NFL: Replacement Refs from a Betting Perspective
Let's just put the Packers/Seahawks fiasco aside for the moment. The bigger issue for bettors is what to do, if anything, going forward. The situation can be broken down in two ways. First, are the replacement refs giving bettors an advantage? Second, have things become so random that we should halt betting altogether?
Are the Replacement Refs Giving Bettors an Edge?
The jury is still out on this one. Based on three weeks of data, the answer is inconclusive. Mike Colbert from Cantor Gaming said last week (h/t ESPN) that the situation could be a concern at some point. This was coming off a week where home teams absolutely obliterated the the board going 14-2 straight up and 11-4-1 against the spread.
Home Field Advantage
After Week 2, it seemed to make sense that home teams could be getting a partial advantage thanks to the replacements. At that point, referees were calling more penalties on road teams, but after Week 3 those numbers have regressed to the mean.
Another area of interest are the prime-time games since the spotlight is extra bright on these officials. In 10 games, road teams have been flagged 84 times compared to 70 for the home teams. Yet, the correlation with penalties is marginal at best. Home teams are 7-3 SU. Favorites are 6-4 ATS. In reality, home teams should be 6-4 and favorites 7-3 if we grade the Packers/Seahawks game correctly.
Overall, home teams are only 25-22-1 ATS with the majority of those being home underdogs (13-6 ATS). The fact that underdogs are leading the way early in the season should be a surprise to no one and shouldn't have anything to do with officials.
More scoring is nothing new, either. We saw the big increase in passing last year and it's continued into this year. At the start of the year I assumed that heavy-passing home teams would benefit the most from replacement officials, but again, the results are mixed. Unders are leading the way at 25-22-1. Clearly the books have adjusted their totals enough to account for the increase in scoring.
Through three weeks, the replacement refs are calling 18 more penalties per week over last year's average. There is heavy variance with these totals (and all these numbers), so it's hard to jump to any conclusions, but some tentative trends do emerge when we look at what types of calls are being made.
Offensively, pre-snap personnel calls are down on average (illegal shifts, substitutions, formations, motions). Not a single ineligible downfield pass has been called, either. These aren't called very often in general and someone could legitimately argue statistical variance, but it makes sense that replacements would miss these calls given the nuances of the rulebook and speed of the game.
The one offensive category that is called much more than usual is offensive holding. Replacements are calling 8.3 more of these per week so far. This falls in the category of subjectivity, but we don't know if players are trying to get away with more, resulting in more penalties, or if the refs are exercising stricter judgment.
Defensively, things are even more divergent. Pass interference calls are averaging 20 per week, up from 12.1 in 2011. Defensive holding, illegal contact and roughing the passer averages are also on the rise.
Personal foul calls are actually being called more than twice as often as average, up to 7.7 per week from 3.5. Finally, not a single taunting call has been made through three weeks. On average, you can expect at least one of those calls per week (all penalty stats from Pro-Football Reference).
Has Referee Variance Reached the Tipping Point?
Since there appears to be no tangible trends for handicapping purposes, the question I have is whether or not the refs are accounting for too much randomness within the games. If you rely heavily on fundamentals like I do, you know that offense, defense, special teams, home field, turnovers, etc all equal "X" in determining the outcome of a game, but how much of a percentage do the replacement refs make up?
Stats like third down/red zone percentages are crucial in determining wins and losses and there's very little doubt that referees are affecting drive outcomes on a consistent basis, whether it is bad calls, non-calls or spotting of the ball.
Have replacement refs impacted your betting?
The problem is there is no way to quantify it.
What I do know is that these refs are impacting games substantially and it's pure luck whether we are on the right or wrong side of it. Many high-profile handicappers have downplayed the significance of the replacements essentially saying they are no different than the regular officials.
With all due respect, this position is pure nonsense and it just doesn't pass the smell test. Every fan can see that and if you have any doubt, go back and watch an officiated game from previous seasons. The difference is night and day. You can't sit there and ignore the dozens of mistakes that are occurring each week due to incompetence, not knowing the rules and the influence of players, coaches and fans.
It's quite possible there these refs are introducing so much random variance that we shouldn't be betting on these games at all, but you're not going to hear that from a tout or bookmaker. They want your money and, generally, bettors want to give it to them. Take what they say with a grain of salt.
There's no question that the players and coaches are taking advantage of the situation. Players are taunting, holding and hitting more liberally, while coaches are busy berating and belittling the refs non-stop.
The replacements are missing a lot of the by-the-book procedural calls that an experienced ref would pick up on and exercising over-compensation on judgment calls that revolve around the ball.
The problem for bettors is the only consistent trend that has emerged is one of inconsistency. The sample size is far too small to draw any firm conclusions based on the data we have.
I had a discussion with Beyond the Bets about the issue and we both concluded that "ref research" is likely fruitless at this point since it could all be moot a week from now anyway.
My personal opinion is that the refs are impacting the games much more than anyone in the betting industry will readily admit. Going forward, it would be wise to be more selective with your weekly picks and possibly reduce your unit size as well until things return to normalcy.
When games are close, I want to hold my breath because of what the offense or defense might do, not what calls will be made or missed by officials fired from Lingerie Football.
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