September 12, 2020 - by Jason Lisk
The Ravens scored a ton of points in 2019, will the rest of the league get off to a hot start due to the weird offseason? (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)
We saw these tweets a few days ago about the potential impact of the having no preseason games and limited preparation due to the coronavirus:
Talked abt this for weeks & have cited 2011 week 1. 72% of overs hit weeks 1-2. Also special tms & tackling should be sloppy. In that week 1 2011 set of gms, there were 8 Punt/KO return TDs. All other yrs the avg has been 1.6. No other wk 1 has had >4 https://t.co/cNDRj8m71U https://t.co/m4TqU3EuE7
— TA (@ClevTA) September 9, 2020
They got us thinking. The big challenge of trying to predict how this abnormal 2020 preseason will likely impact early NFL gameplay, of course, is that there isn’t much relevant historical data to provide solid objective guidance.
That leaves data-driven football analysts with no option other than to try to divine meaning from past events that might be close to comparable.
However, there is no situation truly comparable to 2020 in modern NFL history. The 2011 lockout did involve some of the same factors at play this year, such as shortened practice time in August and no offseason workouts during the late spring and summer. But it wasn’t entirely identical, and it’s still only one data point.
Let’s first do some more research into all those unders hitting in Week 1 of 2011. It is correct that the first regular season week after the lockout featured 13 of the 16 games going over the total, a very high percentage. The following week, 11 of the 16 games went over the total.
It is also true that special teams touchdowns spiked in the first week of 2011, though it was actually 4 punt return TDs, 3 kickoff returns, and a punt block touchdown. Those accounted for 20%, 33%, and 20%, respectively, of all touchdowns in those three categories for all of the 2011 season.
However, a lack of preparation and sloppy play may only partially explain all those special teams TDs.
As it turns out, the 2011 season featured a major rule change when it came to the kicking game. It was the year that kickoffs were moved back to the 35-yard line, which increased touchbacks. It was also the first year in which the kicking team was not allowed to have any player start further than five yards from the line of the kick, in order to reduce injuries.
So there was at least one potentially confounding factor when it came to kickoffs, as it may have taken teams a few weeks to refine their coverage strategies.
What’s even more interesting is that the betting market consensus coming into 2011 appears to have been that scoring was going to go down — an implied belief that offenses would be more out of sync than defenses. To demonstrate what we mean, let’s take a look at Week 1 totals lines over time.
Here is a comparison of the average total in Week 1 for the last 20 years, to the actual scoring average by game that week, and also to the overall season scoring average.
Average Week 1 Over/Under Line vs. Actual Scoring, 2001-2020
|Year||Week 1 Avg O/U Line||Week 1 Avg Points/Game||Season Avg Points/Game|
We don’t know exactly how the shortened 2020 preseason will impact Week 1 scoring, and there are certainly plausible theories that it could negatively impact defense.
However, we also need to be careful assuming, without any greater historical context, that one preseason nearly a decade ago that happens to be sorta-kinda similar to this year’s is a good foundation for making predictions for 2020 Week 1.
2011 was notable because of a shortened preseason, but it was also notable for special teams rule changes, a sea change in the rookie wage scale, how teams viewed younger players, and the start of a drastic uptick in NFL offense. And perhaps most importantly, it was notable for a betting market aberration regarding the anticipation of lower Week 1 scoring that ended up being wrong. That anticipation is not occurring in 2020.
That brings up a final point. Sports betting markets have gotten more efficient over the last nine years, and over/under lines being so off in 2011 Week 1 may simply have been the result of a phenomenon that is unlikely to occur again in today’s betting environment.
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