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Friday, September 21, 2007
Updated: September 23, 12:49 PM ET
Breaking down The Obvious Game

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Until Joey Harrington starts using his middle name like an assassin, no three words will frighten football gamblers more than "The Obvious Game." You never want to have money on the Obvious Game. It's like buying a WNBA franchise or investing money with Cecil Fielder.

What's the Obvious Game? It's a more nefarious version of a bandwagon pick, in which you unwittingly back a popular pick and realize it too late. This isn't like riding the wave of a hot stock; you're better off going the other way and betting that a disproportionately large number of gamblers could never be right about anything. Remember, when people gamble on sports, more often than not, they lose. That's why nobody has ever said the following: "I used to be a bookie, but too many of my customers were winning and I couldn't afford it anymore."

Savvier gamblers learn to sniff out Obvious Games based on experience, just like people learn to flick past any cable movie with Whoopi Goldberg based on experience. But it's easy to miss the signs. For instance, when I was making my picks for last week's column, here was my inner thought process as I debated the Bengals' giving 6½ in Cleveland:

I'm not crazy about that Bengals team, especially on the road with that defense ... but how could anyone back Derek Anderson and the Browns? They looked gawd-awful in Pittsburgh in Wee- ...

STOP! Right there!

That's the first way to sniff out the Obvious Game, when you can't make a valid case for picking the other team. The second method depends on your group of friends. We'll call this the LeRoy Factor. I have a friend who's notorious for altering the outcome of sporting events simply by wagering on them. He doesn't lose every time, but his track record is frightening enough that I've seen people beg him not to jump on their bets right before a game. (We're calling this friend LeRoy because I always wanted a friend named LeRoy.) Right before the 2007 baseball season, after LeRoy wagered five G's on the over for Dice-K wins (14 and a half), a mutual friend called to warn me, "I hope you're not too excited for the Dice-K era." Up until that point, I wasn't scared of Dice's adjustment to American life, or the jump from Japanese hitters to American hitters, or even that he might throw out his arm with that goofy 300-pitch warm-up routine. But LeRoy's backing him? That scared the crap out of me.

You know the rest: Dice raised his record to 13-8 on Aug. 4 before a tired arm sent him into a Goose-like tailspin; now he's stuck at 14 wins, and if he doesn't get the "W" in one of his last two starts, it could end up being LeRoy's most famous gambling jinx yet. But should we blame LeRoy or the "over" for having been too obvious in the first place? When something looks too good to be true in gambling, it usually is.

Which brings us back to Week 2, the week everyone and his degenerate brother loved the Bengals. On ESPN.com's valuable "Who Picked Whom" page, nearly 90 percent of the Pigskin Pick'Em participants went with Cincinnati. On Wagerline.com's equally valuable "Consensus Picks" page, over 83 percent of its clients were backing the Bengals. For Las Vegas' official line, an influx of Cincy money shifted the spread from 6 to 7. To make matters worse, the Bengals needed only to win outright to cover their end of a two-team tease, so they were drawing even more action from teaser lovers. By Saturday afternoon, I was already regretting the Cincy teases I would have made if gambling were legal.

2007 GAMBLING STATS

Favorites against spread: 12-17-3
Home teams against spread: 15-14-3
Road favorites: 3-6
Underdogs winning outright: 10 of 17
We reached the tipping point on Sunday morning: In my picks pool that I run with my buddy Gus, everyone "doubles" on one game per week (a best bet that counts as two wins or losses). We have the pool split into two conferences; the guys from my conference (12 in all) e-mail their doubles to me. Any time four or more guys double on the same team, the LeRoy Alarm starts going off, and if my friend Nick doubles on the game, the LeRoy Alarm becomes louder than a fire engine siren. (If the Obvious Game was Pam Anderson, Nick would be Tommy Lee AND Kid Rock.) So once Nick weighed in with his obligatory Cincy double, I became convinced something fishy could happen and even warned three of my gambling buddies.

(Did I switch my pick in the pool or bang the Browns money line? Of course not. Remember, I'm an idiot. Don't ever forget this.)

Four hours later? Browns 51, Bengals 45.

Look, everyone lost last week -- the underdogs went 12-3-1. But there was something especially cruel about that Browns game, like the gambling gods were shoving it in our faces or something. Fifty-one points for a team that scored seven the previous week? Two long runs and 200-plus yards for the corpse formerly known as Jamal Lewis? Five TD passes for Derek Anderson, the fantasy hero who didn't start for a single roster across the country? What were the odds that Cincy would score 45 points and lose in Cleveland? 100,000-to-1? A million-to-1? It almost seemed like a vast karmic conspiracy.

Which raises the big question ...

Once an "Obvious Game" emerges, does that emergence somehow alter the outcome of the game?

If there WAS a connection, that would imply a tipping point where too many people were rooting for the same thing, so they swayed the outcome with their collective bad luck like 50,000 Earl Hickeys combining into Super Earl. That seems a little farfetched, although I'm not ruling it out. A more realistic answer could be found in the psychology used by 1-900 gambling experts, the ones who brag about unsubstantiated records ("I'm 47-5 against the spread this season!") and "guarantee" winners every week. You know why they do it? Because gambling addicts love the concept of a sure thing, even if it's probably a pipe dream. So seedy experts play up crap like "This is my Monday night lock of the year!" because that's the stuff people want to hear.

If you have a gambling problem, you don't want to concede that anything can happen in any given game. You want to believe in sure things. You want to believe there's an answer to the gambling puzzle. You want to believe you can make money every week simply by gambling. So you fork over money for "expert" picks hoping those "locks" will turn out to be actual "locks." Invariably, you win a couple of them, and that's when you're hooked for good. In reality, you have a 50/50 chance to win a spread wager every week, only you're paying a 10 percent vig on every defeat. Those odds never change. Deep down, the gambling addicts know this. And they don't care.

Casual gamblers think the same way, only their thought process is much more innocent and unrefined: Looking at the lines, they may stumble across Cincy-Cleveland and say something like, "Oh, that one's easy, Cleveland stinks, Cincy's going to kill them," then feel like a know-it-all when it plays out that way. If it doesn't happen, they can't feel bad because only a fool would have picked the Browns. By backing the safest pick on the board, they never have to worry that they don't know what they're doing. It's a risk-free pick.

The fact remains, nobody knows what they're doing. How could we ever pretend to figure out a league in which the underdogs went 12-3-1 in Week 2? For God's sake, even the Guy Who Knows Things is floundering. Last weekend, he texted me to say how much he liked my Week 2 picks, with one exception: Tampa over New Orleans. He didn't like that one. He was wrong. Again, nobody knows anything ... we just pretend we do. So maybe the Obvious Game isn't a force of nature as much as a manifestation of our own inadequacies. By taking the Browns last week, you would have been admitting that there's no rhyme or reason to anything that happens in sports. And nobody wants to believe that. Just remember we had this conversation when you're losing money on the Panthers or Broncos this weekend.

In a related story, my pregnant wife who doesn't watch football is 20-9-3 through two weeks. And yes, she took the Browns last week. Of course she did.

Without further ado, here are my meaningless Week 3 picks (home teams in caps):

Colts (-6) over TEXANS
Right after Christmas in 2001, I traveled down to Houston for a column about the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl and specifically remember driving around one day, listening to sports radio and hearing the hosts sounding all giddy because the Texans had just signed their first seven obscure free agents. There was something endearing about how excited they were for these seven crappy guys. I remember thinking to myself, "Some day soon, Houston will host a big regular-season game at home and I should tell this story in the paragraph for my picks column." I just didn't think it would take six years. Sadly, I can't pick them because Andre Johnson isn't playing and I don't know what Kevin Walter or Jacoby Jones even look like.

Chargers (-5) over PACKERS
I like this Packers team and got a rush out of seeing Brett Favre hop in the time machine for that Giants game last week. But the Packers aren't beating a ticked-off Chargers team without a running game, especially when we're overdue for one of LDT's 35-point roto weeks.

Speaking of San Diego, I loved this e-mail from Tommy in Worcester, Mass.: "Just thought you'd be curious as to the Super Duper Triple Secret 15 Scripted Plays that Norv Turner kept locked in a hermetically sealed vault guarded by the Secret Service, as reported by Andrea Kremer, a script so secret that he'd only tell his players right before the game: Here are the 15 plays of sheer offensive genius:

"1) Throw interception to Colvin left
"2) Run Tomlinson off left tackle for 2 yards
"3) Throw incomplete pass down the right side to Davis
"4) Throw left to Gates short of the first down
"5) Punt
"6) Run Tomlinson off left guard for 2 yards
"7) Run Tomlinson off left guard for 8 yards
"8) Run Tomlinson off right guard for 2 yards
"9) Run Tomlinson up the middle for 4 yards
"10) Sweep Tomlinson right for minus-1 yards
"11) Throw left to Jackson for 14 yards
"12) Get sacked by Colvin, and fumble
"13) Run Tomlinson off left guard for 3 yards
"14) Throw right to Tomlinson for 6 yards
"15) Run Tomlinson off left guard for 0 yards

"Play 16 was a punt. Norv's offensive genius is just stunning, I'm amazed the Patriots survived that game."

THE WEEKLY POWER POLL

BRUCE COSLET DIVISION
32. Kansas City
31. Miami
30. Atlanta
29. Buffalo
28. NY Giants

BULLET-RIDDEN SHOES
27. Oakland
26. St. Louis

KARMA POLICE
25. NY Jets

FAINT SIGNS OF LIFE
24. Cleveland
23. Tampa Bay
22. Minnesota

THE FREEFALLERS
21. Cincinnati
20. Philly

THE RABBITS
19. San Francisco
18. Detroit

THE ENIGMAS
17. Jacksonville
16. Carolina
15. New Orleans
14. Arizona

POSSIBLE SLEEPERS
13. Houston
12. Washington

ROOM FOR UPSIDE
11. Denver
10. Tennessee
9. Green Bay

A TAD OVERRATED
8. Chicago
7. Baltimore

THE CONTENDERS
6. Seattle
5. San Diego
4. Dallas
3. Pittsburgh

THE FAVORITES
1b. Indianapolis
1a. New England

CHIEFS (-2.5) over Vikings
Herm Edwards weighs in on the Internet: "In our society now, so many things come up on Web sites and [the] Internet. First of all, I don't even have the Internet. I wouldn't even know how to use it."

(How can I pick a team whose coach doesn't "have" the Internet? That's a great question. I'm glad you asked. Here's the answer: Either an injured Tarvaris Jackson, a healthy Brooks Bollinger or a still-learning-the-playbook Kelly Holcomb will be starting at Arrowhead this Sunday. In my opinion, that outweighs a coach who doesn't have the Internet. Although, not by much.)

PATRIOTS (-16.5) over Bills
Good news for Patriots fans: According to Dan Marino on "Inside the NFL" this week, the Pats shouldn't worry about losing their 2008 first-round pick because "it's gonna be in the late 30s." Hey, it's not like he's paid to be an NFL expert or anything. By the way, that line of 16.5 is the line for the Bills game, not the Vegas over/under for Patriot victories this season (including playoffs). Just wanted to clarify that.

(That reminds me, after CameraGate was played up for more than a week on every major network and Web site, this story was practically buried on Thursday night. That's right, it's the "we have no further evidence that the Patriots cheated and this investigation is closed" story. Sorry to disappoint everyone, although it was worth it to see Gregg Easterbrook's impression of Joe McCarthy this week. Can we all move on now?)

Rams (+3.5) over BUCS
When in doubt, take the points. And since I can't think of anything else to add, here's my favorite "Friday Night Lights" e-mail I received this week, courtesy of Rob K. in Dearborn, Mich.:

"Dude, seriously, you didn't mention the biggest reason to watch 'Friday Night Lights': Every single female character on the show is blessed in the bosom department! Coach Taylor's wife passed hers onto her daughter, Lyla Garrity almost popped out on a few episodes and Tyra Collette has nothing to be ashamed of. What more could a guy ask for, boobs and football! The show would have two million more male viewers if you said that!" We will see.

Lions (+6.5) over EAGLES
Like everyone else, I watched Monday night's Skins-Eagles game thinking, "Wow, is this it for Donovan McNabb?" It's not like he's going to become an accurate pocket passer at age 30, and it looks like his legs are gone. What else is left? Throw in the sour Eagles fans (who seem appalled by McNabb, the team and life in general) and Philly looks like it's headed for one of those seasons when a team fails to cover for the first 6-7 weeks before the betting public realizes that they stink. I watched both Philly losses and couldn't tell you one thing they do well other than throw a screen pass or stare blankly out onto the field in shock. On the flip side, we've reached the point in Detroit that Jon Kitna has Mitch Albom writing glowing columns about him -- we're three years away from Matthew Lillard playing Kitna in a Hallmark Theater movie. I think I'll take the points.

(Speaking of Albom, did we ever figure out why he's still flying to New York on Sunday mornings to appear on the "Sports Reporters"? Hasn't he made like $50 million on his books over the past 10 years? If you were him, wouldn't you rather be sanding a boat on a tropical beach like Andy Dufresne instead of having Bob Ryan sneering at you during your 300th argument about Barry Bonds? Every time I see Albom on that show, I start thinking about this and miss everything they're saying. Maybe it's just me.)

STEELERS (-9) over 49ers
The 49ers might be the first-ever happy-to-be-there 2-0 team. Hey, I liked this e-mail from Chris in Raleigh: "Are you as excited as I am that we are nearing the eve of David Stern's annual outrageous rule/equipment change that is done solely to take attention off of the NFL during the first few weeks of the season? I CAN'T WAIT! Call it a hunch, but I bet it has to do with a no-nonsense gambling policy with even less nonsense than no nonsense on dogfighting and steroids. I think that'll hit the hot buttons in sports and buy him at least two weeks on 'Outside The Lines.' That is unless they have a miniseries on Title IX lined up. What do you think?"

(My prediction: Stern goes in a different direction and dramatically shakes up the league's playoff and lottery systems. And it happens as soon as CameraGate dies down and he can hog the spotlight for a day or two, possibly as soon as next week.)

SPORTS GAL'S RANT

Since I'm knocked up and can't consume any alcoholic beverages or do anything remotely "fun" these days, I've resorted to electronics -- no, not those sort of electronics, you sickos!!! I'm talking about my iPhone. I'm turning into one of those people who I always see walking in crosswalks, looking down at their handhelds, oblivious to the world and just waiting for me to accidentally run them over with my SUV. (That's an L.A. thing. In Boston, nobody would ever do this because people actually would run them over.) I don't care, though, it has become my lifeline to the world. I'm informed and back in the loop. I used to spend as much time checking e-mails as Lindsay spent putting on underwear in the morning. Now I toggle between my two e-mail addresses, text my friends, take tons of pictures, manage my albums, check for the latest Britney debacle on the Internet, check weather and listen to music. I'm like a 15-year-old girl. The best part is Bill can't make fun of me because he's constantly looking up stats for the League of Dorks on his BlackBerry and firing off important e-mails about J.D. Drew.

So you can imagine how my water almost broke Saturday night when I realized I'd lost my phone somewhere at the Grove. Once we realized it was missing and I was panicking, Bill had the bright idea to dial the phone (he's smart sometimes). Someone answered by saying, "This is Michael." Turns out we left it at dinner, and Michael was the manager there. When I walked in the door, someone was looking at me like he knew me and said, "You're looking for your iPhone aren't you?" Before I could say "yes," he said, "cute kid and cute dogs!" Translation: I'm Michael and I looked through all your pictures! He handed me my phone, and I walked out feeling like I had been fondled by a teacher or something. As I was telling Bill the story in the car, I noticed my phone was in iTunes mode and the song "Hook" was playing. Jeez, Michael, make yourself at home! Would you like to look at some porn sites? I spent the next 20 minutes going through every picture in my album to make sure Michael hadn't taken a picture of himself peeing or something. I'm never losing my iPhone again.

Here are my Week 3 picks: Colts -6, Packers +5, Chiefs -2.5, Eagles -6.5, Bills +16.5, Jets -3, Steelers -9, Ravens -8, Rams +3.5, Broncos -3, Seahawks -3, Browns +3, Panthers -4, Giants +4, Bears -3, Saints -4.5.

Last week: 11-4-1
Season: 20-9-3

JETS (-3) over Dolphins
Eric Mangini made me think of this: Did you see they just released a "Deliverance" 35th anniversary edition with deleted scenes and director's commentary? In Entertainment Weekly's review, they mention that "poor Ned Beatty has had to endure 'squeal like a pig' heckling ever since the film's notorious hillbilly rape scene," and that in the interviews with cast members "Beatty, perhaps understandably, has precious little to say about his infamous scene." Did anyone get a worse deal from a movie role than Ned Beatty? At this point, he probably thinks he DID get raped by the hillbillies. My friend Will Burke thinks they should have added a POV angle like the special camera angle they use for porn DVDs, then advertised the 35th anniversary release like a porn DVD with something on the cover like, "With an all-new POV of the Ned Beatty scene!" Now that's comedy.

More importantly, who the hell would buy a 35th anniversary "Deliverance" DVD? And how many "special anniversary" DVDs can be released before somebody makes one for "48 Hours" -- the defining cop comedy of the '80s, the movie that put Eddie Murphy on the map and was subsequently ripped off for the next 25 years straight? I can't accept this anymore. Nick Nolte is gonna be dead soon; in fact, we're not even sure he's alive right now. We need him and Eddie for the commentary, especially for the awkward silences during every scene in which Jack Cates makes a racial slur that was inappropriate in 1982 and completely unacceptable now. We need to see the deleted scenes (and you know they're out there). We need someone to explain what Reggie Hammond did in the 12 hours that lapsed between the morning subway scene (when they almost nailed Luther with the suitcase) and Reggie finally getting hold of Jack Cates at Vroman's that night. (Where did he go? Did he go to the movies? Did he nap on a bench? Did he go to a mall?) I could go on for another 10 paragraphs. We need a "48 Hours" anniversary DVD and that's that.

Cardinals (+8) over RAVENS
The Ravens and Bears are overrated. Somebody needed to say it. By the way, I thoroughly enjoy Ken Whisenhunt -- he's like a cross between Bill Cowher, Jack Lambert, Gerry Callahan, Ray Nitschke, Ed Lauter, Kane the wrestler and about 35 different cops from 35 different TV shows. Every time they show Whisenhunt, I feel like he should be wearing an ugly baseball hat and driving a semi in an old Burt Reynolds movie.

SEAHAWKS (-3) over Bengals
I'm the only person outside of the Seattle area who thinks the Seahawks are good. Just know that they'd be 2-0 if not for the stupid fumble/mix up between Hasselbeck and Alexander last week. Meanwhile, here's Marvin Lewis' take on what happened in the 51-45 game: "It obviously wasn't a very good performance. We didn't do well enough in any of the three phases to win the football game. I was very disappointed in how we played defensively; we didn't play very well on third down and we let Jamal [Lewis] rush for more than 200 yards. Assignmentwise we were not very sharp at all." I vote that we don't waste time interviewing head coaches during the season unless it's Herm Edwards and someone is asking him about the Internet.

REDSKINS (-3.5) over Giants
The Redskins can move the chains, play defense and make 2-3 big plays downfield per game. The number of NFC teams that can do all three of those things is exactly zero, which means I'll be taking the Redskins seriously from this point on. Also, I nominate "move the chains" as the football expression du jour for 2007, replacing "downhill runner" in 2005 and "out with a [fill in the body part]" in 2006. It's also a good expression for non-football things, as in, "I need to start moving the chains with this column, it's getting a little long."

RAIDERS (-3) over Browns
The Browns just spent the past few days high-fiving each other and getting phone calls from people they haven't heard from in 10 years. That's never good. By the way, Lane Kiffin gave Oakland a team slogan this year -- "I'm in" -- and even draped an "I'm in" banner over the canopy where the players run in and out to practice. I feel like you need to know these things. It's also a big change from Art Shell's slogan last season: "I'm asleep."

Jaguars (+3) over BRONCOS
Obvious Game No. 1. I'll be going the other way, thanks. While we're here, right after Janikowski's apparent game-winner in Denver that was nullified by Mike Shanahan's last-second timeout, can you imagine if the Raiders dumped Gatorade on Lane Kiffin because they thought it was his first win, then a soaked Kiffin had to watch Janikowski's next kick plunk off the upright, followed by Denver's subsequent game-winning drive? Have we ever had a false-alarm Gatorade bath before?

FALCONS (+4) over Panthers
I loved how Bobby Petrino summed up Joey Harrington's problems this week: "He just needs to open it up and play with confidence. Play to go win the game." In other words, Joey has no confidence, he can't open it up, and he's playing to lose the game. Other than that, he's been great. Fortunately for Joey, he's involved on the good end of Obvious Game No. 2 this week. Although he'll probably kill that theory, too.

Cowboys (+3) over BEARS
Dallas takes control of the NFC if it can pull this one off. If there was ever a time for Rex Grossman to come through, this is it -- on a Sunday night in a big game against an awful secondary. But there's a bigger subplot at stake here, as Matt from Detroit tells us:

"How many weeks is Al Michaels going to put up with Cris Collinsworth talking over and interrupting him before he goes crazy and screams, 'I'm Al Michaels, mothaf-----!!! Keep your mouth shut when I'm talking!!!' I thought Al's head was going to explode after the Pats/Chargers game." The good news is that there's still time.

SAINTS (-4.5) over Titans
Nothing like a desperate 0-2 team playing its first home game on a Monday night to save its season. Sign me up.

(Hey, did you know Vince Young and Reggie Bush played against each other in college? It's true! No, really, we have video from the game and everything ... )

LAST WEEK: 10-5-1
SEASON: 17-12-1

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can check out his revamped "Sports Guy's World" site here.