Breakfast Table: Alex Smith and Alex Rodriguez

For the last decade or so, Michael Salfino and Scott Pianowski have been putting together an email exchange centered around (but not limited to) the NFL. You might enjoy listening to them haggle. You might prefer a swift kick into the stomach. The Table isn't for everyone; we hope some of you enjoy it.

Let's talk football, let's talk handicapping, and let's talk a little baseball too. Game on.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Wed, Oct 10, 2012 at 1:21 AM
Subject: Week Six Breakfast
To: scott pianowski

We're going to be more than a third of the way through the season after this week. So what do you think we've settled?

Are the Texans and Niners the teams to beat? What about the undefeated Falcons?

Who is the best rookie quarterback? The Colts and Andrew Luck ran 89 plays last week, fifth most since 2012 (tied with the Patriots last week, who actually averaged LESS yards per play).

How good is the Niners offense? They've now passed the Patriots in the offensive play success rankings -- that's the percentage of snaps that result in a first down or effectively set up the next down. That's the most important/predictable offensive stat so can we make a case that the Niners are the true juggernaut right now, balance wise?

Yes, they just played the Bills. But the Patriots played the Bills last week. Buffalo gave up a 300-yard passer and two 100-yard rushers to the Pats and then turn around and give up 300 yards rushing and 300 yards passing to the Niners. The latter has been done exactly zero times in NFL history. So, congrats, Buffalo, on offseason money well spent. This defense is historic!

The Thursday night game (Steelers-Titans) is a stinker, but the other night games are really good. If I go five minutes without seeing Peyton Manning on the TV, I get the shakes. The steady stream of commercials will tide me over until Monday night in San Diego. (Was it you who tweeted how creepy it is when Peyton calls the crappy pizza king "Papa"?) On Sunday night -- Packers vs. Texans. M-P still respects the Packers. I'm very concerned about their passing game/protection. Giants-Niners looks like the Game of the Week to me. Can the Seahawks slow down the suddenly balanced Patriots (to the frustration of all Brady owners)? Tony Romo must beat the name-brand-only Baltimore defense and stop the Dallas bleeding. Lions vs. Eagles could be interesting, too. What say you about that and anything else? Week Six Breakfast is served.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Oct 11, 2012 at 12:47 PM
Subject: playing the percentages
To: Michael Salfino

Why does the NFL insist on giving us the same teams in back-to-back prime-time weeks? The Texans and Chargers do the two-step this week. The Niners get Seattle next Thursday and Arizona on Oct. 29, a Monday. Is there a logical reason for this?

Okay, everybody off my lawn. I'm not against falling for the Niners head-over-cleats, but I'd like to see them beat another team I respect. And Green Bay in Week 1, maybe that doesn't mean so much anymore. Detroit, Buffalo, the Jets, where's the good football team in all that? And the loss at Minnesota was ugly from the start. Alex Smith does really well in hitter's counts, but can he steer an offense? Will Jim Harbaugh finally let him?

Maybe it doesn't matter, with that defense and that offense line. And obviously it means something when you dismantle bad teams — there's a value to that. But asking Buffalo to travel to San Francisco without two-fifth of its offensive line, that's not much of a fair fight. And the blueprint on how to beat the Bills (press their ordinary wideouts, dare them to protect, hold the ball, and throw over the top of your defense) is well circulated by now.

The Seahawks will slow down Brady. That defense is ridiculous on all three levels, and the secondary in particular is fast, mean, and gigantic. It's one of the last true home-field advantages, too. New England probably won't get past 20 points; alas, that's probably enough to win anyway.

Houston's defense is terrific, but I'd like to see the offense make a statement. If Arian Foster is so wonderful, what's with the 4.0 YPC? And why are the Texans letting him follow the Earl Campbell path to retirement? I took a lot of Andre Johnson guff from the nation over the first two weeks; has he done anything since? But maybe it doesn't matter, with J.J. Watt batting down passes and Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson manning the secondary. As much respect as I have for Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy, something is wrong with the Packers offense — and maybe it's simply not going to be fixed.

The Lions are frauds with a crummy record. The Eagles are frauds with a good record. I hate how the pieces fit in the Philly offense. Michael Vick wants to see throws develop before he pulls the trigger. DeSean Jackson hates to go over the middle. Jeremy Maclin isn't a physical dominator, either. This club is dying for a power forward, a Larry Fitzgerald type or a stud tight end (Brent Celek isn't a bad player but he doesn't qualify). And if you can't trust Vick's ball security and if you're worried about his durability, why the heck do you keep using him on quarterback draws at the goal? I expect you to botch challenges and endgame strategy, Andy Reid, but I thought you were smarter than that.

I have no investment in San Diego, absolutely none — but why do they keep jerking Ryan Mathews around? I know you've faded Mathews to a profit for years — so have I — but at some point don't you have to play your best players?

Maybe it's not the time or place, but if the Yankees have to win, I'm glad it came through Raul Ibanez. We haven't seen this controversial a pinch-hitting appearance since Homer Simpson took the bat from Strawberry 20 years ago.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Oct 11, 2012 at 5:11 PM
Subject: Re: playing the percentages
To: scott pianowski

I think at Green Bay is a good win still for the Niners -- the Niners dismantled them. You raise a good point though. But Massey-Peabody adjusts for quality of opponent to the degree it's been proven to have predictive value and the Niners have a very, very big number at the top spot of their rankings. In fact, they have them beating the Giants in SF by over 11 points. You can play this game with the Giants, too. Where is their impressive win this year? But my feeling with the supposed "bad teams" is that they are not as bad as we think when measured by talent gaps. It's not like in college when a team has a soft schedule. But I may have to carve out a Bills defense exception to this theory.

I have to note that Massey-Peabody has been off on the Giants for two years now. They get so many things right. Their record with their margin picks is very impressive of course. And most impressive to me is that the Vegas line always moves in their direction when it moves at all (I know because we lose picks that way in the Wall Street Journal piece that features their picks). There are always going to be outliers and some will say that this is why you have to use your own judgment. But I disagree because, left to our druthers, we'd be finding reasons why half the teams in the league (or more) are legitimate outliers. Now, the Giants did barely make the playoffs last year at 9-7, so saying they ranked 14th or so wasn't crazy. Explaining their postseason wins is more problematic. They got a lot of great bounces in January and February, there is no denying. But it would be unfair to say they didn't outplay their ranking consistently. Maybe it's as simple as Eli Manning. But I will watch this game of course with great interest, with all this as the subtext.

I do think the Niners are for real. They are explosive in the passing game now, too. Smith had over 300 passing yards on just 24 attempts last week. Their Yard Per Play last week was third best in history, trailing only the Rams in 2000 versus the Cardinal and this team in 1972 against the Colts (all-time record of 10.6 yards per play, and check out the pass at 3:12 at the link -- RIDICULOUS). I get the feeling the Niners could just feature Vernon Davis and leave the opposition no real matchup options whenever the mood strikes. At this point, we also must say, I think, that Alex Smith is for real. He's at least above average.

I'll take the Patriots over 20 points. The Patriots line play is great -- pass blocking and run blocking. And New England can open it up whenever they feel like it, too. I've always believed that the superior offense dictates outcomes far more than the superior defense does. The proof I cite is that when you look at the best and worst defenses, they tend to be much closer to league average than the best and worst offenses, at least in the key stat that we see like YPA (same with OPS allowed by pitchers and hitters OPS in baseball). Once with a lot of data I simply did a calculation based on this degree of differential and it worked out to about 60/40 offense. Additionally, for a few years I tracked where the YPA allowed settled when the a top YPA offenses met a top YPA defense and it always was much closer to the offensive team's number (and the top YPA offense won the majority of these games, too, about 60%).

I don't see any real problems with the Texans offense. Andre Johnson is still over 10 yards per target. So maybe it's just opportunities with him. Last week, he ran into a guy who matches up well with him physically (Antonio Cromartie), but there are only a handful of corners who combine Cro's size and speed.

Don't know how well it translates to reality (I'll guess very well) but the Lions are top five in my Yahoo! defensive rankings (when it comes to preventing fantasy points). I agree with you about Vick. It used to be that he was overrated but now he's simply not good. Maybe he's average. I'll say he's below. There are just too many unforced errors. You make a good point about their wideouts, too. They're like the team that has sluggers but no on-base guys. Who moves the chains reliably for the Eagles? Plus Jackson and Maclin are always hurt. In fantasy, Kevin Kolb outscores Vick this week.

Mathews just doesn't seem to be a guy who works hard. For example, how do you fail your conditioning test as a rookie? That's a bad sign. Guys who don't work hard will never realize their potential, that's a universal sports rule. They may show flashes but they will never consistently excel against top professional competition. They're used to coasting and you can't coast in the pros. Maybe this is unfair to who Mathews is now, but Norv Turner's very public benching of him last week tells me it is not. Plus even if he's properly motivated and working hard, how many touches do you expect him to get given his injury woes? Maybe less is more with Mathews. But the bigger question I have about the Chargers is what's going on with Antonio Gates? Is he finished or at least halfway down the wrong side of the mountain?

Speaking for Mets fans, I'm really sick of Raul Ibanez. We want more A-Rod.

Picks vs. spread that I like because M-P likes 'em: Niners, Jets, Dolphins, Falcons, Lions.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Fri, Oct 12, 2012 at 9:52 AM
Subject: statsheet heroes
To: Michael Salfino

Percentages are tricky things. Back to what happened in Yankee Stadium a couple of nights ago. How do we know if Raul Ibanez is a better hitter, today, right now, than Alex Rodriguez?

Obviously their careers can't be compared with a straight face — A-Rod has a monstrous legacy while Ibanez has been primarily a good-not-great player. But if you merely consider 2012, Ibanez gains steam: he had a much better slugging percentage against righties this year, and ditto in home games. Who is Raul Ibanez, right now? And perhaps more importantly, who is Alex Rodriguez right now? What's his value to the Yankees in the rubber game of the ALDS? What should the Yankees do with A-Rod if they advance deeper in the playoffs?

At least baseball cleans up nicely because it's largely a sport of soloists. Football is all about context, and results from last year or the year before might as well be from Plymouth Rock.

I'm getting a little worried with you and M-P. Are they making advancements in the game? Absolutely. Are they very bright guys? No doubt. The Yale pedigree and the publishing record speaks for itself. Is football handicapping a solvable game? I refuse to accept that it is. And I don't know how long they've been providing picks, but I doubt it's anywhere near long enough where we know they've beaten the game.

Look at our compadre Chris Liss in the Rotowire staff picks (subscription required) — as sterling as his resume is (10 winning years out of 12), it still adds up to about 52.8 percent. That's over the 52.36 break even and it's a helluva job to do that over a 12-year career (I tip my cap to you with full respect, amigo), but I wouldn't advise anyone to try to do this for a living — at least not centered around the NFL.

The smartest path to handicapping for a living is to specialize in a game that is far less analyzed or public than the NFL. So long as you can find an outlet for your action, that is (and if you keep winning, the outlet becomes harder and harder). Settle on a college basketball conference and know it backwards and forwards. Better yet, assemble a network of correspondents who can get you information that the oddsmakers don't know (or don't need to know, given their volume/handle). There are almost no secrets in the NFL. It is possible to know Conference USA, say, better than the guys at Satriale's.

I like Alex Smith and get the sense I respect him more than the industry average (whatever that even means; I don't want this to sound like a strawman, but maybe it is). Still, I want to see him carry an offense, produce without the womb of a balanced attack and a creative scheme. Jim Harbaugh has done a terrific job designing big plays in the Niners offense, throwing more on first down too. But what if the Niners got into a situation where they had to junk the running game and throw the ball 40-50 times. Could Smith consistently succeed in that framework? We know the best are capable of handling it, the usual suspects (Manning, Brady, Bress, Rodgers, etc). And maybe it's unfair to compare Smith to those guys anyway. But is he talented enough to throw over and past defenses when they know it's coming? Can he win a few "here we come, try to stop us" games?

Maybe the Pats get past 20 points. Maybe they score 23, 24, something like that. Maybe they get something off their defense or special teams. But whatever their posted total is for the week, put me down for the under. Seattle's defense might be better than San Francisco's, and it's been tested against some decent clubs. Imagine how good the Seahawks would be on that side of the ball if the Seattle offense could actually play at an adequate level. (I hear you on New England's offensive line, though. It's no surprise that it's improved since August or even since the opening week or two — that's the value of coaching right there.)

Andre Johnson's efficiency is fine (and his talent is still dynamic at 31), but the volume is crushing his fantasy value. He's only seeing 79 percent of the snaps through five weeks, a modest number given that he's currently healthy. (Anytime Wes Welker sees 79 percent of New England's snaps in any week, there's a tea party in the harbor.) It probably makes sense for the Texans to carefully handle Johnson, especially in blowout games where he's not needed, but I don't know if it really takes his injury risk out of play. Led Zeppelin will reform before Johnson gets that 10-touchdown unicorn.

Way over the word count, so unexplained picks will have to suffice. I'll discuss this stuff in the comments if people want. Niners win, don't cover. Broncos easily solve the Chargers. Philly beats Detroit, but who really cares? Cleveland finally gets a win.

And Yankees take down Baltimore tonight, with or without A-Rod.