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ESPN’s Eliminator Challenge: How I Made it Through the First Four Weeks

When Colin Cowherd encouraged his listeners to play ESPN’s Eliminator Challenge, I decided to give it a whirl. I started doing because I figured it wouldn’t require much effort and because it sounded fun. Of course with my brain, I ended up taking the simple challenge and search for complexities. And given that I’ve made it four weeks while 90% of the pool has been eliminated, I’ll share the strategy that’s gotten me this far.

The Eliminator Challenge requires participates to pick one winner every week, but individual teams can only be picked once. For example, if one picked Chicago to beat Indianapolis Week 1, you can’t pick Chicago this week against Jacksonville, or any other week for the rest of the season.

In order to finish with a perfect entry, one will have to pick seventeen teams. Even if one were to know team records at the end of the season, the participant would still have to pick five teams that did not make the playoffs. (Personally, I’m figuring that I will end up picking at least seven non-playoff teams.) Last year, there was one 9-7 that didn’t make the playoffs (Tennessee) and seven 8-8, so one will essentially have to rely on a mediocre team winning at some point in the season. This doesn’t have to be restricting: last year, there were multiple spots where one would have been comfortable picking the 6-10 Panthers to win.

All this considered, I figured winning the pool would requiring picking some bad and mediocre teams at the beginning and end of the year. Good teams could be counted on to win at any point in the season; figuring out when inconsistent team could win was the key.

Week 1: For the first two weeks of the season, every team plays its hardest, even the bad ones. The ideal pick would be a team that had an abnormally good year last year; they would play hard early, but fade in the middle of the year (Cincinnati early in 2010 after they made the playoffs in 2009 is a good example). Everyone talked about Houston over Miami, New Orleans over Washington, and Detroit over St. Louis, but I noticed Jacksonville was playing at Minnesota. It wasn’t likely I’d want to pick either team again, so I went with the Vikings since they were at home. When the Jaguars kicked a field goal to take the lead with about a minute, I stop following the game, only to check back ten minutes later and see that the Vikings had won. In retrospect, I would have picked the Lions. At the time, I didn’t think the Lions would fade as quickly as they have. At the same time, I don’t know that there are going to be that many situations where I will want to pick the Vikings, so overall it was a good first pick.

Week 2: In week 2, the best pick would be a desperate but talented 0-1 team playing at home. The Giants, Cowherd’s pick, fit that bill to a T. But I was wary of using the Giants so early. Houston, now at Jacksonville, was another popular pick, as was New England at home against Arizona (the Cardinals’ upset took a large percentage of the pool). I opted with Cincinnati, who was facing Cleveland and rookie Brandon Weedon at home. The Browns played their rivals tough, but the Bengals pulled away with the win. In retrospect, I would have picked either Miami (playing at home against an Oakland team traveling on a short week) or Buffalo, playing at home against Kansas City. I really do regret not picking Buffalo here. While Miami will likely be playing hard later in the year with their rookie, Buffalo plays hard in the first four weeks every year. Cincinnati I could have picked either in Week 4 (where they won in Jacksonville) or this week (at home against Miami).

Week 3: There were not a lot of gimmes on the schedule this week. I didn’t want to pick San Francisco yet, and Cowherd warned against it. I thought some about Carolina because they were hosting the Giants on Thursday. I gave a passing thought to Arizona, because I thought they were better than Philadelphia and would make a statement game at home. I thought some about Atlanta, but I didn’t want to take a team traveling cross-country on a short week. I seriously considered taking Buffalo, for the reasons I mentioned above, but they were playing on the road at Cleveland (if they were playing Cleveland at home I probably would have picked them). Instead, I opted to take the Jets over Miami, mainly because Cowherd said this was the Jets’ last winnable game for a while. Besides, I still needed to take some teams I didn’t think were very good. (If I hadn’t picked the Jets, I would have taken Indianapolis at home over Jacksonville, which would have bounced me.) CBS cut to Dolphins’ kicker Dan Bailey’s missed field goal in overtime right before he attempted it. After the Jets won I was most grateful that I wouldn’t have to rely on them again for the rest of the season. 38% of the pool was knocked out because they picked either San Francisco or New Orleans, another 6% for picking Pittsburgh.

Week 4: I was really tempted to take a good team like Baltimore or Houston this week, given how much of the pool had been “eliminated” and that two of my three picks won on overtime field goals. Looking over the NFL, I still felt that a lot of team would still play hard, given how many teams had a young quarterbacks they believed in (hopefully this means a lot of 5-8 will still be trying late in the season). I didn’t want to take Baltimore because they were playing on a short week and had just played to two very physical opponents. Arizona was coming off a statement win, so I didn’t want to take them either. Even though Green Bay was going to play like a man on fire after getting jobbed on Monday Night Football, I didn’t want to pick against a New Orleans team who was getting one of their last chances in the national spotlight. Nor did I want to take the Patriots over the Bills, because I knew there will be other good places to pick New England down the stretch. I had some reservations about picking Denver at home against Oakland. For one, they’d like improve as Manning got more comfortable with his new team, but the Broncos’ schedule is tough, and I still didn’t want to use San Francisco. So I went with Denver, and for the first time, I enjoyed my eliminator pick winning comfortable.

Even though the teams I’ve used up are a collective 10-6, I feel good with where I’m at. I’d like to have one team besides the Jets that I was glad was off the table, but I haven’t used any of the elite teams (San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Arizona, New England). This week, there were several teams on the schedule I felt comfortable picking: Green Bay, Baltimore, San Francisco, the Giants, Chicago, San Diego, and Houston. I’m going with the Giants. While I think San Francisco is more of lock, the Giants have only one more potentially lopsided home game, against New Orleans in December. Super Bowl Champs tend to fade late in the year after, so I don’t mind using them now. I’m mindful of the fact Cleveland blew out the Giants at home four years ago and sometimes a win-less rises up, but New York is 2-2 and needs this one. I won’t be beating myself up if the Giants loose this one.

Final piece of advice: in Week 7, the only lock is going to be New England over the Jets, unless you care to pick the Tennessee-Buffalo winner. I just might.

Trade Up…Down…Does it Really Matter? Belichick, and 31 Other Mad Organizations Vying to be Right

There were two events that made trading down in the NFL draft popular. First, there was Jimmy Johnson’s trade of Hershel Walker for a bevy of picks that rebuilt the Cowboys in a hurry, and Bill Belichick’s winning Super Bowls with lesser round players shot the practice. The latter’s mastery probably helped increase the popularity of the whole draft, but when Belichick started to started to pile up late-round picks while the talent on his team dwindled, it calls into question the real value of trading down.

Darth Hoodman

Whether or not a team should trade up or not depends on how good their roster is. Last year, Atlanta could afford to move up and take Julio Jones because they had a good quarterback and had drafted well for three years. Belichick may have scolded his former understudy, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff for throwing his draft at a receiver, and granted, Atlanta might have been better off taking a pass rusher. But Dimitroff’s move has good precedent: in 2007, San Diego GM AJ Smith traded four picks to get safety Eric Weddle high in the second round, because he knew Weddle could make their team coming off a 14-2 season. The best player that the Bears got with those picks was running back Garrett Wolfe, who provided four average seasons before exiting for the UFL.

Belichick’s drafting is even stranger when you see why he’s loosing Super Bowls. The teams that beat him, the Giants, do so because they are getting raw, athletic pass rushers at the top of the draft, and where even once labeled as having the worst draft in 2006 when they took Matthias Kiwanuka when they already had two good pass rushing ends, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. But Belichick goes out and continues to draft defensive backs high in the draft, and with all those defensive backs, he still had to have a wide receiver (Julian Edelman) play corner in the playoffs last year. Sure everyone plays the spread, but the Giants showed Belichick personally that if you can sack the quarterback, your back seven fills itself out.

See Bill?

The Giants, in fact, of why you want to trade up: getting a player (and fore-mostly, a quarterback) who changes your future. And ironically, the Chargers had to trade Eli Manning to the Giants but still got a franchise quarterback (Phillip Rivers), a good kicker (Nate Kaeding), and an outstanding pass rusher for the length of a contract (Shawn Merriman). So at times, trading back has it upside. The Brown wish they could say the same when they trade out of the Mark Sanchez pick, Alex Mack, an All-Pro center, is the only player from that trade on the Browns roster. However, two of the experienced players, safety Abram Elam and defensive end Kenyon Coleman, were serviceable starters who became expandable when the Browns changed coaches and switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3.

There is another paradox I’ve noticed in such mega-draft choices, and that is the blossoming of players acquire with seemingly insignificant draft choices traded with two super-stars. Peter King wrote about this when he reviewed the 2008 Jared Allen trade from Kansas City to Minnesota a year after the trade. The Chiefs netted a first-round pick, two thirds, and a sixth. King speculated at the time that Brad Sullivan, a player the Vikings took with a sixth round pick the Chiefs threw in, would be as good as anyone of the players that the Chiefs had picked. Ultimately, the two players the Chiefs drafted with those picks worked out: left tackle Brandon Albert and running back Jamaal Charles, but clearly, the Vikings didn’t lose any sleep. Similarily, Josh McDaniels handed the Bears a fifth round pick in the Jay Cutler trade that would yield John Knox, a reliable forty-catches-a-year, downfield threat. Obviously, it helped both Knox and Sullivan that they came onto teams that had few draft choices and thus more opportunity to make the roster.

Not bad results

A team’s draft is merely a reflection of how good their front office is. The Lions picked at the top of the draft for years and came up with nothing, while the Colts kept picking pro bowlers at the end of the first round. Pray your organization hires a good GM and coach, and drafts a good quarterback. As long as you hit a first-rounder every year for about four or five years, hit seventy-five percent in rounds two and three, you just need one year where you get a couple of solid players in the later rounds, which is exactly the kind of year the giants had last year. And then hope your great coach doesn’t turn senile.

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