Nothing says Spring like NFL Regular Season Win Totals popping. The CG Technology sportsbook in Las Vegas released the first set of totals over the weekend and it’s worth breaking down the openers a bit to understand where the market will go once these are more widely available.
In past years it has been good to provide some context to these numbers in the form of last season’s wins and maybe even more importantly, last season’s Pythagorean wins. There are obviously more nuanced ways to quantify a team’s performance over the course of a season, but pythag wins is an decent proxy to look past the actual wins, strip away lucky/unlucky bounces and determine what the likely number of wins would be if Team X scores and concedes the a given number of points in an average season. Generally stated, on a macro level, pythag wins is a truer representation of how good a team is than their actual wins which lack the context of losing closing games and winning blowouts.
This plays into a common concept which you will inevitably read about this offseason, regressing to the mean (i.e. a team that over-performed their pythag wins will likely come back to earth the following season and a team that under-performed their pythag wins will likely improve). It’s important to recognize that this is not a hard and fast rule that can be blindly used to take action, but know that:
The market at large will use last year’s wins as a starting point in their decision-making, meaning some fat is potentially built into the opening number which does not reflect the true strength of the team from the previous season and;
Some market-makers will use the “regressing to the mean” concept to place wagers and shape the widely-available numbers.
Before diving into the 2018 pythag wins, you may wonder “how do you calculate these?” and “how have they performed as a predictor year-over-year?”. Both are good questions, and neither is easy to answer. Many folks have come up with ways to calculate pythag wins for lots of sports and I would encourage you to explore the topic in more detail to find a methodology you agree with and which provides the most useful signal. For this example I am using the Pythagenpat formula for Pythagorean expectation, as follows:
As far as year-over-year predictive value compared to regular-season wins opening numbers, watch this space for a full breakdown on the topic but generally stated, a misfit in pythag wins compared to actual wins of 1.0 or greater has an impressive rate of indicating team improvement or regression the following year in terms of raw wins.
So with all that setup, here is a breakdown/summary of the 2018 wins, pythag wins and 2019 regular season win total openers for all 32 NFL teams (sorted by division from highest to lowest expected wins).
Some important clarifications, the points for (PF) and points against (PA) represent raw numbers and have not be adjusted for luck, garbage time or key injuries. The difference between actual wins and pythag wins is subtracted and formatted in a way that a team that over-performed by a win (like the Chargers) has a negative difference and is formatted with a hot colored cell; conversely a team that underperformed by a win (like the Steelers) has a positive difference and is formatted with a cool colored cell. Finally for the 2019 data, after the opening line and odds are shown, the last column simply represents the lines-makers adjustment from 2018 actual performance to 2019 expected performance with negative indicating fewer expected wins and positive indicating more expected wins. What is obviously completely unaccounted for in all of this data is change in roster and difficultly in schedule between the two seasons.
Some interesting notes that immediately pop when reviewing this data set:
The Jets who under-performed in 2018 have been adjusted up a whopping 3 wins, presumably based on changes to the roster via free-agency and changes to the coaching staff (if those changes are worth anything at all is debatable).
If you were excited to fade the Dolphins based on their wild over-achievement in 2018, bad news the books adjusted them down 2 wins.
The Ravens surprisingly under-achieved in 2018 by over a win but this potential for improvement is mitigated by roster turnover (and improvement in-division) which is driving their win number in the opposite direction.
The Texans apparently earned almost all of their 11 wins in 2018 and with relatively little change to their make-up, the market is expecting 2.5 fewer wins from this group in 2019 and it would not be surprising to see influential players push the Texans number up so be prepared to get in soon if you feel similarly.
The Jags who were squarely a five win team got an upgrade to the tune of 3.0 wins for what exactly? Big Dick Nick is that much better than the BOAT?
Amazingly the Raiders over-achieved even winning four games in 2018 and it is surprising that they are now expected to be a six win in what might be the most difficult division in the sport.
The NFC East tracks almost exactly according to the pythag expectation with the exception of Philly who gets back a presumably healthy Wentz.
Massive regression expected from the Bears even though they apparently earned every one of their 12 wins in 2018.
The Saints who have one of the higher win totals across the board may have value to the over and regardless the number will likely go up based on volume if not influential action.
Finally, the Seahawks, who felt lucky to make the playoffs, actually under-achieved in 2018 according to their pythag wins however their total has been adjusted down aggressively in response to relatively little roster turnover (for now).
No action for me at this time with more trades, the draft and the schedule reveal all coming to inform the handicap, but always worthwhile to start thinking about these things as soon as market prices are available. For more discussion on our gut reactions to the opening line please check out our recent podcast episode: