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An Introduction to "Inside the Points"
By Fritz Schlottman
September 3, 2003
  You can neatly divide any Nevada sports book or sports bar into two groups: fantasy football guys and gambling guys. It’s not that there isn’t sports gambling going on in other places and other states, it’s just that its legal here and people are more up front about it. At one table they have their fantasy rosters in front of them while they watch the games and the guys at the next station are reviewing their betting slips and parlay cards. No big deal.

And yet the divide between the two camps couldn’t be larger. Fantasy players look at handicappers as gambling degenerates and football betters view fantasy players as adults playing a child’s game. Both sides have the same interest, watch the same games, and both focus on the game’s statistics and yet both camps prefer to close their eyes and pretend the other doesn’t exist.

But having hung around these places every Sunday in the fall, you can’t help striking up conversations with those on the other side of the great divide. And what do you know? Almost all the gamblers also play fantasy football (even the heavy-hitters, although they are loathe to come clean about it) and almost all the fantasy football players I’ve spoken to have on at least one occasion used their football knowledge to place a bet or play in the office pool (the author included). At last, some common ground.

So, is there something you can learn from sports gaming that would give you an edge in your fantasy league? If you listen to Nevada sports radio this time of year, you can’t avoid the handicapping shows. If a casino doesn’t have its own hour or ninety-minute show then they have their sports book director as a guest on someone else’s show. It’s all football handicapping, all the time. A listener is bombarded day after day with nothing but statistics and analysis: some good, some not but information nonetheless. Much of this is opinion, some of it good research, and some requires some skill with statistics, but there is fantasy gold buried there if you know how to find it. My goal is to find that gold for the reader each week.

The Casinos

Given that who wins a football game is unimportant to the performance of an individual player within the game, fantasy players should not be terribly concerned with point spreads. On the other hand, the totals line put out by the line makers is interesting.

In this type of wager you are betting that the total number of points scored by both teams will either exceed or fall short of the betting line. The factors captured by this number are relevant. It measures a team’s ability to sustain peak performance or recover from dull efforts, the psychology of a key divisional game vs. other games, and the underlying philosophy of a team, an ability to create or avoid turnovers, and other factors that come into play. A high total line tells the reader that the casinos are expecting an offensive shootout (good for your fantasy players) a low total line can be read as a tight, defensive battle (bad for fantasy players). Moreover, a team’s performance against the totals line can also be revealing.

Technical handicappers believe there are certain patterns that have developed over the years that are unique to a specific team. In other words, teams are organic and have personalities of their own. This personality is reflected in the ownership of the team, the coaches, general manager and scouting staff and their philosophies, the types of players they sign and draft, etc. Some organizations put an emphasis on offense (Rams and 49ers) some are built on defense (Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Baltimore). Changing these personalities is a slow process that occurs over the course of many seasons and tends not to be noticed if they change at all. Usually evolution is noticeable only with a change in ownership or relocation.

This may all seem silly to the reader. Ok, let’s put it to the test. If the casino line makers don’t know what they’re doing then you should see a difference between the totals line they set and the actual results. A sports book sets a totals line so that the casino does not have a stake in the outcome of a game. They want half the money to be on the Over (above the totals line) and half the amount bet to be on the Under (below the totals line) that way the losers pay off the winners and the sports book gets the 10% “juice” (the cost to place a bet) without any risk. There have been 1,480 regular season NFL games played over the past six seasons. 731 of those games have gone Under, 720 have gone Over and 29 games were exactly on the line (Push). Excluding the Pushes, 50.4 % of the games have gone under and 49.1% over. And you still think they don’t know what they’re doing?

Well, they’re better than you think. Not only are they very accurate, but also they do it in a way that doesn’t give the handicapper an angle to use. Look at 2002. The actual won-loss-tie record for the season was 255-255-2. The totals line went 256-248-8 (overs-unders-pushes) or 50.0%-48.4%-1.6% dead-on except for the ties and pushes. The casinos went 166-166-8 (overs-unders-pushes) on grass and 90-82-0 (overs-unders-pushes) on turf and you can go on and on. Just about every way a handicapper can dice and slice a game the casino is no more than 6% off the mark. Yes, they (and their computer software) are very good.

So the totals number is a reliable or is it? Rarely do you see a line that is lower than 33 or higher than 45. That’s because the casinos know that that the average points scored in an NFL games is annually between 37-41 points per game. The lines maker also knows from past data that about 50% of all NFL game totals fall between 33 points and 51 points. Knowing this, it’s not hard for a fantasy player to make an informed decision about what the casinos are thinking. If you see a total of 33, the sports books are looking for a tight defensive battle and if you get a 45 line then your looking at a tack meet.

Now it’s time to think in terms of probability. How much more of a defensive battle is a game rated at a 33 than a game rated at a 45? Twelve points doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it is. Looking at all the totals of all the regular season games played since 1981 and throwing out the replacement games gives you get a database you can work off. Only 28.45% of games played during that period ended with less than 33 points scored. So, a 33 total has a lot more meaning than a 34 total because a 33 represents 28.45% of all games. In other words, a game may rate a 31, 30 or 29 total, but because a lines maker won’t go below a 33 he gives the game a 33 rating. Therefore a 33 total on a game is a strong indication that the game will be tight. The opposite is also true. Because the casinos don’t normally go above a 45 total on a game (with the exception being the Rams over the past few years) a 45 total means that the team mascot better be in good aerobic condition because he’s got a few push-ups to do on Sunday.

Power Ratings

The next tidbit of gaming information useful to fantasy owners is power ratings. These rankings are not produced by the casinos, but are the output of handicappers and statisticians and can be found free on the web. Of course, a lot of gambling services and handicappers and even software manufacturers sell their product, but their services don’t come cheap.

A power ranking is the product of linear regression. The purpose of the calculation is to eliminate or reduce the variability in performance. A number of things can happen: the team may not play to its full potential, or random factors like the bounce of the ball or a bad call by a referee may also affect the outcome of a game, and a team’s strength of schedule will influence the outcome between two evenly matched opponents and team’s with a disparity of ability. Regression lets you eliminate these factors from a team’s expected performance.

An Offensive Power Rating is the number of points a particular team’s offense should score against the average NFL defense. It takes into account good defensive play as well (field position and turnovers). A team with a high Offensive Power Rating will score more points than a team with a low Offensive Power Rating.

Defenses are also rated. The average NFL defense receives a rating of 0.0. A team with a “+” rating is better than average by a certain number of points per game while and a team with a “–“ is worse than the league average by a certain number of points.

Home field advantage is another concern. Eating home cooked meals and sleeping in your own (presumably) bed is comforting. Playing on the road at Oakland and having to navigate through the war zone outside the stadium is certainly more difficult than listening to the home fans boo their Cincinnati Bengals. Most raters give home team a 2.5 point to a 3.0 point advantage and others build it into the power ratings and use a 0.0 +/- system similar to that used to rate defenses.

The number of points a team is expected to score can be found by adding an offense’s Power Rating to the opposing defense’s Power Rating plus any modifier for home field advantage. Using this formula you get a .70 to a .75 correlation.

Example: The Bears are playing the Packers on a neutral field. The Bears offense has a Power Rating of 17.59 and the Packers have a defensive Power Rating of 1.50. The Bears will be expected to score 17.59 – 1.50 = 16.09 points. The Packers have an offensive Power Rating of 23.40 and the Bears defense has a Power Rating of 0.75. The Packers would be expected to score 23.40 – 0.75 = 22.65 points. The total line should be 39 (38.74) and the point spread should be 16.09 – 22.65 = Packers – 6 1/2 (6.56).

From a fantasy point-of-view this analysis is informative in several ways. You know how much playing on the road or at home will help or hurt your players, you can calculate approximately the number of points your team’s offense will score (and by using a little allocation method, the likelihood your player will score). When choosing your starting line-up, this method is helpful.

Example: You have to choose between starting the Bears defense and the Packers defense. Assuming you get fantasy points for limiting scores against your defense, the Packers are a much better start this week as the Bears are only expected to score 16 points while the Packers are expected to score 23.

Example: You have to choose a running back Your choice is between the Packers back-up running back and the Bears starter. The Packers running back scores 25% of the team’s touchdowns. The Bears running back scores 35% of Chicago’s touchdowns. Which is the better play? The Packers are expected to score 23 points (two touchdowns and three field goals or three touchdowns and one field goal). The Bears are expected to score 16 points (one touchdown and three field goals or two touchdowns and one field goal). Assume (for right now) each scenario is equally likely. The Packers running back would expect to score [(12 points x .25) + (18 points x .25)] / 2 = 3.75 points. The Bears running back would be expected to score [(6 points x .35) + (12 points x .35)] / 2 = 3.15 points. The Packers running back is more likely to score this Sunday.

Trends

Have you every wondered why QB Brett Favre will destroy a team on grass and then turn around and play a horrible game in a dome? Have you wondered why the Saints and the Dolphins get off to great starts only to collapse in December?

Trends are a hybrid between more statistical methods of evaluating games and more opinion-based models. This analysis has more to do with team psychology and recent performance then cold, hard numbers. Trend analysis models don’t try to answer the question, they only identify trends and anomalies that should be considered by fantasy players.

Some players simply perform better against certain teams and worse against others. This may have something to do with psychology, it may have something to do with personnel match-ups, weather conditions, offensive/defensive schemes, or travel. Whatever the reason, these trends persist even with changes in coaching staffs and personnel. Fantasy owners should consider these trends in selecting line-ups.

Opinion

If you want someone’s opinion on football, all you have to do is walk into any sports book in this state. Sports book guys are not shy. You can cut the testosterone around the place with a knife. They’re not afraid to speak their mind and their not going to be polite when you suggest something on which they don’t agree.

There’s an upside and a downside to all this verbalization. The positive is that there’s a never-ending stream of information being put out. The flip side is that you have to weed through the nonsense to find that nugget of wisdom.

I mentally filter through the info stream to get what I want. First, I totally disregard anyone that represents a gambling service. Their business is selling, period. They don’t care if their picks win or lose because it’s all win-win to them. If you win, you think their service had something to do with it and you buy more pick packages. If you lose, now you’re desperate to get you money back and will buy more of their product assuming that the service is “due”. Second, I disregard the fat guys that sit around the sports book all day. If all you do is gamble and you can’t afford a clean shirt, you’re not very good at it. Finally, I disregard the sports book directors. As noted before, their objective is to gin up more bets, ensure that 50% is on each side of the line, and not get sued or thrown in jail. They get on the radio and talk a bunch of nonsense without ever saying very much or taking a stand…in other words, they’re worthless.

I do pay attention to professional gambling shows. These are handicappers that make their money, not through selling their picks, but by selling advertising on their shows. They have a commercial interest in getting it right and passing on good information. If they get the listener on the right side of a wager, word gets around and the audience increases. More/better information-more listeners-more advertising revenue.

Summary

If you keep an open mind and don’t mind a little effort, fantasy owners can learn something from the gaming industry. This weekly column will keep The Huddle subscribers up-to-date with the best analysis and opinion from the Vegas Strip. Looking at fantasy football from the gaming angle is just another way to give you an edge every week.