Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some 2010 Preseason Thoughts

For those of you who have been chomping at the bit all summer for BadNFL's return, your appetite was probably barely whetted by my previous post on betting strategy reflections from Year 1. Thus, here are my thoughts on some teams heading into Year 2, thoughts will undoubtedly inform my early season analysis.

1. The Bills are the worst team in football. My opinion of the Bills last year was well documented (fueled mainly by the atrocity that was their offensive line), and I think they've worsened. Their offensive line isn't noticeably better, they are still likely starting Trent Edwards, and they have again been wracked by injuries--most dramatically to two of the few team strengths of running back and safety. Moreover, they have inexplicably shifted to a 3-4 defense without the personnel or experience to really pull it off (for instance, they have no NT): as Football Outsiders put it in their indispensable 2010 Almanac:
That means that the best explanation
for Buffalo’s [marginal pass defense success] was scheme — the scheme
the new Bills administration promptly chucked out
the window, designed by the interim head coach who
is now plying his trade downstate. And while strong
pass defense is a reason for optimism, the pass defense
is also likely to regress a bit, considering that the
Bills ranked just 22nd in pass defense DVOA in 2008
— you know, when their defense was populated by all
those guys whose return from injury is supposed to
make fans optimistic about 2010.
Moreover, one of the few strengths in recent years of the Bills has been their special teams play -- not withstanding Leodis McKelvin's boneheaded fumble that blew week 1 against the Pats last year -- but they jettisoned their special teams' coach in the offseason and replaced him with the eminently mediocre Bruce DeHaven, who despite an inexplicable uncited superlative contained on a wiki page, was the coach whose unit was victimized by the Music City Miracle and never did much to impress in his 4 years with the Cowboys.

They also have what is likely the worst LB corps in the league. And finally, they play in the tough AFC East, where the other 3 teams (Fins, Pats, Jets) should all be playoff contenders. It will take a miracle for the Bills to avoid going 0-6 in the division, and they will almost certainly finish last. They are a bad team, one that I'm planning to use two ways early in the season: to potentially bet against if the lines are juicy, but more importantly, to discount success against the Bills in my early season rankings (see my Week 2 pick from Year 1 for an example of how this can work well).

2. I expect the Saints to come crashing back down to earth this year. Of course, this is hardly a revelation, as talk of the "Super Bowl hangover" abounds. There is something to that talk, as 5 of the last 11 Super Bowl champs missed the postseason the next year, and nearly all have suffered a precipitous decline. Depressed motivation, lapses in concentration, and an absence of energy are all symptoms of this disease, and there's evidence from the preseason that the Saints are suffering from it. It is true that they might open the season on fire -- witness their recent offensive explosion at the Superdome against the Texans. But I doubt they'll be able to sustain that intensity and good mojo throughout the grueling NFL season; their performance might somewhat mirror the 2000 Rams', who started off 6-0 before stumbling to a 4-6 finish. Or it might mirror the Payton/Brees Saints' own performance last time they were coming off a Super Bowl appearance, when they went 7-9.

But primarily, I think the Saints had a pretty lucky 2009, one that is unlikely to repeat this year. There are many reasons they were lucky, but chief among them was their huge number (8) of defensive TD's last year. But defensive TD's are notorious in their dependence on luck, and the Saints will simply not repeat that performance. As Football Outsiders explains:
In addition, defensive touchdowns, while exciting, are
a volatile investment. As we discussed in Football
Outsiders Almanac 2009 (p. 92), the year-to-year correlation
for defensive touchdowns is essentially zero
and almost totally dependent upon the number of turnovers
a team gets. That figure should also decline for
the Saints; while Sharper picked off a league-high nine
passes last year, he won’t pick off that many passes
in 2010. From 1990 through 2008, there were 25 instances
of a player picking off nine passes or more; in
the season afterwards, those players averaged fewer
than three interceptions. Not a single player managed
back-to-back nine-interception seasons, and it is unlikely
Sharper will be an exception.
This random variance is further on display by comparing the 2009 Saints and 2008 Saints; despite returning virtually the same roster (except for the addition of Darren Sharper), the 2009 Saints saw their defensive TDs jump by 8, as they had generated zero in 2008. True, Sharper had a sublime season, but it is not one that he is likely to repeat. Not only is there little historical track record for a repeat, as FO explained above, but Sharper is 34 and is unlikely to be healthy this year. True, he remains one of the better safeties in the game, but he is not going to repeat his defensive MVP-caliber performance of last year. And for those of you who followed the Saints closely last year, you'll remember how many close games they played where a key pick-6 swung the momentum late.

While all acknowledge that the Saints' defense was opportunistic yet far from dominant last year, some predict that their offseason moves have seriously upgraded the defense. They say that mainly because Sedrick Ellis might return healthy, but one, there's no guarantee that he will stay healthy coming off such a serious injury, and second, he's been underwhelming when in the lineup. The Saints haven't really added anyone of note, and Sharper will be far less effective this year. While they will be a solid team, I do not think they will be the powerhouse they were last year, and I doubt they will cover the spread as often.

3. I like the Raiders more than most this year. Yes, they're still Al Davis's crazy pathetic team, but there's actually some reason for optimism. For one, they've looked really good in the preseason, sowing the seeds of what could turn out to be a very solid defense. They have probably the best non-holding-out CB in the league, a decent pass rush, and improved overall on defense. But most importantly, they finally ended the putrid JaMarcus era at QB. Jason Campbell has always been underrated in my opinion, mostly because he was victimized by horrendous offensive lines and a carousel of offensive coordinators and systems. I think escaping from Washington was a good thing for him. As Doug Farrar of FO put it:
You have to like Oakland’s draft, and the addition of Jason Campbell. That could be an 8-8 team in the AFC West, which may very well be the worst division in the NFL.
True, there are some countervailing concerns, primarily that the Raiders significantly outperformed their Pythagorean projection by winning a lot of close games last year (think that great run of clutch catches by Louis Murphy late in the season). But I think the team is much improved, and that the culture is slowly changing. I'm not saying they're a super bowl contender, but I think they will be decent and have an outside chance of stealing that terrible division.

4. BadNFL is ambivalent about the Green Bay Packers.

No team has confounded me heading into this season than the Packers. On the one hand, the Packers are a trendy pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year, and Aaron Rodgers is rapidly becoming a darling of the punditry. There certainly is a lot to like; an undeniably talented QB, a deep array of receivers, and an opportunistic defense. Plus, they're coming off a crazy, slim loss in the wild card game last year.

On the other hand, Football Outsiders projects the Packers at only 9.4 wins, hardly a shabby total but also not the dominance that many analysts predict. They focus on two particularly interesting factors: the dramatic spike in the Packers' run defense last year and the age of their secondary. First, they argue:
From 1994 through 2007,
11 different teams improved their rush defense DVOA
by 20 ranking spots or more. In the year after their
drastic improvement, every single one of those teams
saw their rush defense decline (Table 1). What’s even
scarier, though, is how much they declined — those
teams dropped off by an average of 12.5 spots in the
Given the meteoric improvement (unforeseen by most) in the Packers' run defense last year, FO projects a return back to earth. Also, Charles Woodson, coming off a defensive MVP award, is aging and likely won't perform as well again. Al Harris is also getting old.

Moreover, they may have been incredibly lucky with their turnover margin last year. Chad Millman reports:

"That makes me think [the Packers] were a fraudulent 11-5," Covers says. "They played a weak schedule and had a turnover margin as high as it gets. To me, this is a team that overachieved last year. Now we have the start of a thought process that helps me evaluate them in this year's betting market."

Green Bay is one of those teams -- like the New York Jets -- that is getting a lot of hype this season. It opened at nine wins and is now listed at 10. The expectations from the public are that it will exceed this number.

The arguments against the Packers are sophisticated, and they contradict my instinct. I'm inclined to think the Packers will prove quite strong this year, mainly because I think their offensive line will be improved -- and BadNFL veterans will remember what I thought of the Packers' offensive line last year. In short, it wasn't pretty, especially early in the year. But they should be better this year (they'll certainly be deeper). And of course BadNFL readers know how much emphasis we place here on the offensive line (coincidentally, so do actual sharps).

But even though the Packers will be good, they just strike me as being way too hyped -- reminiscent of the 2008 Cowboys who famously flamed out. I wrote earlier that I would look for good teams who were slightly overvalued by the public. The Packers may be it. If there is an opportunity early in the season, particularly if backed up by a public money-induced line shift, the Packers might invite a pick.

5. I also think the Jets are perhaps overrated. Their defense should be great again (although less so without Revis, who faithful readers will remember BadNFL had pegged as the best CB in football before that was a popular sentiment), but I think that their offense might be worse this year. Sanchez has done little to impress, and the Jets enter this season with a much less impressive corps of RBs: the unproven Shonn Greene and the rotting carcass of LT. They also got extremely lucky during their playoff run this year, in particular with normally reliable opposing kickers (Shayne Graham and Nate Kaeding) missing everything in sight.

They also have a nasty schedule to open the season. I think it entirely possible they could be under .500 heading into their bye week, at which point they might become an underrated team (since, as we know, most bettors and prognosticators tend to overreact to recent results). Also, according to this handy preview from Marc Lawrence, the Jets are 1-6 ATS in their last 7 against Baltimore and 1-10 in their last 11 at home against New England -- their first two opponents. Of course, the last time the Jets played in New England, they covered. But Welker was out and the Jets were underrated that time around. This time, I think the tables have turned. We'll see. I expect the Jets to underperform early in the year, I expect people to freak out and madly jump off the bandwagon, making the Jets at some point a smart value pick to turn it around. The question will be whether BadNFL can identify the appropriate point in time to ride those Jets. It probably won't be early.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Year One Strategy Review

At long last, the NFL season approaches, and with it, BadNFL makes its much anticipated return to the blogosphere. Before the season gets underway, I've long been planning to do a 2009 Season Recap that takes an introspective look at BadNFL's inaugural year, breaking down some of the things that went right and some of the things that didn't. In doing so, I hoped to articulate some of the meta-lessons learned from that inaugural season.

An apology though: this summer, studying for the bar exam while working full time inhibited my ability to do the intense sort of data analysis I wanted to do this offseason. Hopefully it can happen next summer! But that said, I don't want to deprive BadNFL Nation of the benefits of a few reflections on the prediction methodology of Year 1.

Coming in the next few days or so, before the season gets underway, will be a counterpart post explaining my takes on a couple of teams that the public and most prognosticators have misvalued heading into the season, in the hopes that those observations can aid in early season game predictions.

Without further ado, here are 6 observations and thoughts:

1. Explosive passing offenses against porous secondaries form a potent combination. This point seems patently obvious when stated like that, but for those of you who followed my analysis closely last year, a recurring theme was that explosive (top-5) passing attacks vs. pathetic (bottom 5) secondaries routinely covered. In fact, there were 3 games where my pick was based in part on the observation of this phenomenon: Week 16 Chargers +3 @ Titans (SDG won 42-17), Week 7 Colts -13.5 @ Rams (IND won 42-6), and Week 5 Colts -3.5 @ Titans (IND won 31-9). Admittedly, the sample size is rather small, but it is remarkable how lopsided these victories all were. The reasoning is fairly simple (first explained here): aggressive, passing-heavy teams are able to jump out to huge leads rather quickly in these games, which renders the opposing offense one-dimensional (leading to turnovers) and fairly unmotivated--both of which help facilitate blowouts. Moreover, teams like the Colts and Bolts last year generally did not know how to lay off the gas pedal; it's not like they had dominant running games to milk the clock late. As such, the score kept growing.

By way of contrast, this might also explain my spectacularly wrong prediction in Week 6, where I took the heavily favored Eagles against the woeful Raiders; in that game, although the Eagles had an explosive offense and the Raiders a pitiful defense, the Raiders actually sported a decent secondary--headlined, obviously, by the superb Nnamdi Asomugha--and sat back and dared Andy Reid to run the ball. He didn't, and because of that (or perhaps because it was a trap game), the Eagles suffered one of the most stunning losses of the year.

Thus, this year, I will keep an eye out for the foregoing phenomenon; if the lines are lower than -14, they might prove appetizing.

2. The Trap Game phenomenon. This phrase is bandied about a lot among the pundits, and no doubt the worry about the vaunted "trap game" will surface during one of my predictions this year. As I explained in my recap of the Eagles shocking loss to the Raiders last year, I remain reticent to make predictions that are heavily founded on psychology, since the ability of NFL fans to estimate teams' mental states seems limited at best.

But then again, there seem to be games where psychology plays an important role; the Bengals' gutsy win over the Ravens following Coach Zimmer's wife's tragic death, the Saints' first game in the Superdome post-Katrina, and Brett Favre's MNF game the night of his father's death all spring to mind. Also, in late season games, where teams out of the playoffs have little to play for, marginal spreads can be beaten easily (witness the 49ers covering against the pathetic Rams in week 17 last year). But for the most part, I want to stay away from psychology this year.

As such, I'm not going to obsess about the "trap game" phenomenon, just because I think it's difficult to predict. However, I'll endeavor to keep in mind my estimation of the constituent elements of a trap game, derived in the wake of the Eagles/Raiders debacle last year:
The lesson is this: you should beware betting on (1) a heavy favorite, (2) playing against a team that has already hit rock bottom, where there has (3) been some catalytic event (here the Pierce criticism) that might serve to inspire them, and (4) where that favorite has not played a good team in several weeks.
3. The relevance of the 1st head-to-head matchup in predicting the outcome of a 2nd game: I don't think I had a good handle on the vagaries of intra-divisional games in Year 1. Specifically, when picking late-season divisional games, I cited as evidence -- without thorough reflection -- my pick's performance against the opponent in their prior game. Conversely, with the Bengals and Ravens, I misjudged the second game, which the Bengals won, because I mistakenly thought the Ravens would refuse to lose to the Bengals twice in one year.

Instead of just unreflexively citing a gut feeling about the previous game, this year I plan to more methodically examine what some sharps call the "revenge factor" when evaluating late season divisional games. That said, I think that term is a little misleading, since it evokes a focus on psychology, something that I've already largely forsworn this year, and as such, many betting guides counsel against its use. Instead, I think it's largely about the team's and the coaching staff's ability to make adjustments in repeat matchups (the same theory explains why playoff basketball is so much different from regular season basketball, where coaches have much more time and film with which to make adjustments). This will be a factor worth watching, but as Miami and Buffalo proved last year, a huge win in an early season game does not mean that the winner will cover the spread in the late season rematch.

4. The "coming off of a big win" phenomenon. There is a tendency to overreact to one week's good performance by thinking that one good game will carry over to the following week. To be sure, a big win can inspire players and confer momentum upon a team. And there is no doubt that teams play better or worse depending on what part of the season it is.

But there is an equally compelling (at least in theory) opposite effect: a big win can emotionally exhaust and depress motivation, leading to a subpar performance the following game. In fact, this basic theory as at the heart of the venerable and popular "zig zag" theory of basketball betting. Moreover, this basic theory was instrumental to the reasoning behind one of BadNFL's best Year 1 picks, when the Redskins easily covered (and should have won) against the Saints. A similar dynamic may have been at work in Week 2, in which the Jets beat the Pats in what was at the time considered an upset. Some analysts, particularly faithful BadNFL readers will remember, had predicted a Pats victory in part because they had demonstrated guts by eeking out a close win against Buffalo in Week 1. But BadNFL knew better; the Pats close win over the Bills revealed structural deficiencies with the Patriots, deficiencies that the Jets were able to exploit.

So, this year, I will be careful in how I invoke a team's performance from the prior week. When a team's good play in recent weeks can be traced to some structural change -- a coaching change, a QB change, or getting a key player back from injury -- then it probably have a greater chance of carrying over. But when it was merely a flash in the pan type performance coming off a bye (as apparently was the case in my ill fated Ravens-Bengals Week 9 pick), then maybe the Saints-Skins effect will dominate.

5. The psychology of the betting marketplace. As all smart bettors know, the Vegas lines do not actually reflect what the bookmakers think the score will be; rather, they reflect the bookmakers' prediction of what the public thinks the score will be. Thus, as I pointed out on occasion in Year 1, finding teams that the public significantly over or undervalues can be helpful in locating lines that are deliberately set inaccurately.

One way to do that can be to rely on advanced metrics like Football Outsiders' DVOA, which are presumably more sophisticated than basic stats like yards and points scored, which are the stats traditionally relied on by squares. Of course, as Chad Millman noted this week, the dividing line between sharps and squares has gradually dissipated, as mainstream sportsfans become increasingly savvy. Like my point #2 above, I'm reticent to probe the public's psychology too much. But I remain convinced that looking for structurally over or undervalued teams can be an important component of a game analysis, even apart from the more traditional scouting analysis that BadNFL usually employs. Thus, even though my use of FO-type stats backfired last season, I remain committed to the concept this year (plus, that Ravens/Bengals game was unduly impacted by the absence of Heloti Ngata, given that he is arguably their best player).

6. Does the preseason matter? Overall, the data show that while there's a correlation between preseason record and regular season wins, that correlation is small, although perhaps most significant in cases where the team was mediocre the year before (between 7 and 9 wins). Granted, some people who parse the data in a more simplistic way can show that in certain cases, a dominant preseason can translate into season success, but in general, preseason record seems only trivially important. That being said, specific stories and experiences that emerge from the preseason can have a big impact on the season. Which preseason storylines will matter this year?

This typical list isolates what you might expect -- big injuries (Ty Warren etc.), contract disputes (Vincent Jackson, Revis), etc. But that's not what I'm chiefly interested in. I'm wondering what performance-related issues from the preseason will carry over to the season. There are several, like Aaron Rodgers' dominance, that are tantalizing. But the one in which I'm quite interested, and one that might serve as a springboard for further insight into what types of preseason issues carry over, is the Cowboys' offensive malaise. Simply put, their offensive line and running game have looked horrendous in the preseason, and the coaches and players keep insisting they'll turn it on in the regular season.

I don't know. This was a topic that I didn't analyze much early in Year 1, but one I want to be vigilant about early in the year. Because it should certainly be helpful to early season betting in Year 3.