Analyzing Vegas Win Totals & What We Missed in 2020 (Fantasy Football)
At this point of the offseason, we have the privilege of looking back and grading our thoughts where we guessed right or wrong about fantasy football in the year that was #2020. Hindsight analysis is descriptive of what has happened but should not be used as prescriptive to forecast for the next season. On a player basis, that type of view can be quite myopic, considering only a small part but missing the whole. For example, we can’t simply say that Keenan Allen (one of my favorite WRs in the world) saw 10.5 targets per game in 2020, and therefore we project that into his 2021 season outlook without also considering Austin Ekeler‘s injury, Hunter Henry, and the rest of the pass-catchers. Last year’s data was last year’s data.
But on a league-wide basis, it is helpful to look back at Vegas win totals to see the inaccuracies and opportunities missed to sharpen our skills in forecasting for 2021. While win totals are a long grind throughout the season, they are a bit more predictable and easier to understand than some in-season wagers.
First, I’ll discuss the importance of Vegas’ projected win totals and why they are valuable as a metric for forecasting. Then, we can analyze the difference between the initial projected win totals, the actual win totals, and three huge takeaways I had perusing the teams. Before Vegas win totals come out after the schedule is released, you can get a leg up on the competition and begin to see where the market is soft and where we are banking on a number of different factors to break right in 2021. Overs are the sexy gambles but unders is where people actually make their money.
Vegas Win Totals
Team win totals are one of the most popular forms of analyzing teams. A 16-game sample size is much easier to digest than a 162-game season in MLB. Now I love me some baseball but in terms of forecasting win totals, NFL is more of an upside-down puzzle than a 2-sided one to figure out in my opinion. The over/unders are extremely simple to understand and the average NFL fan can make their mark on whether their hometown team is a .500 squad or not.
The NFL schedule release is kind of a party around here and every year I write about Ten Insights from the Schedule Release. Here were the projected win totals I grabbed from early-May of 2020. Before the pandemic was in full-force, before GameStop and AMC once again became part of our lives, the column on the left shows some win totals that might confuse you with the information and 2020 season we now know.
Right off the bat, we can see that the initial 2020 Vegas projected win total added up to 262.5. While this is not uncommon, it does tell us that there were a few bullish projections in the initial market (in a 16-game season, 256 wins are on the table) that can be taken advantage of. After examining these numbers, here were my biggest actionable pieces of information.
The market overreacted to a couple of teams deemed “lucky/unlucky” in 2019.
For a team that won 13 games in 2019, 8.5 wins for the Green Bay Packers seemed like a drastic overcorrection by the market. Yes, Green Bay was 9-1 in one-score games in 2019. Yet this team seemed like a lock for double-digit wins. The drafting of Jordan Love in the 1st round scared off many and yet all Aaron Rodgers turned in an MVP season with 48 passing TDs. That total rose to 9.5 at the beginning of the season and the over was still smashed.
Oh, the Eagles. Something Wentz horribly wrong as Carson Wentz led the league in turnovers and sacks despite not playing the final month of the season. The Eagles are stuck in one of the worst cap situations in the NFL with aging veterans needing to move on. But could we have seen a downturn coming? In 2019, the Eagles were fairly lucky to get to nine wins. They were 5-5 in one-score games and -3 in turnover margin. Heck, six of those wins included WAS (x2), NYJ, MIA, and NYG (x2). Not exactly world-beaters… 9.5 projected wins would’ve asked for an improvement from a squad with an aging offensive line and a WR core that had no identity entering the season.
The Dallas Cowboys are a tough team to evaluate because so much of their season was tied to the injury of Dak Prescott. However, if we turn back the clock, Dallas had trouble in 2019. They were 1-6 in one-score games and, based on their point differential (+113), massively underperformed. Their win expectation (10.6) dictated that there was room for improvement in 2020. At ten wins, Vegas was putting their stamp of approval on a rebound season. That initial total was the 5th highest for 2020. Beyond Dak, did we take into account the other side of the ball? Dallas never turned the ball over with any authority in 2019 ranking 25th in the NFL and an embarrassingly low 30th in INTs. After losing shutdown corner Byron Jones to free agency, they never quite reloaded. Dallas’ defense was a standard… for awfulness. They allowed the 5th most points in the league and a ridiculous 158 rushing yards per game, 2nd most in the NFL. If you peel back the curtain, things would’ve had to bounce right even if Dak wasn’t injured to get to 11 wins.
At 3-12-1, the 2019 Detroit Lions finished the year in a miserable state as Matthew Stafford missed the second half of the season. They did have a tough luck record (3-8 in one-score games) including a game at home against Kansas City that they easily could’ve won. Matt Patricia seemed doomed from the start of the season and he was ousted after Week 12 finishing his tenure in Detroit with a .314 winning percentage and the stench of a failed former Patriots coach. This defense was bullied all season long allowing the most points per game (32.4) including the most passing AND rushing TDs allowed… which is a hard feat to accomplish. To see this team more than double their win total from the previous season felt like a tall feat.
“Ascendant teams” within a division often cloud our judgment.
In 2019, the Pittsburgh Steelers basically played a Pop Warner style of offense with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB. It was rough as Pittsburgh games hit the under in 12-of-16 games. That horrible excuse for a passing offense almost made the playoffs being in contention until Week 17. Yet the return of Big Ben was only worth one win? The 9.5 felt like a clear over but perhaps Baltimore’s run of success with Lamar Jackson obstructed the view of having another elite team in the AFC North. Pittsburgh started off the year 11-0 clearing their win total before Thanksgiving.
The Carolina Panthers, after Cam Newton‘s season-ending injury, went 5-1 from Weeks 3-to-9 with Kyle Allen under center. They nosedived afterward with eight losses in a row. They went 2-6 in one-score games leaving room for improvement in an abysmal season outside of Christian McCaffrey‘s fantasy greatness. With a new quarterback and a new head coach, early Vegas saw Carolina as a 6-or-7 win team. That doesn’t seem like much to ask except the division as a whole added Tom Brady and Carolina added the AFC West. The Panthers’ defense was also one of the youngest in the league as they took a defensive player with every draft pick they had in 2020. While 5.5 seemed like a low total, consider all the moving parts that had to gel together for a team that struggled down the stretch in 2019.
The Seattle Seahawks are perennial winners as evidenced by Pete Carroll averaging 10.8 wins per year since 2012. That is an insanely high floor and yet Seattle was only projected for 9.5 wins by Vegas. Why? Well, some luck was on their side as they went 10-2 in one-score games including winning 6-of-11 games when trailing at the half. That certainly was not repeatable although with Russell Wilson anything is possible. Seattle also went 7-1 on the road and with San Francisco asserting themselves as a legit stakeholder in the NFC, it looked like Seattle could easily skew the other way in the win column in 2020. Instead, the Seahawks were a consistent force once again. Until further notice, ten wins seems quite bankable for Wilson.
Young QBs were thought to take the next step forward.
In case you forgot, the New York Jets went 7-9 in 2019. Yes, the Adam Gase-led squad inched close to .500 and Vegas decided to forecast this team to regress only 0.5 in the win column. This regime drafted Sam Darnold at No. 3 overall for a reason and the thought was that he could progress as a passer in Year 3. But who was this guy going to throw to? Breshad Perriman? Who on the offense could actually help Darnold stretch defenses? Mixed with elite stars who wanted out (Jamal Adams) and overpriced, past-their-prime veterans who also wanted out (Le’Veon Bell), the clubhouse was already in turmoil. 6.5 wins seem laughable at this point as New York lost their first 13 before royally screwing up the #1 pick by actually winning two of their final three games. They averaged a league-worst 15.2 points per game and even that much feels generous. When we throw in Buffalo’s ascent within the division and a schedule that included the NFC and AFC West, the Jets were doomed from the start.
Let’s stay in the same state. The New York Giants and Daniel Jones received some fantasy hype during the offseason. But as an actual football team, this team had a number of red flags that might’ve been overlooked as we forecasted the “next step” for Mr. Jones. This team couldn’t win the close one (2-5 in one-score games in 2019) including losing nine(!) games in a row from Weeks 5-14. Their four wins in Jones’ rookie year came against TB, WAS (x2), and MIA… not exactly Murderer’s Row. We can’t forget how historically bad Jones was in terms of taking care of the football. He earned the nickname Daniel “Fumble” Jones for a reason. 6.5 wins seemed bullish on a squad with a first-time head coach in Joe Judge, a middling WR group, and of course the development of Jones into a competent, consistent starter. Saquon Barkley‘s injury was devastating but apart from a respectable defense, this team was fortunate to get to six wins in a division that celebrated mediocrity.
Drew Lock and the Denver Broncos were an easy target to pick on as we only had a small sample size to go off on. In his five starts, the 2nd round draft pick went 4-1 down the stretch, and Mile High fans thought maybe John Elway had solved his QB issues. But looking further into that 2019 squad, the Broncos were fortunate to get to seven wins considering they ranked 28th in points per game at a paltry 17.6. In 2020, the Broncos ranked the exact same at 28th in points per game yet again (20.2) AND their defense improved mightily to 10th in points allowed. How did they drop to only five wins? You can primarily point to the play of Drew Lock who tied for the league lead in interceptions and completed just 57 percent of his passes. He aptly named “Mr. Irresponsible” on the Fantasy Footballers podcast. 7.5 wins were incredibly bullish for a young, inexperienced QB taking a step forward in a division dominated by the Chiefs.
All of these takeaways might seem like simple hindsight analysis given the fact I’m talking about this in January. Regardless, reviewing each team, each projected win total, and marking down small notes for the 2021 season is how you get a leg up on forecasting. For the next part of this series, I will analyze 2020 win totals versus their win expectation total to find some meaningful points of discussion for 2021. Hopefully, this gives you some actionable information as Vegas win totals will come out right after the schedule release in early May and you may be able to take advantage of some early soft lines.