Tag Archives: Marcus Mariota

Week 2 NFL picks

Drew Brees was on TV last night encouraging gambling. Not just on TV, on NFL Network, the platform owned by the league, during the game between Washington and the New York Giants. 

If you blinked, you may have missed a rather startling sea change. Sports leagues have pivoted from staunch public opposition to gambling on their games to actively recruiting sponsors and partners from the gambling industry. Are you sick of Jamie Foxx or that woman from DraftKings yet? Or was it FanDuel? I get them mixed up.

Brees, the clean-cut star quarterback of the New Orleans Saints until he retired after last season, morphed right along with his sport. Thursday night he was hawking a platform called PointsBet.

Colorado voters narrowly approved legal sports betting in the fall of 2019. The launch came May 1, 2020. A pandemic was sweeping the state at the time, a lot of sporting events were postponed or canceled, so you might not have noticed.

There were 25 licensed sports books and operators in the state at last count. Betting is now about as easy as having a meal delivered. All it requires is a phone. If you download one of the apps from an ad on social media, as I did, you will soon be served with ads for many of the others. Telling Apple to ask apps not to track you doesn’t seem to help.

Betting on sports is a lot like speculating in financial markets. If you live in Colorado, chances are you know more about the Broncos than you do most small-cap companies, or any cryptocurrency. 

There are people in both fields who will drown you in statistics if you let them. Sports betting gurus will offer quantitative measurements of increasing sophistication and inscrutability in the same way stock analysts will cite adjusted metrics that go way beyond the simple measures your uncle the stock picker used.

These numbers can be helpful, in both pursuits, but not as helpful as they appear. When the field of behavioral economics exploded on the scene some years back, venerable skeptic Charlie Munger inquired what sort of economics were not behavioral.

As in finance, outcomes in sports are determined by human behavior, which is more apt to be inexplicable and random than rational and predictable.

So if I can dabble in the stock market or in crypto, I can mine for more traditional coin, and keep my weekends interesting,  with speculation informed by 30 years or so as a sportswriter. This is the first of what I hope will be weekly missives during the NFL season after I’ve placed my bets.

If I’m terrible at it and lose the small pot of money I have allocated, these offerings will be short-lived. Thankfully, owing to their fierce competition for customers, most of the online sports books offer a variety of incentives, including “risk-free” initial bets that promise to compensate you for your loss with free additional bets worth the same amount. So you can find a first bet you really like, bet big, lose, and still have chits to play with for a while. Just as alcoholics should stay out of bars, gambling addicts should stay away from these apps.

I’m betting only on the NFL at present. Baseball and basketball play way too many games for the outcome of any single one to be more predictable than a coin flip. When the baseball playoffs arrive, I’ll take another look.

They say college football is a prime target because talent is not as evenly allocated as it is in the pros. That’s true, but odds and point spreads nullify obvious talent disparities, and college point spreads are often astronomical, making final scores dependent on factors other than trying to win the game.

So, anyway, the NFL it is. Here are my bets this week:

Arizona (-3.5) vs. Minnesota. At 24, Kyler Murray may be ready to demonstrate why he was the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. He was spectacular in a Week 1 blowout of what was thought to be a good Tennessee team, and he was spectacular mostly with his arm rather than his legs. The Vikings, meanwhile, were outlasted in Week 1 by the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, suggesting their defensive issues a year ago remain unresolved.

L.A. Rams (-3.5)  at Indianapolis. It has been my contention for a long time that Matthew Stafford, the first overall draft pick a decade before Murray, could graduate to the ranks of championship contenders if he only had a decent team around him. Finally, after 12 years making the Lions look better than they were, he has that chance. In his first game with the Rams, on his first possession, he engineered a three-play, 80-yard drive against the Bears, culminating in a 67-yard touchdown pass. He and Sean McVay just might get along. Meanwhile, Carson Wentz had a pretty nice debut in Indy, but the Colts were dismantled by the Seahawks, who are comparable to the Stafford-led Rams offensively, but inferior defensively.

Buffalo (-3) at Miami. The Bills were oddly lethargic in their opener against Pittsburgh, with Josh Allen revisiting the accuracy issues he battled his first two years in the league. Still, this is a team that went 13-3 last year and played for the AFC championship, so I’m betting on a bounce-back. Meanwhile, the Dolphins edged the Patriots, but Tua Tagovailoa was uninspiring and won’t be facing a rookie counterpart in Week 2.

Seattle (-6) vs. Tennessee. I expect a bounce-back from the Titans, who can’t be as bad as they looked in Week 1, but the Seahawks are very good at home (7-1 last year) and Russell Wilson had an exquisite opener, suggesting the combination of rumors he might want out of Seattle and the hiring of two former McVay deputies to coordinate the offense might be just what Pete Carroll needed to ease up on the reins a bit. 

Green Bay (-11 in one bet, -11.5 in another) vs. Detroit. As big as this spread is, it doesn’t seem nearly big enough considering the circumstances. The Packers were embarrassed in their opener. Aaron Rodgers, who spent most of the offseason complaining about his situation, was horrendous. Returning to the friendly confines of Lambeau Field, where he was 7-1 last season, should get him back on track. The Lions are a last-place team from a year ago who lost their best player in Stafford. If this isn’t a blowout, it will only be because Rodgers is pissed he didn’t get the Jeopardy! gig.

Las Vegas (+6.5) at Pittsburgh. This is my weakest conviction pick, and I made only one small bet on it, but I was surprised by how tough the Raiders played the Ravens in Week 1. They still have some defensive issues to be sure (30th in points allowed a year ago), but were surprisingly resilient against the most explosive offensive player in the game. They will suffer from the loss of Marcus Mariota (again) to injury. In his lone play of Week 1, he demonstrated the difficult adjustment he presents to defenses who have prepared for Derek Carr. Still, Carr has an impressive roster of offensive weapons. As for the Steelers, I suspect the size of this spread is partly based on their win over Buffalo, which had at least as much to do with the Bills’ no-show.

Lock of the week:

Denver (-6) at Jacksonville. A homer pick, I guess, but I had to look twice to make sure I wasn’t missing a digit in the spread. A few weeks into the season, this number would be bigger. The Jaguars are coming off a 1-15 season, starting over with rookies at coach and quarterback, and just gave up 37 points to the Texans, a team many analysts expected to be the worst in the league this year. The Broncos went into New York and did what they were supposed to do, beating the Giants convincingly. Their biggest question mark, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, was cool, resourceful and accurate. Yes, No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence will probably be a stud one day, and Urban Meyer might ultimately figure out the NFL, but both will take longer than a week. The Broncos should cover. Easily.

Oh, yes, just for fun, I placed a small wager on an AFC West parlay that pays 700% if the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers all win. That’s a lottery ticket. I’m not expecting it to hit and don’t recommend it.

Feel free to comment below if you’d like. Pretend your mother is listening. These missives come with an intemperance filter.

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Tangled up in Ducks

BOULDER — When Mark Helfrich left Dan Hawkins’ football staff at the University of Colorado following the 2008 season to join Chip Kelly’s staff at the University of Oregon, there was speculation he was frustrated by a bad offense he was powerless to change.

Nobody said anything on the record, of course, because this dance is well-rehearsed by now and it’s all agreed: Every former employer was awesome and every future employer is providing a cherished opportunity.

Like many of the issues surrounding the CU program at the time, this one had to do with Hawkins and his desire to have his son, Cody, play quarterback. Helfrich knew where major college football offenses were going, and Cody Hawkins, a wonderful kid and mediocre football player, was not it.

Three years earlier, Hawkins made Helfrich the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I football. (I don’t use the initials that replaced the divisions because I don’t know what they mean and you don’t either.) Helfrich was 32 when Hawkins persuaded him to leave Arizona State, where he was quarterbacks coach, to become CU’s offensive coordinator.

Helfrich was a protege of Dirk Koetter, who had been offensive coordinator at Oregon when Helfrich was a graduate assistant. When Koetter got the head job at Boise State, he brought Helfrich with him to coach quarterbacks. When Koetter moved on to Arizona State, again Helfrich moved with him. But the opportunity to be a coordinator in a major conference at 32 was quite rare, and Hawkins had followed Koetter at Boise State, so it was all in the family.

Unfortunately, it was a little too all in the family during the Hawkins era at CU. It was probably true that the younger Hawkins was the best quarterback on the roster, but that was a sad rationale. A coach looking for a bigger, stronger, faster or more athletic quarterback would have been more aggressive than the elder Hawkins in recruiting competition.

Helfrich had already worked with some pretty good quarterbacks — Bart Hendricks at Boise State and Andrew Walter at Arizona State — and it is not hard to believe that he could see, like most people, how limited the upside was on Cody Hawkins and any offense built around him.

In fact, it’s possible Helfrich saw something of himself in the younger Hawkins, and that this insight helped him see Cody was in over his head. An Oregon native, Helfrich was a small but accomplished high school quarterback who chose Southern Oregon and a prodigious NAIA career over an offer to walk on at Oregon, where he knew he probably would have spent his career on the bench.

So Helfrich’s choice in 2009 was to continue coordinating a bad Colorado offense that was hard to improve given the limitations at the most important position, or move back to Oregon and work under Kelly, an offensive coordinator of such repute that Oregon reportedly kicked head coach Mike Bellotti upstairs to create the head coaching vacancy Kelly craved.

As a newly-minted head coach, Kelly wanted Helfrich as his offensive coordinator. And he wanted to do lots of interesting, innovative things. For Helfrich, it probably wasn’t that tough a call. He thanked Hawkins, packed his bags and went home.

Kelly moved on to the NFL this season. He’s the new coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were just pulverized by the Broncos to drop to 1-3, but that’s another story. Kelly reportedly lobbied for Helfrich to succeed him. He may not have needed to. The OC moving up is an Oregon tradition, dating back to Bellotti under Rich Brooks.

So, in the year he turns 40 (later this month), Helfrich ascended to one of the best jobs in college football — head coach at Oregon. He is in charge of a program that will have no financial restraints so long as Phil Knight is alive. He is part of a tradition of innovative offensive football. Each of the Ducks’ last three coaches — Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich — was the offensive coordinator under his predecessor.

A year ago, Helfrich was in his fourth and final season as Kelly’s coordinator when the Ducks beat CU 70-14 in Eugene, a game not as close as the score might indicate. It was 56-0 at halftime.

Saturday, the Ducks came to Boulder and beat the Buffs 57-16. From a purely arithmetic point of view, that’s about 15 points of progress for the Buffs. They even led for a minute. Actually, a minute and 49 seconds on the game clock the first time, a minute and 34 seconds the second and final time. Oregon does everything fast.

The Ducks demonstrated yet again how important the whole quarterback thing is. Helfrich called his guy, sophomore Marcus Mariota, “a stud,” which is exactly right. If you were going to build an elite college quarterback from scratch, you would build a 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound athlete with a rocket arm, runner’s legs and a brain that figures out really fast when it’s time for which. Oh, and you might give him some Samoan blood, given the disproportionate number of great football players that tiny island and its descendants have produced.

“He’s such a great person, first and foremost, and then he’s, oh, by the way, an incredible football player,” Helfrich said. “The stuff he does in practice, we look at each other and kind of shake our head. And that shows up in games. That’s the neat part about him, about (running back) De’Anthony (Thomas), about some of our best defensive players, is they’re great practice players. Not good practice players, but great practice players. And that’s infectious.

“Physically, he’s very gifted. Obviously, his size, his speed, his release, his timing, his knowledge, he’s a smart guy, he’s a tough guy. Is that enough? He’s a superlative machine.”

The Buffs, on the other hand, are trying to preserve yet another redshirt year. Last year, you might remember, it was not worth burning Shane Dillon’s redshirt year on a lost season. Dillon is no longer with the program. In fact, his experience at CU so turned him off to football he now wants to play basketball. In retrospect, it might have been worth burning his redshirt year to see if he could improve on the most dreadful season CU football has seen.

This year, it is not worth burning Sefo Liufau’s redshirt year. Liufau is the prized first-year recruit of CU coach Mike MacIntyre, a 6-4, 215-pound high school star of, yes, Samoan descent.

For a minute there, before CU began its conference schedule, it looked as if junior Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas during the short-lived Jon Embree era, could bridge the gap adequately.

But Wood was not good Saturday, and he suffered in comparison to Mariota, who was sensational. The respective stat lines are a close enough approximation. Mariota completed 16 of 27 passes for 355 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also carried seven times for 49 yards and two touchdowns. His afternoon was finished before the fourth quarter began. Wood completed 11 of 33 for 205 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His net rushing yardage was minus 8.

Granted, there are talent gaps between these rosters at many positions, but in Paul Richardson the Buffs have one of the most talented receivers in the country, so it’s not as if Wood has no weapons. At some point, the excuses have to stop.

The performance at quarterback was the key difference in the game, and allowed Oregon to turn it into a blowout as quickly as it did. The Buffs’ defense gave them a chance even after MacIntyre elected to begin the game with an onside kick. Granted, you need some wrinkles if you’re going to beat the Ducks, but giving Mariota the ball at midfield to start the game might be out-thinking yourself.

Nevertheless, CU forced a three-and-out and Wood drove the offense into field goal range — the big play a 55-yard pass to Richardson — and a short-lived 3-0 lead. One minute, 49 seconds later by the game clock, Mariota scored the first of his seven touchdowns — two rushing, five passing. The Buffs responded with a beautifully conceived option pass off a reverse, in which Richardson, split wide left, came in motion to the right, took a pitch from running back Michael Adkins and lofted a pass to a wide-open D.D. Goodson in the right flat, who rambled 75 yards to give CU a 10-8 lead.

This was the first time this season an opponent led Oregon twice. So that’s something. But not much. By the end of the first quarter, the Ducks led 29-10. At halftime, it was 43-16. In the Oregon locker room, they were not happy.

“We kind of challenged them at halftime,” Helfrich said. “Other than the scoreboard, we didn’t play our way in the first half, and who knows (why) that is. I don’t know if it’s altitude or thinking about something else or whatever it may have been, we responded well, and that’s encouraging.”

Oregon shut down the CU offense in the second half, and for the first time this season, MacIntyre’s team looked nearly as helpless as Embree’s team of a year ago. MacIntyre said he saw improvement in Wood from the week before at Oregon State and you can only hope he said that because he has to. If Wood doesn’t improve a lot more, and soon, CU will have to decide whether it is willing to be the Pac-12’s punch line for yet another season in the interest of some prospective four-year career that may or may not work out as planned.

Meanwhile, Oregon is rolling, averaging almost 60 points a game, giving up fewer than 12. I asked Helfrich if his team is where he wants it to be.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re 5-0, and that’s our best statistic. We haven’t played remotely to what we can in any phase in any game. So that’s encouraging. The guys that we have on this team know that. They’re excited to get better and excited to come to work and get ready on Monday.”

If anybody in the CU administration really wants to know what has happened to the program since Hawkins was hired in 2006, he or she should place a call to Helfrich and find out how the program lost one of the most impressive young coaches in the game today.

Maybe he would have gone home anyway. That would certainly be the movie-of-the-week narrative. But Helfrich had already demonstrated a coach’s nomadic instinct for the best way forward, moving from Eugene to Boise to Tempe to Boulder. Maybe Hawkins’ nepotism is part of the answer. Maybe there were other factors.

Helfrich’s decision to go back to Oregon and Saturday’s game have one thing in common: The Ducks had a much better quarterback than the Buffs both times. So long as CU is willing to live with this, its football program will not appear on any map.