Intelligence Analysis, Or: How to win your office’s football pool.

Posted on Updated on

Recently, I got talked into joining my unit’s football pool here in Afghanistan. Historically, I’ve always done pretty well in these things, so I figured I give it a shot. I knew I’d be going up against a bunch of smart people who also happened to like football. Combine Army-types with nerds and you get what we have here.

My first week, I joined the pool approximately 10 minutes before all picks were do–Sunday morning in US time. I had no chance to do any real analysis, but placed my picks quickly. I didn’t do any better than average. However, the next week, I had time to go through my usual checklist when making my picks. I won the prize hands down and hope to do so again this week. I also hope that no one in my unit reads this page; I don’t want to help people in denying me my weekly prize.

I apply some techniques in intelligence analysis when I make my football picks. Here’s things to consider and an ad hoc checklist that may help you pick up some beer money in your office pool.

  1. Mitigate the emotional pick: While discussing the week’s picks with a very intelligent intel analyst, I had to keep reminding him to avoid the emotional pick. He’s a Redskins fan, so of course he feels the urge to pick the Redskins every week. He also feels the need to pick against the Cowboys every week. Now in the instance of the Cowboys, it’s worked out well for him. However, emotion, in the long run, will severely hamper your chances of victory. Now I’m no stoic. Emotion has its place. When I arm-wrestle, I get fired up. but when I’m making my picks, I’m as cool as a cucumber. Don’t pick the team you like–pick the team that’s most likely to win. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It requires an extraordinary amount of introspection, a monitoring of your own intentions. But it’ll go a long way in helping you win.
  2. Stats don’t lie as much as politicians want us to believe. Barack Obama’s voting history while in the senate proved he was the most liberal person who voted. Yet, somehow the American people ignored this in their hope that Obama’s mere wish to do good would overcome his proven track record. But the trend continues. Statistics can deceive people. But they usually only deceive when other statistics are not known or are ignored. For instance, the San Diego Chargers are off to a bad start. Their win/loss record is very poor for a team that many predicted would go to the Super Bowl this year. However, a close look at their statistics shows something incredible: They are ranked #1 in defense and #1 in offense! Ok, so their special teams have been pretty awful. But a team who’s #1 in both defense and offense is unlikely to have to rely on their special teams to win over a 16 game season. I predict they’ll go on a winning streak soon. I picked the Chargers last week. Few others did. They won. Before my pick, I go through each team’s rankings running and passing, offence and defence. I compare each team’s strength to their opponents weaknesses and so on.
  3. Singular incidents mean little: They mean something–but not very much. We must look for trends when it comes to picking NFL winners. Personally I define a trend as 3 games for an individual player and 5 games for a team. By game 5, I have a much better idea of what a team’s capabilities are then after 2 games. Don’t pick a winner because of a spectacular performance the previous week and conversely, don’t pick a winner because their opponent didn’t perform well (uncharacteristically) last week.
  4. Don’t believe the hype. Watching highlights of a team’s big win can move our emotions. We may want pick a team to win because we keep seeing stories about them on ESPN, or we may vote against them because the media wants to talk about how poorly the coach and QB are getting along. This may matter–or it may not. What really tells us if a team is likely to win is the trending performance on a field, not the regularity of reporting on a team.
  5. Home Field is more often than not, the winning field. I don’t know the stats, but the home field advantage is a worth a few points, historically speaking. When in doubt, pick the home team.
  6. All things being equal, go with the team with the best QB. If you look at a game and can’t decide, after all the above considerations, who’s going to win, go with the team with the best QB. How you decide who’s best is up to you, but most of us know instinctively who the better QB is in a game. While generally unscientific, my reasoning is that since the QB handles the ball on nearly every down, he has a greater impact on the outcome than anyone else.

Unfortunately for me, no matter how I twist my methodology, the 49ers come out to be a mediocre team this year….