Stats can outweigh wins in short season

Nov 19, 2002 3:55 AM


   One of the distinctive elements to the NFL is that the season is so short —- 16 games does not provide a lot of history to go by when evaluating a team.

As a point of contrast, after sixteen games had been played in this past year’s baseball season, of the six division leaders at that stage (Boston, Cleveland, Seattle, NY Mets, Pittsburgh, San Francisco), only one actually made the playoffs.  The eventual champion Anaheim Angels would have been considered a poor team by NFL standards with a 6-10 record!

   The brevity of the NFL schedule is in part perhaps why underdogs have historically been a smarter play, since getting an accurate read on a pro football squad can be hard. As handicappers though we need to be aware that the quick look at a matchup using winning percentage on the year can often be misleading.

   The chart lists several factors deemed important to a team’s overall ranking from the public and linemakers, along with the spread performance as an underdog playing qualifying teams with below brilliant records (from week 5 on):

   We didn’t include the 2002 results so far in our dataset, but chances are very good that the numbers above would be better than the 10-year average given the dominance of underdogs this season.

   There is a lot of logic behind the results: Underdogs have historically been much stronger plays than favorites in the NFL. With so few games on the schedule, teams can quickly become over or underrated on the basis of their final scores and won-lost record alone. A team with a positive statistic from the list above could be presumed to have some level of talent and capability to win future football games

   At first glance the above numbers are impressive — to hit 63% against the NFL point spread is good going in anyone’s books. Most of the below 55 percent categories produce anywhere from 10 to 15 plays per year on average, and 5 to 10 plays below 45 percent.

Other factors not showing strong results were time of possession, sacks, spread records, turnovers, and isolated offensive and defensive statistics. Using “last game” in place of season-to-date averages was invariably a losing concept.

(A team that was +20 net rushing yards last game with a mediocre or poor record on the season was NOT a good play as an underdog the following week).

Still, it’s hard to believe that the basic premise is anything but sound. Look for teams with good statistics in key areas and back them when they are underdogs!

At the time of this writing (games completed through Week 10), the following “good stat, bad record” teams exist:

Net Points: Kansas City, Jacksonville

First Downs: St. Louis

3rd Down Conversions: - Arizona, Minnesota, St. Louis

Net Rushing Yards — Kansas City, Minnesota

At a glance the spread performance as an underdog with multiple positive factors appears to hold up fine for teams with 45% to 54% winning records, but slips for teams under 45 percent.

Our advice is to keep an eye out for teams that may not have shown results in the win column. features innovative statistical coverage of the NFL to help you.