The usual laws of QB gravity may not apply to Cam Newton on Thursday. ... A Seminar on Stats: The 2016 Kansas City Chiefs; the Dodgers sure got a whole lot "luckier" too after Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson.
The NFL team-by-team preview tour continues with both a specific look at the Kansas City Chiefs, but also some general handicapping principles that will be important for you to file away – there is a key step out there that not enough folks take when it comes to adjusting power ratings because of turnover imbalances. And, no, it is not the usual process that you might expect.
But first we need to go to the Thursday board because there may be a window of opportunity opening up. There are a couple of dynamics in play in Carolina at Jacksonville that have caused some market stir, the first being the Jaguars opening up the QB battle between Blake Bortles and Chad Henne, the latter getting the start tonight; and the second Ron Rivera’s announcement that Cam Newton will play. It is Newton who generates the interest.
For most teams, the third game of the preseason is when the starting offense will get the most work, a full-on dress rehearsal that then allows the HC to keep them off the field next week in order to avoid injury. Most of the QBs are chomping at the bit to get out and stretch their arms, and for some their legs as well, and that is a big part of why the totals are so much higher on this week than any other in the preseason.
But be careful with Newton. His appearance in the starting lineup is not a sign that he is ready to go as he recovers from a shoulder injury, but that the Panthers are trying to get him back to being ready. Let’s go to Rivera, after Tuesday’s practice, for more on that front: “He’s starting to get it back. We’re trying to practice fast and create as close as we can the game simulation. ...You can see the timing coming back.”
There are a couple of elements working against Newton and the Panthers first-team offense tonight. Naturally, there is Newton's obvious lack of timing since his practice participation has not been at full speed. Second is the fact that he is most unlikely to be involved in any designed runs, which takes a big part of his effectiveness away. There isn’t any need to subject him to contact.
A prime issue from a market standpoint is that in Derek Anderson and Joe Webb, the Carolina offense has two of the better preseason backup QBs around – the Panthers have generated 27 points in each of the first two games and almost identical yardage counts of 386 and 388. Might this be a case of starting Newton creating a slight step back for that offense?
I will let the markets continue to unfold this one over the course of the day because there is still the prospect that if Newton feels any twinge of pain in warmups he would be held out. But I may well end up with a first-half ticket on #254 Jacksonville at +1 or better, a sense of urgency expected from Doug Marrone to get a scoreboard result in front of the home fans after a dismal showing in last week’s loss on this field to Tampa Bay. And while Henne is nothing special, this is a veteran fighting for the chance to be a starter, which means we get the best he can bring. If a tie going into halftime cashes a ticket, that may be just enough.The Chiefs appeared to be lucky in 2016, but beneath that they were genuinely good
When it is time to talk Kansas City 2017, it is also time to discuss a key element of handicapping that is often misinterpreted. Time for the Chiefs in particular, but the sport in general, in factoring the impact of turnovers.
First a preface on statistics, which will be redundant for many of you, but bear with me through this because it is important. In the build up to this season and during network game previews and broadcasts for the games, you are going to hear a lot of pure statistical gibberish when it comes to team ratings in key categories. The pattern is for total yards to be the standard, which has been passed by long ago by vastly superior methods.
Hence you will hear much talk about how fortunate Kansas City was to go 12-4 in 2016, the Chiefs only finishing 20th in Total Offense and 24th in Total Defense. The Chiefs tied with Oakland for the league lead in turnover differential at +16 and that would seem to tell the story – a below-average team managed a +78 on the scoreboard because of the impact of those turnovers.
That is conventional thinking, and when laying 11-10 it is thinking that is just common enough to get you broke over time. Let’s get to it.
There was absolutely a positive scoreboard impact for the Chiefs because of those turnovers and also the special teams play of Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs reached that +78 despite an advantage of only +1 in offensive TDs, with a massive +7 in special teams and defensive TDs making a major contribution, much of that via Hill.
Some of that was indeed good football fortune, like the +6 in fumble recoveries (the annals of NFL history tell us there is no skill set there outside of the QB strip sack; the rest is almost completely guided by randomness). But …
If you want to win you absolutely must adjust the stat columns for turnovers, and not just the scoreboard
One of the most common handicapping notions that I see across the Sports Mediaverse, and the handicapping world in particular, is to caution against teams that had nice scoreboards that were heavily impacted by turnovers. You will read about that both for individual games and for teams over the course of seasons, like those 2016 Chiefs. Guess what? Once upon a time that was a genuine handicapping tool, back when scoreboards carried an overwhelming weight in the consciousness of the betting markets.
That weight has shifted over time. There are advanced metrics covering every snap of the ball, and they carry substantial influence with folks that bring wheelbarrows to the betting windows. And the guys with the wheelbarrows end up carrying away more than they brought in at the end of most seasons.
Here is the gist – yes, turnovers can make a team appear to be “lucky” on the scoreboard. But those same turnovers can often make a team appear to be “unlucky” in the stat columns. Let me set up a comparison using the simple overall yardage counts, contrasted by the good folks at Football Outsiders, who use far better metrics in determining the value of the various units:
2016 Chiefs Offense Defense
NFL Total Yards #20 #24
FO Efficiency #13 #14
Kansas City was slightly above average on both offense and defense, and #1 in special teams. That was enough to bring the Chiefs in as the #6 team overall when the components are weighted together. It was not a mediocre team made to look better through the bounces, but instead a good one that elevated to nearly being very good.
Turnovers and special teams/defensive touchdowns can create havoc with statistics. That cheap 25-yard TD drive after a turnover that you discounted because the offense didn’t “earn” the points? The same drive penalizes the offense because it only allowed it to gain 25 yards.
What happens when the defense or special teams score a TD? The offense doesn’t get the ball. When the offense doesn’t get the ball, the offense can’t generate stats. That means that an absolutely essential part of understanding the 2016 Kansas City season was that the Chiefs' opponents snapped the ball 73 more times than they did. The total yardage figures will rarely be favorable when that is the case.
Yes, the Chiefs were a little lucky in 2016, but as Branch Rickey eloquently stated:
"Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality, both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.”
Rickey certainly made his Brooklyn Dodgers “luckier” when he signed Jackie Robinson, didn’t he?
Before dismissing the bounces that led Kansas City to 12-4, make sure that you understand a key component of the “design” behind it. Let’s look at where the Chiefs have rated in offensive turnovers, and in penalty yards per game, in the four seasons that comprise the Andy Reid era:
Offensive TOs Penalties
Kansas City often ends up with game management advantages not necessarily because the Chiefs make good things happen, but instead because they prevent bad things from happening. That is important as you put your base handicap together for 2017, and then adjust during the season.
I will repeat the concept of adjusting the box scores for turnovers early in the season because it is something that you must do if you want to win. For now, you also need to accept that while Kansas City did get the best of the bounces in 2016, not all of those fortunate bounces were just football luck.
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