Vegas action raises some eyebrows

In recent weeks, Las Vegas betting lines involving NFL games have aroused some curiosity.

The first instance came two weeks ago when bookmakers seemed to have a better grasp of the possibility that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) would sit out against the Baltimore Ravens than the reporters who cover the team regularly. Many sports books refused to put a line on the game. Conversely, those same bookmakers had no idea that Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) wasn’t going to play against the Tennessee Titans that same week.

It was a long day for Brady and some bettors.
(Jonathan Brownfield-US Presswire)

Now, there is the intriguing case of this past Sunday’s New England Patriots-Miami Dolphins contest, a game that opened at some sports books with the Patriots favored by 6, nosedived to 3 amid rumors about whether Tom Brady(notes) would play and (as a result) heavy bets against the Dolphins, then jumped back up.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league wasn’t investigating the odd movement of the line on the game. However, the league does keep tabs on the action in Vegas to make sure teams haven’t somehow been compromised in any way. In particular, the league is on the lookout for ways that bettors get information about players and teams.

As for the New England game, in the end, the Dolphins won 22-21 as Brady continued to disappoint bettors this year.

Then again, Brady didn’t upset at least one bookmaker.

“That game made my weekend,” said John Avello, the director of race and sports operations for the Wynn Las Vegas Casino Resorts. “We ended up with heavy betting on the Patriots at the end, so I ended up making out great on that game.”

Still, when Avello and Jay Rood, the race and sports book director for the MGM Mirage, saw several large bets (six figures) come in on the Dolphins last Wednesday, there was enough concern that the game was temporarily taken off the board. A rumor floated that Brady had a head injury, but that proved incorrect. Later in the week, the Patriots put Brady on the injury report with a finger injury.

Ultimately, Brady played, so the point appeared to be moot.

Still, the heavy early betting on the Dolphins raised some eyebrows among people in the betting community. Both Avello and Rood indicated it wasn’t anything more than sophisticated bettors (known as “sharps” in the industry) seizing upon an opportunity.

“I really think it was a matter of the sharp bettors having an idea about the line and reacting to it,” Avello said. “I didn’t see anybody out of the ordinary making particularly large bets.”

Or as Rood put it: “The sharp money is not what concerns you. They’re really looking to make their four or five percent just like we are. If they come in heavy on a certain game, you make your regular adjustments.

“If a game is not on the up and up, the people who come in aren’t the sharps. They’re the people who come in and ask, ‘How much can I bet on that game?’ That’s when I get concerned, when you see people who don’t normally bet.”

Mike Seba, a senior oddsmaker with the Las Vegas Sports Consultants, said the fascination with the game is typical of games that involve Brady.

“Just because it’s Brady, it gets magnified,” said Seba, who added that he received no suspicious calls from casinos about the game. “Now, he’s been listed on the injury report for three years with a shoulder, but this was something different, so it gets out of control. If this was [Mark] Sanchez and the Jets, nobody says anything. But Brady, he’s different.

“This year, he hasn’t been the same, but most bettors are expecting to him to be just as good and he has really disappointed them. I think that’s feeding the concern.”

That said, Avello, Rood and Seba don’t trust much of anything.

“I’m a bookmaker,” Avello said. “I’m suspicious of everything. I look at everything closely.”

QUICK SLANTS

Dunlap has 7 sacks this season.
(Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)

Dunlap’s stock intact: University of Florida standout Carlos Dunlap may have hurt the Gators’ chances of repeating as national champions when he was arrested on driving under the influence charges last week and subsequently suspended for the SEC championship game. But if he decides to declare for the NFL draft, he might not have hurt his draft prospects very much. As one scout put it: “Still a top 10 pick for most people. Maybe top five.” Yes, there will be a thorough background check if Dunlap comes out early. However, you simply don’t find too many human beings with his size (6-for-6, 290 pounds) and speed.

Troubling trend: Fourth down hasn’t been kind to coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots in three of the past four games. Obviously, there was the controversial fourth-and-2 call against Indianapolis that the Pats missed. Then there was the fourth-and-4 incomplete pass late in the third quarter against New Orleans that cost the Pats a chance to stay in the game. On Sunday, Belichick rolled the dice again on fourth down and failed. Late in the first half at Miami, up 14-7, the Pats went on fourth-and-1 from the Miami 6 instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal. After the Dolphins stopped the Pats, Miami went down to score a field goal, completing a six-point swing in the game. As it turned out, the Pats could have used the three points in the eventual loss, even if it just changed the endgame play.

More fourth-down failure: Hall of Fame coach Don Shula made a similar fourth-down call in a late-season 1994 game in Indianapolis, ultimately losing a contest that cost the Dolphins home-field advantage in the playoffs. When Miami had to go to San Diego for the playoffs that year, home field was crucial and the Dolphins lost by a point (22-21 in fact) to the Chargers, who then upset Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game to go to the Super Bowl against San Francisco.

Top five
1. New Orleans Saints (12-0):
Redskins let them off the hook and Vikings eased their burden.
2. Indianapolis Colts (12-0): On verge of setting mark for consecutive regular-season wins with 22.
3. Minnesota Vikings (10-2): Are Brett Favre’s(notes) two picks vs. Cards an indication of what’s to come?
4. San Diego Chargers (9-3): If this was college, beating the Browns wouldn’t count.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (9-3): Yes, Virginia, the Bengals are dominating the AFC North.

Bottom five
28. Kansas City Chiefs (3-9):
Hate to say this Chiefs fans, but next year won’t be much better.
29. Detroit Lions (2-10): Small victory: Have scored fewer than 10 points only once.
30. St. Louis Rams (1-11): Combine Rams, Bucs and Browns’ wins and you still miss the playoffs.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-11): Of the bottom three, at least they have hope at quarterback.
32. Cleveland Browns (1-11): Neil Young sing it: Helpless, helpless, helpless.

This and that

The Dolphins need to assess what they’re doing with backup quarterback and rookie Pat White(notes). The second-round pick has only thrown or run the ball 17 times this season because the Dolphins simply can’t work the spread option offense into their game plans on a regular basis. With second-year quarterback Chad Henne(notes) playing well, the Dolphins need to go another direction with White and the opinion here is that he’s best suited to be a slot receiver in the mold of Antwaan Randle El(notes).

Detroit quarterback Daunte Culpepper(notes) hasn’t hidden his disappointment in the Lions’ last-minute switch to Matthew Stafford(notes) on Thanksgiving after Culpepper was told early in the week he’d be replacing the ailing starter. Unfortunately, this is the big problem for Culpepper; he can’t keep his mouth shut. This season was going well for Culpepper, who got back into shape and was impressing coaches with his team-first approach. Sadly, the griping about playing time is only a reminder to so many people that Culpepper sours easily when things don’t go his way. That’s not good for a guy who could easily play another six or seven years if he does the right things.

In an effort to increase fan interest in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, fans were allowed to vote for their top 25 nominees for the coming election in February (the ballot will be reduced to 17 by that time). Nice idea, but it only exposed how little most fans really know about the history of the game. Sure, the top three vote-getters are either obvious (Jerry Rice(notes) and Emmitt Smith) or interesting (punter Ray Guy was third). But the list is more a measure of popularity. None of the top eight players were defenders (there are only seven defensive players who made the fan list compared to 12 on offense) and it’s obvious that the family of former trainer Otho Davis stuffed the ballot box in Kennedy-Nixon fashion. Worse, there isn’t a single offensive lineman on the list. Anyway, the list of 17 finalists, which already includes senior nominees Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little, will be announced on Jan. 7.

Former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann seconded the opinion of tight end Chris Cooley(notes), who made comments last week critical of the way the Redskins are installing game plans and calling plays. In short, the process goes through four people and doesn’t even include play-caller Sherm Lewis talking to quarterback Jason Campbell(notes). “It’s the craziest thing I have ever seen,” Theismann said. “I thought when I went to the CFL and played and they alternated quarterbacks that that was the craziest thing. But this is beyond that.” Theismann’s opinion is that Campbell has no chance of succeeding in this system and it’s hard to argue with him.

While there was some hand-wringing over the report that the owners have opted out of sharing $100 million in revenue in the 2010 season, the bigger issue is how far that eventually will go. The $100 million is only a small part of the league’s revenue pie. If the sharing decreases more, there will be huge impacts on the small-revenue teams, such as Minnesota and Jacksonville.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Dec 8, 2009