September 24, 2020 - by Jason Lisk
Minshew Mania comes to Thursday Night Football (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire)
The preseason betting market had very low expectations for the Jacksonville Jaguars this year. The Jags had the lowest season win total line of any 2020 NFL team, at only 4.5 wins.
The team was busy trading or getting rid of brand name players, including a late preseason release of running back Leonard Fournette and a trade of safety Ronnie Harrison. Many NFL pundits figured that Jacksonville was in full-on tank mode.
The first two weeks of the 2020 season, though, have seen Jacksonville beat the Colts and lose narrowly to the Titans, as a 7-point underdog in both cases.
So far, QB Gardner Minshew has picked up where he left off in 2019 with some strong performances, and the Jaguars appear to be much better than most people (and the betting markets) expected.
If you’re an NFL bettor, this hot start probably has you pondering two scenarios:
So which scenario is closer to the truth?
Spoiler: There’s not going to be a definite answer. But we can look at some relevant data to see if we can dig up any clues.
Our preseason NFL projections have performed well against win totals lines over the years, and this year they saw significant value on betting the over on Jacksonville’s very low win total number.
That was even after we adjusted our total wins projection for Jacksonville downward and closer to the market, because our initial numbers were so much higher on the Jags that we suspected we were overlooking some relevant negative factor.
(Producing our preseason projections is mostly science but part art too, so these types of manual “fudges” are not completely uncommon. If you’re curious, here’s an explanation of our NFL preseason ratings process.)
Still, the Jaguars were tied for our lowest team power rating entering the season, at -6.9 points compared to an average 2020 NFL team. We certainly did not expect them to be good, or even above average.
Now, after two straight games in which they covered the spread as a touchdown underdog, Jacksonville has climbed to No. 28 in our rankings, and their predictive rating is over two points better than their preseason rating.
However, our preseason rating (known as a “prior” in stat geek circles) for Jacksonville still figures strongly into their current rating. A rating system that only relies on the results of the two games played so far would almost certainly rank Jacksonville way better than 28th.
Perhaps the more relevant question is, how have teams like Jacksonville — that is, teams that exceeded very low expectations in the first two weeks — typically performed from Week 3 onward?
For our research, we examined all teams:
As it turns out, going back to 1990, there are only 18 other teams that meet all of those criteria.
Here they are, along with their preseason expected win total, end-of-season actual win total, ATS cover margin (i.e. how many points they covered the spread by) for Weeks 1 and 2, and Week 3 result against the spread.
|Team||Year||Expected Wins||Overall Wins||Week 1 ATS Margin||Week 2 ATS Margin||Week 3 ATS Result|
|St. Louis Rams||2012||6.0||7||5.0||6.5||L|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||2012||6.0||7||9.0||2.0||W|
|San Francisco 49ers||2006||5.0||7||2.5||10.0||L|
|San Francisco 49ers||2004||5.0||2||1.5||4.0||L|
|New Orleans Saints||1998||5.5||6||11.0||10.0||W|
|New York Jets||1990||4.5||6||4.0||5.0||L|
|AVERAGE / TOTAL||5.4||6.6||8.0||7.2||5-13|
As usual for these types of analyses, we will trumpet the disclaimer that we are dealing with small sample sizes here. We can’t predict anything with high confidence just from the data in the table above.
With that said, teams that were expected to win six games or fewer in the current season, then started 2-0 ATS as underdogs, went only 5-13 ATS in Week 3 (and 4-14 straight up).
Is this just a case of a small sample size theater, where randomness has played a big role in the Week 3 results being so bad? Or is the bad Week 3 performance at least partly the result of a market correction? Or was the betting public just overreacting to early results, and willing to pay an inflated price to bet these surprise teams? They all seem like plausible explanations.
As of today, Jacksonville is a 3-point favorite at home against Miami in Week 3.
That point spread is very similar to where our current NFL predictive power ratings project the game. We have Jacksonville rated 0.8 points better than Miami, but with the game in Jacksonville and adding in home field advantage, it would be near a field goal advantage.
The public, though, is heavily on the Jaguars, at least based on public pick data. Per our Pick’em Data Grid, around 75% of those playing in spread-based football pick’em pools nationwide are taking Jacksonville.
DraftKings Sportsbook is seeing a similar breakdown on single-game betting, with 73% of point spread bets coming in on the Jaguars.
On the other hand, after Week 3, the over-performing, low expectation teams in our sample put up solid ATS performances on average for the rest of the season. As a group, these other 18 teams:
Entering 2020 Week 3, our NFL season projections have Jacksonville with 6.4 wins in the 2020 regular season. That’s already a solid bump up from the 5.1 wins we projected before the season began.
If Jacksonville is going to exceed those expectations, one reason would likely be because Gardner Minshew proves himself to be a very solid NFL quarterback and continues to improve rapidly in his second year as a starter. One can assume that the preseason betting markets did not see such a development as the most probable outcome this year.
The good news for Jacksonville, it appears, is that of the four low-expectation teams in our historical sample that reached the playoffs, three of them had a young quarterback in his first or second year in the league (Andy Dalton as a rookie with Cincinnati, Kerry Collins in his second year with the expansion Panthers, and Charlie Batch with the Detroit Lions).
The fourth team also had a new quarterback, veteran Carson Palmer, providing an unexpected upgrade after many had written him off due to arm injuries.
On the other hand, while Minshew’s numbers have been good to start the year, they may overestimate his skill level — especially if you just look at a metric like passer rating, on account of the heavy weight that stat gives to completion percentage, and the fact that it does not account for sacks.
By net yards per pass attempt, Minshew is near league average through two games because he has taken a sack on nearly 9% of his drop backs. And plenty of quarterbacks on low expectation teams have started off with numbers similar to Minshew only to eventually cool off.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has done it a couple of times. Marcus Mariota started off with 6 touchdowns, no interceptions, and 9.0 yards per attempt as a rookie — only for his team to finish 3-13.
The Jacksonville defense is also a concern. It has surrendered 53 points in two games, 19th in the league, but is 29th in net yards allowed per pass attempt (8.2) so far.
Even if Minshew continues to play well, the Jags will probably have a hard time getting into playoff contention if their defense remains bottom five in terms of yards allowed per pass attempt.
At the very least, if you’re expecting Jacksonville to absolutely steamroller the 3-point spread against Miami in Week 3, there doesn’t seem to be an especially convincing case for it based on similar historical teams.
At the same time, this small sample of similar past teams has generally been profitable ATS even after the hot starts, so perhaps there is some sort of longer-term signal here.
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