Saturday, January 05, 2013

Seahawks at Redskins: An "Outsider's" View

(It has been two years since I posted here--too little time to devote to blogging with work and family beckoning. It feels good to be back.)
Most pundits and many NFL pros—"insiders" on sports television networks, sports writers, etc.—have been hyping or picking Seattle to win in this matchup. Perhaps that is part of the reason that the Seahawks come into this game as a three-point favorite—Vegas gamblers are listening. But, in my professional experience, Michael Mauboussin is correct: when outcomes are largely probabilistic, it is important to have an "outsider’s" perspective.

In his book Think Twice, Mauboussin told the story of the handicapping that favored Big Brown (BB) to win the Belmont and the Triple Crown in 2008. The gamblers made BB a prohibitive favorite. Many insiders—professionals close to horse racing—had proclaimed it a forgone conclusion largely because of the way BB won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and BB's imposing physical stature. Insider confidence was extremely high.

But outsiders knew that since 1950, of the twenty horses who were in position to win the Belmont and the Triple Crown, only three had succeeded—a mere 15%. In addition, of the last seven horses who attempted it, BB was the slowest. The result: BB not only failed to win, he failed to finish the race. Contrarian gamblers who had an outsider’s view profited because the overwhelming odds in favor of BB created big payouts for horses other than Big Brown.

So what can Triple Crown betting tell us about this week's NFC playoff game? Insiders point to the Hawks’ number one defense in the NFL (in points allowed) as the one item that separates these two very similar teams—they both run and pass the ball well with great running backs and outstanding rookie QBs. The Seahawks’ defense is at the top of the NFL in points allowed while the Redskins’ defense is near the bottom in yards allowed, especially against the pass. It probably does not hurt the Seahawks’ Vegas line that they also own the underdog story. Wilson was the underappreciated QB in the draft—the David who was not drafted until the third round—and is going against Goliath, the Heisman Trophy winner and endorsement king Robert Griffin III, who was the second overall pick in the draft. Many who bet with their hearts love the underdog.

But an outsider takes the following into consideration: The Seahawks have been a juggernaut when they play at home. Indeed, they are a perfect 8 - 0 at home this year. But when they play on the road, they are pedestrian at best. On the road, the Hawks are 3 - 5. Yes, they only won three games on the road this year and they are playing Sunday’s game on the road.

At home the Seahawks average game score is Seahawks 30 - Opponents 12. Their average game score on the road is Seahawks 21 - Opponents 19. But the latter included a ridiculous game in which the Seahawks ran up the score against a pitiful Buffalo team. Remove that one and their average score on the road is Seahawks 17 - Opponents 19. Not quite the juggernaut the insiders project for this game.

Is Seattle’s poor road record this year the result of having to play all of their tough games on the road; did they face a lot of powerhouses on the road? Not quite. When not playing the Seahawks, the combined record of the eight teams that Seattle played on the road is 52 wins, 63 losses, and 2 ties for a 0.444 winning percentage. Only one of the eight is a playoff team—the 49ers—to which Seattle lost on the road. Six of Seattle’s eight road opponents finished under 0.500 and Seattle’s record in those six games is 2 – 4.

So, was Seattle’s poor road record merely a statistical anomaly? Maybe, but it is an anomaly that has been true for at least six years. The Seahawks are 14 – 34 on the road going back to the 2007 season and they have never played worse at home than they did on the road. The last two times that they won their division (2007 and 2010), they finished 3 -5 on the road just as they did this year. In those division-winning years they won their first playoff game at home and followed that with a blowout loss on the road (to Green Bay in 2007 and Chicago in 2010).

Yes, but all road teams have little chance in the playoffs, right? Well, not quite. Five of the last seven Super Bowl winners were teams that played during Wild Card weekend; i.e. they had to play at least one playoff game on the road. So, Seattle seems to be uniquely bad on the road.

There are two theories for Seattle’s poor play on the road relative to at home: First, their home stadium is built to reverberate sound down to the field and is deafening. Some say it is illegally so as Seattle pipes crowd noise through loudspeakers. It makes it extremely difficult for opposing offenses to call plays and hear snap counts. Second, many of Seattle’s road games involve long travel from the west coast. It will not get any shorter for them this weekend.

Insiders are also touting Seattle’s five-game winning streak and talking about how important it is to get hot immediately before the playoffs. If we ignore the statisticians who have debunked the “hot hand” theory, those who have made the statement that Seattle should win this game because they are hot must be willfully blind. No team in the NFC is hotter than the Redskins who have won seven straight games, each a veritable elimination game and they knew it was an elimination game when they played it. In many respects, Sunday’s game will be RG3, Alfred Morris and the other Redskins’ eighth playoff game.

Finally, since defense is the only item that insiders believe separates these two teams, we should look at both defenses. Few would argue against the notion that the Redskins defense has turned it around in the last seven games. Perhaps that is because it took them some time to adjust to the early losses for the season of four starters: their two safeties just before the season and their defensive end and outside linebacker, a Pro Bowler, in their second game. Regardless, the Redskins’ defense has been a statistically different defense in its last seven games; it has given up fewer than 20 points per game and only 17 points per game at home. That vaunted Seattle defense gives up 19 points per game on the road.

The outside view tells a completely different story from the one professional insiders are telling. Perhaps Seattle’s remarkably good defensive statistics are mostly due to their remarkably good speaker system. Does Paul Allen have an investment in Bose?


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