Real or Fake - How to Judge Suddenly Improving NFL Teams
Every year in the NFL there seems to be a couple of teams that make dramatic statistical gains in an area in which they really struggled. It could be, for example, that they were really terrible against the pass one year, yet after a couple of games in the new season they are right near the top of the league. Or perhaps a team that couldn't run if their life depended on it one year is suddenly running like crazy early in the next season. Rapid improvements like that are certainly possible, and often times they endure throughout the whole season. Other times, though, they are just a mirage, and the old, lousy former selves are back before their bye week. It's obviously very valuable for handicappers to be able to spot the difference between improvement that is fleeting and that which is lasting. Here are five factors that can help you spot the difference between what is real and what isn't:
Who have they played? – This is the biggest way that casual bettors get misled by what a team has accomplished. If they have played a couple of games against teams with really lousy secondaries, for example, then it wouldn't be that impressive if a team started the year with impressive passing numbers – even if they had been lousy last year. The same would go for a pass defense that looks good because they have played against quarterbacks who would struggle to complete a pass if his team was the only one on the field. It's important that you don't just look at the overall impression of the opponents they have played, either – a team can look decent overall while being totally deficient in one area.
What were the problems in the past? – Before you can really judge if a team has improved significantly in an area of need you really need to understand what the problem was with the team last year. Often times the most obvious answer to the question of what is wrong with a team isn't really the prime cause for their problems. If you don't understand the cause – or the biggest causes at least – then you can't accurately judge whether they have solved the issue. For example, a weak secondary could be weak because it is too slow or too small, or because of injuries, or because of a weak link that was consistently exploited, or because of bad scheming or preparation.
What changes did they make to improve the issues? – Once you know what the problems are you can judge whether they really can be fixed quickly, what it would take to fix them, and if what the team did gives them a good chance of fixing those problems. If the team didn't make significant challenges ten it is unlikely that there will be significant lasting improvements. If they were a bad pass defense team then did they change a coach, add size or speed, or bring in a higher caliber of player? Did a bad passing team change coaches or quarterback, or improve the receivers, the offensive line, or the running game to improve balance?
How did they start in the past? – Sometimes teams are able to get off to a fast start to the season but can't keep it up after a few games. That could be an issue if they lack depth, or if they use a defensive system that is easier to play against once teams get familiar with it. If a team has had a tendency to start fast in a certain area and then tail off in past seasons then it wouldn't make too much sense to get too excited because they are off to a strong start here.
What do the stats really say? – There is so much powerful, easily digestible, and widely available statistical information out there that there is no excuse to have less than strong knowledge about what a team has actually accomplished in different areas. The more you can really understand about where the team is strong or weak the more you can really understand how poorly they performed last year, and how much better they are really playing worse. It could be that on the surface the team has made a big improvement, but when you look at it in a more statistically sophisticated sense you will see that they really haven't. For example, it could seem like a poor passing team is passing much better because their passing yardage is much more than it was last year. When you look closer, though, you might find that they are being forced to pass a lot more often because of problems with the running game and their yards per attempt is actually even worse than last year. Or perhaps their passing yardage is inflated not because they are passing better but because their receivers have broken a big run or two after the catch. The more effort you put into painting an accurate statistical picture, the better the decisions that you are ultimately going to make.
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