Handicapping for Injuries and Suspensions in the NFL - TheStreet

Handicapping for Injuries and Suspensions in the NFL

On Wednesday, the NFL comes out with injury lists. The teams are supposed to be truthful about the status of their players, but many teams fudge a bit.
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Last week, we were 2-3 (oh, why did Indianapolis take that safety near the end of the game?) to bring our season NFL record to 5-3-1 (62%).

We have received a number of emails this week to print the full chart of point-spread results for the past nine years of the NFL. Here it is:

This week's mini-handicapping class is on the effect of injuries and suspensions on handicapping the NFL games. On Wednesday, the NFL comes out with injury lists, which lists players as "out," "doubtful," "questionable" and "probable." The teams are supposed to be truthful about the status of their players, but many teams fudge a bit. Generally when a player is listed as "out," he won't play. If he does, the NFL will fine the team listing the player as out. The rest of the categories are more problematic. Players listed as "probable" almost always play. Players listed as "questionable" play about 60% of the time, and players listed as "doubtful" play about 30% of the time.

The most important factor in deciding the value of a particular player who is injured is whether there is an adequate backup. Most NFL teams have adequate backups at all positions except QB. Only the QB is worth multiple points on the point spread. For example, Steve Young is worth 5 points on the point spread as can be seen from the spread on the

49ers'

games this year. Chris Chandler,

Atlanta's

oft-injured QB, is also worth 4 points, and Vinny Testaverde, the

Jets'

injured QB, appears to be worth at least 5 points. None of these teams have stellar backup QBs, and the point spread reflects that fact.

Injuries tend to have a greater impact on favorites rather than underdogs. Why? Because the team with the key injury is simply happy to win the game and may not cover a large point spread. On the other hand, when a key player is out for an underdog, the public overestimates the effect of the injury and the underdog often turns up the intensity to compensate for the injured player -- at least for the first game of the injury. After the first game, reality sets in and the lousy team often underperforms.

The most significant injuries are "cluster" injuries, where multiple players playing the same general position are injured. This week, the

San Diego Chargers

offer a concrete example. Cornerback Charles Dimry is "doubtful," and cornerback Terrence Shaw is "questionable." The reason cluster injuries have a large impact on a team is because most NFL teams have adequate replacements for one injured player at a particular position, but because of restrictions imposed by the salary cap, teams keep low-draft-choice rookies to fill out the depth chart. These rookies are often very vulnerable when they have to step up to a starter's position, and the opposing coach will show no mercy in running plays at the rookie's position.

This Week's Picks

Dallas (minus 3) over New York Giants

This is our first

Monday Night Football

pick of the season. In the past five years, the Giants have finished 28th, 29th, 30th, 27th and 29th in total offense in the NFL. This year, they are ranked 26th. With so little offense, they must rely on a very good defense. The Cowboys has two future Hall of Famers in Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. They always play well in the Meadowlands, and with Emmitt healthy this year, they should be able to put enough points on the scoreboard to beat the Giants. Last week, the Giants scored a total of 3 points against a mediocre Cardinal defense with Kerry Collins as the new starting QB. Dallas is 3-1 ATS this year while the Giants are 2-3. Dallas' loss came last week when it was clearly emotionally shocked after Michael Irvin's serious injury. This week, it will turn up the intensity to compensate for Irvin's absence and will continue its mastery over the Giants.

Cleveland-Jacksonville (under 38)

Hurricane Irene ought to be over Jacksonville on Sunday morning. In perfect weather, the Browns would not be able to score against the No. 1-rated Jags defense. How are they going to do it in a driving wind and rainstorm? On the Jaguar side of the ball, Mark Brunell has had problems moving the team in rainy conditions, and the Jags have been held to an average of 19 points in their last three games. We will not be surprised if the Browns do not score in this game and the weather will hold down the Jags' scoring. This is not a game the Jags will be sky-high for and with a bye next week, Coughlin will play conservatively once the Jags get up big.

Denver (plus 3 1/2) over Green Bay

This is a bad emotional spot for the Packers. Their victory over

Tampa Bay

last Sunday night was a classic -- with Brett Favre showing why he is indisputably the best QB in the game today. The Broncos may have gotten over the confidence hump last week as Brian Griese led them to a surprising upset victory over the Raiders. The Broncos have always been a great team at home, and we are getting the crucial "hook" (3 1/2 points rather than 3). We are concerned that the Broncos have suffered so many injuries on offense (Sharp and Davis) but we think the Broncos will have the better intensity level for this week's game. Favre may pull this one out at the end, but the extra 3 1/2 points may be the difference in this game.

Seattle (minus 1 1/2) over San Diego

We were surprised last week when the Lions could not take advantage of the depleted San Diego secondary. We think John Kitna will be able to throw some long passes against the attacking Charger defense. The Chargers have overachieved all season under first-year Coach Mike Riley, 3-1 straight up and against the spread. Eventually the Chargers are going to have to play a "flat" game and we're betting it's this week. The Charger offense is incapable of putting a lot of points on the board, and they must win with defense. The Seahawks have won three games in a row and are now becoming comfortable with Holmgren's "West Coast offense." This game opened with the Chargers as a 1 1/2-point favorite and quickly switched to make the Seahawks the favorite. We agree with the move.

Barry Lieberman is the general counsel for a Las Vegas gaming company and an associate of James Padinha. He's been an amateur gambler for more than 20 years.