 42 yards and a score. But the Giants are vulnerable to tight ends, as their linebackers are the weakest part of the defense.
None of the Lions receivers did much because Stafford only had to throw 21 times, and the Giants secondary is strong.
• Ameer Abdullah
ran well, but he's not a great bet for catches or touchdowns.
Thank God I didn't watch the Monday night game in real time and waste three hours of my life.
For more on these topics, check out our podcast