Dr Z
Thursday January 20th, 2005

I got a call from T.J. the other day. We all need technical advisors, informants and the like, and T.J. is one of my valuable correspondents. He was once a small-college defensive back, and for a while he coached them, so he has offered much needed assistance through the years on those dense forests known as zone defenses

I must admit to you that, being a former lineman, this is one area of the game that gives me great trouble, especially when I have to try to break down a contest from the regular TV feed. Somewhere on the field there's an intricate moving chessboard going on, but the camera is focused on the quarterback's head, while the idiot analyst is saying something like how this is another of those "crucial series," etc., and nowhere are they telling you what's happening.

But T.J. can cut through all that and somehow decipher what kind of a zone it was when a certain pass was thrown into it. I'll call him up afterward and he'll tell me, "They were playing quarters ... couldn't you see that?" And I'll say, "You mean they had slot machines on the sidelines?" And he'll say, "Don't be stupid. Anyone can see they were playing quarters."

I know what you're thinking. Fine. So what? Why introduce this guy now, at this stage of the season, make that the non-season? Simply because T.J. is also into another facet of the game. He likes to make periodic trips to Vegas. He likes the action.

"I love driving through the desert, driving out there with the eye-black on and the pads on my forearms," he says. "Getting ready to kick those sports books' asses. Yeah!"

And I like the action, too, although not as a player ... it would not be professional for me to be making bets week to week ... but I like to chart the ebb and flow and write about it as well.

T.J.'s latest phone call provided me with one very intriguing form of handicapping that the oddsmakers start coming up with around this time of year. They tell you which teams they think are going to be good, and which bad. It's a very pure way of forecasting. The way they do it is to give you an over and under price on what every team's final record will be. Most of the time the figure ends in a half, to cut down on pushes, such as Colts 10 1/2, which just so happens to be their season's number ... make that the early number put out by the Imperial Palace. It changes, house to house and week by week.

So if you think the Colts will win 11 or more regular-season games, you bet the over. If you think they won't, you bet the under. (This rather basic primer is provided for my four readers out there who don't quite understand sports betting.) But just to make it more interesting, there's another number involved. The vig, also known as the vigorish, or the bookies' edge, the juice.

Normally when you wager on a football game, a $100 bet will cost you $110 if you lose. That's the vig, 10 percent. But on these over-and-under bets on season records, the vigs are adjusted, sometimes in outlandish ways.

On the Vegas sheet you'll see a second set of numbers, the vigs, accompanying the number of wins. For instance, alongside the Colts' 10 1/2 you'll see +120 for the over, -150 for the under. What the oddsmakers are telling you is yeah, we'll give you a 10 1/2-win price to bet into, but we think the chances are much greater that Indy won't do that well. If you want to bet the under, you pay $150 if you lose, and collect $100 if you win. But if you go the other way and bet that they will have a really big year, we'll give you an edge and pay you $120 for your winning bet, whereas a losing wager will only cost you $100. That's how confident we are that the Colts won't come near matching last year's 12-4 record.

I'm not going to start getting into the actual handicapping against these lines because I don't want to turn this into a tout sheet, but I just wanted to point out that what you have is a wildly fluctuating vig that, as the preseason progresses, will go as high as minus-190 (bet $190 to win $100), or even 200, which means you're laying two-to-one in some rare cases.

"Three years ago," T.J. says, "I bet into one of those 2-1 vigs. I laid the two. The Redskins had just hired Marty Schottenheimer, and Jeff George was their quarterback and everyone was excited about how this would be their breakout year. The Imperial Palace put out a 9 1/2-game over-under on them, and I looked at that and said, 'Oh my God, let me get out to Vegas before they change their mind.'

"I mean, I knew the Skins were going to tank, and so did my friends. And so did Vegas, because they just killed you with a minus-200 vig if you wanted to bet the under. And practically begged you to bet the over by giving you a plus-140 edge. Bet $100 to win $140, looks pretty inviting, doesn't it? Except that somewhere you'd have to find 10 wins for the Skins, and it just wasn't going to happen. So I tapped out on the under, laying the 2-1, and after the season, when I came back to cash my ticket, the guy at the window actually gave me a hard time.

"'How can you be so dumb as to lay 2-1?' he said in kind of a snide way. I told him, 'Look, I'll take my chances with a 100 percent vig to bet a mortal lock.'"

Maybe you can get away with it on a one-shot, but if you bet too many games, vigs like that, or anywhere near it, will kill you. Last year, for instance, if I would have placed an over-under bet on every team, based on the record I predicted for them in the Sports Illustrated NFL Preview Issue, my won-lost would have been 18-11 (two games were pushes and Atlanta was off the board because of the Michael Vick injury). That was one of my best finishes ever, but the 11 losing bets would have cost me $1,330, based on some high-priced clunky choices (I picked the Cowboys to go under their allotted 7 1/2 wins, and The Palms Casino figured everyone else would, too, because the number was minus-190. And then Dallas won 10 games and killed the people who had laid the big price.

In other words, my losing selection cost me 190 units, which just about wiped out two other winners. Over the course of time, you will get eaten up by vigs like that.

Sometimes you see a figure that just seems crazy to you. The year after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, their over-under number was 8 1/2. Made no sense because on paper they seemed better than their championship team. I remember talking to Tom Brady about it at camp, and he thought it was absolutely nuts.

"They've got us just over .500?" he said. "Doesn't make sense, does it?"

It certainly didn't ... not to me, anyway. But if you remember, that was the year New England struggled all season, and yes, you would have won if you had bet the over, but just barely. The Patriots missed the playoffs and had to beat the Dolphins in overtime in the 16th game to collect their ninth win.

Which leads you to believe that there are geniuses out there at the Imperial or The Palms or whatever setting the line, but they make their spectacular gaffes, too. Last year The Palms had the same 8 1/2 for New England, which won 14 games, as San Diego, which won four. People were all excited about the Chargers getting David Boston, and a lot of forecasters had them as their preseason sleeper team, if you remember. So Vegas just tuned into that sentiment. But, on the unsentimental side, you'd have been betting into a minus-190 if you had been clear-eyed enough to place your wager on the under.

Are there any numbers that jump out at me now, after a quick look at this very early over-under line? Well, yeah, of course. For some reason, the Imperial Palace doesn't believe the whole Carolina thing, and the Panthers, who came a heartbeat away from winning the Super Bowl, are at a modest 8 1/2. And they're only one game better than Cleveland (7 1/2), whom TJ feels will be one of the biggest busts of the season. I don't want to be so harsh, with the whole training camp still to go, but yes, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Seattle's an intriguing team with a 9-game over-under. Last year the Seahawks won 10 and they seem to have improved themselves in every aspect. The Patriots, Colts and Eagles all have the best number, at 10 1/2, and Arizona (5 1/2) and San Diego (4 1/2) are the worst.

To me, the most interesting figure on the board is Dallas' nine-game over-under, which isn't too exciting in itself, but here's the interesting part. If you like the over, you'll have to lay 160-to-100. But they're making it reaaaal sweet for you to bet the under, with a $130 return on a $100 wager. Vegas thinks the Cowboys will be big winners. Somebody out there knows something, which is always an understatement.

OK, Imperial Palace, if you're so smart, tell me who the Cowboys' QB will be down the stretch, and how he'll play. Not talking, eh? Just collecting the wagers. Well that's Vegas, which, at least for me, has come up with one of the few interesting angles in an offseason curiously devoid of them.

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This has nothing to do with football, at least our brand of football.

Sporting event I wish I would have seen: Sunday's soccer match between the elephants and the inmates at the Ayuthaya prison in Thailand, as reported in this week's SI. The game supposedly was set up to discourage prisoners from betting on the European 2004 soccer championships. Final score, five for the inmates, five for the elephants, who had a slight advantage because an oversized ball was used. Yes, they kicked it. Or trunked it. Or something.

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