NFL Handicapping: What Makes the Bad Teams Bad
by Robert Ferringo - 10/14/2009
"Never underestimate the predictability of stupidity."
- Bullet Tooth Tony, "Snatch"
Man, there are some terrible teams in the NFL right now.
Each week it's kind of amazing to watch football in this country sink to new depths and stumble to new lows. And if you're not sure what I'm talking about you haven't watched the Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams, or several other teams take the field this year.
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Just like with economics in this country, there is a tremendous (and growing) disparity between the haves and the have-nots in the NFL these days. The teams at the top of the football food chain are consolidating their power and putting more and more distance between the league's bottom feeders each week. As a result, double-digit NFL favorites - long the ultimate Sucker's Bet in pro football wagering - have become almost automatic plays. This year favorites of 10.0 or more are a stellar 10-4 against the spread. If you expand that to include favorites of 9.0 or more it bumps up to 14-3 ATS. And three of the ATS losses belong to Washington, who isn't any good, and two more occurred the opening week on Monday Night Football. Since the opening week the heavy chalk of 10.0 or more is 8-2 ATS.
The numbers are the end result but they aren't all of it. Just watching these games unfold is excruciating. I had the displeasure of watching the Cleveland-Buffalo game over the weekend with a bunch of Bills fans. It was dreadful the first time. However, when I broke down the tape on Monday it was in Technicolor: this was one of worst NFL games I had ever seen. Penalties, turnovers, wasted timeouts, and mismanaged clocks. The winning team's quarterback went 2-for-17 passing and the two best players on the field were the punters. It was stunning.
It's pretty obvious who the terrible teams and pathetic organizations are in the NFL right now. Miami did show us though that some organizational and personnel alterations can expedite the trip back from the abyss. However, by my count there are seven franchises that, right now, are simply dreadful and are trotting out a laughable product each week. That doesn't mean that two or three years from now these teams might not be playoff contenders. (Hell, even Cincinnati is good once every five years.) And that doesn't mean that these teams won't start covering some very ample spreads as the season goes on. But it does mean that these seven clubs are, week in and week out, playing some of the worst football that I can remember seeing by such a large percentage of the league.
The seven worst organizations in the NFL, in no particular order, are Kansas City, St. Louis, Oakland, Detroit, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
Now, the obvious criterion for being a pathetic organization is an exorbitant amount of losses and failures at covering spreads. Our teams clearly have that. These seven teams are a combined 4-31 straight up and 11-24 against the spread so far this season. Poor coaching, clueless ownership and substandard talent are all prevalent. But in looking a little deeper and breaking down the tape each week I feel like I've identified seven more specific characteristics of the Terrible Team:
1. They turn the ball over.
First and foremost, Terrible Teams turn the ball over. That is Football 101. Whether it's fumbles inside the red zone, interceptions returned for touchdowns, blocked field goals or any other manner of screw-up, these pathetic franchises have proven among the worst in football in terms of ball security. And, of course, it has long been shown that teams that turn the ball over in the NFL don't win.
St. Louis (-7), Buffalo (-6), Cleveland (-5), Oakland (-4) and Detroit (-3) are all in the Top 10 in turnover differential, with St. Louis being second only to 1-3 Carolina. Tampa Bay is No. 11 at -2. Only Kansas City (+2) has a positive turnover differential that was only because they managed two fumble recoveries and no turnovers of their own against Dallas last week.
2. They take dumb penalties.
You can argue that all penalties are dumb. However, there are varying degrees. The Browns and Bills were locked in a bungling battle of futility this past weekend at Orchard Park. The Browns had just scratched out a field goal to go up 6-3 in the just under three minutes left in the fourth quarter (the game was 10 times uglier than it sounds) when their kicker booted the kickoff out of bounds. That, my friends, is a dumb penalty. And that right there is the sign of poor coaching, poor discipline, lazy players and lack of focus. All of those are hallmarks of The Terrible Team.
So far this year Buffalo leads the league in penalties, averaging nine per game for about 70 yards per game. St. Louis is second (eight per game for 65 yards), Kansas City is fifth (seven for 55), Detroit is sixth (seven for 60) and Tampa Bay is ninth (six for 45). That means that six of the 10 worst teams in the NFL are in the Top 10 in penalties. That is not an accident. Every one of those penalties negates a big play, stalls a drive, continues a drive for the opponent, or in other ways handicaps an already awful squad.
3. They are unprepared.
I don't recall where I heard it, but I've heard a theory that I agree with about football: the first and third quarters are about coaching and the second and fourth quarters are about talent. The idea is that coaches can scheme for a strong opening and they can make halftime adjustments but as the game goes on it becomes more about the players.
One thing that I don't think can be argued is that our seven pathetic teams all boast either woefully incompetent or woefully inexperienced coaches. And the results have shown themselves with the way that these terrible teams have been outscored in the first and the third quarters.
Tampa Bay has been outscored by 63 points in those two quarters through five games this year. Not surprisingly, they are led by quite possibly the least qualified NFL coach in the league's history, Raheem Morris. Morris has absolutely no idea what he's doing and that has shown itself in the quarters where preparation and coaching rise to the forefront.
St. Louis (-61 points), Oakland (-43), Kansas City (-38), Cleveland (-38) and Detroit (-25) have also been worked over in those instances. Only Buffalo (+9) has outscored their opponents in those instances. However, they were +17 in their game against fellow Terrible Team Tampa Bay.
4. They mismanage the clock.
Detroit has been outscored 42-13 so far this season in the last four minutes of each half. That means that they are just not preventing the enemy from getting those big momentum scores before halftime and they can't make a run at the end of the game, or keep opponents from extending their leads. This has been a consistent theme for each of these squads. This goes back to their coaches not knowing what they are doing and is one of those "hidden" things that may not be apparent to the common football observer.
5. They are relying on bad draft picks and over-priced free agents.
The easy thing to point to with these crappy teams is that their players suck. Oakland. Kansas City. Buffalo. Detroit. Cleveland. Tampa Bay. All of these teams have made idiotic moves. And there is a reason that they are facing a talent deficit.
This one is pretty straightforward. But to illustrate, let's throw out some names: JaMarcus Russell, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Terrell Owens, Derrick Ward, Jason Smith, the entire St. Louis defense, Tamba Hali, Brandon Albert, Brandon Pettigrew, the entire Detroit secondary, Brady Quinn, and it goes on and on and on.
6. They play down to the level of competition.
I'm sure you're wondering whom our Terrible Teams could play down to since we're already talking about the worst teams in the NFL. However, what I'm addressing here is our clubs' dreadful records against the spread as a favorite. Bad teams absolutely cannot be relied upon for all of the above reason. So the idea of them laying points is, pretty ridiculous. And their underachieving in games that they "should win" is further proof of their incompetence.
Buffalo is the only one of these teams with a winning record as a favorite over the last four years at 12-10-1 ATS. Also, I wouldn't call Tampa Bay a terrible franchise. They haven't been that in well over a decade. However, I will say that all of the changes that they made in the offseason have them pointed in that direction. Also, they are just 10-11 ATS over the last three years as a favorite.
St. Louis (8-12 ATS over last four years), Kansas City (5-9 ATS over the last three years), Detroit (5-8 ATS over the last four years) and Oakland (3-10 ATS over the last four years) have all been just money burners when laying points over these last several seasons.
7. They are bad on third down.
Our terrible teams also don't convert third downs on either offense or defense. Since they can't keep their offense on the field and can't get their defense off it these teams are destined to be beat. You can also make the argument that these teams are so bad on third down because they are so feeble on first and second down as well. It's tough for a defense to consistently stop teams on third-and-two and it's tough to keep your own offense moving when you're constantly set at third-and-nine and third-and-12. So this is another good stat to help determine how bad our clubs are.
Not surprisingly, Kansas City (21 percent), Oakland (25 percent), and Cleveland (26 percent) are the three worst teams in the NFL in converting third downs on offense. Buffalo (27 percent) is the fifth-worst, Tampa Bay (29 percent) is seventh worst and St. Louis (33 percent) rounds out the 10 worst teams in the NFL on that crucial down. Detroit is the lone outlier at 45 percent, seventh-best in the league.
The third-down failures for these clubs continue on defense. St. Louis (44 percent allowed) has the third-worst third down defense in the NFL. Kansas City (43 percent) is right behind them. Tampa Bay (40 percent) and Buffalo (40 percent) are tied at No. 21 and Cleveland (39 percent) is right behind them. Oakland and Detroit have been surprisingly proficient with their third-down defenses. But mainly that's because the Lions and Raiders have been so terrible on first and second down. The Lions are allowing 6.3 yards per play, worst in the NFL, and Oakland is No. 22 at 5.6 yards per play.
And following up that point, all of our terrible teams with the exception of Buffalo are among the 12 worst teams in the league in defensive yards per play.
So that's it right there. That's now you can systematically break down a Terrible Team. When they have bad players, relying on a lot of wasted draft picks and overpriced free agents, that turn the ball over, commit a lot of penalties, are terrible on third down, get blown off the ball to start the first and second halves, mismanaged the clock at the end of the first and second halves, and generally don't compete against better (or worse) competition they are just that: terrible.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and you can purchase a full season's package of his football selections for just $25 per week! Click here for details.
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