Over the past decade, the NFL betting marketplace has evolved into a year round process. The very first Super Bowl odds for 2017 came out before the Broncos beat the Panthers in the Super Bowl this past February. CG Technology posted lines for every NFL game through the first 16 weeks of the season prior to the draft. Week 1 regular season lines are widely available right now. And the NFL Season Win Total marketplace, while still a long way from maturity, has seen a handful of key shops, like the Westgate Superbook, post virgin numbers in recent days.
My process for handicapping the upcoming NFL season begins immediately after the draft. This is the time of year to focus on those aforementioned season win totals. My NFL prep work begins each spring with a thorough look back at last year’s results.
Why look back, you ask? The answer, of course, is simple – because that’s where I find my very first edges when approaching the upcoming season. If my base power rating heading into the offseason wasn’t wholly accurate, it results in inaccurate adjustments moving forward. Part 1 of my process begins with a thorough examination of the schedules all 32 NFL teams played last year, looking for outliers.
I’m looking to identify teams that were better than their final records would indicate, because they faced an extremely tough slate. And I’m looking for teams that were weaker than their final records would indicate because they faced an extremely easy slate. But unlike most schedule based analysis, I’m taking my time to review every game that was played through the first 16 weeks of the 2015 campaign (discounting Week 17 results due to extreme randomness).
The widely available information that helps set the markets start with last year’s results as their base point. But they don’t do it thoroughly. The conventional models simply add up the combined records of every opponent a team faced to come up with their final strength of schedule for 2015 and to create the SOS for the upcoming 2016 campaign. I’ll focus on last year’s SOS this week, and move to the 2016 SOS in Part 2 of this article next week. Creating numbers that are more accurate than the broader market for BOTH seasons are instrumental in what I’m trying to accomplish.
The aggregate numbers for last year’s strength of schedule -- the starting point for any analysis of the upcoming 2016 campaign -- can be extremely misleading. A team’s final win-loss record tells us nothing about how good they actually were at the time the game was played. There were some enormous in-season power rating shifts last year, just as there are every year. Here are some key examples off the top of my head:
Did you play the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger was hurt and Landry Jones was behind center, or did you get the full strength Pittsburgh squad? Did you get Dallas with a healthy Tony Romo or a healthy Brandon Weeden behind center? Did you get Atlanta when they were red hot to open the season going 6-1 or did you get the Falcons when they were in free fall, losing six straight. Did you get the Colts with a healthy Andrew Luck or the Colts when Luck was out and Indy was hopeless? Did you get the Chiefs early, when they were 1-5 and their confidence was shot, or did you get them when they were the hottest team in the NFL this side of Carolina over the second half of the season? Did you face the Ravens early, or did you get them down the stretch when half the roster was on IR? What about the Redskins – did you face them when they were off to a slow start, or when they were red hot down the stretch? Did you get Cinci with a healthy Andy Dalton or with AJ McCarron at QB?
I could go on and on but you get my point – when you played a team is every bit as important as who you played! Yet the markets devalue that concept entirely for at least two reasons – the analytics are time consuming and they require human judgement. There’s no algorhythm that will spit out accurate numbers based on judgement calls, and my process is all about making judgement calls (with some hard numbers thrown in to ensure some semblance of accuracy).
The mainstream numbers are very clear, based on the final records for every team in 2015. Those standard models will tell you that the Dolphins, Jets, Jaguars, Redskins, Panthers and Titans played the six easiest schedules in the league last year, while the Lions, Bears, Packers, Seahawks, Rams and 49ers played the six toughest slates.
So here’s what I do. I go back to my 2015 spread sheet that details my power rating numbers on a weekly basis from last year. Then I go through the schedule, using my numbers for every squad on the week the game was played. Using that formula, you’ll get some significantly different results than the ones I listed above.
I also discount Week 17 results. Some teams had quit on their coach and their season, other teams were resting starters and other teams were playing their guts out to try to reach the postseason. Power rating models for the final week of the regular season are inherently flawed – that’s why we see enormous line moves that week every single year.
So what does my initial schedule analysis from last year show in relation to this season? My seven toughest slates for 2015 were Cleveland, Buffalo, Dallas, Washington, Pittsburgh, the New York Giants and San Francisco. Yet when you look at the Redskins aggregate numbers from last year, you’ll see the standard formula’s show that they faced one of the easiest schedules in the NFL! Therefore, you already know that I’m going to have a different perception of Washington compared to the broader markets heading into the new campaign. In addition, none of the NFC North teams that had very tough slates by standard metrics were tough schedules by my metrics; teams that could be slightly overvalued as a result.
On the easy side, my numbers show that Arizona, Carolina, Jacksonville, KC, Tampa Bay and Miami faced the very easiest slates in 2015, while the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens also faced much easier than average slates. All of these teams should grade out a notch or two lower than their records would indicate.
The Arizona numbers, in particular, shocked me – I did not expect to see Bruce Arians squad as the team that faced the single weakest slate of opponents in the entire NFL last year. In 2015, my clients and I cashed a winning bet supporting the Cardinals Over 8.5 wins. In 2016, based on this metric alone, I’ll be betting Arizona Under their win total or passing.
Next week I’ll finish the thought process, writing about the next step -- identifying accurate strength of schedule numbers for the upcoming 2016 campaign.
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