Questions on the XFL will be answered

January 30, 2001 7:19 AM
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The merging of forces between NBC and the WWF is bringing the public (as well as sports bettors) a chance to experience football after the Super Bowl — and in a situation promising a little more intrigue than the Pro Bowl.

The concept has generated talk in several circles, and on different levels. Can yet another attempt at a "secondary" football league like the XFL succeed? Will this be a "scripted" league with the inevitable result being leather and spiked clad men with painted faces starring in a pay-per-view event on a football field? Is NBC lucking into the next big stink since "Survivor"? Should we all start buying shares of GE at 46½ or WWF at 20¼? And most importantly in gambling circles, will it be booked and can it be beaten?

Well, it will be booked. Quite a large number of shops both offshore and in Vegas have already committed to the idea. NASA International is already posting a prop that Dennis Rodman will join the league (–120 yes or no).

Of course, the limit for this wager is $200, which is likely around the limit you’ll find on these games for the first two or three weeks in the ten-week season before limits max out at $500 to $1,000. Which means that if grinding out profits over the long run is your primary goal, you’re better off spending your time handicapping basketball — at least this spring.

However, nickel and dime bettors with a football jones are likely to be in fine shape — or at least in as good of shape as the oddsmakers. Simply put, the XFL is willing to be accommodating to the gambling public. As WWF Chairman Vince McMahon put it, "When we come in, we are going to be talking openly about the line. We might even talk about the over-under."

Not so fast. Undoubtedly we’re going to have lines on side wagers from the beginning, but it’s highly doubtful that we’ll see totals posted for a few weeks.

Why the wait on totals, even with the games televised? Because, as mentioned above, the savvy bettor will have at least as much information as those setting the lines and some of the rules put a very different perspective on the game compared to the more "familiar" pro football game.

A few rules in particular stand out. These can throw a monkey wrench into bettors’ and oddsmakers’ calculations, not only when formulating totals and sides but also assigning value to the traditional key numbers of 3, 7, 10, 4 and 6.

For example, there are no kicked PATs in the XFL. You have to play from the two-yard line with the clock running and must pass or rush the ball into the end zone for a one-point score. An interception or fumble can be run back by the defense for a one-point score of its own.

This immediately means a touchdown scored is no longer an almost standard seven points. Take this year’s regular NFL season, for example: There were 1,151 TDs (three in OT), which means in 1,148 cases either a two-point conversion or PAT had to be tried. Roughly 92.5 percent of the time, (1,063 times) the PAT was tried and was completed 1,053 times, or 99 percent of the time.

In other words, nearly 92 percent of the time, a touchdown was a seven-point score. Two-point conversions were tried about 7.5 percent of the time. However, they succeeded 41.1 percent of the time (35 of 85).

This gives us the following final breakdown in TDs for the 2000 NFL season: 91.7 percent of the time, a TD was worth seven points; 5.2 percent of the time, six points; 3.0 percent of the time, worth eight.

That breakdown produced another fairly typical year, which emphasized the importance of the number 3. A total of 41 games (16.5 percent) were decided by three points (with the favored team winning by three points 22 times.) But that’s when a TD is worth seven points nearly 92 percent of the time.

But what happens when there’s no two-point conversion and suddenly four times out of ten a touchdown (40.0 percent) is worth seven points? It’s worth six points 59 percent of the time; and 0.5 percent of the time it’s only a net difference of five points (if the opposing team can score off of a miscue).

The "3" could become an even more important number as it relates to field goals in the XFL, but other "key" numbers may change in relevancy as the statistics start to fill in databases. Very quickly 1, 6 and 4 may become other numbers that bettors (and middlers) can swoop in on. Meanwhile, the number 7 — currently the second most important "key" number in pro football (with 21 games decided by a TD difference this past season) — will become virtually a dead number for bettors.

A second rule that can have a dramatic affect on the scoring, impacting both the side and total, lets defenses bump and run with the receivers all the way down the field. This rule should give XFL defenses a big advantage compared to their NFL brethren. It’s an interesting rule for a new league that wants to showcase not only ferocity but also excitement.

Sure, this will allow "defense to be played the way it was meant to be played", but remember the reason pro football ditched this style of play and instituted the five-yard rule. In 1977, it was obvious to the league that the defensive side of the ball had an advantage over the offense. Scoring was the lowest since 1942, when teams were averaging just about 17.2 points per game.

In 2000, the league averaged around 20.7 points a game, meaning scores increased about seven points per game since limiting bump and run to five yards. Handicapping the defense (and allowing the offensive line players more leeway) increased scoring throughout the 1980s. A tougher defensive style of football in the XFL may inhibit "offensive excitement" and keep scores low and close, something to consider when being offered points or considering a total when one is finally available.

While both of these examples might make the game low scoring, two more rules try to provide more action — and thus the possibility of more scoring. The dramatic difference is changing Sudden Death overtime to a somewhat modified version of the college OT system.

In the XFL, each team gets four chances to score from the opponent’s 20-yard line. (Although the ball will advance, no first down is possible.) In addition, if the first team scores a TD in less than four plays, the team that played defense for the first part of OT only has the exact same number of chances to match the TD. In other words, if on the first play in OT, Team A throws a 20-yard pass complete for a TD, then Team B has only one play on offense to answer that TD. If you consider that a defensive XFL game could end in a 10-10 tie, the OT period could have more scoring than the regulation game, with both teams scoring OT touchdowns! Of course, the OT could be over with three points scored, but the number of games that go into OT as well as the scoring in this extra period will bear watching.

The second change designed to add more action is the move from a 40-second clock between plays to a 35-second clock. Will this work? The number of burned time outs and delay of game penalties may actually make this rule work against the concepts the XFL is trying to promote.

The "no fair catch" rule is another example of a good idea gone wrong because the opposition must provide a five-yard "halo" for the punt returner. With what appears to be every other punt return flagged in college football for a two-yard halo violation, the XFL’s "most exciting fourth down in football" may turn into a routine penalty after a punt.

The XFL has yet to release its full set of rules, but surely there will be some more differences the bettor should ponder before plunking down cash on an extreme contest. In weeks ahead, check back for more thoughts and angles for betting.