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The Use of Statistics in Football Betting

Analyzing the overall quality of football teams is a vital part of football betting. Almost every wager you place should be based on this analysis in one way or another. How can you accurately predict the winner of the Super Bowl at the start of a season if you don’t have some idea of how good each NFL team really is? How can you accurately predict the outcome of a college football game if you don’t know enough about the two competing teams? The answer to these questions is simple; you can’t.

There are, however, a few different ways that you can establish a view on the overall quality of a football team. One way is to study the vast range of team and player statistics that are widely available from various sources. These can tell us a lot about how well teams and players have been performing in all the key areas. For example, knowing the average number of points a team allows each game helps us to assess their defensive strength, while knowing the average number of yards a team reaches each game helps us to gauge the effectiveness of their offensive line.

Stats alone don’t give us the full picture, of course. Even though they’re based on hard data, they still have to be put into context. That’s harder to do, and even then we don’t have everything we need to provide a complete assessment of a team’s quality. There are other factors to consider too, many of which are less tangible than the measured data that statistics offer. Then there’s the fact that stats only tell us about past performance, and past performance is not always a clear indicator of future performance.

These reasons, and others, are why the value of using stats in football betting is questioned by some people. It’s actually a fairly common view that stats should not be relied upon to make betting decisions. The basis for this view is that they are too limited without proper context, which in turn means that they aren’t very accurate.

We understand this view. We even partially agree with it. Stats are definitely limited in their use, as they don’t tell us everything we need to know. And they shouldn’t be relied upon entirely either. If you recognize those limitations though, and use stats in tandem with other factors, then they definitely have value in our opinion.

They may not tell us everything, but they do tell us something. For the best of chance of making money from football betting we must learn as much as we possibly can about the teams and the players involved. That’s where stats come into play. We need to be able to assess the overall quality of teams and players, so that we CAN make informed judgements about how they’re likely to perform in both the short term and the long term. Stats help with that too. They don’t give us all the answers, but they certainly enable us to form educated opinions.

Below we explore the pros and cons of using stats for your betting decisions in more detail. We then go on to explain a little about the main football stats and what they tell us. There’s also some information on a few additional stats that we recommend using, and some general advice on using football stats when betting.

Pros and Cons of Using Football Stats

We’ve already mentioned how the value of football statistics is the subject of some debate. So the first decision you really need to make is whether or not you want to use them. We say that you should, but it’s important that you make your own mind up. To do this you need to find out exactly what benefits they have to offer. You also need to understand that stats are ultimately limited in what they can tell us, and that there are certain disadvantages to using them too.

That’s why we’re starting with a discussion about the pros and cons of using football stats. Feel free to read through the following information, so you can decide just how much value you want to place on the various football statistics that are available to you.

Advantages of Using Stats

The advantages of using statistics are too great to count. Here are a few that particularly stand out to us, however. The most obvious advantage is that they are based on measurable and quantifiable data. If the stats say that Roethlisberger averages 328 passing yards per game, and that this is a better average than any other quarterback, then we know that to be true. There’s no room for opinion or interpretation. It’s a hard fact.

Of course, how much that single stat actually tells us IS open to interpretation. But at least we’re working with solid data, and not just intuition or guesswork.

We also like that stats make it significantly easier to do all of the following.

  • Identify strengths and weaknesses
  • Compare the relative quality of teams
  • Make more informed predictions

Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a team is especially useful. Knowing where a team is strong, and where they are weak, helps us enormously when it comes to assessing overall quality. We can then start to gauge how well they’re likely to do in certain situations, and over an entire season.

Comparing the relative quality of teams is also very advantageous. It helps when we’re trying to pick the winners of a division for example, or if we’re trying to decide which of the playoff teams is going to go all the way. It’s most helpful, of course, when betting on individual games. Directly comparing the quality of the two teams involved gives us some idea of how a game is likely to play out.

All of this then helps with the third point listed above: making more informed predictions. That’s essentially what you’re trying to do right? You’ve got to consider where the value lies in the betting odds and lines of course, but you can only actually do that if you can make accurate assessments about the likelihood of any given outcome. And there‘s absolutely no doubt that stats help with that.

Disadvantages of Using Stats

We’ve covered some of the main advantages of using stats when betting on football. So it should be fairly clear to you by now that they definitely have some merit. But you do need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of using stats too. Specifically, you need to consider the following.

  • They don’t always provide context
  • They lead to ignoring other factors

Stats by themselves can actually be a little misleading, as they don’t always provide context. This is especially true of player stats. A lot of people think that you can look at one or two stats for a football player and instantly know just how good that player is. You can’t though. Not really. A player’s stats do tell you something about a player for sure, but you need to look at more than just one or two. And even multiple stats don’t necessarily tell you everything without context.

For example, a player’s performances are always going to be affected to some extent by the other players around him. Take the running back position for example. Give an average running back a top quality offensive line to play with for a season and he’s likely to get plenty of rushing yards. Whereas even the best running back in the league might struggle if playing with a poor offensive line.

Stats don’t give you that kind of context. A running back might post the best rushing yards figures for a whole season primarily because of the quality of the players around him. He’s obviously done his job well. But do his stats alone mean he’s definitely better than the guy who’s been surrounded by a poorly performing offensive line? No, is the simple answer. We just can’t tell without considering the context. And even then we don’t know how the two players would have performed if they’d switched teams.

Context matters for team stats too. Imagine we’re five games into the season, and two teams are about to meet. Let’s call them Team A and Team B for this hypothetical example. You look at the stats, and Team A is leading Team B in virtually every single stat for the season so far. So it’s pretty obvious which is the better team. Or is it? Let’s apply some context.

Team A has a fairly settled roster, a coach that’s been with the team for years, and no injury problems. The schedule has also been kind to them, and given them a fairly easy start to the season. Team B, on the other hand, has integrated several new players into their roster for the season. They’ve also got a new coach, and their star quarterback was injured for three of their first five games. On top of that, they’ve had a pretty rough schedule, facing some tough teams and enduring some extensive travelling.

Can we really say that Team A is definitely the better side of the two? The stats suggest that they clearly are, but the context surrounding those stats puts them into perspective. Without considering that context, the stats are essentially meaningless. This also highlights the importance of sample size. Stats compiled over a few games aren’t generally as accurate as stats compiled over a longer period.

So context has to be considered when using stats, and so does sample size. More importantly, you have to remember that there are still other factors in play too. Too many people rely entirely on stats to make their betting decisions, and they often times ignore other information that could also be useful. For example, there are factors affecting the outcome of football games that have nothing to do with statistics. The venue, injuries, motivation, most recent form and even the weather are just a few examples.

Please remember all of this if you do decide to use stats in your football betting. The advantages are clear, but you MUST consider the disadvantages too.

Basic Football Stats

OK, time to move on to some detail about the stats that you’re most likely to use when betting on football. There’s an almost endless number of stats available on teams and players these days, but we’ll focus on the basic ones for now.

Here’s a list of six simple football stats that are readily available and provide us with some degree of useful information.

  • Points Per Game
  • Yards Per Game
  • Third Down Efficiency
  • Sacks
  • Tackles
  • Interceptions

Now let’s take a look at these one by one.

Per Game

Stats don’t come much simpler than points per game (PPG). This is calculated by dividing the total number of points a team has scored throughout the season (or other specific period) by the number of games played. This gives us the average number of points they score in a game.

What does this tell us? Not a huge amount really. It helps to gauge the effectiveness of a team at scoring, but disregards too many other factors to be truly useful. It is something to consider when betting on game totals though.

Here’s a list of the top three teams for PPG scored in the 2015 NFL season. It’s perhaps noteworthy that the Panthers had the best PPG scored that season, making it all the way to the Super Bowl. Mind you, they lost to the Broncos who ranked tenth in PPG for the season with 22.2. So PPG isn’t necessarily a great indicator of overall team quality.

Best PPG Scored (2015 NFL Season)
Carolina Panthers 31.3
Arizona Cardinals 30.6
New England Patriots 26.4

PPG is also used to measure the number of points allowed by teams. Again, this isn’t a significantly useful statistic. It gives us some insight into the strength of a team’s defense, and should be taken into consideration when betting on game totals, but in reality it doesn’t tell us very much at all.

Here’s a list of the top three teams for PPG allowed in the 2015 NFL season. To put everything in perspective, the two teams that made the Super Bowl ranked sixth (Panthers) and fourth (Broncos) for this stat.

Best PPG Allowed (2015 NFL Season)
Seattle Seahawks 17.3
Cincinnati Bengals 17.4
Kansas City Chiefs 17.9

You can also use PPG stats to calculate PPG differential. This is the difference between the average PPG scored and the average PPG allowed. So a team with a PPG score of 30 and a PPG allowed of 20 would have a PPG differential of 10. This figure gives us a slightly better indication of a team’s overall quality, as it takes both their offensive and defensive quality into account. It’s still fairly limited though.

Yards Per Game

Yards per game (YPG) is another very simple statistic. It measures the average number of yards acquired by a team or individual player per game. In very simple terms, the higher the number: the better. It’s a fairly limited stat by itself though. Like PPG it gives us a little insight into the quality of a team (or player), but not much more than that.

It’s widely believed that NFL teams need a minimum YPG of 300 if they’re going to compete in the modern game. Here are the top three teams for YPG in the 2015 NFL season.

Best Overall YPG (2015 NFL Season)
Arizona Cardinals 408.3
New Orleans Saints 403.8
Pittsburgh Steelers 395.4

As with PPG, there’s also a stat for YPG allowed by team. When assessing teams using YPG allowed, you’re looking for a low number. A team that’s strong defensively would typically aim to allow less than 300 yards per game on average. The top three teams for the 2015 NFL season were as follows.

Best Overall YPG Allowed (2015 NFL Season)
Denver Broncos 283.1
Seattle Seahawks 291.8
Houston Texans 310.2

YPG is a commonly used statistic. It’s also one of the best examples of where context is important. The number of yards gained, or allowed, by a team really doesn’t tell us that much on its own. For example, we really need to consider style of play too. Some teams have a style where generating high numbers of yards is vital, while others have a style where the total number of yards generated is less important. Without taking that into account, we can’t actually decipher much about whether a team’s YPG is truly indicative of their quality and efficiency.

It’s also worth noting that the total number of yards generated by a team can be broken down based on the way those yards are generated. Statistics are also available based on the following.

  • Passing Yards
  • Rushing Yards

Passing yards measures the total amount of yards gained on completed passes. Rushing yards measures the total amount of yards gained by rushing plays, where a player runs with the football in his possession. Breaking a team’s YPG down into passing yards and rushing yards can help to gain a more accurate picture of their quality, particularly when considered alongside playing style and other relevant factors.

There are some other yards based stats that are even more useful for assessing a team’s overall quality too. We cover those later.

Third Down Efficiency

A third down is usually a team’s last chance for maintaining possession. If they’re unsuccessful in converting a third down, they’ll usually have to either punt the ball to their opponent or settle for a field goal attempt. So a team’s ability to convert their third downs is very important in terms of their overall quality and effectiveness.

That’s why a team’s third down efficiency is a very useful stat. It tells us what percentage of a team’s third downs lead directly to first downs or scoring plays. The higher the percentage, the more successful a team is at converting their third downs. The better a team is at converting their third downs, the higher their chances are of winning.

Although this is one more statistic that has to be considered in conjunction with other factors, it’s more telling than the other stats discussed so far. It’s rare for a team to average a better than 50% conversion over the course of an entire season, but anything in the mid to high forties is good.

The top three teams for this stat during the 2015 NFL season were as follows.

Best Third Down Efficiency (2015 NFL Season)
New Orleans Saints 47.7%
Atlanta Falcons 47.1%
Arizona Cardinals 47.0%

There’s also a stat for fourth down efficiency. It measures the number of times an attempt to turn a fourth down into a first down is successful. This stat is less useful than third down efficiency, purely because most teams do not attempt to convert many fourth downs into first downs. It’s a risky play where a turnover can lead to a quick score by the opponent. So we don’t suggest reading too much into fourth down efficiency, other than to gain some idea of how well a team manages risk and reward in games.

Sacks

The number of sacks a player makes can tell us something about his quality. The number of sacks a team makes as a whole also gives us some insight into how strong they are defensively. So this is another stat that’s useful for gauging how well a team is performing, or likely to perform in the future.

Most Team Sacks (2015 NFL Season)
Denver Broncos 52
New England Patriots 49
Pittsburgh Steelers 48

However, we have to be cautious when looking at this particular statistic. Like so many others, it’s really just a number that doesn’t tell us too much by itself. It’s possible to achieve high sack totals without actually playing effectively, and it’s equally possible for a team to be effective without recording high stack totals.

Fans of football like to look at sack totals, particularly for individual players. But, as a bettor, please be aware that this stat should only really be used as a very general guideline to overall quality and effectiveness.

Tackles

Defensive players rely heavily on the tackle to limit the yards gained by offensive players on the opposing team. As such, the number of tackles made is a useful statistic for evaluating the effectiveness of defensive players. It’s also useful for evaluating the defensive quality of a team as a whole too.

Most Team Tackles (2015 NFL Season)
New Yok Giants 1216
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1155
St. Louis Rams 1132

As with sacks, though, you need to be careful in regards to making assumptions based on tackle statistics alone. They’re useful on an individual player basis, as a player that’s making lots of tackles is almost certainly doing something right, but not necessarily on a team basis. For example, a team may be forced to make lots of tackles due to weaknesses elsewhere on the team. You need to consider this possibility and more when using tackle stats to make any judgements.

Interceptions

The number of interceptions made is another statistic that can help to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of defensive players. Especially when it comes to cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers, as they are players tasked with covering opposing receivers in the passing game. The biggest problem with this stat is that the number of interceptions made by a player is typically not that high. You can tell that by looking at the highest totals by team for a season.

Most Team Interceptions (2015 NFL Season)
Carolina Panthers 24
Kansas City 22
Cincinnati Bengals 21

The relatively small numbers here show that we can’t read too much into interception stats. As with everything else we’ve discussed so far, they only provide a small glimpse into just how effective a team or player is. They’re not useless, but they don’t give us any great insight either.

Additional Stats to Use

We’ve focused on the most basic statistics so far. These certainly shouldn’t be ignored. But, for the reasons we’ve outlined, it’s important to be aware of their limitations in giving us any real understanding of just how good a team or player is.

There are lots of other stats you can use that are far more useful. We especially like the following.

  • Pass Yards Per Attempt
  • Team Yards Per Carry
  • Yards Per Play Differential
  • Yards After Catch
  • Turnover Differential
  • Negative Pass Play Percentage

Why these particular stats? Let’s find out.

Pass Yards Per Attempt

This statistic is useful when looking at a team as a whole, or as a quarterback individually. It provides real insight into exactly how efficient a team or quarterback at passing. This is much more useful than looking at the number of passing yards alone.

A team that’s efficient at passing is likely to be able to sustain their drives, find the receivers and exploit holes in the opposition’s defense. Individually, those things may not seem very telling. But, collectively, they tell us a lot about a team’s offensive capabilities. A team with a high number of pass yards per attempt can be expected to get plenty of points on the board against all but the most solid of defenses.

You can find the pass yards per attempt statistic for football teams and players at a number of websites. Alternatively, it’s possible to do these calculations on your own, as long as you have relative information. It’s as simple as applying the formula below.

Total Passing Yards / Number of Passing Attempts

Team Yards Per Carry

Team yards per carry is similar to the pass yards attempt, in that it’s a useful indicator of just how effective an offensive line is. Rather than telling us about passing efficiency, though, it tells us about running efficiency.

Again, we’re looking for a high number here. The higher the average yards per carry, the more efficient the team is at running the ball. Teams that are good at running the ball are hard to defend against, so this is helpful to know when assessing their overall value.

Yards Per Play Differential

The two stats mentioned so far are based entirely on teams’ offensive performances. The yards per play differential stat tell us something about a teams’ overall performances. It’s basically a measurement of the difference between a team’s yards per play and a team’s yards per play against. So it can be calculated with this very simple formula.

Yards Per Play – Yards Per Play Against

As a general rule, the most effective teams have a positive differential here. This is logical. Teams that are consistently more effective in gaining yards than their opponents are very likely to be outplaying them. There are exceptions to this, but overall it’s still a pretty strong indicator.

Yards After Catch

The yards after catch stat measures the number of yards gained after a pass has been caught. Essentially, this is the amount of yards run by receivers from the time they catch the ball to the time they either lose it or score a touchdown.

This stat isn’t quite as useful as our other favorites. But we do still like it. We believe there’s a correlation between teams performing well and having high yards after catch numbers, so it’s something we like to factor in when appropriate.

Turnover Differential

Comparing the number of turnovers made by a team and the number of times they turn the ball over can tell us a lot about their overall quality. There’s a relatively simple stat for making this comparison, which is known as turnover differential or turnover ratio. This stat is powerful for a football bettor, and one we put a lot of faith in.

Before we explain why it’s so powerful, we should clear up something that often causes confusion. The term turnover differential is often used interchangeably with turnover ratio, but these are actually two distinct terms. Although they are essentially based on the same information, they are expressed differently.

The turnover differential is literally the difference between the number of times the ball is won and the number of times the ball is lost. So it’s calculated as follows.

Takeaways – Giveaways

This calculation will give you a whole number. Any positive number means the team wins the ball more often than they lose it. This is obviously a good thing, and the higher the number the better. If the number is negative, it means a team gives the ball away more often than they win it.

Turnover ratio can be calculated and expressed in two ways. The first uses the subsequent calculation.

Takeaways / Giveaways

This will give you a number anywhere from zero upwards. It’s unlikely to be a whole number though. For example, if a team has 25 takeaways and 22 giveaways then their turnover ratio using this method will be 1.136. This would mean they have 1.136 takeaways for every giveaway. Any number over one indicates a positive turnover differential. Any number below one indicates a negative turnover differential.

The second method for calculating turnover ratio is as follows.

Takeaways / (Takeaways + Giveaways)

This will give you a number between zero and one. Multiply that number by 100 and you have a percentage. This then tells you what percentage of all turnovers are takeaways. So anything above 50% is a positive turnover differential, and anything below 50% is a negative turnover ratio.

Our view is that you shouldn’t worry too much about ratios. It just makes things more complicated, so you’re better off focusing solely on the turnover differential. A high positive turnover differential is a really good indicator of an effective team. It’s not an infallible statistic, but more often than not it paints an accurate picture. A team with a positive turnover differential is always likely to do well against a team with a negative turnover differential.

Do bear in mind, though, that this stat only becomes meaningful a few games into a season. Early on, just one or two games against opposition that’s especially weak, or especially strong, can drastically skew a team’s turnover ratio.

Negative Pass Play Percentage

Two popular player stats among football bettors are the number of sacks made and the number of interceptions. We touched on both of these earlier. We explained that while they do tell us something about the defensive abilities of players, and therefore the teams they play for, they’re also a bit limited.

There’s another stat that we really like for getting a clear idea of how good a defensive line is. It’s called the negative pass play percentage (NPP), and it measures the percentage of plays from an opponent that result in either a sack or an interception by the defense. It’s calculated using the following formula.

(Sacks + Interceptions) / Opponent Pass Plays

A team with a high NPP percentage is one that we can expect to put constant pressure on the opposing quarterback and other offensive players. This basically tells us that they’ll make it difficult for their opponents to score points.

Some Final Points

Before we finish up with this article, we’d like to leave you with some final points. We do recommend that you incorporate the use of statistics into your football betting, but we advise you to please be cautious. Don’t just assume that all stats are as useful as they might appear, and don’t ever rely on them completely to make your decision.

The following are our top three tips for using statistics when betting on football.

  • Focus on team stats
  • Always consider sample size
  • Always consider context and other factors
  • Teams stats provide much more value than player stats. That’s not to say that player stats are useless, or should be completely ignored, but it does make more sense to focus on team stats. Assessing the overall quality of a team is much more helpful when trying to make good betting decisions. Player quality obviously effects team quality, but you have to be careful about overvaluing the impact of individual players.

    One good player doesn’t always make a good team.

    Many football teams feature at least one player with great individual stats. But that doesn’t count for much if the rest of the team isn’t even close to the same standard. Always remember that it’s ultimately teams that win games: not individuals.

    The second tip above is vital. You MUST take sample size into account when looking at stats, or you’re liable to make decisions that are essentially based on useless information.

    Most stats are only relevant with a good sample size.

    Stats simply don’t mean much unless there’s a good sample size to consider. A team could post some amazing stats across two or three games, but that doesn’t really suggest that they’re capable of doing the same for a whole season. You really need to see stats based across at least a few games if you want to gain any valuable insight from them.

    Context is just as important as sample size too. Try to remember that stats can never tell the whole story. They’re just numbers, and numbers aren’t always enough by themselves. You have to put those numbers into context in order to gain maximum value from them.

    Finally, try to use stats in conjunction with other factors when making betting decisions. The more information you consider, the more informed your judgements will be. Take a look at the following articles for details of some of the information you should be taking into account.

    In Summary

    Our view on the use of statistics when football betting is clear. It has a great deal of merit. We don’t doubt that stats can be very useful in terms of making informed judgements about what’s likely to happen in a game of football. So we strongly recommend learning all about the important football stats, and incorporating them into your decision making process.

    It’s vital that you’re aware of the limitations of stats though. None of them paint the whole picture, and some of them can actually be very misleading. They don’t always provide context either. These limitations MUST be taken into consideration.

    Your aim should essentially be to learn how to use football stats without relying on them completely.