Point-Spread Lust: Fans Overvalue Sexy 49ers

Smart fans, like CHFF Insiders, rode those well-coached but workmanlike 49ers to incredible success over two years: San Francisco went 20-11-1 (.641) against the spread. But the image of the 49ers began to change in late 2012, when Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith. The team suddenly became sexy. And that aura hurt bettors.

Point-Spread Lust: Fans Overvalued "Sexy" San Francisco 49ers

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By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Potentate of Pigskin (@footballfacts)

The Cold, Hard Football Facts were bullish on Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers since early in the 2011 season, when it became apparent that something statistically special was happening to the struggling franchise under the then-rookie head coach.

We reported as early as Week 7 2011 that Harbaugh's 49ers were "the best coached team in football" here at CHFF Insider.

Smart fans, like CHFF Insiders, rode those well-coached but workmanlike 49ers to incredible success over two years: San Francisco went 20-11-1 (.641) against the spread.

But the image of the 49ers began to change in late 2012, when Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith. The team suddenly became sexy. And that aura hurt bettors.

The secret to success in this business is knowing when the public has finally caught up with the stats and then begins to over-value a once under-valued team.

And the time to pull the plug on a team is when it becomes "sexy" in the eyes of the Pigskin Public, when fans begin gushing about its star power.

We all know what happens when humans get turned on: they starting thinking with parts of their body other than their brain; they start marking irrational decisions.

Remember, the point-spread is a gauge of public sentiment, and not a gauge of a team's actual merits.

San Francisco provides a perfect case study.

Alex Smith's 49ers were perceived as a dutiful meat-and-potatoes team of efficient QB + good defense.

The reality was different than the public perception. Smith was brilliantly efficient by the critical Quality Stats that we study – those stats that have a direct correlation to winning football games. In fact, if you look at our Real Quarterback Rating Big Board for 2012, Smith produced two of the four most statistically dominant QB performances of the entire year:

  • a 145.05 Real QB Rating vs. the Bills in Week 5 (second among 512 performances)
  • a 142.71 Real QB Rating vs. the Cardinals in Week 8 (fourth)

Keep in mind that Real Quarterback Rating has the highest correlation to victory of any stat in football: the top 102 team performances in 2012 produced a stunning record of 101-1. But the public didn't perceive that dominance, largely because they so often look at the wrong stats.

Smith rarely passed for 300 yards (just once in fact). So the public failed to notice his deadly efficiency in the Quality Stats that win and lose games.

Harbaugh failed to notice, too. He fell in love with a younger, sexier model, like a husband having a mid-life crisis even though he has a perfectly good wife. 

Harbaugh benched Smith and inserted flashy young Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.

The rest of the world fell in love, too. Kaepernick was long and lean and he kissed his chiseled tattooed guns in the end zone.

The Pigskin Public was smitten. The image of the 49ers suddenly went from workmanlike to star-powered, even though little to nothing changed statistically for the team.

And then, of course, the public did the obvious thing: they began thinking irrationally, taking a team that was habitually undervalued with Smith under center to one overvalued with Kaepernick under center.

The watershed moment came last season in the NFC title game and in the Super Bowl – a trend we caught in time and helped ride to an 8-3 performance ATS in the 2012 postseason.

The 49ers entered Atlanta for the NFC title game as a 4.5-point favorite. Something was fishy: the Falcons were 13-3, the No. 1 seed in the NFC and playing at home in an arena where they rarely lose.

Yet the 49ers entered the game the biggest road favorite in modern title game history.

No smart football fan would like that combination of great home team vs. historic point spread. It strongly smelled like the public, after undervaluing the 49ers for two years, was suddenly overvaluing them amid the Kaepernick hype and the breathless, sex-fueled frenzy of big-game postseason football.

We picked the visiting 49ers to win in our NFC championship game analysis, but thought 4.5 points suddenly too rich. What looked like an easy ATS victory turned into one we sweated out to the very end, as the 49ers stormed back from 17-0 down to win 28-24. It was a San Francisco win on the field but, more importantly for us, an Atlanta victory ATS, however narrow it might have been.

Fast forward to the biggest game of the year, the one already prone to irrational point spreads in the best of circumstances.

The 49ers were again big favorites in the Super Bowl, this time by 4 points, while playing against the team and the quarterback that were in fact the sexiest in the 2012 postseason based upon key statistical measures in the passing game.

We anticipated a 1-point San Francisco win and a Baltimore victory ATS. We got a 3-point San Francisco loss and, more importantly for us, a Baltimore victory ATS.

That same San Francisco team that was undervalued for nearly two years, beating the spread in 64.1 percent of games in the 2011 and 2012 regular seasons, suddenly went 0-2 ATS in the final two games of the 2012 postseason.

CHFF Insiders went 2-0 ATS in those two games, because they never fell in lust.

The key is Quality Stat discipline: our numbers, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, do not suffer the weakness of human emotion. They do not fall in love with sexy players or teams.

In fact, we prefer to think of our numbers as the antidote to hype, a cold statistical bath amid the public passion that so often causes bettors to overreach.

Some team in 2013 will be statistically sexy even if the public doesn't perceive it, much like the 49ers were in 2011 and early in 2012. Another team will be perceived as sexy, even if the Quality Stats don't warrant the public lust.

We do not know who those teams will be – yet. But we will use the power of our Quality Stats to identify them early in the season and then all year long for CHFF Insiders.

Rest assured, no matter what happens, CHFF Insiders will not fall in love with any team – let along the wrong teams.