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Handle NFL Rushing Stats With Caution

   by Scott Spreitzer - 09/21/2009

Adrian Peterson had a huge opening week in the 2009 season. He rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout victory at Cleveland. You immediately heard from all the TV pundits that even though Brett Favre had come out of retirement to lead the Vikings, their success or failure this year would depend on Adrian Peterson.

Is that true?

Hey, I love Peterson as much as the next guy. I’m the “smash mouth handicapper,” so I love running backs who make big plays! But I’ve learned over the years that a team’s success against the spread is often at odds with what the running backs are doing. That’s what matters most for handicappers. How do teams do against expectations?

You might be surprised to learn that:

*Minnesota was just 6-11 ATS last year in the regular season and playoffs even though Peterson was having a fantastic campaign. He rushed for 1,760 yards in the regular season, (smashing the goal of 1,000 that’s the standard for quality backs), and moved past 1,800 if you count the playoffs. Put those two together, and you have a great back but a lousy team ATS.

*Minnesota failed to cover Peterson’s best game, when he rushed for 192 yards in a 28-27 nailbiter over Green Bay. The Vikings were 3-point favorites.

*Minnesota did cover Peterson’s worst game, when he rushed for just 32 yards on 21 carries at New Orleans in a 30-27 victory. Minnesota was a three-point underdog, but won the game outright.

*Peterson topped 100 yards on 10 different occasions last year. That’s the much accepted mark for a “big” game from a running back in the NFL. Minnesota was 3-7 ATS in those 10 games.

*Peterson failed to reach 90 yards six times in the regular season. Minnesota was a break even 3-3 ATS in those games. The more yards Peterson gained, the worse the Vikings were against the spread!

Those factors go against the grain in terms of what you normally hear about running backs. Analysts who place a lot of weight on rushing will tell you that success on the ground leads to success on the scoreboard and against the spread. Those who are skeptical of rushing stats will tell you that backs pad their yardage when a team is sitting on a lead, and any correlation between rushing and success is an “after the fact” thing that’s tough to handicap. In this case, Peterson was gaining yards, but the team couldn’t have been sitting on huge leads because they weren’t covering spreads!

What’s going on here? It’s not like Minnesota was blowing covers because of a bad defense. They ranked sixth in total defense in 2008 in the NFL, fourth in preventing third down conversions, and 7th in yards allowed per play. You’d think a team with an excellent defense and a star running back would be dominating the league. Didn’t happen.

Here were the keys to me:

*Minnesota’s passing offense was poor. The Vikings ranked 25th in the league through the air, and had a tendency to make turnovers. A total of 17 interceptions on the season helped create a negative-six turnover differential for the season.

*The media, oddsmakers, and bettors, saw all the defensive highlights, all the Adrian Peterson highlights, and decided the team was better than it really was. Those expectations were built into Vegas lines that ended up being way too high. This wasn’t a great team. It was two-thirds of a great team that was hampered significantly by its problems at the quarterback position.

*There’s not as big a correlation between great rushing production and scoreboard success as people think. Sometimes, as happened at Cleveland in the season opener, a running back or the rushing game, (particularly in college football), does drive a big result. You’d be surprised though at how often the rushing game ends up being relatively irrelevant. The team that wins and covers does so for other reasons. Remember that Minnesota won and covered Peterson’s worst game. They barely won and didn’t cover his best game. They were 3-7 ATS when he topped 100 yards on the ground.

*When it was all said and done, turnovers were what determined when the Vikings covered and when they didn’t. There were eight games counting the playoffs last year where Minnesota gave the ball away two times or more. They were 0-8 ATS in those games. Minnesota was 6-3 ATS with 0 or 1 giveaway. They lost the ball three times the day Peterson gained 192 yards in a non-cover. They didn’t lose it once in his poor production game at New Orleans that they won outright.

Keep this in mind as you handicap pro football games this weekend and the rest of the season. You can’t ignore the running game. But, you can’t put it on a pedestal either. If a great back helps you win your fantasy league, put up as many posters on the wall as you want. If you’re betting the NFL, Vegas-style, you won’t make money unless you use a comprehensive approach to handicapping that keeps all elements of the game in proper perspective.

And, that comprehensive approach better include strategies for recognizing potential turnover problems!

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