NFL Preseason Rankings Are Futile, but There's a Way to Make Them Relevant
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With the NFL season fast-approaching, it's time to steel ourselves for fall's most overblown, conjectural tradition: preseason power rankings.
The only thing we know about the upcoming season is that we don't know anything about the upcoming season. Parity is alive and well, helping to explain why preseason rankings are wrong––as Will McAvoy would say––"so goddamn always."
The Bengals entered 2011 as the NFL's supposed worst team, but ended up playing on Wild Card Weekend. The 49ers were predicted to finish last in the feeble NFC West, and they came within two muffed punts of a Super Bowl berth.
Preseason power rankings aren't an accurate predictor of the oncoming season; they're a product of our compulsive need to put things in an ordered, subjective index. Even worse, they always bear a dubious resemblance to the previous season's final standings, as if history were going to repeat itself precisely.
Have these "rankologists" never seen the NFL Network's annual Super Bowl commercial? Once the Big Game is over, everybody's undefeated––and they deserve to be evaluated as such.
Preseason rankings may amount to futile speculation, but they're actually helpful in one area: locating value bets among future propositions. The rankings reveal a public consensus on how teams are expected to fare, which provides context for the win total lines coming out of Vegas.
Let's take a look at last season, for example. Here's the bottom of ESPN's 2011 Preseason Power Rankings, along with opening win totals from the Las Vegas Hilton:
32. Cincinnati Bengals (O/U: 5.5; O -120)
31. Carolina Panthers (O/U: 4.5; O -125)
30. Buffalo Bills (O/U: 5.5; O -120)
29. Cleveland Browns (O/U: 6.5; O -150)
28. Washington Redskins (O/U: 6.0; O -120)
27. Denver Broncos (O/U: 5.5; O -120)
26. San Francisco 49ers (O/U: 7.5; O -110)
Five-out-of-seven hit the over, with only Cleveland and Washington failing to do so. Consequently, had you opened the season by putting $100 on each of the league's (alleged) seven worst teams, you would have banked a $221 profit.
So, what can we learn from this?
Well, to start, let's go over how lines are created.
Vegas wants to create lines that generate even action on both sides. That is, when they make the line "49ers: Over 7.5 -110; Under 7.5 -110" they're expecting 50-percent of the action on the over, and 50-percent on the under. Should things go according to plan, there's no way for them to lose: the -110 "vig" ensures they'll see nine cents of every dollar in play.
So let's say $100,000 comes in, equally, on both sides of the O/U (we'll keep the numbers small for the example). The book would pay out $90,909 to the winning side, and keep the $100,000 from the losing side. It's a guaranteed $9,091 profit on every $100,000 in play. You can imagine how big that profit-statistic inflates once money starts coming in by the millions––which it always does.
You see, there's a public misconception that sports books are trying to predict the fairest lines. They aren't. They're trying to predict how the public will bet, and they have a veritable mine of data at their disposal, aiding them in that endeavor.
They know which teams––referred to as "public teams"––bettors tend to wager on, even when the stats suggest they shouldn't. From season-to-season they can skew lines away from the Packers, Patriots, Cowboys or Steelers, banking on squares to bet them wholly on name value.
Conversely, the books are acutely aware of which teams the public will bet against, even when the lines are skewed toward them.
Let's pretend Vegas' data suggests the Browns will go 8-8 in 2012. Are the books gonna make Cleveland's win total O/U 7.5? Of course not! They know Cleveland is (1) at the bottom of the preseason power rankings, and (2) a team people tend to bet against. The line will be low regardless (in reality it opened at O/U 4.5), since a high line would throw off their 50-50 bet distribution.
Vegas knows, just like the rest of us should, that preseason rankings are sub-par indicators of future success. The "bottom seven" listed above finished an average of 10 spots higher in ESPN's final power rankings than they did in the preseason version.
Still, Vegas is guaranteed to skew lines away from teams at the bottom of the power rankings; they're betting on our cowardice, our reticence to bet on teams who the experts aren't high on.
That's where we find our value.
Let's take a look at the bottom of ESPN's 2012 Preseason Power Rankings, and see what sticks out:
Indianapolis Colts: Over 5.0 Wins (-130)
The AFC South has quickly eclipsed the NFC West as the league's worst division, which should make Andrew Luck's transition to the NFL far smoother than Peyton Manning's.
The rest of the schedule shapes up nicely, too. The Colts play four of their first six games at home, including three against very beatable opponents (Cleveland, Jacksonville and Minnesota). Also not be overlooked: they get Houston at home in Week 17, with the Texans potentially resting starters for the playoffs.
Betting against rookie quarterbacks used to be easy money. In recent years, however, Sam Bradford, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton have forced bettors to reconsider that trope––and Luck is supposed to be more NFL-ready than all three of them.
Reggie Wayne's return and the selection of Cody Fleener, his safety valve at Stanford, should serve Luck well as he transitions to the speed of professional pass-rushers.
The defense is a wild-card––switching to a 3-4, and moving Freeney/Mathis to outside linebacker––but after watching the unit's listless 2011 performance, all change is good change.
Miami Dolphins: Over 7.5 Wins (Even)
I have a theory about dissonant lines like this one. Whenever a number is significantly higher or lower than logic dictates, I consider putting money on the more curious proposition. So while eight wins initially seemed high for the Dolphins, the more I researched it, the more I liked it.
For starters, take a look at the schedule. The AFC East plays the NFC West and AFC South this season, which means six games against the Colts, Jaguars, Titans, Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks. They also get four tough-but-winnable division games against New York and Buffalo, and a home game against Oakland.
Assuming they go 7-4 against this lackluster competition, Miami would only need to go 1-4 against Houston (A), Cincinnati (A), San Francisco (A) and New England (H, A).
I also like the addition of David Garrard, Miami's as-of-this-moment QB1. The Dolphins have an underrated defense, a strong running game, but a dearth of receiving talent.
That's the exact formula Garrard used to grind out wins in Jacksonville. He's used to succeeding within this dynamic, and expects to win close games in the fourth quarter. The importance of that self-assurance can't be overstated.
Washington Redskins: Over 6.0 Wins (Even)
Washington graded out far better than their 4-12 record suggested last season, one which saw them go 2-0 against the eventual Super Bowl champions. They finished 21st in Football Outsiders' final DVOA rankings, including a 14th-place finish on defense.
Unlike Luck, Robert Griffin III gets the benefit of an effective ground game in his transition to the NFL. He also gets a legitimate deep threat in Pierre Garcon, whose vertical speed should complement Griffin's mythical downfield precision.
Some are reticent to bet on the Skins because they play in the NFC East, but they've always shown up for division games. Even when they finish toward the bottom of the NFC standings, Washington prides itself on giving the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys all they can handle.
Look past the division and you get a feisty, underrated roster with a Hall of Fame coach and a potentially transcendent quarterback. That's enough for me.
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