Understanding how sportsbooks deal with underperforming quarterbacks can create significant opportunities on the NFL betting markets.
Kyler Murray, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady are the focal point of NFL offenses. It’s a passing league, and therefore, the quarterback is the most critical position on the field. Handicappers need to figure out what to expect from that position on each of the 32 NFL teams. One of the ways to evaluate quarterbacks and create baseline projections is a subjective approach.
By watching enough football, studying quarterback analysis, and crunching some numbers, you can arrive at a quarterback ranking. You could incorporate that into your handicapping process. Applying situational context is never a bad idea, either.
For example, Matthew Stafford, Lamar Jackson, and Ryan Tannehill haven’t put forth the most promising performances recently. There are several reasons for this, and NFL bettors stand to pay a price if they can’t sufficiently heed them.
You could also use a statistical approach. A Bayesian approach. I will not go into the details of Bayesian analysis or how to build a Bayesian model. It would go far beyond the purpose of this article. In short: Bayes’ theorem can be used to update the probability of a hypothesis as more data and information becomes available to us. We start with a prior belief and collect data to adjust that prior towards a “posterior.”
Updating Your Prior Perceptions
When a quarterback enters the NFL, we usually don’t know much about how to project them — especially compared to players in other positions. We have some data from their college performances, sure, but there’s never any guarantee that it will translate well to the pro level.
The player’s draft position usually includes some decent information. History has shown that NFL teams are not good at picking the proper order of top prospects. However, they do a solid job when it comes to evaluating the broad talent level. With a certain degree of confidence, we can be sure that a quarterback in the top-10 will — over his first four seasons — perform better than someone picked in the sixth round.
There’s also some survivorship bias because low-round prospects tend to end up as backups much more frequently.
That’s the kind of information with which we could formulate a statistical prior for every prospect entering the NFL. As the signal-caller gets more reps, we can collect more data about his performances. That helps us shape our updated beliefs about the player. Every single throw could be a data point for our posterior expectation going forward.
So, you are likely asking: what does that have to do with playoff-minded QBs like Lamar Jackson and Matthew Stafford?
As recency bias is one of our best friends, we know that both guys have looked troublesome recently. Stafford has been poor for three straight games, throwing a pick-six in each and five interceptions overall. Lamar Jackson threw four interceptions on Sunday Night Football against the Browns, even though the Ravens still won a 16-10 decision (though the end of that game was brutal for Browns +3.5 backers, like myself). Two weeks before, he looked lost against all those cover zero blitzes by the Miami Dolphins.
So, how is one supposed to make sense of betting odds going forward when guys like this are involved?
The questions now are:
- Should we be skeptical about the “real” skill level of Matthew Stafford and Lamar Jackson going forward?
- How much should we downgrade the Rams and Ravens, if at all?
The answer is not easy and is different for both. First of all, one of the biggest fallacies for handicappers is recency bias. The NFL can be a high-variance affair where teams tend to play at the bottom of the upper range of their performance level at times. Every week, each team faces an entirely different matchup. As a rule of thumb, we should never overreact to outlier performances.
There are a few nuances to it when it comes to Matthew Stafford. First of all, the Rams’ offense had played at an absurdly high level over the first eight weeks of the season — we had to expect some regression.
But that’s not an explanation as to why the Rams offense ranks 30th in EPA per play and 21st in success rate since Week 9.
First of all, there’s a pattern with Sean McVay’s offenses over the years. His unit tends to decline at some point midseason. Secondly, Stafford reportedly has been dealing with a sore ankle, back pain, and an injury to his throwing elbow. That might play a role, even though he hasn’t missed any practice snaps. The offensive line is also worse than at the beginning of the season. Replacing the reliable wide receiver Robert Woods mid-season might also be challenging.
A lot of things come together for Stafford and the Rams’ offense. There are some issues that are hard to quantify for any statistical model. That’s when we might apply some subjective context. We should expect them to bounce back, but there is uncertainty about the magnitude. In a statistical model, you will incorporate the last three games, which would bring down Stafford’s posterior expectation going forward. But it’s only a three-game sample which doesn’t move the needle drastically.
Markets Are Reacting
Markets have downgraded the Rams a little bit. After their big start, they were rated among the best teams in the league, but that came down by about two points against an average team on a neutral field. They are listed as 13-point favorites in Week 13 over the lousy Jacksonville Jaguars. That still sounds like a lot. But if Stafford had average performances in recent weeks, this spread would be no lower than -14.
Regarding Lamar Jackson, it’s not as complicated. He just had two underwhelming games, and I’d not expect that trend to continue. Jackson is not injured, and his supporting cast is still intact aside from the long-term injuries. They played against two stout and improving defenses that can control the line of scrimmage. Jackson still provides the offense with a high floor due to his rushing ability, and the passing game has a lot of upside. The markets still rate the Ravens as the fourth-best team in the AFC and are betting them as high as 5.5-point favorites on the road at Pittsburgh as of Friday morning.