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How NFL Bettors Overcome Small Sample Size Issues

With a ton of data points out there but only tiny samples to draw upon, let’s talk about what’s real vs. what’s noise.

When it comes to data-wrenching in the National Football League, we always have to deal with small sample sizes. It’s the nature of a sport that only contains 17 games in its regular season, barely 10% of the 162 that MLB teams play. That can mean a lot more chaos when betting prognostications are concerned.

Going into Week 3 of the NFL season, we deal with two rounds of data for every team. A ton of available data points are pure noise that will regress soon, but there is also some exciting observation out there — we just have to know where to look.

It helps to apply some subjective context to shape our understanding. Let’s begin.

Let Tom Brady Cook

Everyone knows that passing the ball is (on average) significantly more efficient than running the ball. Throwing the ball on early downs simply gains more yards, first downs, and touchdowns than running it. Unless offenses are good at running the ball, you would like to see a tendency towards more passes on early downs.

By the way — I define early downs as downs with a win probability between 5-95%, excluding the last two minutes of a game. I want to know how much teams pass in situations where they aren’t necessarily forced to run or throw the ball.

During two-minute drills, teams tend to pass more to get quicker down the field. When teams have a big lead with a high win probability, they tend to run more.

Last season, the Bucs offense didn’t truly get rolling until their bye in Week 13, during which they made some subtle changes. Going into the final four regular-season games and the playoffs, the Bucs called more passes on early downs, more play-action, and they used more motion pre-snap. These three things don’t guarantee an efficient offense, but they are helpful to make things way harder for the opposing defense.

For the remainder of the campaign, Tampa Bay was arguably the best offense in the league.

Enter 2021. It seems like their subtle play-calling changes are carrying over into 2021. Over the first two weeks, the Bucs rank No. 1 in early down pass rate at 69%, and they are using motion at a 60% clip which is roughly top-five. They understand that they have a great quarterback playing at an absurdly high level, a decent offensive line, and a fantastic group of skill position players. They use these advantages in their favor.

For comparison, the Bucs are gaining almost eight yards per early-down pass versus only four yards per early-down run. They are gaining twice as many yards per pass.

In other words, they let Tom Brady cook.

Even though we are only dealing with two weeks of data, it’s a trend that carries over from last year, perfectly fitting their offensive strengths. Subjectively, I believe that’s more of a legit signal than simply noise, and I don’t expect that rate to decrease by a lot soon.

Trevor Lawrence & Pressure

Not only are we dealing with small sample sizes after two weeks, but imagine extending the view on rookie quarterbacks. We didn’t know a lot about them entering the season, and it’s still very tough to get a good read on them after two games. Out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks, he ranks 30th in EPA/play and dead-last in CPOE (completion percentage over expectation).

The Jaguars’ offense looks like a complete mess thus far, and Trevor Lawrence has been largely overwhelmed, especially when playing under duress. He ranks 30th in passing grade under pressure. He went 8-21 passing for 82 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.

Offensive output under pressure is usually subject to noise, but the best quarterbacks in the league tend to perform above-average under pressure long-term.

Among the best quarterbacks under pressure over the past few years are several guys who can use their legs wisely, like Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Kyler Murray; not only does Trevor Lawrence have an excellent pedigree, but he also has very good legs.

It’s everything but unusual that a rookie signal-caller needs some time, but Lawrence’s abysmal numbers under pressure are somewhat subject to noise and should regress towards the league mean sooner than later.

Of course, he’s got an arduous quest on deck against Arizona’s Chandler Jones and JJ Watt, so we might not see a noticeable improvement as soon as this week.

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Seattle is Hunting for Big Plays

New Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron has turned the offense into a big-play machine. We witnessed highlight reels of Russell Wilson launching deep bombs to Tyler Lockett against single-high coverage for two straight games. There’s just one issue with the Seahawks that they need to clean up: their consistency.

In neutral game state (win probability between 5 and 95%), Wilson and company rank fifth in expected points added (EPA) per play and No. 1 in yards per play, but only 25th in success rate (positive EPA plays). The Hawks are very much big-play-dependent. They couldn’t get enough consistent gains against the Titans in Week 2, which was a key reason they lost.

Again, it’s only a two-week sample size, so the question becomes this: Which will regress sooner – the big plays or the consistent gains? Once Russ and Co. cannot hit big plays for one reason or another, they need an offensive roadmap that still moves the ball. This unit could be unstoppable if Seattle can increase their success rate while keeping the big plays coming.

We will find out soon.