NFL Betting 101 Stats that Matter for Pro Football Handicapping
It's time for the next chapter in our exploration of the basics of betting on football. This time we are going to talk about statistics. There are violent crimes committed against logic and reason every day, with statistics used as the assault weapon. You can make stats say anything about anything if you want to, and it is especially easy to use, and misuse, those statistics if you don't apply common sense and a little analytical thinking to them when you look at them. If you ever meet me in person and really want to drive me crazy, the easiest way to do so, unless you are my kid because everything he does drives me crazy these days, is to abuse statistics. If you do that, you'll sound dumb, and I will decide I hate you before I even know you. We don't want that.
So, let's lay down a couple of basic ground rules to help us all use statistics more effectively when we are going to handicap football.
Related: How to Bet NFL Football
I'm not going to sit here and make a list of the stats aren't good. I could spend the next several hundred words telling which stats are good and which are useless - like, for example, yards per attempt tells us a whole heck of a lot more about a quarterback than completion percentage, and the winning percentage of that quarterback means about as much to handicappers as his show size. That's all fine, but what is much more useful is to give you rules so you can evaluate the usefulness of stats yourself - why give you a fish when I can teach you to fish?
Related: 12 NFL Handicapping Tips
Here are two fairly simple rules to keep in mind when judging whether a stat is your friend or foe. If you only ask yourself these two questions, and think seriously about the answer, you will be miles and miles ahead of most people:
Is it predictive?: More and more every year we have statistics available for absolutely everything. And we have more and more composite, analytical statistics that are combinations of other statistics - QBR, for example. Stats tell us, in a variety of different ways, what happened in the past. But bettors don't care about what happened in the past - if we could bet on that then we would all be rich. We only care about what happens in the next game. So, we have to be sure that the statistics we are looking at give us an indication of what the future could hold. Here's a simple example. Let's say that Bob the quarterback had a QB rating of 101.3 in his last outing. That's solid. Really solid. If you bet on him and he had a number like that again, then you would probably be a happy bettor. But if you look at any quarterback's QB ratings over the course of a season they are all over the place. They could be high one week, then low the next. The number one week isn't related to the number the next. They aren't entirely random, but there certainly isn't a pattern that you can use to predict what would happen next. So, when it comes to handicapping Bob's next game, the QB rating by itself has very little use. He could match that number, go way over it, or go way under it - we have no way of knowing. So, using that number in our handicapping probably isn't very useful.
What if, though, we found that Bob had completed nine out of 10 passes out of the shotgun in the last game. And then we found that he had been very effective out of the shotgun for the last four weeks. Now we might be on to something. If we spotted it, we know that the defensive coordinator of his next opponent did, too. But if the defense has struggled against the shotgun, then suddenly the stats have painted a picture we are interested in. Because he has been very good out of the shotgun, we have some reason to believe he could be very good out of the shotgun again. That doesn't mean that he will automatically win, but no stat means that - and the sooner we can understand that the better. Stats are not magic bullets - they are just clues.
Is it relevant?: It doesn't matter how impressive a stat might sound if it isn't relevant to the situation at hand. The most classic one of these that I hear so often has to do with a team's performance against the spread. I'm making this up, but let's say that we heard that the Denver Broncos were 9-1 ATS in their last 10 games following a loss by more than two touchdowns. A lot of people would tell themselves that that is a sure reason to bet them a week after they were just blown out. They need to tell themselves something else instead - who gives a damn? The Broncos this year have a new head coach, two new coordinators, a new quarterback, several other personnel changes, and are in a division that has changed plenty as well. Without looking, we know that that streak stretches back a minimum of two seasons and likely significantly longer. So, the fact that a bunch of other guys in the past - perhaps the distant past - reacted in one way to a situation, tells us absolutely nothing at all about how this team is going to react. It's completely meaningless.
That might seem like an extreme example, but there are all sorts of cases where this comes up all the time. How a quarterback has performed against a team in the past rarely matters because of how rarely a lot of teams play each other and how quickly personnel changes in the league, for example. Every time we see a stat and feel yourself becoming convinced by it, you have to ask if it is actually relevant to what you are doing.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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