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2015 St. Louis Rams: The Weirdest Team In The NFL?

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Football Outsiders (well-respected for their statistical analysis) believes the Rams are the weirdest team in the NFL...in a random kind of way. Let's take a deeper look and find out if the "weirdness" is fact or fiction.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams are all rested up, having enjoyed time off with their Week 6 bye. They're coming off a tough 24-10 loss in Green Bay, a game the Rams could have won, despite being 9.5 point underdogs. Notwithstanding the game against the Packers, the Rams under Jeff Fisher have fared remarkably well when heading into a game as big underdogs, while under-performing in many of their other games. Earlier in the month, Football Outsiders explored the reasons for this phenomenon. Why does Football Outsiders believe the Rams are the weirdest team in the NFL? Why do the Rams win a disproportionate number of games when they're a touchdown or more "big underdog"?

Team Records As Big Underdogs Since 2012

The accompanying chart presents Football Outsiders' findings, including wins above the expected outcome for each team in "big underdog" games (I've added the Rams' loss in Green Bay to the chart published by Football Outsiders). The Rams easily lead the league in "Big Underdog" wins since 2012 (eight), hence the "weirdness" ascribed to the Rams by FO:

Team Records as Big Underdogs Since 2012
Team Record Win Pct Wins Above Exp
STL 8-12-1 0.400 3.359
TB 4-10 0.286 0.447
JAC 3-24 0.111 -2.631
OAK 3-20 0.130 -2.327
NYJ 3-11 0.214 -0.555
MIN 3-10 0.231 -0.583
WAS 3-5 0.375 0.919
IND 3-5 0.375 0.904
SD 3-3 0.500 1.341
ARI 2-11 0.154 -1.156
CHI 2-5 0.286 0.247
NYG 2-3 0.400 0.703
CLE 1-15 0.063 -3.146
TEN 1-11 0.083 -1.876
Team Record Win Pct Wins Above Exp
KC 1-8 0.111 -0.979
BUF 1-7 0.125 -0.860
CAR 1-3-1 0.300 0.056
PHI 1-2 0.333 0.285
DAL 1-2 0.333 0.207
PIT 1-1 0.500 0.410
CIN 1-1 0.500 0.397
MIA 0-7 0.000 -1.734
ATL 0-4 0.000 -0.876
DET 0-4 0.000 -1.144
NO 0-2 0.000 -0.529
SF 0-2 0.000 -0.529
BAL 0-2 0.000 -0.590
HOU 0-1 0.000 -0.240
GB 0-1 0.000 -0.264
SEA 0-1 0.000 -0.289

Football Outsiders' Theories

Theory 1: Jeff Fisher is really good as a big underdog.
Verdict:
Not really. In his long history with the Oilers/Titans, Fisher went 7-26 as a big underdog, winning about one game less than would have been expected.

Theory 2: The Rams have gotten to play division opponents as a big underdog.
Verdict:
Not so much. FO editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz has written about this before, looking at a big sample of games. And since Fisher took over, the Rams are 4-6-1 against the NFC West as a big underdog and 4-5 against the rest of the league.

Theory 3: Teams with good special teams pull off more upsets.
Verdict:
Probably not. The Rams seemingly get a big special teams play or two in every big upset. Their upsets started happening when the special teams improved from 27th in DVOA in 2012 to fourth in 2013. The special teams have stayed in the top ten the past two seasons.

But while big plays on special teams have keyed the Rams' wins, game-to-game randomness is likely more important than the level of their special teams. The worst team at pulling off big upsets since 2012, the Cleveland Browns, have had mostly good to excellent special teams according to DVOA.

Theory 4: The Rams could be more prone to ups and downs as a young team.
Verdict:
Very plausible, so this bears watching. The Rams were the second-youngest team in the league last year. The year before, they were the youngest. The Rams' defense has been very good in November and December under Fisher, seemingly just on the cusp of turning the corner.

While the Rams' youth could help explain their big upsets, other young teams such as the Browns have not shown the same volatility, so let's go with a simpler explanation as the most important one.

Theory 5: The Rams success as big underdogs has been largely randomness.
Verdict:
Double true. The Rams got the Johnson fumble on the opening kick and other random bounces in their upsets. They also got some luck with opponents, as one big upset came against a Texans team that would finish the season 2-14 and was living on past reputation. The Rams' chances in Green Bay this week depend much more on whether they finally are turning the corner than their recent upset history.

My Theories

Theory 1: Youngest, youngest, youngest, youngest, ad infinitum has an effect on "Big Underdog" wins
Verdict: True, at least to some degree.

As I noted at the beginning of the regular season, the Rams began the year as the youngest team in the NFL for the fourth consecutive season. Although Football Outsiders appears to be ambivalent with respect to the effect NFL roster youth has on winning as big underdogs, I can't help but sense it has at least SOME effect.

Volatility, huge momentum swings, inconsistency and big ups/downs are all characteristics inherent to very young teams, in any sport. These characteristics, by extension, easily translate into a number of wins where a very young team shouldn't have won and a number of losses where a very young team shouldn't have lost. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

The Rams (in contrast to this list) would doubtless be in the top dozen in a ranking of losses as either a favorite or "Smaller Underdog" (record 14-18). You had to have been a parent of 20+ year-old's to truly understand all the nuances and moving parts applicable to this theory (smiles).

Theory 2: Too many opportunities of a questionable nature (given by the oddsmaker's) to win as a "Big Underdog"
Verdict: Plausible and a reasonable conclusion to draw.

A cursory look at Football Outsiders chart shows the Rams with 21 games played as "big underdogs". Only Jacksonville (with 27) and Oakland (23) had more in the same time-frame. Denver and New England didn't even make the list, for neither team was a big underdog between 2012-2015. In the selected time-frame, the Rams' combined record was 22-30-1. In contrast, the Raiders were 13-40 and the Jaguars 10-43. Cleveland (16), Tampa Bay (14) and the New York Jets (14) rank 4th and tied for 5th, respectively, in games played as a big underdog. The three teams' combined overall regular season records: Cleveland 18-35, Tampa Bay 15-38 and New York 21-31.

Of the top six teams in number of big underdog wins, the Rams sport the best overall record in that time-frame. The Rams had a disproportionately high number of big underdog games (and wins) relative to their own record and the records of the other five teams. Games played against divisional opponents in the rugged NFC West is the most logical explanation for this statistical anomaly.

The NFC representative in the Super Bowl has come from the NFC West in each of the past three seasons. Although the likelihood isn't high in this particular season, the NFC West has been the best division in the league for most of Jeff Fisher's tenure with the Rams. Since 2012, Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle have a combined 101-59-1 regular season record. The Rams are only 22-30-1 in the same time period, yet have achieved a better winning percentage against their division rivals (9-10-1 - 47.4%) than against opponents outside the NFC West (13-20 - 39.4%).

In the NFC West, playing a strong overall defensive game is of paramount importance. The ability to run the football and stopping the rushing game are a close second. Smash-mouth, take no prisoners football, where games are won in the trenches and points can be hard to come by. The Rams were built by Jeff Fisher and Les Snead with exactly those tenets in mind. Winning divisional contests is right near the top of Fisher's goals list every season. And it makes sense, considering a team plays the same six games against their divisional rivals every season.

The oddsmaker's have a tendency to underestimate/under-appreciate the dynamic that exists in the NFC West, especially as it relates to the St. Louis Rams, and how much that dynamic affects the outcome of games. They appear to lack a thorough understanding of how the Rams are built and the importance the team places on divisional contests. This results in betting lines (favorites/underdogs) that all too often place the Rams in an unwarranted/undeserved big underdog role. Which in turn leads to the padding of "Big Underdog" statistics (number of opportunities and wins).

Look no farther than Weeks 4 and 5 of this season as evidence of my theory in action. In Week 4, the Rams travelled to Arizona as 7-point (big) underdogs. Despite the teams' respective records at the time (Rams 1-2), Cards 3-0) the line should have been less than a touchdown, perhaps 5.5 to 6 points at most. The Rams of course went on to win 24-22, while racking up a "big underdog" win in the process. In Week 5, the Rams travelled to Green Bay to face the 4-0 Packers as 9.5-point (big) underdogs. The half-point was very cleverly determined by the oddsmaker's, keeping the line at less than 2 scores, a reflection of the respect the Rams had earned in Arizona the week before. I agreed with the odds at the time and still do. The Packers won 24-10 and covered the spread, although the game could have gone in a different direction if not for a couple of significant plays and missed opportunities.

Of the 21 games the Rams have played as "big underdogs" since 2012, 11 of them were against teams in their own division. The Rams' record in those games? 4-6-1. The Rams' record in the remaining 10 " big underdog" games against the rest of the league? 4-6. Almost identical records...and it appears to be inconclusive evidence, unless one takes into account the fact of San Francisco and Seattle being ranked among the top 4 teams in the league for all of 2012-2013 (and Seattle in 2014 as well). That's how competitive the Rams are in their own division!

Theory 3: The quarterback conundrum
Verdict: Definitely influential in producing longer (big underdog) odds.

For the last 9 games in 2013 and all of 2014 (a total of 25 games), the Rams were forced to start their backup quarterbacks (due to Sam Bradford's pair of ACL tears). The oddsmakers have a tendency to severely punish teams - when determining the line for a particular game - if they're playing without their starting quarterback. The line can move anywhere from 3-8 points (or more) out of the norm as a result. The actual effect on the score is rarely that dramatic however, unless your team happens to normally have Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at the helm.

Teams compensate in many ways/mitigate the effects of losing their starting QB (ball control, running the football, emphasis on special teams play, a stifling defense, etc.). For instance, I don't believe it's due to sheer coincidence or "randomness" that upsets started occurring more frequently in Ramsland once special teams play drastically improved under Jeff Fisher (irrespective of the Rams' QB situation). All too often the Vegas line is pushed into "big underdog" territory when the overall circumstances simply don't warrant it. It means teams like the Rams are credited for "big underdog" wins/losses that likely shouldn't have had "big underdog" lines in the first place.

Theory 4: "On any given Sunday"
Verdict: Plays a small role in the discussion.

This is the closest I'll venture near the concept of "randomness" (as proffered by Football Outsiders), for I believe there's little in the way of randomness associated with Rams victories as big underdogs. Randomness or "On any given Sunday" may account for one (two at the absolute most) of the eight Rams victories since 2012 when big underdogs. The remaining six/seven wins can be explained by the theories proposed herein and the evidence provided. Randomness is sometimes the only place you can go to if all of of your other theories lead to dead-ends. That's not the case when looking at the St. Louis Rams and "big underdog" victories.

The folks over at ESPN-owned FiveThirtyEight go as far as to suggest that the concept of "On any given Sunday" (ie. any team having a chance to win any game) is less true than we are led to believe. Their basic premise: NFL favorites win and underdogs lose. I couldn't agree more.

Theory 5: The psychology of winning (when told you can't win)
Verdict: A bigger role than one might think, although not easily quantifiable.

Most NFL football players exhibit Type "A" personalities in varying degrees. Nothing brings out the competitive nature of a football player more than telling him his team sucks and they have little to no chance of winning their upcoming game. Translated into a point spread, nothing stirs the competitive juices (especially in younger players) more than their team being pegged as a 10-point underdog.

The mind is a complex piece of human machinery. One should never underestimate the ability of a young football player to rise to the occasion, both physically and mentally. Plus it doesn't hurt that the old fox Jeff Fisher is a master at using the role of "big underdog" as a motivational tool. Although not easy to quantify, competitiveness and pride do play a role in the outcome of football games.

Theory 6: The oddsmakers consistently misread certain teams, particularly the Rams
Verdict: Bingo!

Setting a betting line (ie. the favorite/underdog by points) is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when the ultimate goal is to have equal amounts of money bet on each team in any particular game (leaving the "vig" as profit for the bookies). Determining point spreads is at best an inexact science. Setting a betting line when the Rams are playing is that much more difficult, for they are one of the more confounding teams in the NFL. Maddeningly inconsistent from the perspective of most Rams fans and pretty consistent in their inconsistency since the arrival of Jeff Fisher in 2012. Small wonder the oddmaker's have trouble getting it right when it comes to the Rams. That's without adding in the cumulative effect of the other 4-5 above-mentioned theories.

Given the fact I write about the Rams on a year-round basis, one would surmise that I might know a thing or two about the inner workings and vagaries of the team. But you would never know it by my record in picking games involving the Rams, both straight up and against the spread. I've been prognosticating and picking games both straight up and against the spread for 38 years. Those who are regular followers of my weekly pick'em column can attest to the success I've achieved competing against experts from around the league. I can tell you that any success I have achieved is in spite of the St. Louis Rams, not because of them.

Since 2012. my overall record in picking games straight up is 593-265, a 69% win percentage. My record in picking the Rams straight up? 28-24-1, a 54% win percentage. My overall record in picking games against the spread is 516-341, good for a 60% win percentage. My record in picking the Rams against the spread? 24-29, a 45% win percentage.

Dubs' Pigskin Pick'em Records 2012-2015

2012
Week Wins Straight Up Wins vs Spread Hot Picks vs. Spread Rams Straight Up
Week 17 14  2 9  7 3  0 1  0
Season 176  80 156  100 36  15 8  7  1
Win Percentage 68.8 60.9 70.1 53.3

2013
Week Wins Straight Up Wins vs Spread Hot Picks vs. Spread Rams Straight Up
Week 17 13  3 8  8 2  1 1  0
Season 177  79 155  101 38  13 10  6
Win Percentage 69.1 60.5 74.5 62.5

2014
Week Wins Straight Up Wins vs Spread Hot Picks vs. Spread Rams Straight Up
Week 17 12  4 9  7 1  2 1  0
Season 179  76  1 146  109  1 25  25  1 8  8
Win Percentage 70.2 57.3 50.0 50.0

2015 To-Date
Week Wins Straight Up Wins vs Spread Hot Picks vs. Spread Rams Straight Up
Week 6 8  6 7  7 2  1 Bye
Season 61  30 59  31  1 16  2 2  3
Win Percentage 67.0 65.6 88.9 40.0

*************

The Rams under Jeff Fisher (2012-2015) are worthy of many different monikers: "Youngest Team In The NFL", "Team With The Best Mediocre Record In The NFL", "Most Promising Young Talent In The NFL". "Weirdest Team In The NFL" isn't one of them. Let's leave the "weird" stuff for the extraordinary Peter King to decipher over at Sports Illustrated - MMQB and the "randomness" to my Monday Random Ramsdom columns.

Thanks for reading!