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Football Totals and Coaching Philosophies

   by Jim Feist - 11/12/2012

There are many factors to examine when studying football totals. Defensive and offensive statistics need to be examined, of course. Some of the questions a good handicapper asks: Is there speed in the defensive secondary? Does a club have a one-dimensional offense? Do they prefer a powerful running game or wide-open passing attacks? What kind of weather conditions will there be?
Another area that is correlated to totals is coaching philosophy. Coaches build their teams around a combination of the style they want to play, plus the personnel on the field. The Ravens, for example, have had an abundance of defensive talent the last decade with limited offense talent in many of those years. That imbalance isn't necessarily a bad thing, as they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy 12 years ago and got to the AFC Championship game last season with a conservative, run-oriented offense and a sensational defense.
During their Super Bowl season, Baltimore was 13-7 "under" the total. The last five years the Patriots have had record setting offenses and defensive problems, a perfect mix for a team to go over the total. In 2007 they started 10-2 over the total with that aggressive, attacking offense. However, QB Tom Brady was out in 2008 and they scaled back that offensive approach for inexperienced QB Matt Cassell. It was no surprise New England started 6-3 under the total. This season the Pats started 6-2 over the total.
Like Baltimore, the Texans are another team that is making their living playing a bruising, physical defense, and a run-first offense. Houston started 2-0 under the total this season after going 12-6 under a year ago.
Last season the Jaguars went with a rookie QB in Blaine Gabbert, so their offensive style was plodding and conservative, starting 7-1 under the total. The Seahawks and Vikings are copying that style this season.
Former coaches such as Jimmy Johnson, Dick Vermeil and Bill Walsh had offensive philosophies that liked to spread the field. They were more like gunslingers in the old west, with wide-open attacks that were ready to score on every play. The Chiefs under Vermeil went 10-6 "over" the total in both 2003 and 2004.
Conversely, some coaches prefer a conservative, ball control game plan, such as the 49ers, Rams, Bears and Titans. San Francisco Coach Jim Harbaugh has done a terrific job, essentially simplifying the offense more for QB Alex Smith. The 49ers prefer the ball-control style, particularly in a hostile environment, going 10-8 under the total last year and starting 5-2-1 under this season. When they faced the conservative Seahawks a few weeks ago, the results were predictable: a 13-6 defensive battle sailed under the total by 18 points.
The Rams have a new coach in Jeff Fisher, who brought in offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Both are proponents of running the football to control the clock. The Rams went four straight games under the total while starting 4-2 under, including a 17-3 win over Arizona and a 17-14 loss at Miami.
The 49ers and Seahawks are examples of coaches having to adapt based on personnel. Pete Carroll has scaled back the offense because he has a rookie QB in Russell Wilson, relying on RB Marshawn Lynch to carry the load. When Jon Gruden was coach of the Bucs he was stuck with ineffective QBs Chris Simms and Brian Griese. The Bucs were 11-5 "under" the total in 2004, 10-6 "under" in 2005 year, and 73-52 "under" over an eight year stretch going conservative with a great defense.
When teams with similar philosophies or strengths and weaknesses clash, the results with respect to totals can be predictable. Both the Chargers and Saints have coaching staffs that prefer an uptempo, attacking style. The over is 13-5 in Saints last 18 home games vs. a team with a losing road record.
What happened when they met in London four years ago? A 37-32 Saints' win that sailed way over the total. Coaches construct their game plans around the talent on the field and try to stamp their philosophy on the team, something to keep in mind when examining football totals.

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