Analyze this: Stats can bedeceiving in handicapping

Sep 9, 2003 12:11 AM

Read Between the Lines, Because Stats Can Lie

   It's football season, which means there are mountains of stats available for sports bettors to digest.

   Information, while a huge key when analyzing games and point spreads, can seem a bit too much. The important point to understand is that stats are only a starting point for successful handicappers.

   It's essential 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 QB going up against a team with slow defensive backs? What's the home record the last five years, straight up and against the spread?"

   All good questions, but remember that sometimes stats can lie. Here are some example from last season.

   *Bengals were 18th in the NFL defensively.

   *Vikings had the No. 2 offense in pro football.

   *Broncos had the No. 6 defense and the No. 3 offense.

   *Dolphins had the No. 1 rushing attack, No. 3 defense.

   *Buccaneers were tied with two other teams with the second worst yards per rush (3.5 yards per carry).

   Out of 32 NFL teams, having the 18th-ranked defense isn't bad. The fact is that stat alone is misleading - anyone who watched Cincy last season saw a very poor all-around team, including the defense.

   Cincinnati gave up the most points (456) in the NFL and as a team looked lazy, sloppy and out-coached. The Bengals had a -16 turnover ratio (fourth worst). Even the expansion Texans won twice as many games as Cincinnati. The Bengals richly deserved getting the No. 1 pick in the draft.

   When building a championship team, the old adage is "defense and offensive balance." Bottom line: Teams that throw the ball all the time are at a disadvantage in the playoffs, just as teams that rely on the run can be vulnerable against tougher competition. A team relying almost exclusively on the run or pass is susceptible to opposing coaching staffs devising game plans to stifle one-dimensional offenses.

   This happened to a degree in the Super Bowl. The Raiders had junked much of their running game in the playoffs and ran into a Tampa Bay team that was No. 1 in the NFL against the pass. The Raiders played right into the strength of the Bucs defense and were forced to abandon the ground game after falling behind early.

   The Bucs were able to overcome a weak offense via a short passing game that, in a sense, supplanted the run. This was the ingredient that was missing prior to the arrival of Jon Gruden - an offensive-minded coach who knew how to maximize what was available and put the ball in the end zone.

   The stats may have pointed to a major weakness, but the truth showed Tampa Bay was much better than the numbers suggested.

   Statistically last season, the Dolphins and Broncos were two of the best teams in the NFL and neither made the playoffs. The 2002 Minnesota Vikings ranked No. 2 in overall offense with a big young offensive line, Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, etc. Yet, the Vikes were -18 in turnovers (2nd worst in NFL). Minnesota's undoing was a poor defense and coaching staff that failed to produce in-game adjustments.

   That No. 2 offense managed a shoddy 6-10 record last season and, the past two years under Mike Tice, are a brutal 2-14 SU and 6-10 ATS.

   Smart handicappers dig deep and weigh all different kinds of information, not just stats. Sure, Tampa Bay might like to borrow that rushing offense, but you can be sure the Vikings would much rather borrow that Vince Lombardi Trophy.