Great Value on the Niners
by Trevor Whenham - 09/25/2008
It's time for me to partake in what has become, though not by intention, an annual activity for me - praising the Niners. San Francisco isn't a great team, but they re better than people give them credit for, and they are shaping up, in my mind, as a pretty attractive bet in the right spots. I first backed them publicly two seasons ago, and it went very well - they ended up 9-7 ATS, and had a perfect November for bettors. I was perhaps overly enthusiastic that this was the first step in a renaissance, because they weren't nearly as good last season. They were just 5-11 ATS, and the only real highlight was a strong finish last year when they easily could have folded.
This year I am high on them again, and this year will break the tie - either this team is mostly good or mostly not. I think the former is true. That's not to say that they will be a playoff team, or even end up above .500. What is more than possible, though, is that this team will make loyal bettors money. They are 2-1 ATS and straight up so far, and they have won and covered their last two, so they are off to the right start. Here's a look at five reasons why I like this team this year:
1. Mike Nolan - Nolan has two characteristics that bettors should be fond of - he's a good coach, and the public doesn't think he is. Despite periods of struggle due to a lack of depth and talent, he has repeatedly been able to get this team up, and he hasn't lost them through the bad times. Ask Scott Linehan how that is to do. This year he got another year at the helm when most people thought he wouldn't. That's a vote of confidence from the organization, and a sign that they see something in him. He is a competent coach in a league that doesn't have a ton of those. The fact that the public doesn't largely seem to realize that only helps their lines.
2. J.T. O'Sullivan and Mike Martz - This was a strange marriage when it was announced in the preseason, but it has worked brilliantly so far. These are two guys that really need each other. Martz needs to prove that he is still an offensive genius, and O'Sullivan is probably in his last shot at being a pro. So far, so good. O'Sullivan has the fourth best QB rating in the league, he's completing a high percentage of his passes, and he hasn't had an off game in the small sample he has played. If O'Sullivan keeps playing well he'll get to be more publicly recognized as the media starts up in earnest with their comparisons to Kurt Warner, but until that happens bettors have a chance to back a decent quarterback in a well-designed offense at a relative bargain.
3. Running game - Frank Gore is a very good running back. Even last year, when little seemed to go right for him, Gore had 1,100 yards rushing, and 436 more receiving. He's a legitimate Top 10 talent as a running back, and he adds much more as a receiver than a lot of backs. This year he is fifth in yards, and he has had a touchdown in every game so far. He's averaging almost 10 yards per catch as well. Gore is a better back than the public perceives him to be, and that means that he represents value.
4. Defense - The Niners already have a Top 10 offense, and it is only going to get better. They are seventh best against the pass, and that's a reflection of their talent much more than their luck. They aren't as strong against the run, but they should be able to improve on that front. No one thinks of this team as solid defensively, but they are and, again, that means that they present value. Their pass rush, in particular, is an under-recognized force.
5. Schedule - If the team proves themselves to be decent then their schedule is advantageous to bettors in two ways. First, they play in the NFC West, and that brutally bad division means that their conference games aren't as tough as they could be. The other advantage is more counter-intuitive - they play a lot of really good teams. They still have games against New England, Philly, the Giants, Dallas and Buffalo. Those are all, to varying degrees, going to be public teams this year. That means that the Niners will face fat spreads as underdogs, and they'll have a better chance of earning the much-valued cover.