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Vegas Handicapping and Fantasy Football - Part 2
Fritz Schlottman
2004

In Part I of this series I explained how the sports gods on the blvd. set a line and how line setting is different from handicapping and why.  In addition, the reader was introduced to a simple, but effective method for picking NFL winners by identifying those teams that won or lost their games by a touchdown.  By identifying the statistical outliers on the normal distribution curve we were able to beat the house.

Method #2 - Handicapping like a Pro

I do not take credit for this method.  It was explained to me by professional handicappers who understand the mathematics of gambling and football far better than I ever could.  Some of these guys are former bank presidents, actuaries, and hold degrees from some pretty impressive schools.  In short, they know what they’re doing or they couldn’t be making a living doing it.

In order not to bore the reader to tears I’ve omitted commentary on the statical basis for this method.  However, knowledgeable readers will recognize the normal distribution curve quickly.  Teams that score near the mean in each step will receive little adjustment while teams out beyond one standard deviation will be rewarded or punished to an increasingly greater degree.

Why handicap?  If betting football were as easy as identifying which teams were really good or really bad there wouldn’t be any good reason to go through the mental exercise of determining the real line on a game.  It sounds way too easy and it is, to a point.  But, you don’t get to the top of the sports betting world by being a fool either.

The reason you handicap is that what the sports gods giveth they also taketh away.  It’s all about greed.  Players learn; they see one team that covers the spread week after week and before they know it, that’s their favorite team.  They start betting on team and immediately that team is no longer covering the spread and now their bank rolls have taken such a beating that they’re done for the season.

What happened?  If you remember from Part I, the sports gods do not set a line so that either side has a 50-50 chance of winning the bet, they set the line so that both teams have the same amount of money bet on them.  Teams that cover the spread are money magnets and the general public will shower these teams with love (greed).  To balance the money bet on both sides of the game and to limit the risk to the property, the lines maker will begin to move the point spread away from the winning team.  So long as that team continues to cover, the sports gods will continue to move that line up until the point that the popular team begins to lose consistently and the general public abandons them in disgust.  Once the amount of money bet against the team becomes more than the amount supporting them, then the books will reverse course and start reducing the premium paid (in points) until equilibrium (in money) is once again achieved.

In sports betting, knowledge will keep you safe and make you money.  Handicapping not only tells you what team to bet on, it tells you what the lines makers are thinking, how they’re changing the odds, how much to bet on a game, and when to switch from supporting a club to betting against it.

So you now know why you should handicap, you just need to know how.  First, you need to know what tools you need. 

While there still are a few successful pen and paper handicappers out there, they are more or less dinosaurs waiting for extinction.  A computer with Excel or some other spreadsheet application will not only save you time but will increase your results by reducing math errors. 

The next material you need is data.  Thehuddle.com is a quick and reliable source for the statistics you need, but they can also be found at NFL.com, USA Today, any good Internet sport site, and even your local paper if they publish box scores.  How much data do you need?  As a rule of thumb, I would not handicap a game unless I had at least four data points (previous games) to base my opinion on.  I may use games from the previous season, but I’d have to have some certainty that the personnel or the system run by each team had not changed substantially from one season to the next before I’d bet the game based on that data.  With the bye week not all teams may have played the same amount of games and so you need to build into your Excel spreadsheet a formula for equal weighting games (For example: if Team A had played four games but Team B had played five, it would be necessary to multiply some of Team A’s statistics by 1.25 to put them on an equal weight with Team B.) so that you are comparing apples to apples.

Now I need a system to interpret the data and the formula output.  I will not give in to the conventional wisdom on this point and use the star system (cringe).  I hesitate to use this because its consistent abuse by the less than honest hucksters out there on the airwaves and the Internet have led to the complete misunderstanding of what this system means. Let’s simply say that the greater the difference between the betting line and the handicapped line the better your chance of winning the bet.  As you might expect, the sports gods don’t give you much of an edge so don’t expect to get much more than a field goal on any given game.

So, let’s begin. 

Offensive Ratio Defensive Ratio Points
>= 75% <= 25% add 6
65-74.9% 25.1-35% add 3
55-64.9% 35.1-45% add 1
45-54.9% 45.1-55% none
35-44.9% 55.1-65% subtract 1
25-34.9% 65.1-75% subtract 3
less than 25% more than 75% subtract 6

Step 1 Rushing Play Ratio

The first bit of data the pros look at is the ratio of rushing plays to total plays.  Teams that run the ball and stop the rush cover more bets than do teams that can run and can’t stop opponents from controlling the clock on the ground.  Points are awarded or subtracted both offensively and defensively as follows:

Step 2 Total Play Differential

Defenses that can’t get off the field give up points.  Offenses that can’t grind out first downs put their defense back on the field too quickly.  This is a bad-thing if want to be a good football team.

Differential Points
60% or more +10
40 to 59.9% +6
25 to 39.9% +3
15 to 24.9% +2
5 to 14.9% +1
-5 to 4.9% 0
-5.1 to -15% -1
-15.1 to -25% -2
-25.1 to -40% -3
-40.1 to -60% -6
-60.1% or more -10

Step 3 Yards Per Rush Attempt

Speaking of good things and bad things, being able to run the ball down your opponents’ throats qualifies as a good thing. 

Yards Per Rush Points
4.5 or more +6
4.0 to 4.49 +3
3.5 to 3.99 +1
3.0 to 3.49 0
2.5 to 2.99 -1
2.0 to 2.49 -3
Less than 2.0 -6

Step 4 Yards Per Pass Attempt

This is calculated in the same manner as yards per rush attempt.  Again, take the average of Team A’s offensive average per pass attempt and Team B’s defensive average per pass attempt.

Yards Per Pass Attempt Points
8.0 or more +3
7.0 to 7.99 +2
6.0 to 6.99 +1
5.0 to 5.99 0
4.0 to 4.99 -1
3.0 to 3.99 -2
Less than 3.0 -3

Step 5 Total Yardage Differential

Add or reduce points based upon the % by which a teams total yardage gained exceeds or is exceeded by the total yardage allowed.

Differential Points
60% or more +10
40% to 59.9% +6
25% to 39.9% +3
15% to 24.9% +2
5% to 14.9% +1
-5% to 4.9% 0
-15% to -5.1% -1
-25% to -15.1% -2
-40% to -25.1% -3
-60% to -40.1% -6
Less than -60 % -10

Step 6 Turnover Edge

As coaches say, you can’t win if you turn the ball over.  Points are awarded for the per game differential between turnovers lost to opponents and fumbles and interceptions recovered from opponents.

Differential Points
+3 or more +6
+2 to +2.9 +3
+1 to +1.9 +1
-1 to +.9 0
-2 to -1.1 -1
-3 to -2.1 -3
Less than -3 -6
Yards/Point Scored Yards/Point Allowed Points
10 or less 23 or more +6
10.1 to 12.5 20.6 to 23.0 +3
12.6 to 15 18.1 to 20.5 +1
15.1 to 18.0 15.1 to 18.0 0
18.1 to 20.5 12.6 to 15 -1
20.6 to 23.0 10.1 to 12.5 -3
More than 23 10 or less -6

Step 7 Yards Per Point Scored and Yards Per Point Allowed

There’s a big difference between scoring touchdowns and scoring field goals.  Teams that stick it in the end zone when they get the chance are consistent winners at the sports book.  Points are awarded or reduced based on offensive yards gained divided by total points scored and total defensive yards allowed divided by total points allowed.

Off. Plays/First Down Def. Plays/First Down Points
2.0 or less More than 4.5 +5
2.1 to 2.5 4.1 to 4.5 +3
2.6 to 3.0 3.6 to 4.0 +1
3.1 to 3.5 3.1 to 3.5 0
3.6 to 4.0 2.6 to 3.0 -1
4.1 to 4.5 2.1 to 2.5 -3
More than 4.5 2.0 or less -5

Step 8 Plays Per First Down

It’s difficult to maintain drives if you’re constantly facing third down.  Therefore, the less plays it takes a team to get that ten yards or more the more likely a team is to keep the football and score.  Points are added or subtracted based upon the average number of plays a team requires to make a first down or allows on defense to make a first down.  Total offensive and defensive plays are divided by first downs made or allowed.

Step 9 Home Field Advantage

Home Team:  +3 (or HF advantage if known)

Team playing on a surface other than home:  -1

Now Lets Work An Example

Let’s handicap a post season game, oh I don’t know... perhaps a post season clash between the Patriots and Panthers as an example.  The sports gods come out with an opening line of New England -7 on a neutral field.  How would you rate this game?

  NEW ENGLAND CAROLINA
FIRST DOWNS GAINED 295 285
FIRST DOWNS ALLOWED 293 274
RUSHES 473 522
OPPONENTS’ RUSHES 401 434
RUSH YDS GAINED 1607 2091
RUSH YDS ALLOWED 1434 1722
PASS ATTEMPTS 537 460
OPPONENTS’ PASS ATT 618 522
PASS YDS GAINED 3432 3050
PASS YDS ALLOWED 3232 3003
TURNOVERS LOST 26 31
OPP TURNOVERS REC 41 26
POINTS SCORED 349 325
POINTS ALLOWED 238 304

Step 1 Rushing Play Ratio

Carolina

522 rushes / (522 rushes + 460 pass attempts)=522/982=53.16 percent for No Bonus

434 rushes/(434 rushes + 460 pass attempts)=434/894=48.54 percent against No Bonus

New England

473 rushes / (473 rushes + 537 pass attempts)=473/1010=46.83 percent for No Bonus

401 rushes/(401 rushes + 618 pass attempts)=401/1019=39.35 percent against +1 Bonus

Step 2 Total Play Differential

Carolina

982 plays on offense - (op rush 434 + op pass 522)=982-956=+26

26/982=2.65% No Bonus

New England

1010 plays on offense - (401 op rush + 618 op pass)=1010-1019=-9

-9/1019=-0.88% No Bonus

Step 3 Yards Per Rush Attempt

Carolina

2091 rush yds/522 rush attempts=4.01 yds per rush

(NE DEF) 1434 rush yds/401=3.58 yds per rush

(4.01 + 3.58)/2=3.80 yards per rush +1 Bonus

New England

1607 rush yds/473 rush attempts=3.40 yds per rush

(CAR DEF) 1722 rush yds/434 rush attempts=3.97 yds per rush

(3.40 + 3.97)/2=3.69 yds per rush  +1 Bonus

Step 4 Yards Per Pass Attempt

Carolina

3050 pass yds/460 pass attempts=6.63 yds per pass

(NE DEF) 3232 pass yds/618 pass attempts=5.23 yds per pass

(6.63+5.23)/2=5.93 yds per pass attempt No Bonus

New England

3432 pass yds/537=6.39 yds per pass

(CAR DEF) 3003 pass yds/522 pass attempts=5.75 yds per pass

(6.39+5.75)/2=6.07 yds per pass attempt +1 Bonus

Step 5 Total Yardage Differential

Carolina

(2091 rush yds + 3050 pass yds) - (1722 rush yds + 3003 pass yds)=5141-4725=416

416/4725=8.80% +1 Bonus

New England

(1607 rush yds + 3432 pass yds) - (1434 rush yds + 3232 pass yds)=5039-4666=373

373/4666=7.99% +1 Bonus

Step 6 Turnover Edge

Carolina

26-31 = -5   -5/16 games = -.3125 No Bonus

New England

41-26=15     15/16 games = .9375 No Bonus

Step 7 Yards Per Point Scored and Yards Per Point Allowed

Carolina

5141 total yds /325 points for = 15.818 yds per point for No Bonus

4725 total yds/238 points against = 19.853 yds per point against +1 Bonus

New England

5039 total yds/349 points for = 14.438 yds per point for +1 Bonus

4666 total yds/238 points against = 19.605 yds per point against +1 Bonus

Step 8 Plays Per First Down

Carolina

(522 rush for + 460 pass for)/285=3.446 plays per first down for No Bonus

(434 rush against + 422 pass against)/274=3.124 plays per first down against. No Bonus

New England

(473 rush for + 537 passes for)/295=3.424 plays per first down for No Bonus

(401 rush against + 618 pass against)/293=3.478 plays per first down No Bonus

Step 9 Home Field Advantage

None

Step Carolina New England
1 0 1
2 0 0
3 1 1
4 0 1
5 1 1
6 0 0
7 1 2
8 0 0
9 0 0
Total 3 6

Totals

If this was last year’s Super Bowl, I would have made the Patriots a three point favorite.  New England won by thee points.  The line was seven and the handicapped line was three for a spread of four points.  If I played the game (and I did), I would have been on the Panthers.

The sports gods knew in advance that all the money would come down on the more popular team (the Patriots).  To attract money to the Panthers, they decided to give the pros four points.  Most of the wise guys took it straight to the bank.

In Part 3 of this series I will discuss trends before moving on to totals in Part 4.  Best of luck this season.

PART 3 >