This is the 157th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation.
Normally I write about daily fantasy sports, grunge music, and Harry Potter. In this piece, though, I’m writing about the Week 4 Rams-Cowboys game and the sharp money that backed the Rams. I’ve previously discussed how Vegas makes money and what that means for DFS. Because the Vegas lines are important to DFS, it’s worthwhile to understand (or at least explore) sports betting and the trends we see in the market.
Rams 35, Cowboys 30
In Week 4, a number of road underdogs won their games:
- Bills at Falcons (-8.0): Bills 23, Falcons 17
- Lions at Vikings (-2.5): Lions 14, Vikings 7
- Panthers at Patriots (-9.0): Panthers 33, Patriots 30
- Eagles at Chargers (-1.5): Eagles 26, Chargers 24
Add to the list the Rams-Cowboys game, which the Rams somehow won even though they scored only two touchdowns and allowed 30 points to the Cowboys.
Is it surprising that the Rams won?
Not really. Here’s why.
The Anatomy of a Sharp Bet
What follows is . . . the anatomy of a sharp bet. I probably didn’t need to write that sentence.
Reverse Line Movement
Earlier in the week Sports Insights pointed out that the Rams were receiving the majority of spread monies and that the line was moving toward them.
— Sports Insights (@SportsInsights) September 29, 2017
More to the point, the Rams were the beneficiaries of positive reverse line movement: Even though the Cowboys were receiving the majority of spread bets, the market was driving the spread toward the Rams. The Cowboys had 64 percent of the tickets at kickoff but the line closed at -5.0 after opening with a hook at -7.5. Why did the line move through the key number of 7.0 and go all the way down to 5.0 even though the majority of the market was on the Cowboys? Bigger money — smarter money — was on the Rams, and so the Sportsbooks dropped the line to attract more money to the Cowboys to reduce their risk.
Of course, the reverse line movement begs the question: Why was sharp money on the Rams?
Four Extra Days of Rest and Prep
In an absolute travesty of scheduling, in Week 3 the Rams played on Thursday and the Cowboys played on Monday. The Week 4 Rams-Cowboys game kicked off at 1:00 PM ET on Sunday, giving the Rams almost 10 full days to recover and prepare and almost four more days than the Cowboys had. Although the Thursday teams have historically won only 47.1 percent of their contests against the spread when playing Monday teams — Todd Fuhrman and Payne Insider discussed this trend on a recent episode of the Bet The Board podcast — we had only 34 instances of Thu./Mon. matchups in NFL history entering Week 4. That’s too small of a sample for us to say definitively that the four extra days of rest and prep don’t confer an advantage that isn’t accounted for by the spread.
It’s possible that sharp bettors were on the Rams at least partially because of their four-day edge. Intriguingly, the teams that played the Rams and Cowboys in Week 3 — the 49ers and Cardinals — also faced each other in Week 4. In that matchup, the Thursday team (the 49ers) also experienced (a little) positive reverse line movement: +7.0 to +6.5 with just 37 percent of the tickets. It might not be a coincidence that the 49ers covered with their 15-18 overtime loss.
Also . . . seriously? Two Thu./Mon. games on the same weekend? It’s as if the NFL put a drunk guy in charge of scheduling and said, “You’ve commished a fantasy football league once. Do whatever you think is best.”
Cowboys Regression, Rams Progression
Last year they were 4-12 but the Rams entered 2017 with a 5.5-game win total. Some sharp money was on the Rams to start the season. Contrarily, the Cowboys were 13-3 last year but had a 9.5-game total in the preseason. Some sharp money entered the campaign against the Cowboys. Both teams were 2-1 coming into the matchup and neither one had done anything in the first three weeks of the season to alter the Bayesian priors of the sharp money: The Rams looked like they were on their way to smashing their seasonal over/under. The Cowboys didn’t.
The sharp bettors essentially wagered on the Rams-Cowboys game according to their long-term expectations and assumptions.
In general, that’s what smart money does.
The Rams: High-Fiving Monster Scorers
The Rams entered Week 4 with a league-high 35.67 points per game (PPG), having scored more than 40 in Weeks 1 and 3. Granted, those games were against the Colts and 49ers, and their seasonal total was a little inflated because of two defensive touchdowns, but they had massively outperformed expectations with their +12.83 Vegas Plus/Minus. They also had a league-high +18.17 Over/Under Differential with all of their games hitting the over. Through three weeks, the market had shown that it wasn’t good at assigning Vegas values to the Rams in a vacuum, and sharp bettors looked to exploit that inefficiency.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, were 16th in the league with 21.33 PPG, and their -3.42 Vegas Plus/Minus didn’t speak well for them. Through the first three weeks of the season, the market had undervalued the Rams and overvalued the Cowboys. When they faced each other in Week 4 with the Cowboys laying more than a field goal, it wasn’t hard for sharp money to bet that the market would continue to be wrong for at least one more week.
The Rams Opportunistic Defense
Because the Rams have scored multiple defensive touchdowns this year, entering Week 4 there was at least a question as to the flukiness of those scores: Were they entirely random? — or were the Rams capable of producing regular turnovers, which could be converted into points (on either offense or defense).
The Rams have had a promising defense for a while. Last year they were ninth in the NFL with 5,392 yards allowed from scrimmage. And this year, with a new coaching staff, they have been opportunistic, ranking seventh through Weeks 1-3 with five turnovers. In particular, with their revamped secondary they had three interceptions, good for fourth. Additionally, they had 10 sacks and were sixth with a 10.5 percent adjusted sack rate (Football Outsiders). With Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin rushing the passer from the outside and Aaron Donald rushing from the interior, the Rams can reliably generate pressure, which tends to lead to turnovers. As it happens, the Rams won the turnover battle against the Cowboys 2-0.
Although they ranked 22nd and 25th with 1,031 yards and 75 points allowed, the Rams presented themselves in Weeks 1-3 as a team that played an exploitative style of defense, and their early-season slippage could be contextualized: The defense was transitioning from a 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 system of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has historically improved performance wherever he’s been. This unit is likely to improve as the season progresses.
Entering Week 4, the market perhaps wasn’t taking the opportunistic nature or potential improvement of Phillips’ defense into account.
On the topic of Phillips . . .
The @SonOfBum #RevengeGame
It’s possible that many market participants think more about teams and less about the coaches running those teams. While the Rams as an organization don’t have any inherent edge on the Cowboys, the same cannot be said for their new head coach and Phillips. From 2010 to 2016, Sean McVay was a coach with the Washington Redskins, first as an assistant and then as the tight ends coach. Whenever Jay Gruden took over in Washington, he named McVay the offensive coordinator. Having coached against the Cowboys two times per year for the last six years — for the entirety of the Jason Garrett era in Dallas — McVay is familiar with the Cowboys’ personnel and with DC Rod Marinelli’s play-calling tendencies.
It’s hard to know to what extent the market did (or didn’t) value McVay’s knowledge of the Cowboys, but it was a factor that favored the Rams and could’ve been overlooked.
And, of course, Phillips also has intimate knowledge of the Dallas organization. Phillips was the Cowboys HC from 2007 to 2010, when he was unceremoniously dismissed after a 1-7 start — and replaced by OC Jason Garrett. While the personnel is almost entirely different, Garrett’s offensive system (although it’s coordinated by Scott Linehan) hasn’t changed all that much since the time he worked alongside Phillips. If there’s one defensive coach in the world who has an idea of how Garrett thinks and what the flaws in his offense are, it’s probably Phillips. It might not be a coincidence that, after making adjustments, Phillips’ unit held the Cowboys to just six second-half points.
On top of that, this wasn’t just any Wade vs. Cowboys contest. This was the game. (Side note: I don’t walk down #NarrativeStreet often, but this boulevard calls for ambulation.) Despite being with the Texans and Broncos after his dismissal — coaching five top-eight defenses in yards allowed and winning the 2015 Assistant Coach of the Year award, by the way — this was the first game Phillips had coached against Dallas. And it was at AT&T Stadium — the venue he opened as coach of the Cowboys.
Phillips was the consummate gentleman leading up to the matchup . . .
Jason has done a great coaching job with the Cowboys (better than I did or would have). Big challenge and opportunity for our team!
— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) September 29, 2017
. . . but there was no question — no question — that this wasn’t just another game for him.
My view the last time I was at Cowboy Stadium pic.twitter.com/uYOjWzGThg
— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) September 28, 2017
This was Phillips vs. Jerry Jones — two metaphorical former sweethearts wanting to win the battle of “My Spouse Is Hotter Than Yours” at their college reunion. Jones showed up with the redheaded mistress-turned-wife in Garrett. Phillips showed up with a diamond ring and a hot young blond with a beach bod.
Again, it’s hard to know how much any of these factors 1) matter and 2) were taken into account by the market and sharp money. We also can’t know for sure that McVay has a beach bod — but I’m willing to bet on it.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.62, 157