Next to baseball, football is probably the sport that best lends itself to statistical analysis to get an understanding of what a team is really capable of. Every year we see more and more useful stats as well as people spend more time studying the game and looking for ways to make it make sense. A lot of casual sports bettors probably don’t use as many stats in their handicapping as they should, and when they do they probably don’t branch out beyond the basic stats that are listed in the newspaper. That’s a mistake.
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Here’s a look at five stats that are very useful and perhaps neglected. These aren’t the most cutting edge or new stats by any means, but they all very quickly can give you a sense of the relative quality of a team.
Yards per attempt - This is without a doubt my favorite simple way to assess a quarterback. As the name suggests it is simply the average amount of passing yards gained every time the quarterback attempts a pass. Despite being so simple, it’s powerful - if the YPA is better than seven then a quarterback is solid, and if it is better than eight he is playing exceptional football. Anything below six is a cause for real concern. What makes YPA so powerful is that it’s a surprisingly comprehensive stat. In order to have a good YPA a QB not only has to be able to pass effectively, but he also needs a good running game to keep the offense guessing, a strong offensive line to keep him protected, and a coordinator who can spot and exploit weakness in the opposing defense. YPA, then, is the quickest way there is to get a sense of how well a whole offense is performing.
Turnover differential - Few things relate more directly to the scoreboard than turnover differential. Simply put, the team that wins the turnover battle in a game is very likely to win that game. Over the course of a season you’ll usually find that teams that protect the ball well also perform well against the spread, and teams that are prone to fumble don’t reward their backers. If one team has shown particular strength in turnovers - a differential that is double digits and positive - and their opponent is the opposite then there is a pretty good chance that there is a team with a clear edge.
First half point differential - Teams that consistently find themselves ahead at the end of the first half are teams that are going to have a lot of success. If you have a lead going into the second half then you don’t have to take any unnecessary risks, and you can even try to slow the game down and let the clock run out. If, on the other hand, you are behind then you are forced to take risks, and those risks don’t always pay off. Looking at the trends in this statistic a few games into the season is a very good way to spot teams with surprising talent, and those with strong but deceptive starts to the season.
Negative pass play % - This is measured from the perspective of a defense, and is simply a measure of the number of pass plays that they face that end up in either a sack or an interception. Elite teams will be over 11 percent on the season, while weak teams will fall below eight percent - sometimes far below. This is the best single way to get a quick sense of how effective a defensive line is. The line is directly responsible for most sacks, and indirectly responsible for a lot of interceptions - their pressure will force a QB to hurry and make mistakes. A team with a high NPP percentage playing against a QB with a low YPA is probably going to have a good day.
Passer rating differential - This one is an example of the new and very exciting stats that are emerging. Coming up with this one takes a bit of work, but it’s far more useful than the passer rating by itself is. The passer rating differential is the difference between the offensive passer rating and the defensive passer rating. Defensive passer rating isn’t nearly as widely used as the offensive passer rating, but it’s calculated in the same way - it’s just the passer rating achieved by the quarterbacks that a defense faces. The differential is just the defensive passer rating subtracted from the offensive passer rating. The higher the differential is the better a team likely is because their quarterback play is strong and their defense is solid as well. New Orleans led the way in this differential last year, while Cleveland and Detroit were worst, so there is something to it. It’s very rare to see a good team with a bad passer rating differential or vice versa.