Saturday, October 09, 2010

Revisiting NFL Gambling

I am absolutely crushing the NFL picks so far this season: 62% for the year and an absurd 74% in games I have liked. These gaudy numbers have won me exactly one six pack of beer. I have not bet money on any game this season.

Longtime readers of this blog know I bet a lot of money on games during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. I had no intention of ever betting sports seriously but decided in 2008 I was knowledgeable enough to give it a try, and was immediately successful. In 2008 I was part of a three-man team that fared pretty well, particularly during the middle part of the season. All told for 2008 I was 16 games over .500 picking all the games, 55-41-4 in games in which I had an opinion, and a very strong 15-8-1 in games I felt strongly about.

We were extremely fired up for the 2009 season and expected to make quite a bit of money. We fell flat on our faces, lost consistently for the first half of the season, and completely abandoned the project around the midway point of the '09 season. In 2009 I finished 11 games below .500 picking all the games, 49-57 in games in which I had an opinion, and 6-10 in my highest priority games. It seemed like the more work we put into it (I watched every play of every game in 2009 thanks to DirecTV’s Short Cuts and spent an estimated 40-50 hours a week on the NFL) the worse we picked the games. I have spent an eternity trying to figure out why we were able to pick so well one season and so poorly the next. Were we overthinking it? Pressing? Talking ourselves into bad bets? Was it just variance? Is the NFL, as many have suggested, truly unbeatable? Were we lucky in 2008? Were we unlucky in 2009?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. There are some things I have been considering though.

I felt like most of our success in 2008 came down to betting on an undervalued corps of teams whose quality we accurately understood. The Ravens, Titans, Falcons and Giants were our ponies that season and we rode them all year long. I believe more than 100% of our profit came from betting on those four teams. I still remember some of the lines, laughing when they came out, knowing we were going to win betting on them.

In 2009 these teams didn’t exist. We never found undervalued ponies to ride. 2009 was actually a historically light year in the NFL in terms of turnaround. Most good teams from 2008 were still good in 2009, and most bad teams still stunk. It’s completely possible that we had no skill in analyzing games and that the only reason we were winning was that we had those four teams figured out while everyone else was too caught up in what they had done the year before.

There is a theory that the beginning of the season is the best time to bet on the NFL. In the beginning the public has a misguided perception of the teams. You can get a leg up before they catch on. Teams will not be evaluated properly for a while.

Personally I feel I had three advantages on the public entering this season:

a) I understand the concept of regression to the mean: the Saints were just not going to be as good as they were in 2009 even though their roster looks similar; Brett Favre was not going to play as well as he did last season; Chris Johnson was not going to run for 2000 yards again; the Rams and Lions had nowhere to go but up.

b) I read the Football Outsiders Almanac. This is a book about the NFL written by people who are very smart, very mathematical, and very obsessed with football. They know what they’re talking about.

c) You may have noticed I’m pretty obsessed with NFL football myself and have plenty of original thoughts of my own. I understand the teams and the game more thoroughly than the average fan.

Coming into 2010 there were six teams I liked notably more than the public: the Falcons, Steelers, Redskins, Chiefs, Texans and Patriots. Through four weeks these six teams are a combined 15-8 against the spread, and none are below .500.

Meanwhile, there were five teams I evaluated lower than the public: the Vikings, Niners, Chargers, Bengals, and Cardinals. These teams are a combined 7-11-1 vs the spread so far, and none are above .500.

Picking the teams I ranked higher than the public and against the ones I devalued accounts for most of my success. However, the public is catching on; when the Falcons win in New Orleans and the Chiefs blow out the Niners, the secrets get out. Looking at the lines this week, I didn’t feel like many lines were “off”: most seem about where they should be. At this point it’s more about evaluating situations than overall quality of teams. It’s more of a struggle to find teams I value far differently than the public, though I do have some opinions left:

The Cleveland Browns I still like a bit more than the public. After watching their first two games I was pretty confident the Browns were improved from a year ago and much better than people thought. They easily could have won their first two and I was excited to pick them in their next two, a closer-than-expected loss to the Ravens followed by an “upset” home win over the Bengals. That win over Cincy alerted the public to Cleveland’s quality, but maybe not all the way.

The Arizona Cardinals could be just horrendous, bottom of the league horrendous, but we can’t be sure until we see Max Hall play a full game or two.

I’m pretty sure the Indianapolis Colts are as good as ever.

I’m expecting the Colts to roll the Chiefs this weekend, which may give me a chance to bet on a Kansas City Chiefs team that will still be a good play at home or against mediocre teams.

I have picked the Miami Dolphins 4/4 weeks and think they still have value after a couple high-profile national TV losses.

The Atlanta Falcons might still be a tad undervalued, especially against tough teams.

The New York Giants might not be at all decent, which could be good news for my bankroll but bad news for my fantasy team.

I don’t think the Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, and Carolina Panthers are as bad as they appear so far and should get better as the season progresses. I have actually picked the Lions in every game this season (including this week) and they are 3-1 vs the spread so far.

The San Francisco 49ers may have some major bouncebackability after slipping into this hole but the public still seems to agree, installing them as a 3.5 pt favorite over the Eagles Sunday night. If they lose to the Eagles on national TV this week, they could become a 2009 Tennessee Titans-style turnaround team.

It’s hard to believe but the Oakland Raiders could actually be overvalued; we’ll find out more against the Chargers.

The St. Louis Rams have yet to drop a game against the spread but the public may overreact; St. Louis has faced a laughable schedule of Arizona at home, Oakland on the road, Washington (Mike Shanahan loves to blow games to bad teams) at home, and Seattle (the worst road team in the league) at home. If the Rams really wanted to compete for a playoff berth they would be 3-1 or 4-0. Bettors aren’t totally convinced, giving the Rams three points at 0-4 Detroit. Should the Rams win this one, they could become overvalued.

There is a chance the Baltimore Ravens are the best team in the league; they have, after all, beaten both the Jets and the Steelers – two of the other clear best teams – on the road. They are only a touchdown favorite at home against Denver, an apparent middle of the pack squad.

Watch out for the Washington Redskins as dogs and as favorites – for many years, Mike Shanahan has played right up to the competition.

Keep an eye on the New Orleans Saints – they are 1-3 vs the spread, their three wins are close ones against teams with a combined 1-10 record, and as I’ve noted before, Drew Brees sucks in cold weather.

The Seattle Seahawks feature a home/road gap larger than any American sports team not called the Rainbow Warriors.

Don’t forget to bet on the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road – not only are they the league’s best team, but their exquisite defense thrives playing away from the cesspool known as Heinz Field.

I have absolutely no clue why the Houston Texans are only favored by a field goal this week at home against the Giants.

There are two other reasons I believe I have been so accurate with the NFL picks thus far this season. First, I firmly believe I understand NFL homefield advantage much more clearly than the public. Watching all the games and tracking their results gives a rounder understanding of what it means for certain teams to play home and away.

In today’s NFL, not all home field advantages are equal. Some teams have a bigger edge at home than others. The Chargers, Chiefs, Falcons, Lions, Rams, Saints, Seahawks, Texans, and Vikings seem to me to have a special homefield advantage. Some of this is due to rabid crowds, some is due to distance of travel, and some is due to field conditions and the type of offense and defense the home teams play. The combined record of these “special” homefield teams at home vs. the spread so far this season: 13-5-1. The biggest edges belong to the Seahawks & Chiefs, who are a combined 4-0 at home (all blowouts vs. the spread).

Some teams (Bucs, Dolphins, Panthers, Steelers, Titans) seem to have almost no homefield advantage. The combined record of these teams at home vs. the spread this season: 3-8.

The third reason I believe I am doing so well this season is that I honestly believe I am on a very lucky run in life. Everything (except poker) seems to be going my way the last two months. A year ago at this time everything seemed to be going the other way. I am a superstitious person; I legitimately believe in running good and running bad, and feel like Midas right now.

The picks may be less bountiful down the stretch. Not too much jumped out at me in week five. But if it goes well, I feel as if I will have no choice but to put some money on the games starting next week.

Week Five Picks:

Also like:

TEXANS -3 over Giants
COLTS -7 over Chiefs
BILLS +1 over Jaguars

If forced to choose:

RAVENS -7 over Broncos
BENGALS -6.5 over Bucs
Saints -6.5 over Cardinals
PANTHERS -1 over Bears
Falcons -3 over Browns
LIONS -3 over Rams
Packers -2.5 over REDSKINS
JETS -4 over Vikings
Chargers -6 over RAIDERS
NINERS -3.5 over Eagles
COWBOYS -7 over Titans

Lock season record: 1-0
Really like season record: 2-1
Also like season record: 14-5-1
If forced to choose season record: 21-17
All games season record: 38-23-1


Blogger Ryan Wanger said...

The only person I ever knew who made a killing betting football was a guy who just took the over in every Rams game - the year they broke out as the greatest show on turf.

I think he also made most of his money early in the season, before everyone else could make the proper adjustments.

10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recently took out most of my money on bodog over the summer leaving myself with 100 or so to fuck around with. After losing $60 on about 10 separate prop bets for the World Cup finals, i have 40 left and plan on trying to build it up based on your "also like' and better picks. I plan on wagering it all each week till i (hopefully) get up to $1000. So thanks in advance for the moola and i plan to update anonymously each week where my roll is at.

1:06 AM  
Anonymous Stéphane Munger said...

Mr. Fuller, you are one very smart man. I enjoy greatly reading your NFL insight every week. I have, for the first time in my life, entered a pool where I must pick every single NFL game againt the spread. I used to hate predicting results, but since my huge Week 4 scoop (8-for-8 in the early games)...I am hooked.

Now, at 4:21 AM, getting back from my buddies' bachelor party, I am making my picks...and checking out your take on it all before I ring them in...thanks for your blog, très cool !!!

2:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i really like looking at your analysis. i may not always agree, but any additional nugget is very helpful. you should consider putting some time into college football.... when there are 45 games every weekend , the spreads are sure to be slightly off on at least a few of them......

3:47 PM  
Anonymous GmorningSun said...

Nice post, very nice post. You wouldn't be able to find the forest for the tree's nevermind successfully beat the NFL!

I still say you owe me at least
$5k for not taking my nfl challenge against the spread last year!

How many kills since I last checked Dexter?

6:26 PM  
Blogger TheGraveWolf said...

He Hath Returned!!

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have yet to meet anyone who consistently beats NFL games, period. The league is totally focused on promoting parity and the result is a league where teams are good one year and often bad the next.

Ima go out on a limb and predict that you are quickly back around .500 in your picks this season as well. I'd say it's far too early to feel confident based on a few weeks' picks, especially early on in the season.

I do hope you keep posting about the NFL though, even though I laugh sometimes at your picks I definitely enjoy your original nuggets of thought about the game when so much else out there is just regurgitating the same ole bullships over and over and over again.

3:09 PM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

Dunno if I can handle that pressure. It's one thing to gamble on yourself, it's another to do it with other people's bankrolls!

The return of GmorningSun!!! It's been too long my friend.

4:46 PM  
Blogger gaamblor said...

"Were we lucky in 2008? Were we unlucky in 2009?"

Did the grinder run good at the WSOP this year?

any more tough questions?

I've found the best betting opportunities don't come in the full game lines but in the half/ qtr lines and props esp in game where figuring out whats really going on is much more valuable.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

If you're doing a lot of subjective betting and not really attacking it from a quant angle, you nailed how to win. You pretty much find teams and spots that aren't valued correctly in the marketplace and bet them over and over again. I think Haralabos Voulgaris mentioned this in The Well on 2p2.

1:37 AM  
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10:24 AM  
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6:23 AM  

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