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NFL Stats: Proceed With Caution

   by Scott Spreitzer - 10/28/2007

I noticed something pretty amazing when I was browsing through the NFL
stats late last week. I was focusing on pass defenses, because the
ability to keep teams from moving the ball downfield through the air is
one of the most vital skills a team can have. That’s particularly
true down the stretch of the season when many games are won and lost based
on what happens in two-minute drills at the end of the first half or the

If you watched the recent Minnesota/Dallas game on TV, you heard the
announcers spend literally the whole game talking about how Minnesota
had the worst pass defense in the league. Tony Romo was on pace to set
a record for completions. The Vikings had no hope to be competitive if
they couldn’t stop the pass. That kind of stuff.

When the game was over, Romo did have good stats. But the Cowboys only
scored 17 points on offense all day (seven more came on a blocked field
goal return). Any defense that holds the Dallas attack to 17 points is
doing a great job, not a bad job. Why weren’t the announcers focused
on that?

Then, a few days later I was looking at the defensive passing stats.
Minnesota was the worst in the league in total yards allowed per game.
But it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In fact, you could make the case
that #32 Minnesota had a better pass defense than #2 Denver!

Check it out (all stats through the first 6 games for each team):

Opponent’s QB Rating:
Denver: 99.2
Minnesota: 89.5

Opponent’s TD/Interception ratio:
Denver: 11-6
Minnesota: 9-7

Average Yards per Pass Attempt:
Denver: 7.8
Minnesota: 7.3

Denver: 13
Minnesota: 16

Total Points Allowed per Game
Denver: 27.3
Minnesota: 19.0

Isn’t that amazing? Across a full spectrum of stats, there’s no way
in the world Denver has a better pass defense than Minnesota does! The
Vikings have more interceptions and sacks, allowed fewer passing
touchdowns, allowed fewer yards per attempt, forced a much lower passer
rating on opponents, and the net result was that they were allowing
less than 20 points per game overall while Denver was allowing more than 27
points per game.

Yet Minnesota was “rankedâ€쳌 as the worst pass defense in the NFL,
while Denver was second best. You’ve got to be kidding me!

This is why you’ve got to be careful with NFL statistics (and with
the things announcers say on TV!). Pro defenses tend to prioritize one
element or play or another. Some focus on stopping the run, and don’t
mind giving up passing yardage that moves the ball between the 30’s
but doesn’t hit paydirt. Some teams focus more on protecting against the
long ball, and give up yardage on the ground as a result.

It’s possible for a good or average defense to look horrible in an
area they aren’t prioritizing. But, that doesn’t mean the defense as a
whole is horrible, or that this particular area is ready to be exploited in a
way that really matters. Dallas had a good passing day against
Minnesota. Yet, they only scored 17 offensive points when the Vegas
line had projected about 28 (line of 9.5, total of 46 means a projected
score of 27.75 to 18.25). It was a great defensive game for Minnesota, not a bad one!

Whether you’re evaluating defenses in pro football, you need to take
a comprehensive approach so that you can really pin things down. Don’t
focus so much on passing yards allowed, or rushing yards allowed. Look
at TOUCHDOWNS allowed! That’s what defenses are trying to prevent.
Look at total points allowed (because field goals can add up too). Look at
high impact plays like sacks and takeaways. If a team allows 50 yards
on passes then takes the ball away, it’s the same as allowing 20 yards
and forcing a punt. That’s another one, look at how many times they force
an opponent to punt.

You’ll find that different defensive strategies can yield the same
kind of quality results. You’ll also find that really bad defenses will
have some stat area where they look good. Don’t be fooled!

Do the same thing when evaluating offenses. Look at the stuff that
matters on the scoreboard, not the stuff that looks good on paper when
taken out of context. Too many fans are worried about fantasy league
stats. Picking winners is going to be just a fantasy if you don’t
know what’s really happening on NFL football fields!

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