Sometimes a football team gets off to a horrifyingly bad start to the NFL season. They may have been expected to be a playoff team – or at least a serious playoff contender – heading into the season, but they have looked like a high school team – a bad one – in their first few games of the NFL season. For NFL handicappers that presents a real challenge. Is the way they have played to start the season representative of what they are really capable of and what we can expect from them, or are they going to be able to rebound and play closer to expectations as the season progresses? Here are six factors to consider when trying to figure that out:
Who have they played? – The schedule obviously has a big impact on how a NFL team is able to perform. At the risk of being too obvious, it’s far easier to look good against bad teams than it is against good teams. It would make more sense to panic if they have looked terrible against lousy teams, then, than if it had come against very strong, playoff caliber teams. Beyond who they have played there are other factors to consider as well. How well have they done against the spread in their games? It could be that the performances weren’t really as bad as they looked if they still covered the spread. Who do they play next? It’s more necessary for a NFL handicappers to panic if the schedule gets harder the next few games than if the next games are easier than the starting games were.
What changed in the offseason? – When a team spectacularly fails to meet expectations sports bettors can be all but certain that changes were made in the offseason. It’s those changes that likely had expectations heightened, and it’s also those changes – or the difficulty adjusting to them – that has caused the struggles to start the season. There could be any number of changes that could have these significant impacts – a new head coach, a change of coordinator, a shakeup in the front office or the owner’s suite, a big free agent acquisition, or a top level rookie. NFL handicappers need to determine what changes have been made, if those changes are causing issues, what those issues are, and how long they are likely to continue to be issues.
Do they have correctable issues? – There are some problems that a NFL team has that can be changed relatively easily. If, for example, a big problem is that the defense is struggling to tackle effectively then that can be worked on in practice and improvement can be shown in a reasonably short time. There are other problems, though, that really can’t be fixed in the middle of a season – like if the defense is consistently getting victimized because the secondary is too slow, small, and lacking in depth. The more correctable a team’s issues are, the more likely they are to snap out of their funk and get back on track.
What have they done well? – When a team has had really horrible results in a couple of games the temptation is to assume that they are just generally awful. Often times that just isn’t the case, They obviously aren’t playing great overall, but there are probably some aspects of their game that they are doing fine in. Maybe the run defense has been particularly strong but the pass defense has struggled. Or perhaps the special teams have been, well, special. The public likely won’t be subtle enough to understand what the team is doing well, so they will be surprised when they find a situation where that strength can turn into a win. If as a sports bettor you aren’t surprised by the same thing then you have a very good chance to find value.
Are they healthy? – The more banged up a team is, the more difficult it is to play to potential. The public will have a good sense of injuries to high profile players like quarterbacks or running backs. They will be less in tune to lower profile but still crucial positions like the offensive or defensive lines or the secondary. The better sense you can have of who is hurt and the impact it will have on a team the more likely you are to be able to explain what is going on. The timing of any injury is important as well. If a player was hurt early in training camp then the team has had plenty of time to adjust and get the replacement player ready. If the injury happened late in the preseason or early in the season, though, then the team could be far less prepared to make up for his absence.
Were the expectations reasonable? – Whenever a NFL team badly misses expectations the first thing you should do is make sure that the expectations were reasonable in the first place. Why was the team thought to be a playoff team? Was that realistic, or was the team subjected to extra hype because of star players or what they have done in the past? With NFL handicapping you have to ask the right questions.