A Beginner’s Guide on How to Handicap
The difference between being a sharp and being a square is closer than you think.
In the sportsbetting world, we are told that there are two different types of bettors. The “sharps” are the professional bettors, and the “squares” are the general betting public. This might be a bit of a misnomer though, because you can be a “professional bettor” in the sense that betting is what you do for a living without being a “sharp,” and you can be a casual bettor without being a “square.” The difference is not how much money you bet, or how frequently, but in how you prepare.
First let me get this out of the way: As a sports statistician going on 15 years and as an advantage play aficionado, I do not think that the house can be beat by the average run-of-the-mill bettor on a regular basis. I am only offering this template on how to handicap games to illustrate the differences on how sharp bettors prepare vs. the average bettor. You do not necessarily need any special software or algorithm to be a sharp, and I am particularly skeptical of computer models that rely too heavily on previous outcomes. The average football fan who watches all the games can do very well predicting games if they know what details to focus on and how to prepare. So let’s go through a list of all the things that I take into consideration during the leadup to a game. I will categorize them into levels, with Level one being the most basic handicapping principals to Level three which is far more in depth and would involve film study:
LEVEL ONE HANDICAPPING: Basic Principles
This seems obvious, but never neglect to see who’s actually going to be playing in the game. Is there an injury at a key position? Who is the backup? Look at what happened last week to the Cowboys. Dallas not having their All-Pro left tackle blew up their entire game. Do you think that “squares” gave much thought to Tyron Smith being out? Do they even know who he is? If they didn’t before they do now.
It’s not just injuries to QBs that you need to be aware of- there are key players on almost every team that are virtually irreplaceable since their play cannot be duplicated by anyone else on their roster. I mentioned a few defensive players that have proven to be key difference makers when not in the lineup in a previous article- but overall just be aware if a team is missing an important player. How will the team compensate for the loss? If the answer is “they can’t” like we saw in Atlanta last week, then you know what side to be on.
A good resource to see the latest on injuries in a concise way is to check out the Rotoworld website and click “all” for injuries: http://www.rotoworld.com/teams/injuries/nfl/all/
Home Field Advantage
Another common mistake a square would make is to not fully take into consideration the impact home field advantage has on outcomes. Sometimes there are big discrepancies on how teams play at home vs. on the road, and it’s easy to forget that the performance you saw from the home team is not going to be indicative of their next game on the road. Beyond just the travel issues, crowd noise has a huge impact on how an offense calls plays and executes a gameplan. For example, if you think about the Steelers’ struggles on offense so far this year, it’s worth mentioning that they played 6 of their first 9 games on the road before Thursday night, and the home games they have played have been against the Vikings, Jaguars, and Bengals. The Vikings and Jaguars are two of the top defensive teams in the NFL, but they did score 29 points on the Bengals, which until last night was their season high in points. With 5 of their last 7 games at home, look for the Steelers offense live up to their billing the rest of the way.
Not all home field advantage is created equal though, and a team that is losing might have a sparse, angry crowd that could actually be a detriment to them winning. Meanwhile, teams like the Seahawks and Chiefs have an incredible home field advantage. Understanding the impact on each team’s home field advantage is a key component in your evaluation of the outcome of the game.
Another factor “squares” tend to overlook are the conditions the games are being played in. Will the game be played in extreme weather? Snow, wind and rain all play a factor not just in who wins and loses, but how may points is scored in the game.
Interestingly enough, a misconception about snow is that it’s usually bad for scoring. The stats say the opposite. Since 2007, games played in snowy conditions have averaged 48.47 ppg, which is about 5 points more than the normal average total of 43.87 ppg. Now think about the realities of playing a football game. Offensive players know where they are going on the field. Defenders try to guess, anticipate, and react to those movements. If the footing on the field makes things slippery, it’s harder to move your body to react. So playing in snow or conditions where it’s hard to get proper footing gives an advantage to the offense.
So what is the most impactful weather condition? It’s actually not snow, or rain, or cold or heat. It’s when it’s very windy. While not as viscerally impactful as snow or rain, wind can be very tricky to predict, as it doesn’t always stay consistent in strength or direction throughout the entire game. Hazardous wind conditions can destroy kicking games and all but eliminate downfield passing. Anyone recall the 1987 NFC championship game? The Redskins played the Giants in 30 mph winds, which wrecked havoc, and was the single biggest determining factor in the outcome of the game.
So the least you can do before you bet is know what the weather conditions are going to be like. A very good site that gives you everything you need is http://www.nflweather.com/.
LEVEL TWO HANDICAPPING: Measuring Intangibles
Here is where we move from the very basic to medium level handicapping. This level’s focus is on the intangible circumstances that could decide a game. A lot of it might seem like common sense, but in the NFL, little things do matter. Every team has elite athletes, and besides premier QB play and coaching, there isn’t really much difference between teams. The oddsmakers know this, which is why about 4 out 5 NFL lines are set within a single score. So what intangible can be a determining factor with evenly matched teams? Motivation. Look at the Giants for example. Yes, they have been beset by injury. So have a lot of other teams. But when players aren’t playing hard anymore and seem to be giving up on the season, that is how you go from losing close games to being blown out 51–17. Again, proper handicapping is about recognizing determining factors for a game, and teams having something to play for vs. teams who don’t is a huge factor. As an aside, this is why I am skeptical about handicapping algorithms. How do you quantify teams who have given up on the season? What metric would one use to do that? And if you didn’t do that previously, doesn’t that taint your previous data?
Within the subset of motivation, here’s a rundown of basic things to look for:
Team in the playoff hunt vs. a team with nothing to play for
Traditional rivals that always play hard vs. each other regardless of the circumstances
Teams that have clinched playoffs and have nothing to play for or will be resting their starters
Teams that have given up on the season
The above are scenarios that will be like big flashing neon signs. They should be obvious to the average fan and bettor, and will likely be discussed by analysts before the game. Now here are some more subtle motivation scenarios:
Travel schedule and byes
Always follow the part of the schedule a team is on. Are they on a road trip? Is their bye coming up? Is there a time zone difference for one team but not the other? Is it a warm weather team heading into the cold or vice versa? These are all human elements that can turn into factors for deciding outcomes, especially if it’s an even game on paper.
A “trap” game is where a team could be looking past an inferior opponent because they have a more important game coming up. While far more common in college, it definitely does happen in the NFL. It may be a little too early in the season for there to be actual trap games now, but keep an eye out for potential trap games during the home stretch of the season. For example, take a look at the Jaguars’ schedule in the final month:
Sandwiched between two division games and leading into what could be the game of the year for them in week 17, the Jags take on the lowly 49ers on the road in week 16. This is a quintessential trap game. Are the Jaguars emotionally mature enough not to fall into it? Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Jobs on the line
There is a difference between a bad team that has nothing to play for and a bad team that is in jeopardy of a regime change. This is an important distinction to make, and it’s why teams usually don’t tank in the NFL. (Except for the Browns, who are doing it openly and brazenly at this point. Who goes for a QB sneak from the 3 yard line with 15 seconds left and no timeouts? Teams who are trying to lose. That’s who.) The average NFL season has 4 to 5 head coaching changes, and new head coaches usually bring in their own staff, their own style, and more importantly to the current team, their own players. Look what happened to Tyrod Taylor, who was never Sean McDermott’s “guy.” Players realize that losing could force the team to change coaches, which mean their job could be on the line as well. So for every team like the Giants who may have a bit of a mutiny on their hands, you are going to have the Bengals with Marvin Lewis or the Bucs with Dirk Koetter, where the team will be playing hard even when the season is lost. Admittedly this is a bit of a judgement call, but you should be able to know when teams are playing hard when you see it. This is a basic tenant of handicapping: translating what you see on the field into determining the outcome of a future event.
A side note on the Browns: In a previous article I made the case that they intentionally tanked during the 2016 season, and there is mounting evidence that they are following the same path again in 2017. Now that the 49ers got their first win, look for the Browns to be in win-hunting mode until they get their first one. I’m certain that the Browns only remaining goal is to secure the #1 overall pick, but would like to do so while winning as many games as possible. So be aware that the Browns will be trying to win this week, because doing so will no longer hurt their draft position. This week’s opponent is the Jaguars, who are -7.5 point favorites on the road? Interesting…
“No one believes in us”
The final segment on motivation is often heard in locker rooms, no matter if it is true or not, and has an impact on games. So how does someone with no access to players know when a team is feeling disrespected? You can start by looking at the line. Chances are, if the line is outsized or in double digits, a team is going to try to use that as motivation to get up for the game. Does it work? Well, perhaps there is a reason why, as I wrote in an earlier article (another shameless plug I know, but they’ve all been relevant I promise!) that the bigger the favorite in the NFL, the more often they cover.
As an overarching thing, respect is important in every locker room in the NFL. In order to handicap this, always know the result of the recent games the teams have played. Was the game contentious? Was it an important game? What would seem like an irrelevant week 14 game on paper might just be a team’s Superbowl in terms of motivation due to a previous meeting, and if so, it would be wise for you to know that.
Now a question you might be asking yourself is, how can one quantify something like motivation into a betting line? Well, there is no specific formula like “deduct one point from the Giants’ spread for every player who anonymously rips Ben Mcadoo.” Everything must be taken on a case by case basis and intangible factors, while important, are just a component to the handicapping process. Let’s talk about the most important aspect of handicapping now.
LEVEL THREE HANDICAPPING: Game Theory
Without getting too far past a “beginner’s” guide to handicapping, I want to touch on the basics of third level handicapping and how to do it.
Let’s say you’re pretty good on the first two levels I’ve mentioned. You have a good feel for the intangibles of the game, you know who’s playing, where, and the conditions. How do you actually handicap it?
The Two-Games Principle
Remember, in football, the opposing offenses (and defenses) never play each other. So in essence, a football game is actually a combination of two different games at the same time. So in order to try to figure out how the contest will shape out, you must consider each matchup like it is it’s own game.
Let’s take the Raiders-Patriots game this weekend as an example. It’s not a matchup of Tom Brady vs. Derek Carr like the network bills it- it’s actually Tom Brady vs. Navarro Bowman/Khahil Mack/Karl Joseph etc. Or better yet, Josh McDaniels vs. Ken Norton.
This is where film study should play a big role in developing your understanding and expectation of the game. Which routes are the Patriots’ staples vs. the expected coverage they will see from the Raiders? The Patriots have been susceptible to the big play on offense. How will the Raiders attack them?
Also, since we are talking about the Patriots, do not miss seeing Bill Belichick break down his upcoming opponents. Without giving away anything about the gameplan, you definitely get a sense to what the Patriots are looking at when they see their opponents:
On paper the Patriots offense vs. the Raiders defense is a mismatch. The Raiders are one of the worst teams against the pass and the Patriots have the top passing offense.
Are those stats accurate and indicative of the team that’s being put out on the field? Probably more so for the Patriots than the Raiders. I believe the Raiders aren’t as bad as it seems against the pass, and that the Patriots are as good as advertised. But that still leads me to believe that the Patriots are much better on offense than the Raiders on defense. Advantage: Patriots Offense
The same can be said on the flip: The Patriots have not been up to their usual standards on defense this year, but have come around in recent games from their disastrous start. The Raiders offense is also coming off it’s best performance, and off of a bye so they’ve had more time to prepare. Advantage: Raiders Offense (though not quite as much)
You have a big variable in the location of the game, giving a slight advantage to the Raiders. Both teams will be defacto road teams. Motivation is seemingly not a issue with either team. Therefore, the intangible variables are fairly low for this game.
So how do we get to actual numbers?
You start by something I call the range of likely outcomes. Sites like ESPN Pickcenter does this via their algorithm, but someone who is fully versed in the teams involved doesn’t necessarily need a fancy computer model when your ability to consider variables like motivation is far more sophisticated than any algorithm that I know of. This is how I get to the range of likely outcomes:
Considering Level 1 and Level 2 handicapping, what do I think the worst/best case scenario for points scored by the Patriots will be? How about the Raiders offense?
Here we see the Pats average a league best 39+ yards and 2.64 points per drive. The Raiders are giving up 30 yards and 2.22 per drive, which is 30th in the NFL. Yikes. Oakland is 7th in redzone scoring defense, and the Pats have been surprisingly subpar in the redzone. If Oakland can force field goals they have a chance.
I am going to put the range of likely outcome for the Pats offense to be 6–7 scoring drives.
Worst case 4 FGs 2 TDs = 26 points
Best case 7 TDs = 49 points with a median of around 34.
The Raiders offense averages a 30+ yards and 2.07 points per drive. The Pats are giving up 39+ yards per dive, which is the worst in the NFL, but is only 19th in ppd.
I am going to put the range of likely outcome for the Raiders offense to be 5–6 scoring drives.
Worst case 4 FGs 1 TDs = 19 points
Best case 6 TDs = 42 points with a median of around 27.
So in my estimation, this will be a high scoring game with the likeliest final score being Pats 34 Raiders 27.
However, I would not be surprised if the final score was not indicative of how close the game was. I could see it being Pats 21–0 and the Raiders scrapping to make it a game at the end.
So that is basically how you handicap. Of course there’s plenty more to it, and I adhere to an “all of the above” mentality when it comes to stats- and the more relevant they are, the better. I also get my info from diverse sources. For example, the top fantasy football pundits out there put in the work and can give you a useful information to help you predict outcomes. Just make sure to use the stats as a guideline, not as the end-all-be-all, because all stats indicate is what has happened, not what will happen.
One final note: One thing that has served me well in trying to predict outcomes is to ignore the handicapping opinions of others, especially if they aren’t handicapping properly. I don’t even want their opinion in my subconscious if that’s the case! This means that I try to avoid just about every pundit’s opinions on games. (This goes double for Mike Florio.) Form your own thoughts and ideas on the games, and trust what you see! It will lead you to a more satisfying handicapping experience. It will truly be yours. If you’re a fan of football that absorbs all the games, you’re a handicapper already, whether you knew it or not. Now hopefully you’ve got a basic idea on how to do it.
Alex Brigandi has been a in-game reporter with STATS LLC since 2002 and has analyzed the NFL from a betting perspective in Las Vegas since 2007. You can contact him on twitter with any questions, comments, or syndication requests.