Pythagorean expectation is the sharps' secret weapon for cashing in on NFL season win totals

Aug 25, 2017 |
Pythagorean expectation is the sharps' secret weapon for cashing in on NFL season win totals
Talk to every bookmaker in Vegas and you’re likely to hear the same thing over and over and over again: public money is cascading all around Sin City in support of the Oakland Raiders.
Photo By - USA Today Images
Talk to every bookmaker in Vegas and you’re likely to hear the same thing over and over and over again: public money is cascading all around Sin City in support of the Oakland Raiders.
Photo By - USA Today Images

For the next five minutes I’m going to need your undivided attention. That means no phone calls, no text messages and absolutely no distractions.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret that handicappers and stat-heads have been wise to for years, but in order for you to fully comprehend the importance of the forthcoming information, I need your head to be clear and your mind free from even the slightest distraction.

Believe it or not, there’s a shockingly accurate method in which to predict how the National Football League regular season will play out for a few specific teams.

That last sentence grabbed your attention, didn’t it?

Good.

As we look to predict the future in regards to the 2017 NFL season while establishing the first of many tools required for our handicapping toolbox, we begin today’s discussion with a look at what is called “Pythagorean expectation,” which is a formula invented by the great Bill James, known to many of you as “The Godfather of Baseball Sabermetrics.”

In its most basic form, Pythagorean expectation is a formula used to estimate how many games a team “should” have won based on the amount of points it scored vs. the amount of points it surrendered.

For example, the 2016 Washington Redskins finished the regular season with a record of 8-7-1 while outscoring the opposition by just 13 total points. Plug those numbers into the formula and you get a Pythagorean expectation of 8.3 wins for the 2016 Washington Redskins, meaning the franchise was rewarded with pretty much exactly what it deserved.

Not exactly the sexiest football analysis on the planet, but I promise you it does get better.



In regards to Pythagorean expectation, the key is to find the teams that either fell woefully short of their expected wins or outperformed their expected wins by a significant margin.

For example, in 2008, head coach Tony Sparano guided the Miami Dolphins to the franchise’s first postseason appearance in seven years courtesy of an 11-5 record that was good enough to win the AFC East. Mind you, from 2003-2016, this was the only time a team other than the New England Patriots had won the AFC East.

But something didn’t exactly add up for the 2008 Miami Dolphins. The team won ugly… and by ugly I’m talking about a 17-15 win over Oakland, a 16-12 victory at St. Louis and a 14-9 triumph against the 49ers. When all was said and done, the 2008 Dolphins had gone 7-2 in one-score games en route to an 11-5 record that, according to the team’s Pythagorean expectation for that season, should have been closer to 8.8 victories.

So what happened the following season? Great question. The Dolphins played true to form, weren’t nearly as lucky as they were in 2008 and went 7-9 and missed the playoffs.

Had you applied the team’s Pythagorean expectation in 2008 to its 2009 Las Vegas season win total and bet the Under, you would have found yourself profitable by late December.

So how do we apply this information to the upcoming 2017 NFL campaign? Below you will find the three teams that finished the 2016 season further from their Pythagorean expectation than any other clubs in the league.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

2016 record: 12-4
2016 Pythagorean expectation: 8.7 (+31 scoring differential)
2017 win total: 9.5

Talk to every bookmaker in Vegas and you’re likely to hear the same thing over and over and over again: public money is cascading all around Sin City in support of the Oakland Raiders.

That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering the fact that the team is set to move to Southern Nevada in three years, which means the locals have already caught NFL fever.

Additionally, Derek Carr and company possess one of the league’s most lethal offenses that upgraded the running back position over the summer in the form of between-the-tackles bruiser Marshawn Lynch.

But Oakland’s defense is highly suspect both in the secondary and at the middle linebacker position, the team plays just seven home games in 2017 (vs. New England in Mexico City) and the coaching has yet to prove itself worthy of top tier recognition.

Simply put, the sharps like the under on Oakland’s season win total, while the public has found itself in staunch support of the over.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

2016 record: 3-13
2016 Pythagorean expectation: 5.9 (-82 scoring differential)
2017 win total: 6.5

Granted, the quarterback situation is an absolute disaster in Northern Florida, so take this one with a grain of salt. But there is a very good reason why Jacksonville’s current win total for 2017 is 6.5 victories despite the fact the Jaguars haven’t won at least seven games in a season since 2010.

Jacksonville finished the 2016 campaign ranked sixth in total defense (321.7 yds/gm) and spent the offseason adding marquee pieces such as defensive end Calais Campbell, strong safety Barry Church and cornerback A.J. Bouye. And from an offensive perspective, the team looks rock solid at wide receiver (Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee), stout along the offensive line and thoroughly optimistic at running back thanks to the addition of first-round pick Leonard Fournette (LSU).

But, again, it all comes down to the quarterback position, which looks about as appetizing as a bowl of Jaguar feces at the current moment.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

2016 record: 5-11
2016 Pythagorean expectation: 7.7 (-13 scoring differential)
2017 win total: 7.5

The Chargers sustained an absolutely ridiculous amount of injuries in 2016, went 4-9 in one-score games and spent the better portion of the season dealing with the speculation that the team would be relocating to Los Angeles. And despite all of that, the Bolts still found a way to beat the eventual NFC champion Falcons in Atlanta, defending Super Bowl Champion Broncos and playoff-bound Texans in Houston.

Quarterback Philip Rivers is still playing at an extraordinarily high level and is not only surrounded by legitimate playmakers in running back Melvin Gordon and wide receiver Keenan Allen, but the Chargers dedicated the offseason to upgrading Rivers’ protection. Throw in a defensive unit led by pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and you’ve got a recipe for at least eight wins and a season win total over wager.

2016 PYTHAGOREAN EXPECTATION

*2016 regular season record in parenthesis


New England Patriots: 12.7 (14-2)
Dallas Cowboys: 10.9 (13-3)
Atlanta Falcons: 10.6 (11-5)
Kansas City Chiefs: 10.1 (12-4)
Pittsburgh Steelers: 9.9 (11-5)
Seattle Seahawks: 9.8 (10-5-1)
Arizona Cardinals: 9.4 (7-8-1)
Denver Broncos: 9.1 (9-7)
Green Bay Packers: 9.0 (10-6)
Philadelphia Eagles: 9.0 (7-9)
New York Giants: 8.8 (11-5)
Baltimore Ravens: 8.6 (8-8)
Minnesota Vikings: 8.6 (8-8)
Buffalo Bills: 8.5 (7-9)
Indianapolis Colts: 8.4 (8-8)
Cincinnati Bengals: 8.3 (6-9-1)
New Orleans Saints: 8.3 (7-9)
Washington Redskins: 8.3 (8-7-1)
Tennessee Titans: 8.1 (9-7)
Detroit Lions: 7.7 (9-7)
Miami Dolphins: 7.6 (10-6)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 7.6 (9-7)
Carolina Panthers: 7.2 (6-10)
Houston Texans: 6.5 (9-7)
Chicago Bears: 4.8 (3-13)
New York Jets: 4.5 (5-11)
San Francisco 49ers: 4.2 (2-14)
Cleveland Browns: 3.5 (1-15)
Los Angeles Rams: 3.3 (4-12)


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