It has occurred to me of late that I might be one of the worst football handicappers between Nevada and wherever I happen to be on a Sunday afternoon. This, if true, would be no minor accomplishment. The bleached bones of failed gamblers litter the homicidal sands of the Mojave, a reminder that too many bets and not enough cash are a toxic cocktail.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not stuck. I’ve had good years and bad years. It’s just that this bad year is worse than most bad years, and I’m starting to lose confidence.
At times like this, I try to take comfort by recalling the worst gambler I have ever known. My old friend Lennie earned a sordid reputation not just for his failed wagers but for his appalling behavior. He was big and slow, like his namesake, the gentle giant in Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men; but not nearly so well-intentioned.
In short, Lennie was, and without doubt still is, a putz.
Lennie never met a drug he didn’t like. Nor did I ever meet anyone who liked him. Some tried to. But, in the end, giving Lennie the benefit of the doubt was like giving your bank password to a personal injury attorney.
For years, Lennie played in an unfriendly poker game that attracted some of the most disreputable characters I’ve ever met. Finally, they banned him from the poker table for life — even though he could be counted on to lose and lose big nearly every time. Lennie even promised to supply the beer if he could stay — no easy concession for a guy never know for his munificence.
In one of my many lifetimes, I worked at an ad agency with Lennie and a guy whose name I forgot long ago. The three of us would go out to dinner. The other guy and I would get a burger and some chips and a salad and maybe a beer. Lennie would order a shrimp cocktail, a porterhouse and a baked potato, a bottle of wine and a hunk of pie for dessert. When the check came, Lennie would say, “Let’s make it simple. We’ll all go in for a third.”
The three of us had an office in a low-rent suburb. Rent was pretty cheap because the pediatrician who owned the building thought Lennie was quaint. We were supposed to be writing funny industrial scripts, but it was hard to be creative against a constant loop of screaming kids. I mean, these kids were terrified.
Eventually, the doctor lost his license, but it wasn’t because he was torturing the kids (which he was). It turned out that the doc was prescribing Schedule One narcotics for Lennie. The Dilaudid buzz probably accounted for the fact that Lennie would nap away the afternoons while the other guy and I wrote.
Lennie thought of himself as an ace handicapper, but he was usually buried by November. Then he’d insist that I give him three NFL picks for the approaching Sunday. I’d go 2-1, but Lennie would accuse me of sabotaging him because he had bet a three-teamer.
Finally, long after we’d parted company, Lennie got help for his habit — the narcotics habit, that is. He kept gambling, but without the expensive drugs he was able to cover his losses with the trust fund his old man had left him.
I made a point of staying in touch with Lennie for a few years after that, especially during the football season. But eventually I got ratted out; Lennie found out that I was using him as a negative indicator.
“Hell,” I told him. “You could use yourself as a negative indicator. Just pick a side and bet the other.”
But at the time, Lennie was in therapy and, while still a jerk, he had picked up a touchy-feely patois. “I can’t do that,” he told me. “I gotta be true to myself.”
Last I heard of him, he was living in a small condo near the Las Vegas strip. The Vegas newspaper says the books out there are having a rough year. It’s the one thing I’ll never blame on Lennie.
And now, the failing picks, as heard on the Minnesota Line podcast.
New Orleans at Dallas
In its last eight games, New Orleans has allowed more than 23 points just once — to the Rams. Last week, vs. Atlanta, the Saints ran just 55 plays, but still scored 31 points. A remarkable display of efficiency. They’ve allowed the fewest rushing yards per game — 72 — and yards per carry — 3.2 in the NFL, which sets them up for a successful day against a team that runs first and second. They’re fully valued at 7, but I’m going under the high total.
The pick: Saints 27, Cowboys 17 — Under 52 for $40
Baltimore at Atlanta
Baltimore’s defenders have 32 sacks but, more importantly, lead the league in QB hits with 83. Which bodes ill for an Atlanta team that has not been able to protect the aging Matt Ryan, who now has little incentive to take punishment. Baltimore might be in trouble if it has to pass, but Atlanta’s generosity vs. the run suggests that QB Lamar Jackson might not have to put the ball in the air.
The pick: Ravens 26, Falcons 20 — Baltimore plus-1 1/2 for $40
Cleveland at Houston
You could say that Houston’s winning streak has been accomplished despite the fact that the Texans rarely toss the ball, but it’s just as likely that the streak is because they don’t throw much. The Texans have held foes to 23 points or under in seven straight games, so why should that change? Technical stuff: Texans are 10-4 Under in their last 14 games vs. the AFC North.
The pick: Texans 23, Browns 16 — Under 47 for $50
San Francisco at Seattle
Even without poor Nick Mullens playing QB for the 49ers, the Seahawks have gone 11-2-1 against the spread in this series. Mullens’ QB rating against the hapless Bucs defense was 62.1, and I’m hoping that wasn’t a fluke. My theory, which is very likely untrue, is that Mullens follows the classic pattern of an adrenaline-fueled career backup — really, a backup of a backup: fearlessly emerging from obscurity to lead his team to victory — against, ahem, Oakland — and then rapidly declining.
It’s getting harder every week to deny that Colin Kaepernick was blackballed. It’s always delightfully ironic that of all the teams that could benefit from signing Kaepernick, the one that needs him the most is his old one.
The pick: Seattle 31, 49ers 12 — Seahawks minus-10 for $80