Surprise! Statistics can often lie

September 11, 2007 6:54 AM
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Already there are mountains of stats and angles available for sports bettors to digest from Week 1 and years past.

Sometimes it can seem that there is too much info, but it’s essential to understand that stats are only a starting point. They don’t always tell the whole story. In fact, stats can sometimes lie.

Sure, it’s important to ask such questions as, "How many yards passing per game does this team get? How big is this offensive line compared to the opponent? Is a great quarterback going up against a team with slow defensive backs? What’s their home record the last five years, straight up and against the spread?"

However, it’s important to learn when to look beyond stats. For example, here are some stats from the 2006 NFL season:

The Rams were 10th in pass defense; Falcons No. 9 in total offense; Bengals 18th in rush defense; Vikings No. 10 in total defense; Saints 28th in rushing offense; Bills No. 16 in pass defense; Browns No. 13 in pass defense; Chiefs No. 15 in total offense.

All of those 2006 stats are true. However, they don’t tell the real story about a football team’s strengths.

For instance, the Rams had a statistically strong pass defense but the total defense was 25th because they were last against the run. Opponents rarely had to pass. St. Louis lacked run stuffers and allowed a whopping 5.2 yards per carry.

The Falcons may have been No. 9 in total offense, but few looked at them as a strong offensive team. Atlanta was one-dimensional, ranking first in rushing and last in passing. This is important for handicappers because it was easy to find mismatches. Any team that was strong against the run could contain them. That makes it much easier for defensive coordinators to map out a game plan against them.

The Saints may have ranked 28th overall in rushing offense, but that is deceptive. They had plenty of offensive talent and balance with RBs Deuce McAllister and rookie Reggie Bush. New Orleans ranked No. 1 in total offense because of a devastating passing game and spread attack.

The Chiefs may have ranked 15th in total offense, but were not a strong offensive team. Like Atlanta, they were one-dimensional, running all the time behind workhorse RB Larry Johnson. Even worse was their lack of QB play and imagination, something that was maddeningly clear in the playoffs when going out quickly to the Colts.

Back in 2004 and 2005 the Steelers ranked 28th and 24th in passing offense. Yet those "poor" stats are deceptive. Pittsburgh is primarily a power-running team and highly successful at getting out in front early and chewing up the clock. It worked often during a 15-1 regular season in 2004 and winning the Super Bowl in 2005. They didn’t need to pass a lot but, when forced to, were able to move the ball through the air with QB Ben Roethlisberger and terrific wide receivers during their playoff run.

Cleveland was No. 13 against the pass, but anyone watching the Browns saw a defense that was 25th against the run. Teams could wear them down on the ground, making the passing game just as effective. The Browns allowed 238 points, one of the poorest marks in the league.

The Vikings had the opposite problem defensively. They were No. 10 in total defense, but that was deceptive. Their run defense was No. 1 overall, so halfway through the season teams gave up on the run. Opponents spread the field and attacked Minnesota’s weak secondary. After a 4-2 SU, 5-1 ATS start, the Vikings faced the Patriots on Monday night. The Pats didn’t even bother to run, using the pass in a 31-7 rout. Minnesota went 2-8 SU/ATS from that game on.

Proof that successful handicappers weigh all the strengths and weaknesses before heading to the betting window.