Welcome to Cover 5.

Every week, in addition to Upset Watch's primary picks column, Cover 5 looks at five interesting facets of the NFL that aren't necessarily related only to picking games. Whether it be trades, head coaching changes, or just the soap opera that the NFL has become, it's always fun to take a step back and think about the bigger picture.

Thanks for the overwhelming positive feedback on last week's column. I got exactly the reaction I hoped for, and if it suits you, I'll continue writing this every week of the offseason, however there will be one exception: I intend to spend next week taking a well-earned break after not having a break since August to recharge my batteries!

This week's column deliberately pokes around at the bottom of the NFL. All you're going to hear about for the next 6 days is how great the Rams and Bengals are, and while I'm going to do that too, I'm also going to stick the boot in at the bottom end, where every day brings fresh idiocy.

 

This week's coverage schemes:

  1. Which is the NFL's most broken franchise?
  2. Are the Giants worse than the Jets?
  3. Why you should root for the Bengals in the Super Bowl
  4. Why you should root for the Rams in the Super Bowl
  5. The Pro Bowl: The case to stop playing it.

 

The Cover 5 Mailbag:

    no-stugot asks: "Thanks for a great column each week. What would your strategy be for hedging went a few legs of your parlays hit early? More than few times after following your advice might have hit the first two legs on early 1 PM games or the Saturday games during the playoffs but had a few parlays go down on an afternoon game or Sunday game?  I was able to hedge in game on the Chiefs during the Bills game but it was more of a last minute scramble rather than having a thought out plan ahead of time.  What are your thoughts/strategies for hedging?" 

   Upset Watch: Thanks for the compliments, and a great question! One of the things I'm looking at for next season is a method of communicating properly how to ensure you're maximizing your chances of success.

For those who don't know, 'hedging' is where you cover off certain parts of your bet because you change your mind or lose your nerve. The idea is that - for example - if you'd picked a team to win, you could theoretically make the opposite play and cover both outcomes (although in the NFL a tie is a bigger consideration than it once was).

Example: You back the Rams at odds of -200 (or 1/2, or 1.50, depending on how you format your odds) and put a stake of $10. That means you'll win $15 if they win.

In theory, if you can't cancel the bet, you can hedge/cover it by making a second bet of $5.56 on the Bengals at odds of +170 (or 17/10 or 2.70) that would return $15.01. No matter which team wins, you're cancelling the other bet out almost entirely.

My theory on hedging is this: It gets a LOT harder at higher levels. Particularly on underdogs. In the reverse of those situations, where you're on a big parlay, you have an issue where the amount you can win is so big, that you almost certainly can't get the amounts on to cover against a favorite victory at low odds. You would often have to stake thousands of dollars to cover those wins.

That's why I use the Round Robin system. In Europe, it's known as a 'multiple', and it effectively means that if you bet on 4 teams to win, you can place it on all 4, or you can place the combinations of 2, 3 and 4 winners that are possible, meaning that when you win 2 games, you've already guaranteed that one of your combinations has won, and then from there, every extra win will generate more winning combinations.

Ultimately, although the initial stake for that type of combination is slightly higher, the rewards are far more consistent, as highlighted in the full Upset Watch column each week.

You can learn more about Round Robins here!

 

     peteyrosey2020 asks: "My question today centers around the fast growth of sports books, NFL’s willingness to have in stadium gambling, NCAA’s “NIL” agreements, and other “outside influences” that I may have missed or have yet to appear. How do you think the NFL will look like in 15 to 25 years or so with all of these “money impacts”? These factors represent the greatest changes and challenges to face the NFL and sports in general in the last multiple decades. I’m curious your take on how the viewing fans, writers like yourself, media coverage, and all other aspects of the industry you think important will be impacted and significantly changed for the NFL many have known for years."

     Upset Watch: Thanks for the question and the compliments I ran out of room for!

First of all, it's worth considering my background. I grew up in Europe, where sports betting was always legal, and working for the NFL during their initial years understanding that Sports betting would happen in the early 2010's. I've subsequently been working in the US on Pickwatch and attending sportsbook-led industry events, and I have seen first hand the big learning curve for a sport that had largely not seen any legal betting for 30 years.

That learning curve isn't just restricted to fans and the NFL though, it's also the sportsbooks, who in many cases have only just begun to figure out how to do this after 3 years!

Second, I would point out that even in Europe, where the online sports betting market has matured over decades, the changes in technology over the last 10-12 years (the prevalence of smartphones in particular) have changed the way people bet, meaning that even in other places in the world, there has been a big shift in how people interact with it and how prevalent it is.

One other thing I would point out is that the US has an interesting dynamic that we don't see elsewhere, and that is state-by-state regulation. Those differences in how strict each state is on licensing and promotion will mean slower growth of the sector for some states, while others may see the following changes sooner.

Here are 3 things I think you'll see over the next few decades:

  1. In-play/live betting will become the dominant method of gaming that sportsbooks push.

    In Europe, this is how sportsbooks make money. Everyone thinks they know what will happen next, but data that people can rely on to confirm or deny their instincts is scarce. This means that bookmakers generally make a high percentage of their profits on in-play markets.

    At the moment, the reverse trend is true in America. Because bookmakers are still figuring things out, they're reluctant to push in-play, because they're scared of getting it wrong, but once they figure out their odds, and become more confident in their data, they'll offer more live odds during games, and begin to pay for these to be pushed during sports events, with the NFL a prime target.

    We're already planning for live gaming on Pickwatch, only we're going to be working with you to make sure you can understand the odds and get expert picks whilst games are live, but I think it will be some years before this becomes truly huge for the general public.

  2. The NFL will have full time officials by 2030

    If they don't, they're fools. I could name 5 calls just from the playoffs that rightly drive fans crazy, and that is now, when money staked on games is not as high as it will be.

    Let me give you an example I mentioned at the time, that ironically favored Las Vegas. Here's the play, with just 1:44 left and no timeouts left, the Raiders are driving to tie the game. Carr is glanced by a defender and the refs add 15 yards onto a 15 yard catch and run. The result? The Raiders go from their own 35 to the Bengals 35.

    Now if the Raiders tie the game and win it, what are we talking about? Exactly, a blown call that changes a game. There are dozens of them every season in the NFL, many of them even more contentious than that. Most games have at least 2 or 3 that meaningfully change the game.

    The NFL can't put part-time officials in charge of something that is about to become a lot more important. The onus will now be on them to get more right and less wrong, and particularly on crucial calls like that, to not be calling ticky-tacky, subjective fouls that dramatically change the game, as they did in the Raiders' favor back on Thanksgiving, deciding their game against Dallas.

  3. Eventually, the NFL will have to deal with a backlash against over-saturation.

    Right now, sports betting is still in it's infancy, yet we're already starting to see it mentioned a lot more during broadcasts, and also on shows about the NFL. This is par for the course, as anyone who remembers the 2014-15 Daily Fantasy push by Draftkings and Fanduel will agree.

    But what came next? Calls from senators to stop the constant drip of TV ads. It really did feel like every advert was for betting, and I can confirm that in other parts of the world, it is not uncommon for a half-time of a soccer match to simply be 3-4 betting adverts, with the broadcast itself also sponsored by a bookmaker who gets a 10 second advert at the beginning and end of each commercial break.

    This has led to calls for restrictions, particularly as minors watch sporting events, and the influence of constant betting adverts is certainly detrimental to a healthy interest.

    My instinct is that if the US does enact (as it should, but probably won't) a federal level blanket law that is followed across the country, we will begin to see restrictions baked into it on how many references can be made during broadcasts, how overtly the league can encourage gambling, and what times of day the league and it's TV partners can run commercials.

Want a question answered by Upset Watch? Simply email [email protected] and I'll pick out the best few each week!

 

Cover 1: The NFL's most broken franchise: The Houston Texans


 

It'd be easy to start this with 'The Houston Texans are the most broken franchise' and just leave it at that, but there are two reasons I'm not going to just let them get away with a power rankings style of simply saying they're worse than the Jags or Jets. 

First is recency bias - we all think that the team with the no.1 pick is the worst, and it can be easy to ignore teams that have papered over the cracks enough to avoid that indignity.

Second, is that the criteria for being broken extend way beyond the on-field lack of performance. They cover ownership, front-office, how fans are treated, and the capacity to get better. Some teams have problems, some teams are unlucky, and others need a root-and-branch overhaul.

I considered the Texans in comparison to the other objectively 'bad' franchises, and there was just no way that you compare them objectively, even to the likes of Washington with significant off-field issues.

What are the Houston texans doing?

The Texans are close to appointing one of Josh McCown (never coached beyond High School level), or Lovie Smith (no NFL Head Coaching job in 7 years) ahead of Brian Flores (suing the NFL and citing the Texans as an example of institutional racism) as their new Head Coach after a 4-13 season.

It's about as dysfunctional as it gets, but let's take a step back. How did we get here?

It's always worth remembering that heading into the 2020 season, the Texans were coming off two consecutive playoff seasons, and had winning seasons in 5 of Bill O'Brien's 6 full outings as Head Coach. They appeared in the postseason 4 times in that period and had a regular season record of 53-44 over his tenure.

They'd also developed one of the league's best young players, DeShaun Watson, and had led the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Chiefs, by 24-0 at one stage of their Divisional matchup in January of 2020 (the Chiefs had subsequently taken the lead by half time).

In short, at absolute worst, you'd suggest that the Texans were one of the best teams in their division, and with a few roster tweaks, could even be serious Super Bowl contenders.

Instead, they've come off an 8-25 record since that point, have worked through 3 Head Coaches, traded away one of their best players, and sit in coaching limbo, seemingly paralysed by Watson's unavailability and unwillingness to play for the team.

So what happened?

It all began with the appointment of Jack Easterby.

For those who don't know the story, Easterby was essentially a team chaplain at the Patriots, tasked with helping the team work through the Aaron Hernandez situation. Easterby had previously worked with the Chiefs during the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide the previous year.

He then parlayed this into the suitably ludicrous and vague title of 'Executive Vice President of Football Operations' in Houston, where within months, he had engineered the exit of then GM Brian Gaine, and once he relieved O'Brien of his duties by the 5th week of the 2020 season, Easterby assumed de facto control over the roster. By getting rid of anyone else in the organization who could have done so, he also assumed control of the hiring of both the team's next Head Coach, and the next General Manager.

Nick Caserio, another former Patriots (and former Scott Pioli) acolyte, joined, and we can assume that the only reason he is there is because he shares a vision of the Texans under Easterby. There doesn't seem room for much else.

And it's not just coaches and staff who have fallen foul of Easterby. As early as 2019, he told Bill O'Brien to get rid of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, one of the team's few elite players. On the open market, Hopkins could have been a candidate for a blockbuster trade, but the Texans fluffed it, receiving from the Cardinals just a second round pick, an underwhelming, high-price RB in David Johnson, and swapping 4th round picks.

Subsequently, someone revealed that O'Brien had tried to reign in Hopkins for apparently holding too much 'power' in the locker room. No mention was made of Easterby's attempts to force him out a year earlier.

But it gets worse.

By the end of the 2020 season, star QB Watson had lost his patience. What may not have been apparent externally after just one losing season, was clear as day to him. He requested a trade - a request that Easterby denied - before being accused of sexual assault by a slew of women, some of whom asked questions about the Texans' handling of their QB's sexual peccadilloes.

Of course, the fact that Watson is a potential sex offender isn't Easterby's fault, but Watson wanted out, and even had he been available to play, there are plenty of signs that Watson would not have done so, such was his anger that Easterby railroaded the GM search towards Caserio, and appointed a 'yes man' in 65yr old David Culley, who was not on anybody's list as a potential HC in January of 2021. In fact, in 2020, Culley was passing game coordinator and wide receiver's coach at the Ravens, who ranked last in passing.

But it gets even worse.

You may think by now that the Texans, whatever their problems, had at least got their deck shuffled. Easterby, whether rightly or wrongly, now had his choice of GM and choice of Head Coach in place. Surely, things might begin to improve, right?

But *Audience gasps* they did not.

Culley was hindered from the start by the Watson situation, and then lost J.J. Watt, one of the team's most professional players, just 2 weeks after being hired. Watt may have been a negligible player due to injuries over the previous few seasons, but as the Cardinals will testify, his impact in the locker room is undeniable. Apparently, Easterby didn't want anyone else's influence in the locker room, but his own.

You might be thinking at this point that it simply cannot get worse, but it can and it did. The Texans (see also, Easterby and O'Brien) had managed to trade away all of the team's first and second round picks, for the net result of LT Laremy Tunsil and almost-finished WR Kenny Stills.

This left the Texans with no backup plan for Watson's unavailability. The team insisted (hoped) that Watson would return, and that he would at least pretend to be bought in, thus maximizing trade value. Unfortunately for Houston, Watson did not play in 2021, even if he could have. Which he couldn't. His trade value has all but evaporated until a protracted legal situation resolves, and even should it do so, the likelihood is that a year later, his desire to leave is still strong, if not stronger.

And of course, by now, you know that Culley, despite being the patsy hired to guide the Texans through this tumultuous period, was dispensed of in January, despite leading the QB-less Texans, with a team of all-star 2015 Patriots such as Danny Amendola, Rex Burkhead, and Kamil Grugier-Hill, to 4 wins. The reason cited shed more light on the dysfunction, with Caserio talking of 'philosophical differences', despite acknowledging that Caserio wore a headset during games and chimed in on coaching decisions himself.

Why Lovie Smith?

Well, their favored candidate is almost certainly McCown, and that's why they're not going to hire him until someone else has failed.

McCown played 20 years in the league and ended his stint as a player with the Texans. During that period, somewhat ironically, he practiced away from the team, serving as an emergency QB during the worst stages of the 2020 pandemic. Sure, McCown has a nominal link to Houston, but he was not even geographically present for much of the time spent with the team.

So how is he in play? Because McCown and Easterby are very good friends, and according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, go way back.

But Easterby and Caserio know that patience is key, for two reasons.

Problem one is that the Watson situation still complicates any chances of any Texans Head Coach being successful. Even if he wins his lawsuit, there's little chance to improve this season unless Watson wants to stay in Houston. The earliest that resolution could happen is March, but it seems unlikely that he will face trial before May 2nd - which critically, would be the week after the NFL draft. 

That means the likelihood is that the Texans will have to either gamble on his replacement in a poor QB draft class, or more likely, put another non-QB piece in place, and roll with Davis Mills for another season.

Problem two is that Easterby doesn't want to be responsible for appointing a Head Coach with no resume unless that coach has a solid chance to win - and make Easterby look smart for seeing something intangible.

Easterby knows that this is even more unlikely than it ever would be in 2022, and therefore if he and Caserio had hired Culley, given up on him after a year, then hired the guy he was bizarrely pushing while still an active player and endured another failure, his seat may get hot. It would be clear to all that Easterby had the deciding voice, and appointing someone from left field is always risky.

So Smith solves that problem. He's coached the Bears to a Super Bowl. He's had two head Coaching jobs in the NFL. Forget that he was fired from both in quick succession, or that Smith, at 63, is transparently not a long term hire, Easterby and Caserio can claim in good faith that they hired a guy who is qualified to do the job.

Which he is. But the job is thankless, as they well know, and likely to end in failure this season. The Texans would prefer that Smith take the hits this season, and McCown parachute in from January of 2023.

It's a sorry tale for a franchise that had turned the corner over the previous decade. 

As you may have guessed, I find the whole thing ludicrous.

Here we have a man with no experience in his role, hiring people who have no experience in the role they are proposing. It is the antithesis of what the NFL is about, it speaks of a dysfunction that goes way beyond even the normal dysfunction (see below) of other teams, in that it's not one or two bad decisions in one area of a franchise, it's a group of friends making drunk-guys-in-a-bar type of moves. 'Hey, I think me and you could run an NFL franchise better than half of the people doing it at the moment'

The sad part is that someone has let them, and for that reason, as we enter the 2022 season, the Houston Texans are the most broken team in football.

 

The Giants are getting an easy ride compared to the Jets


 

In a week where the NFL celebrates it's best at the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl - more of both later - it's kind of ironic that I want to talk about two teams in the Texans and Giants who are firmly entrenched at the bottom of the pack.

2021 marked the 5th consecutive losing season of New York's more successful franchise. Since the 2012 season, they have just one playoff appearance in 10 attempts since their 2011-12 Super Bowl win, and it'd be a reasonable call to say they're not nailed on to break that record this season either.

In fact, since 2012, the Jets are 55-106, and the Giants are 61-100. There's almost no difference between the two franchises in performance on or off the field. Both teams trade away star players, allow Head Coaches to make decisions on a whim to enforce their power over a team, and are subsequently lacking in talent and direction.

Yet the more you consider this, the harder it seems to reconcile the idea of the Jets as a farcical, broken franchise one step ahead of Houston, while the Giants largely skate by on a Super Bowl win a decade ago and are immune to wider criticism.

The Jets have had their watershed moment. They got rid of a failing GM in Mike Maccagnan, who had drafted busts like Devin Smith, Christian Hackenberg, Darron Lee, and Sam Darnold, while trading away or releasing the likes of Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson. This is a team that carried over no players from the 2015 draft and 1 from the 2016 draft in 2020.

But they turned a corner.

They changed both GM and Head Coach, they drafted a QB of the future, and altogether, it seems they drafted pretty well. I like Robert Saleh, he's a good coach and he did well with the Jets in his first season, despite a 4-13 record.

Meanwhile, the Giants blew it again. They have appointed 3 successive Head Coaches who have lasted just 2 years (Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur, Joe Judge), and all were rightly fired after regressing in their second year. They haven't figured out whether their current QB is a keeper either, which hangs over their future plans, and that of new coach Brian Daboll.

To make matters worse, while Saleh and Joe Douglas have steadied the Jets ship, the Giants find themselves embroiled in an idiotic scandal, clearly tapping into former Giants DC Bill Belichick and using his opinion to guide the hiring of Daboll (notably, outside of the AFC East, causing some short term damage to the Bills). 

At some point, the Giants need to get a lot better, and fast. The Jets and Broncos are the only two teams with longer playoff droughts, and if those two teams win games in 2022, the Giants will officially fall to the bottom of the pack.

 

Cover 3: Why you should root for the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI

 

 

Yeah that's right, I went Roman numerals, like any of us can remember them.

Don't worry Rams fans, I'll make the case to back you below, but this one is about Cincinnati and why every neutral fan should root for them in the Super Bowl this Sunday.

  1. They have burnt out child actor/all round nice guy Joe Burrow at QB. Burrow is the epitome of the modern sportsman, not particularly afraid to speak his mind, confident in his own abilities, and a genuinely good person who you should root for no matter what.

  2. The Bengals are huge underdogs, and you know how much we love an underdog. Cincinnati has not been past the divisional round since 1988. In that time, the Rams have been to 4 NFC title games, and 3 Super Bowls, winning 1.

  3. They I - Inspire Hope. This is Cincinnati's first winning season since 2015. They won just 4 games last season and 2 the year before. Nothing reminds you that the NFL can change quickly, more than a team going from zeroes to heroes in just a year or two.

Cover 4: Why you should root for the Rams in Super Bowl LVI

 

 

  1. Aaron Donald might get the ring his career deserves. Defensive Tackle Donald has been arguably the best player in the NFL over the last 5 seasons. There have been no plays off, no moments where you thought he was declining, he's been a dominant force. A Super Bowl ring will cement what is already a Hall of Fame career.

  2. They're a rare 'all-in' team. The Rams acquired the likes of Matthew Stafford, Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jnr. to spearhead their Super Bowl run. It's paid off, and the Rams are an example to other teams of how to get over the hump by doing the right things.

  3. Sean McVay is an open book. So many coaches like to play it cool, they don't like to actually talk about football, and are almost outright hostile to any questions. McVay is the opposite, watch this interview with his former boss, and now NFC West rival, Kyle Shanahan. It speaks to a football mind we should all appreciate, and a guy we should all be rooting for.

 

Cover 5: The Pro Bowl isn't just harmless, it's changing history.

 

Wilson Pro Bowl

 

On Sunday, Russell Wilson earned his 9th career Pro Bowl appearance, drawing him level with Dan Marino, John Elway, and the Seahawks' all-time leader, Walter Jones.

I say "earned", Wilson was at best mediocre this season. The Seahawks had their worst season of his tenure as starting QB, and he threw for career lows in yards and TD's, while starting just 14 games. By any standard, Wilson played the worst football of his career, in a losing season for his franchise that may book-end his time in Seattle.

So why was he there?

The simplest answer is 'because the NFL insist on holding a game of football'.

Wilson wasn't the first choice. That was Aaron Rodgers. He wasn't the second choice, that was Tom Brady. He wasn't the third choice, that was Kyler Murray. He wasn't the fourth choice, that was Dak Prescott. He wasn't the fifth choice, that was Kirk Cousins.

So at best, Wilson was the sixth best QB in the NFC, and likely outside of the top 12 in the NFL, yet he will officially be a Pro Bowler for 2021 in the record books. That's discounting the idea that even Matthew Stafford should have been ahead of him in the voting.

Why does it matter? Because it isn't important how good or bad the game is, the actual Pro Bowl selections should tell us who was best on merit.

This 9th appearance is yet another feather in Russell Wilson's cap, and another notch on his resume that will ultimately be read out in his Hall of Fame ceremony. When he retires, how many Pro Bowls will he have been 'selected' to? 12? 15? Will he beat Brady's record of 15? People say it doesn't matter, but I know from speaking to Hall of Fame voters how often it comes up in their discussions.

There are only 6 QB's in NFL history with more Pro Bowl appearances than Wilson. Tom Brady (15), Peyton Manning (14), Drew Brees (13), Brett Favre (11), Johnny Unitas and Aaron Rodgers (10). Of course, all but Rodgers are retired now, while Wilson at just 33 could theoretically hit at least 5 or 6 more Pro Bowls.

Wilson is likely to catch at least half of those guys, like Unitas and Favre, regardless of how he plays. The NFC is a QB dead zone at the moment, meaning that with Brady's retirement, Wilson immediately becomes a more viable Pro Bowler than almost every other player at his position in the conference. You could pretty much pencil him in for the next 3 seasons.

And here's the crazy part: It pays players who are mediocre.

Of course the top guys still get the Pro Bowl tag, based on votes, but shoehorning the guys who weren't very good devalues the entire exercise. The only positive about the Pro Bowl has been the label of Pro Bowler. It helps us identify the best of the best. Not only is the voting system flawed in the first place - ask any offensive lineman - and ask unqualified people to vote on something, but it also ends in farce as players who truly earn the accolade effectively hand it down the line until someone can be bothered to turn up to the physical event.

That's why despite the arguments that the Pro Bowl just doesn't matter and is irrelevant, I don't think we should ignore the theory of it. In essence, we are trying to identify the best performers. That's the entire crux of it, and instead, not only do we reward the mediocre today, but in an era where top players rarely play in the game, we also change the numbers by which we measure past greatness.

Don't forget, you can have your questions answered each week in Cover 5 - email upsetw[email protected] and the best submissions will be answered each week throughout the offseason!