Happy Football Friday.
Week 14 had some real drama, with a Kadarius Toney offsides penalty the difference in a 20-17 Bills win in Arrowhead – their fourth-straight regular season win in Arrowhead against the Chiefs – while the Rams failing to go for two after a penalty led to overtime against the Ravens, where Baltimore’s special teams propelled them to a 37-31 win. Monday Night Football saw a pretty unlikely feat, with the Dolphins and the Packers suffering losses to the lowly Titans and Giants, an outcome the betting markets put at roughly four percent. Dallas bullied Philadelphia to avenge an early-season loss, leaving no room for error in the NFC East for the birds.
Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.
Week 15 is the best kind of week of football. Assuming you were able to get through the privilege that was two backup quarterbacks Thursday night in Vegas, you’re blessed with three games on Saturday, all with playoff implications (along with a bunch of bowl games and FCS playoff games). The Titans are reportedly wearing Oilers jerseys against the Texans, which has “Ravens wear Browns jerseys against the Browns” vibes. The Chiefs/Patriots game was flexed out of Monday night football in favor of Eagles/Seahawks, while late Sunday we get great matchups in Cowboys/Bills and Ravens/Jaguars.
Let’s dig in.
One Thing I’m Monitoring
Seemingly every week we get compelling football in the NFL that’s overshadowed by officiating. Analysts who could otherwise be discussing something interesting regarding scheme, analytics, coaching, etc. are building lengthy Twitter threads with videos of missed or blown calls. It’s exhausting. And boring.
PSA: if you respond to a tweet of mine lauding or criticizing something today with a tweet about a referee’s call you are getting blocked. The rules are.
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@ericeager_) September 10, 2023
It’s also somewhat deserved.
Officiating in the NFL is a part-time job, and they are getting part-time results. For a league that makes billions of dollars in revenue a season, and the scrutiny that accompanies that, it will be interesting to see if we can finish the season without the kind of scandal that leads to bad-faith arguments like this when the referees actually get the call correct:
That call on the long snapper is a prime example of why more and more people think the fix is in. The NFL needs to figure this out before it all blows up. Eventually it will.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) December 8, 2023
Officiating errors are generally zero sum over any reasonable amount of time, but EPA differential on penalties is about twice as correlated year-to-year as turnover EPA differential, which can lead some to believe that refs have something out to get their favorite team, or in the case of teams like the Packers, Patriots, or Chiefs, something for teams that are popular and successful.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the hip drop tackle: “We all should work to get that out of the game.”
— Tashan Reed (@tashanreed) December 13, 2023
This week, it appears that the league is searching for more places where officials can make the kind of judgement calls that are hard to get right, like outlawing so-called “hip drop” tackles that have caused a number of injuries in recent seasons. It is worth monitoring whether or not the optics continue to get worse as the season transitions into the playoffs, and whether the league takes steps to address it in the offseason. With legalized sports betting and lucrative TV and media deals, the stakes are high (no pun intended).
One Thing I’m Buying
I’m buying the steam that Bill Belichick, arguably the best coach in league history, will be traded from the New England Patriots this offseason. Tom Curan of NBC Sports Boston reported this week that a decision was made to move on from the six-time Super Bowl champion head coach, who also won two Super Bowls as the Giants defensive coordinator.
Embedded in the various reports that preceded and followed was the idea that the Patriots, who boast one of the least-talented rosters in the NFL, would look to trade the future Hall of Famer for draft picks. This is something we’ve mused about on the SumerSports Show previously, and something that recently happened in Denver, who shipped a late first-rounder to the Saints in exchange for Sean Payton. Belichick has had a better career than Payton, but is a bit older (71, to Payton’s 59) and has not had the success recently than even Payton had prior to leaving the Saints, where he went 9-8 his final year with a combination of Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian, and Ian Book at quarterback.
Belichick still does really well when we grade coaches using a top-down approach, but some of the underlying metrics are concerning, namely his in-game decision making, where he is far removed from his decision to go for it in his own end in a 2009 game against Peyton Manning’s Colts.
Belichick is still probably worth a point or two a game, all told, which equates to about one win a season, and that nets out to about $28 million a season in 2024 cap dollars. However, coaching salaries aren’t counted against the cap, so it’s a weird calculation. A first-round pick, using public models, is worth anywhere from $10 to $15 APY. If coach salary is of no concern, this would put Belichick as being worth about two firsts. With age, and costs (somewhat) factored in, one first seems reasonable.
The question is, who is going to do that? Washington has come up as a name, for good reason. Josh Harris just bought the team and hired Eugene Shen as a VP specializing in football research (and could hence put a similar value on a coach like Belichick). They, unlike the Panthers, have a first-round pick from which to work, but reportedly have less in the way of disposable cash with which to entice Belichick. Dark horses could include the Chargers, who have struggled in Brandon Staley’s third season, or the Raiders, who have already fired Belichick’s former offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels.
Let the speculation begin.
One Thing I’m Selling
I’m selling the Cincinnati Bengals.
A week after buying the Chiefs, the team that has faced the Bengals in the last two AFC Championship games, I’m going to look to sell at the very top of the market. Well, not the very top, as many professional bettors bought into Minnesota on Saturday afternoon at +4 and +3.5. Alas, after a couple of games struggling in the stead of Joe Burrow, Jake Browning’s play has many believing in Who Dey Nation as a playoff team in a loaded AFC, and that is probably overzealous.
Our models at Sumer have them with an 18.5% chance of making the playoffs, which makes -355 at FanDuel a value (breakeven of 22% to miss the playoffs). A big reason for this is the inexperience of Browning, an undrafted player out of Washington, but a secondary reason is the play of the defense, which has struggled for most of the season.
Lou Anarumo’s group is 27th in EPA per play allowed and 31st in success rate allowed. The Jessie Bates-less secondary is 26th in EPA per pass play allowed, despite being 18th in sack rate. They’ve been very susceptible to big plays, which are difficult to offset when working with a backup quarterback on the other side.
Cincinnati has the 12th-toughest schedule remaining, starting Saturday against the Vikings. A win puts them at one-in-four to make the playoffs, though, before they head on the road to play Pittsburgh and Kansas City. They finish at home against Cleveland, who they’ve struggled to beat the last few years.
Week 15 Playoff Probability Leverage pic.twitter.com/Ifo9XoZC7k
— SumerSports (@SumerSports) December 14, 2023
Jake Browning has been a fun story, but all stories, even the good ones, must come to an end.