There is little doubt that rushing and passing stats are the predominant tool of choice for handicappers looking to evaluate team strength and the accuracy of the point spread for any given game. My analysis is no different in some respects–many of my systems rely on fundamental ratings such as ROF and PDE that use yards-per-play stats to reveal situations that have been profitable versus the line.
What gets lost in all the attention directed to how well teams rush and pass the ball; however, is the fact that there are other equally important aspects of team play which can be just as predictive in nature as some of the more commonly used measurements of team skill.
One such area that frequently flies under the radar of handicappers involves statistics related to team penalties and as we will explore here, certain types of penalties can be a particularly powerful handicapping tool in the right situations.
I have always found penalties to be an intriguing aspect of the NFL game and their effect is undeniable–who hasn’t felt the sting of a mistimed penalty that suddenly breathes new life into a drive that seemed to be over just moments before with a spread victory all but sown up. Inopportune penalties can cost a team a game in the blink of an eye and turn a spread winner into a loser faster than T.O. can autograph a ball (in the end zone of course).
I have actually tracked penalty yardage stats since the 1994 season and penalty yardage differential (a per-game average that takes penalties called on Opponents minus penalties called on the team in question) is the basis for another successful system that is 78-14 ATS in the past 13 seasons.
While it’s good to know how many yards of penalties a team averages per game, or had in a previous game, this type of analysis does not tell us anything about what particular KINDS of penalties a team is being assessed and the actual manner in which the final penalty yardage total listed in the box score was arrived at.
Is the team in question taking a large number of offensive holding calls because of a lack of size on the line? Or, are they getting hit with an abundance of pass interference calls because of a second-string CB forced into duty due to an injury? By separating penalties into more detailed categories and looking at them based on the number of calls, as opposed to yards, we can start to have better answers for questions like those posed above.
Ultimately, almost every penalty called in the modern NFL game can be assigned to one of the following 6 categories:
1) False Start Penalties (FSP)
2) Offensive Holding Penalties (OHP)
3) Play Book Execution Penalties (PBEP)
4) Defensive Line Penalties (DLP)
5) Defensive Secondary Penalties (DSP)
6) Dumb Penalties (DMP)
The category that is the focus of this article is the 3rd one listed: Play Book Execution Penalties. This group includes any infraction related to the breakdown of play calls. Examples of these include: Illegal formations, shifts, motion, snaps, participation, substitutions and procedures; Delay of game (in certain cases); Illegal forward passes; 12 men on the field; Ineligible receivers and so on. For a full breakdown on the other categories, please consult page 11 of the 2007 NFL Game Sheets Guide.
The league average for PBEP is usually around 0.7 calls per game (on each team). Arizona was worst in the league in 2006 for PBEP’s against with a per-game average of 1.5 while Pittsburgh and Denver were 1-2 in the league with a PBEP against average of 0.2 and 0.4 per game respectively.
As a stand-alone statistic, PBEP is a good yardstick for measuring the quality of a team’s coaching staff and also provides an indication if players are being used in schemes where they are comfortable and have the necessary skills to succeed. It’s no accident that teams like the Steelers and Patriots have a low PBEPA average year after year while others, such as the Cardinals, rank near the bottom.
When it comes to handicapping versus the point spread, PBEPA becomes a useful tool when teams with an extremely high PBEPA are examined.
Since the 2002 season, teams with a PBEPA average more than double the league average of 0.7 (> +1.4) are a dismal 183-229 ATS (44.4%) against the number. In just the past 5 seasons, placing bets based on this simple strategy alone would have netted you a tidy profit of $2,720 with a wager of $110 to win back $100 on each game.
For those that like to have a lot of action early in the season, this particular system is for you: a total 49 games were involved between Week 2 and 5 since ’02 and the ATS record in these cases: 7-42 ATS!
There is actually a second ‘Building Block’, or, Primary condition that I like to use for this situation and that is: to only include games where the opponent has a higher Defensive Secondary Penalty Against Avg (DSPA). When this condition is added, the system’s record is reduced to 61-117 ATS (34.2%) and profits in the past 5 years jump to $4,990.
DSP penalties involve flags thrown mostly on Cornerbacks and Safeties, usually for Defensive Pass Interference and Illegal Contact. The complex relationship between PBE and DS penalties is something that requires further study on my part, but, suffice it to say that for whatever reasons, they are firmly intertwined and the drastic improvement that this situation gains when only teams with a higher DSPA average are included is proof of their correlation.
Rounding out this system, are a number of Secondary conditions, all of which make sense given the context of the Primary conditions involved. Large Underdogs of >= 10 points are not a good play here and the same can be said of situations where the team with a high PBEPA average is facing an Opponent coming off a 4th Quarter Comeback in their last game and may be in position for a let-down. Games that meet either if these criteria are removed.
Teams coming off their Bye week are also decent against the spread in this case (remember, this is a negative system after all), as they have presumably had an extra week to work out some of their issues.
Here are all the details.
(Notes: ASM stands for Average Spread Margin and TDIS% is the percentage of teams in the league that have been involved in this system at one time or another. WT% is the percentage of teams that are .500 or better and SPR is the average Spread for teams in this situation.)
System #22 Summary
Primary Conditions (Building Blocks)
1) Play Book Execution Penalty Against (PBEPA) Average of > +1.4 Per Game.
2) Opponent has a higher Defensive Secondary Penalty Average (DSPA).
Secondary Conditions (Tighteners)
1) Exclude Dogs of >=10 Points.
2) Team not coming off a Bye Week.
3) Opponent not coming off a 4th Quarter Comeback.
4) Exclude Over/Under (OU) of < 38. System Stats ASM: -6.9 Home%: 55.6 Dog%: 50.0 TDIS%: 84.4 WT%: 48.1 SPR: -0.30 Top Teams: ARI(15); CIN(10); PHI(10); SEA(10) System Records Overall (Since '02): 18-88 ATS 2006 Season: 0-8 ATS 2005 Season: 5-27 ATS 2004 Season: 8-31 ATS Last 3 Results (Pick in Brackets) 2006 WK8--GB 31 ARI 14 (ARI +3.5) L 2006 WK4--STL 41 DET 34 (DET +5.5) L 2006 WK4--ATL 32 ARI 10 (ARI +7.5) L