The house always wins.
It’s a well-known axiom when describing gambling or card games, especially like blackjack, and it’s also especially true of Las Vegas.
While I am not the degenerate sports gambler that many are (I love my money too much for that) the betting arena’s profitability has turned many NFL fans eyes and as a result has made Vegas perhaps one of the more accurate measures for an NFL team.
Well...Vegas probably made a lot of money off the fans who did as Arizona ended up with 3 wins, and could have been more based on a few endings, or even less if Jimmy Garoppolo’d been healthy.
But what does that mean for 2019, as well as for Vegas’s predictions OVERALL?
I did some research and came away with three big takeaways:
#1. Vegas misses, but doesn’t miss much
Looking at the 2018 win projections to where NFL teams finished, one trend becomes abundantly clear:
There were a handful of teams that under or overachieved.
But by my count there were 22 teams that finished within 2 to 2.5 wins of their projected total, or 68%. That means that Vegas did a VERY good job of picking generally how good each team would be, and with only 16 games in a season there’s not a lot of margin for error.
Within 2 wins.
It’s the main trend that we see for Vegas and in the case of the Cardinals it means odds and trends favor their record in 2019 to be between 3-7 wins as a “window.”
Even more interesting, when you look at how 16 teams hit the “under” the phrase “it pays to be a hater” definitely takes into effect. The teams that DID hit the over at MORE than 2.5 games were all playoff teams but also look at some of the ones that did—Rams, Saints, Chargers, Bears, Chiefs and of course the Patriots hit 11 wins for a push.
Almost all of those teams have been perennial playoff teams who were there last year with one exception: The Chicago Bears.
The Bears’ win total jumped a whole point after adding Khalil Mack and they finished with a 12 win season, beating the projection by 5 wins. As for the “losers”?
Two teams here stand out in the Packers and Niners: Niners lost Jimmy G and the Packers had a meltdown that saw Mike McCarthy fired and Aaron Rodgers hurt in Week 1 and less mobile throughout the season.
And that gets to point #2...
2. Teams that fall more than 2 wins under their projected total usually had a major QB injury to a starting quarterback
Look, Vegas knows good teams from bad, and they saw a rookie QB and Sam Bradford/Mike Glennon last year and no Bradford injury was going to truly sink Arizona. Other teams a la the Patriots losing Tom Brady for the season WOULD. But those are injuries that are tough to predict, and sometimes it’s even foolhardy to do so. The Eagles lost Carson Wentz for the season and went on to win in the playoffs without him for 2 years in a row with Nick Foles, for example. But they do miss.
But there’s one thing Vegas DOES do well: picking bad teams to be bad. The Browns, Bengals, Cards, Bears, Bills Jets, Lions, Skins, and Titans all had the lowest super bowl odds, and only 2 of those teams managed to defy the odds to make the playoffs.
If we want to look at this sort of “exception” where the Arizona Cardinals can win more games, you’ll have to approach this with a few things in mind:
-Majority of teams fall within 2 wins of their Vegas projection over or under
-Some teams can beat those projections
-Some teams can beat those projections by 4 or more wins, but it usually takes a specific set of circumstances and Vegas, on average, can adjust for that relatively well (more on this later)
So with that in mind let’s take a look at this year for the Arizona Cardinals and then go back through the lens of the last few years and trends for quarterbacks.
3. The Cardinals win total from Vegas is the same for 2019 as 2018: 5
How is this possible after they were SO bad last year and fired Steve Wilks to bring in Kliff Kingsbury, Vance Joseph, Kyler Murray, had a good draft and moved back to a 3-4?
Why is it the same?
- Wilks & his staff underachieved with what was probably a 5 win Cardinals team
- Vegas still isn’t sold on the amount of talent on the Cardinals (Pro Football Focus agreed)
And perhaps the most interesting, important point:
4. Vegas does NOT trust rookie quarterbacks
The last point is perhaps the most interesting, as when looking at 5 rookie first round quarterbacks last year, only 2 of them vastly eclipsed their win total: Baker Mayfield (7 wins over 5.5) and Lamar Jackson (10 wins but he didn’t start the whole season).
Rookies in the NFL are expected to struggle, I guess you could call it the “rookie ceiling”. Very seldomly does a rookie quarterback enter the NFL and take a team without much talent to starry new heights. Even Lamar’s 10 win season has to be looked at in the context of the #1 defense in the NFL.
It means that perhaps Vegas expect what many nationally expect for the Arizona Cardinals: an improvement offensively but not as much defensively as fans might hope. A fun team that doesn’t “win” a ton of games.
But what if that’s not the case? Let’s take a final look at the EXCEPTIONS to Vegas.
What about this criteria for looking at the maximum, positive outcome for the Arizona Cardinals with a rookie QB at the controls? History tells us an interesting story:
5. There are rookie quarterbacks who busted well over 2 wins from their Vegas but even they had a ceiling...and most became elite
In going all the way back to the 2012 NFL draft, I looked to see if I could find quarterbacks who met the following criteria:
-Rookie quarterback who started whole/most of the season
-Won 3 or more games above their team’s projected win total
These quarterbacks below were the ones that did it along with their win totals and projected ones:
- Russ Wilson, 2012 (11 wins from projected 7 wins)
- RG3, 2012 (10 wins from projected 6 wins)
- Andrew Luck, 2012 (11 wins from projected 5 wins)
- Matt Ryan (11-5 finish, year previous was 4-12 and projection was 4.5)
- Dak Prescott, 2016 (11 wins from projected 8 wins)
Honorable mention: Patrick Mahomes, 2018 in his first year starting (12-4 finish, 8 projection)
Yup, three of those rookie QB’s all did it the same year. I could have included Patrick Mahomes in his “first year starting” for the Chiefs this last year in them winning 12 games despite a projected 8, but him having a whole year to learn the defense and be a part of the NFL doesn’t really compare to Kyler Murray.
So what does this tell us? Well...Some good and some bad.
The good news? If Kyler Murray is all that he’s been hyped up to be, it’s easily possible that the Arizona Cardinals could defy the Vegas odds and hit the over by more than 2 games in 2019.
But there’s something else that we can see....a ceiling.
Out of Luck, RG3, Ryan, Russ and Dak, TWO of those quarterbacks joining their teams as a rookie passed more than 4 wins above their total. Which makes sense as there will still be rookie struggles and it’s not like a guy enters the NFL and takes a 3-13 Cardinals team to a 13-3 or even 12-4 Cardinals team.
In fact, all the more often it was the 2nd year for those Quarterbacks that Vegas upped their win totals and those quarterbacks ended up making the playoffs and more. Wilson, Wentz made a super bowl, Luck made it deeper in the playoffs and even a Jared Goff in his 2nd year exceeded expectations.
Sure, a lot of fans are wanting to compare Sean McVay and Kliff Kingsbury, but it’s important to note that Goff, like Mahomes, was NOT a rookie.
In short, no matter how much hype you buy into, it seems that this is true across the board:
Therefore...the Cardinals in 2019 are likely capped out at 9-7 as their absolute ceiling for wins per Vegas odds as only TWO teams in their situation out of the last 12+ years has made the playoffs.
However, all of those QB’s (including Dak) made the playoffs with their rookie quarterbacks.
What's interesting that I did NOT mention before is that all 4 of these QB's made the playoffs.— Blake Allen Murf (@blakemurphy7) June 28, 2019
However, only Luck (thanks @JayVeeThree) and Ryan went above 4 wins. Most QB's were 3-4 over their totals and 4 wins seems the "ceiling" for the last few years.
As you can see above, those team were Andrew Luck & the Colts and Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, going from 4.5 win projections to 11 wins. A crazy, crazy jump.
And looking back at that team, it’s obvious how talented they were on the offensive side of the ball, there was good coaching, plus Michael Turner to help take pressure off of Ryan. The Colts had Bruce Arians and we know what a miracle worker he was in Arizona.
So I don’t think you can expect that for the Cardinals. At least in 2019.
...But I won’t rule it out. The problem here is they have to overcome MORE than teams like the 2016 Cowboys (11 wins over 8) or Seahawks (11 wins over 7) had to overcome. It’s hard to do that in the NFL since it’s happened only twice in the modern era.
More likely, they will “cap out” at 9 wins as their maximum this season, and it’s possible they have seasons like Wentz/Goff and others who end up being exactly at or close to their projected total only to have a 2nd year boom.
There’s fans who will be disappointed at the idea that the Cardinals have no TRULY realistic playoff chances given how the odds, but don’t give up hope!
When looking at those past quarterbacks who won 4 games above their Vegas predictions and even including Mahomes as a first year starter, all of those quarterbacks have gone on to become elite, top 10 quarterbacks in the National football league. If Kyler Murray can come in and make an instant impact for the team to land 8-9 wins, the future might be very very bright in Arizona, with maybe even a higher upside than we might have imagined if Kyler can pull that off.
Otherwise you’d have to hope for QB injuries aka fluky situations to make that occur.
So, let’s sum up the points of this story and what I’ve learned about Vegas odds in projecting for teams in the NFL:
- The NFL is unpredictable but Vegas nails the majority of teams within 2 games of their final W/L record
- Exceptions on the lower end usually involve QB’s getting injured (or fired coaches)
- Exceptions on the higher end usually always involve 2nd year or more quarterbacks
- There are rookie quarterbacks who do win over 2 games above their Vegas W/L projection
- Those quarterbacks who got 4 or more wins above the projection all went on to become elite QB options in the NFL
- None of them went ABOVE that 4 win ceiling, however, except for Matt Ryan in 2008
- Therefore, Cardinals fans should expect a ceiling of 9-7 with a basement of probably 3 wins at worst (which will likely only happen if Kyler is hurt) BUT they should root for that outcome 100% even though they’re a longshot that’s likely out of the playoffs this year.
As for me? I’d probably be optimistic about taking the over given my feelings on Kyler Murray, the schedule and idea that it’d take a fluky injury to really send him packing, although I wouldn’t be picking playoffs or super bowl, obviously.
Still, it does mean if Kyler can land a 9-7 record....phew.
Look out, National Football League.
What do you think, Birdgang? Are you thinking playoffs?
For a more in-depth look, the Revenge of the Birds podcast covered these points in detail below and also made some fantasy projections, so be sure to check it out!