Smart Money: How to bet like an NFL expert

Brandon Katz

You’ve done your research. Your mind is exhausted from pouring over every prediction and injury report and home/away tendency. You know the stats and the records and the trends. Yet despite your mountain of knowledge and your hard labor doing research, you still can’t seem to pick a winner.

That’s NFL gambling for you. It’s likely the most inexact exact science there is. It’s a miracle anyone can predict the outcomes with any semblance of accuracy. But Pro Football Focus’ Eric Eager can. Heading into Week 10 of the NFL season, Eager is picking well over 50% against the spread and a tick above 60% when his spread differs two or more points from Vegas.

How does he do it? By combining his two passions: football and numbers.

The Minnesota native and diehard Vikings fan isn’t a professional gambler despite his impressive foresight. No, Eager is an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. I caught up with him to get an inside scoop on how he crunches the numbers.

I have a PHD in math. Mathematical analysis of biology is my regular research area. It’s very much the same thing. Biology is an issue of randomness, there is a lot of noise and a lot of things you have to think about probabilistically.

Football is very similar. Even the best model is only accurate 55-60% of the time. I very much apply the same approach I take with biology to football.

Eric Eager via CLICKON Sports

Pro Football Focus is known for its advanced stats that break down each player, each unit and each team into quantifiable rankings and grades. Eager inputs much of PFF’s data –player grades, rankings information, etc. – as well as home team data and offensive/defensive performance into his statistical model. His computer then uses an algorithm to infer what the spreads should be.

This is a massive oversimplification of Eager’s process, but my brain began to hurt trying to understand all that goes into it.

None of this means you have to be a math wiz to accurately pick NFL games. Eager compares his approach to Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball, who was great with numbers and who also happened to be a massive baseball fan.

To pick games, you have to develop a domain knowledge that is substantial and then math can help…Document how you make decisions and how often your pivot points – home vs. away, offense vs. defense – are correct. It’s about quality control.

Eric Eager

You have to know football to pick games, but you also have to know yourself. There’s a reason Vegas always comes out on top and Eager believes it has to do with human error.

The reason Vegas always wins is because there are so many things that humans do that is flawed from a thinking perspective. It’s become a game of biases and emotion that gets buried into this. My model constantly undervalues my favorite teams. The tendency then is to think, ‘how is my model wrong.’

But I’ve double checked and tested multiple times. Something in the data knows more about my favorite team. People don’t trust the model.

Eric Eager

But his model works. There are a lot of engorged wallets out there that can attest to that. So if you’re trying to pick winners, check out how Eager does it.

You might learn a thing or two.

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