In the books, NFL crackdown not a game changer

Associated Press
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison looks on during a team workout in Pittsburgh, Pa., Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010. Harrison returned to the Steelers one day after he threatened to retire because of the NFL's stricter enforcement of dangerous hits.  (AP Photo/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bob Donaldson) ** PITTSBURGH OUT, GREENSBURG OUT, TARENTUM OUT, MONESSEN OUT. NO ARCHIVES, NO SALES, NO TV, NO INTERNET, NO MAGS **
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Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison looks on during a team workout in Pittsburgh, Pa., Thursday, …

The number was the same for both the wise guys and the people who bookies in this gambling city like to call squares. On the big electronic board in the sports book at the Red Rock resort, the Pittsburgh Steelers were 3-point favorites to win on the road in Miami, a spread that wouldn't change much even if James Harrison made good on his threat to retire.

The Steelers have always been good to this city's sports books because of the large amount of action they attract. This year they've been good to bettors, who had their way with the books on four of Pittsburgh's first five games.

Telling Harrison not to go helmet-to-helmet on the Dolphins isn't going to change that. Nor, in the eyes of people who make their living studying and analyzing NFL games, will it change the way the games are played.

"I haven't heard of any of the sophisticated bettors factoring it into their handicapping," said Art Manteris, who oversees betting operations for Red Rock Station and several other casinos.

The non-sophisticated bettors — aka the squares — cared even less. They were more concerned about Brett Favre's state of mind for his prime-time clash in Green Bay than the crackdown the NFL is waging against hits to the head.

"Taking three points with Favre would be a no-brainer if it weren't for all that other stuff," said one bettor filling out a parlay card at the Red Rock.

While much of the talk in locker rooms around the league this week was that the NFL's strict new policies on hits to the head would cause defenders to think too much and make defenses less effective, there's not much talk among bettors and oddsmakers over what the changes might do to the point spread.

That's mainly because they don't think the crackdown will affect games at all.

"Obviously you could say maybe the Steelers will play a little more tentative, but I don't see it," said Jimmy Vaccaro, director of sports operations for the Lucky's chain. "The Harrison thing, I almost think the refs will be easier on him because how can you invoke a rule in the middle of the season?"

An unscientific sampling of bettors at the Red Rock found no lack of enthusiasm for the Steelers, the team most identified with the stricter enforcement of rules against hits to the head because of the two last Sunday that netted Harrison a $75,000 fine and led him to briefly ponder retirement.

Hardly surprising because the Steelers have been covering spreads all season. And, while defense may win games in the NFL, the game would be affected more if Ben Roethlisberger didn't line up behind center than if Harrison was suddenly ineffective because he was afraid to draw more fines or a suspension.

That view may change if defenses suddenly lie down in this weekend's games. No one expects that to happen, though, including the players who must perform if they are going to continue to get paid.

"It's kind of, for the lack of a better term, it's kill or be killed," Giants defensive end Dave Tollefson said earlier this week. "Obviously that's the wrong way to put it with these situations, but are you going to be the hammer or the nail? That's not good enough to just hit each other. You have to hit that guy and make a tackle after that, or he has to finish you. This a high-performance business. You have to do what they ask and do it well."

Big hits, of course, are one big reason the NFL is so popular that one of the least attractive Monday night matchups of the year drew more television viewers than Game 3 of the Yankees-Rangers series that was up against it. Violence sells and sells well, as evidenced by network NFL ratings that are higher this season than they have been in years.

America's favorite game is also America's favorite game to wager a few dollars on. More than $2.57 billion was bet in Nevada sports books last year, most of it on football, and anything from a forecast of rain to the state of Favre's brain is analyzed in a dozen different ways on both sides of the betting counter to try and spot a possible edge.

If there was one to be gained by betting against smashmouth defenses, the wise guys would be all over it. The fact that they're not is a pretty good indication the game will remain the same.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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