Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Clutch” playoff teams

by Steven Buzzard

It seems the same questions get brought up every year during the playoffs. Which quarterback do you trust with your playoff lives on the line? What team is full of the most clutch players? Coach “X” just can’t win in the playoffs, normally Norv Turner but not this year. I don’t know of any study that has been able to prove such an existence of a clutch player or team and I am not going to try to do so here. What I wanted to do was to simply give a quantitative value to how much each team has actually over/under performed in the last decade.

I started out on this venture to quantify team playoff performances by using my personal database of historical point spreads. I looked at what Vegas told us the oddswere for a given team to win a game and compared those totals to what actually happened. For example, if the Patriots were given an 80% chance of winning a specific game I gave them 0.8 expected wins. If they won that game they received credit for 1 win for an over performance of 0.2 games. I did this for all playoff games since the 2000 season and these were the results:

ARI 2.2 4 1.8 179%
NO 3.4 5 1.6 149%
BAL 5.7 8 2.3 140%
CAR 3.6 5 1.4 139%
NE 10.5 14 3.5 134%
NYG 4.6 6 1.4 130%
NYJ 3.2 4 0.8 126%
PIT 8 10 2 125%
PHI 9.3 10 0.7 108%
JAC 1 1 0 97%
ATL 2.1 2 -0.1 95%
SEA 4.3 4 -0.3 93%
MIN 3.3 3 -0.3 91%
IND 10 9 -1 90%
OAK 4.5 4 -0.5 89%
WAS 1.1 1 -0.1 88%
TB 3.6 3 -0.6 84%
SF 1.3 1 -0.3 77%
SD 4 3 -1 76%
CHI 2.8 2 -0.8 71%
STL 4.5 3 -1.5 67%
TEN 3.2 2 -1.2 62%
MIA 1.7 1 -0.7 59%
GB 5.3 3 -2.3 57%
DEN 2.2 1 -1.2 45%
DAL 2.6 1 -1.6 39%
CLE 0.3 - -0.3 0%
KC 0.9 - -0.9 0%
CIN 1 - -1 0%
BUF 0 - 0 0%
DET 0 - 0 0%
HOU 0 - 0 0%

Just as everyone would probably expect the Patriots come out number one on this metric achieving 3.5 more wins than would have been expected by Vegas. Nearly all of those games (3.2) came during their 3 super bowl wins. Additionally, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Arizona, New Orleans, and Carolina all over performed their expected wins by about 2 games and did so using fewer games. As such, they over performed at a similar per game rate as New England. On a per game basis Arizona is actually the biggest overachiever due primarily to their run to the super bowl against the Steelers.

On the flip side the Packers seem to be the biggest underperformer winning only 3 playoff games when they were expected to have won 5.3. Dallas and St. Louis are both close to Green Bay in this dubious distinction. One team that typically gets called out for their under performance is Indianapolis. However, in reality the Colts have only underperformed their expected wins by 1 game and spread over such a large amount of games they have won at a rate of 90% of their expected wins which actually puts them just about at league average on a per game basis. Had Vanderjadt made a field goal against the Steelers or they won the coin toss in OT against the Chargers they could have been exactly as would be expected.

Which of the above performances is really more impressive? Arizona winning a lot of games over a small period of time, New England’s sustained excellence or Green Bay’s ineptness? To test how impressive these over or under performances are I simulated each series of games that the various teams played 1,000 times and added up the number of wins in each of those simulations. With this data I could compare their actual results to random luck. For example, here are the simulated results for the Patriots games.

# wins Count

# WinsCount
1 0
2 0
3 0
4 1
5 0
6 21
7 45
8 97
9 156
10 191
11 176
12 158
13 99
14 41
15 13
16 2
17 0
18 0

As you can see in only 56 of the 1,000 random simulations (5.6%) did the simulation result actually equal or beat the Patriots real wins of 14. For comparison purposes here are the results for some of the other overachieving teams:

Baltimore – 17.3%
Arizona – 15.4%
Pittsburgh – 18.8%

On the flip side here are the underperformers:

Green Bay 9.4%
Dallas - 15.1%
STL – 17.5%
Indy – 39.6%

Based on these simulations the Patriots are again clearly the team that has most outperformed their expectations. But given the small sample size there is still at least a 5% chance that their great runs were simply due to random chance and we would expect at least 1 out of 32 teams to be an outlier of such large proportions. Interestingly enough despite winning so many more games than Vegas would have expected they still only covered the spread 8 out of 18 times so it doesn’t seem that Vegas was really under rating them as a team. Instead they pulled out a lot more close games than would be expected. Maybe the Tuck rule game for instance. In a single elimination tournament close wins like that goes a long way toward adding additional wins.

The second most unlikely scenario is GB’s under performance where random chance only performs as poorly as them 9% of the time. Oddly enough we rarely hear about how disappointing the Packers have been in the last decade by only winning 3 playoff games. Amazingly, the Packers had 4 OT playoff games in the decade (most by any team) only winning 1 of them. The Packers record against the spread was 3-6 so not only did they not win as many games as they were supposed to they also did a poor job of covering the spread. This may mean that Vegas had simply been over rating the Packers and their mystique. There are a lot of people that are definitely split on Brett Favre’s winning ability but this at least seems to indicate that those who believe in him were the one’s betting most heavily in Vegas.

Finally, the team that most people like to say has underachieved in the playoffs this decade is the Colts. However, in 40% of the random simulations the Colts actually lost more games than what they really lost. In fact winning 9 games is the second most likely scenario for the Colts. Additionally, the Colts actually had a record of 9-8 against the spread showing again that they did pretty much as expected by Vegas.

Again, none of this is ground breaking research or will help anyone make better predictions in this year’s playoffs but it might be a better way at looking back at how “clutch” or “un-clutch” teams really were over the last decade, at least according to Vegas.


Anonymous said...

Interesting read. The media always painted the Colts as choking a lot when in fact they have won basically exactly as many games as expected.

Brian said...

So, the moral of the story is that Vegas is really good at they do. Like you said, none of the teams were really that unexpected. It's amazing.

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