Just Like Making Love, There’s A Right Way And A Wrong Way To Go About Things
When you think about it, there are only three ways to handicap a pro football game:
- Get a hunch, bet a bunch
- Use stats from recent games in some sort of mathematical formula…An objective approach
- Judge the motivational and psychological factors effecting the teams…A subjective approach
Most recreational bettors use some form of the first method above. They gamble mostly for entertainment, and are not inclined to do any serious research. They just want a reason to watch an NFL football game on television. Hey, nothing wrong with that, so long as no serious money is involved. It can be cheap entertainment.
More serious gamblers use either the second method or the third method.
When first starting out to seriously beat pro football lines, almost all beginners begin with stats. These fellows sometimes have goatees and pocket protectors, and often use words like “yards-per-point,” “megabytes” and “software.”
A psychologist might say that hard core statisticians have a need for the solid feel of their predictions. Mathematical formulas produce a definitive forecast in black-and-white. Enter the numbers into the formula and – boom! – suddenly, there’s a tangible and solid score predicted.
In a strange way, the use of a mathematical formula can relieve users of the responsibility of losing. A mathematical formula can also relieve handicappers of the obligation to think for themselves; – to make judgments and form opinions. Many statisticians don’t trust judgments nor opinions. These guys want solid evidence in black-and-white, produced by a pre-tested objective mathematical equation. They refuse to consider things like revenge, injuries, emotional letdowns, or other non-mathematical evidence. The ethereal, intangible quality of subjective considerations seems to make them uncomfortable.
Subjective handicappers, on the other hand, are the psychologists among us. These fellows see a football game as a highly emotional affair, usually won by the team best prepared on a psychological level. They are convinced that whichever team is most motivated figures to cover the pointspread. Their forecasts come from such factors as ‘must-win’ situations, revenge, squabbling between teammates, player holdouts, injuries, all manner of outside distractions…Any number of emotional and subjective considerations that cannot be defined by numbers. So far as these fellows are concerned, stats are merely a reflection of past subjective factors. A hard core subjectivist can be contemptuous of the unbending, dictatorial aspects of mathematical systems.
So who’s right, – the statisticians or the psychologists?
Well, they both are, part of the time.
Which brings us to a fourth group of handicappers, and I have never met a successful handicapper who was not part of this last group. These guys use both mathematical factors (stats) and psychological factors (virtually everything but stats) to handicap football games.
That’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. Such men are rare. People are predisposed to be one or the other, a statistician or a psychologist. Very few people can be both at the same time. It’s a left-brain/right-brain thing. It involves both the logical/spatial/mathematical parts of our brain, and the creative/artistic/subjective parts.
Those two parts of our brain don’t mix well. It takes practice.
These fellows in this fourth group will tell you that different parts of the NFL season call for different ratios of importance between objective and subjective factors.
For example, during exhibition season, it is useless to regard past stats in the same way they must be regarded during regular season or playoffs. In fact, preseason games are best handicapped using virtually nothing but subjective considerations.
Here’s why: Preseason games are determined to a great extent by coaches’ motives. Keep in mind that the goal during exhibition season is not necessarily to win the game; – it’s to get ready to win games in the regular season. A coach knows that no one will remember nor care how many exhibition games he wins. During exhibition season he is likely to practice what he regards as his team’s worst aspects. He will use least those players in which he has most confidence, he will use most those players in which he has least confidence. If a team had trouble rushing last year, they may do a lot of rushing during preseason. If a team had an excellent rushing attack last year, they might not rush much during preseason….Get it? During preseason, high-scoring teams can be low-scoring teams, low-scoring teams can be high-scoring teams, last year’s 2-14 team can beat last year’s Super Bowl winner. Everything can seem topsy-turvy to a statistician.
…But it’s not topsy-turvy to a subjective handicapper who knows the teams’ weaknesses and goals. If two good quarterbacks are battling for the starting spot, for example, a coach is likely to leave in all his offensive starters to better compare the two candidates. On the other hand, if the starting quarterback is set, the coach may use a backup quarterback in order to test new linemen, receivers, and rookie running backs…Which of those situations offer the best chance of winning?
…Yeah, – you get it.
Ah, but the importance of stats shifts as the season progresses, sometimes even from game to game within the same weeks. By playoff time, the pendulum has swung to the other end of its arc. In playoffs, emotional factors even out. After all, everybody’s top priority is a shot at the Super Bowl. Everybody’s motivations peak. Every game is sudden death. Forget about revenge. Forget about jealousy. Forget about all the other motivations you’ve learned to watch for; – during playoffs, statisticians can make a killing. That’s right, – it’s time to grow the ol’ goatee and buy a pocket protector. Go with the stats.
…But that, too, isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. There are pitfalls when comparing stats. For example, when two teams have similar stats, check their recent opponents. If one team clearly played tougher opponents, that’s significant. Building good stats against the 1998 Eagles or Saints is not the same as building good stats against the 1998 Packers or Forty-niners.
If you can establish which team in any playoff game truly has the best stats – remembering to account for their level of competition – you won’t go far wrong by betting on them. Playoff season is that time of year when the best teams do, indeed, cover the spread an enormous percentage of times.
The final week or two of the regular season can be tricky to predict. Some games in Weeks 16 and 17 will be best handicapped by using subjective methods, and others will be most vulnerable by using statistical methods. For example, by early December it’s a good bet that one team or another will have locked in home field throughout the playoffs. Others will still be struggling to make the playoffs. Teams with nothing to gain will often do badly in their final game(s) of the regular season. The reason is, the coach will tend to use such games the same way he used exhibition games; – to get ready to win playoff games. He’ll rest his starters and test his backup players. He’ll practice the parts of his game which he feels needs the most work.
…And if a statistician isn’t aware of that, and if he refuses to account for that, it will hurt his forecasts. In the final weeks of the regular season he will overestimate such a team because he does not account for the teams’ lack of a need to win. Moreover, in the playoffs, he will underestimate that same team because they posted such lousy stats in the final couple weeks of the regular season. Many statisticians refuse to ignore those games that aren’t really indicative of how good a team really is.
Successful gamblers are more pliable, more resilient. They weigh all the evidence; not just the mathematical evidence, and not just the motivational evidence. Successful gamblers use stats, alright, but they don’t build inviolable rules for themselves. They aren’t afraid to make subjective judgments in conjunction with their objective evidence.