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With weekly NFL picks, George Allen tries to beat the odds

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If this whole politics thing doesn’t work out, George Allen probably shouldn’t try to make a living betting on football games.

Allen — the former governor, senator and University of Virginia quarterback — is hard at work running to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D-Va.). That contest, in which he is the front-runner for the Republican nomination and likely to face former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D), is close to a full-time job.

Yet Allen still finds time every Friday evening to make some NFL picks, calling in to “The Tony Mercurio Show” on ESPN Radio (94.1 FM) in Hampton Roads to banter with the host, an old friend, and predict the winners for a few football games, as well as the coming weekend’s NASCAR race. Allen has been making picks on Mercurio’s show since 1997.

Much like the Redskins, Allen started this season promisingly.

He picked four out of five NFL games correctly in Week 1 and five of eight in Week 2. But after that 9-4 start, Allen went 22-25 for the next nine weeks. Through last Sunday, he was 31-29 on the season, a 52 percent success rate.

Unlike most office NFL pools, Allen does not use point spreads; he simply guesses the winner. He usually picks only five games per week, although there is a degree of difficulty — he and Mercurio tend to focus on the most interesting and competitive matchups rather than the easiest ones to predict.

Overall, Allen could have achieved nearly the same record by flipping a coin.

“It shows that even someone who’s been immersed in football his whole life can’t pick the winners all the time,” said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Fortunato Pena, chief technology officer of the betting pool site BetChamp.com, analyzed Allen’s picks using point spreads. If Allen had simply picked the favorite in each of those 60 games to win outright, Pena said, he would have gotten 37 games right rather than 31.

Allen’s football career ended in college, but his family is NFL royalty. His father, George H. Allen, coached the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His brother, Bruce Allen, is now the Redskins’ general manager.

Many politicians commonly deploy sports metaphors, but few can go toe to toe with Allen, author of the 2010 book, “What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports.” He sprinkles sports references into nearly every speech and conversation, and his weekly picks are posted in a special section of his campaign Web site dubbed “George’s Sports Corner.”

Despite that background, Allen’s record this season doesn’t stack up well against those of some other prominent prognosticators.

Each week, ESPN publishes picks on its Web site from eight of the network’s NFL reporters and analysts. Unlike Allen, they guess every game, not just the handful most worth watching.

Through Week 11 of the NFL season, the worst ESPN picker, reporter Chris Mortensen, still had 59 percent of the games right. The best of the bunch, former NFL defensive back Eric Allen (no relation), was nailing 66 percent of his picks.

Allen’s picks aren’t restricted to football. He and Mercurio also select three NASCAR drivers each week and pit their choices against each other. Last week, Allen correctly picked Tony Stewart to win the Ford 400 at Homestead.

And he branches out into other sports, guessing some winners during the baseball playoffs and giving some after-action analysis following the first week of college football games.

Luckily for Allen, no money is riding on these picks. And given the popularity of the NFL and office pools, the weekly exercise gives him something in common with many Virginians.

“It’s something that he’s passionate about and he’s sharing with the voters,” Schwartz said. “I don’t think that’s a bad idea.”

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