Vegas Wiseguy Report: Why Sharps Hate the Ravens

Teddy Covers | Jun 24, 2013 | ARCHIVE

Last week, I wrote about the Kansas City Chiefs, using KC as the ‘poster child’ for an NFL team that the betting markets expect significant improvement from in 2013.  This week, I’ll be writing about the Baltimore Ravens, using John Harbaugh’s squad as the ‘poster child’ for a team the betting markets expect to regress significantly in the upcoming campaign.  Why do the markets disrespect Baltimore so much?  Read on to find out!

Let me start by clarifying exactly how the betting markets aren’t impressed with the Ravens heading into the start of training camp.  The numbers show it clearly.  The defending Super Bowl champs are lined as an 8.5 win team.  Eleven different teams are lined higher (Atlanta, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, New England, New Orleans, the New York Giants, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle; all lined at nine wins or more).  Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas and Indianapolis are all lined in the same range (8.5 wins) as Baltimore.  Clearly, from a ‘season wins’ perspective, the markets aren’t impressed with Baltimore, ranking them as a ‘middle of the pack’ ballclub.

It’s the same story for the Ravens when we start to look at their projected pointspreads.  Their Week 1 number at Denver speaks volumes, with the Ravens holding firm as an 8.5 or 9 point road underdog.  That’s the biggest underdog price I’ve ever seen for a defending Super Bowl champ in Week 1 the following season.

 In fact, the Ravens are the single biggest underdog on the board in Week 1 – a bigger dog than Oakland travelling to Indy or the Bills matching up against the mighty Patriots.  That tells us on a neutral field, the market considers Denver (the team with the single highest neutral field power rating coming into 2013) at least 5 or 5.5 points better than Baltimore – just like they did in the postseason last year!

Cantor Gaming’s opening NFL full season pointspreads had Baltimore favored by more than four points only twice in the first 16 weeks of the campaign – in Week 2 at home against Cleveland (-7.5) and in Week 12 at home against the Jets (-6).  Again, that tells us very clearly that the markets are looking at the defending Super Bowl champs as a good squad, but not an elite squad, coming into the new campaign.

So why aren’t the markets impressed with Baltimore?  It all starts with what they did last year and how they did it!  For the 2012 regular season, Baltimore outgained their opponents by 0.2 yards per play against a slightly weaker than average schedule.  They were good but not great in all four elements of football – running offense, passing offense, run defense and pass defense.  The Ravens finished in the top quartile of the NFL in turnover margin; a candidate for regression in that key statistical category for the upcoming campaign.

The Ravens weren’t a juggernaut during the regular season last year.  They finished 10-6; good enough to win the division in a tiebreaker with Cincinnati, but not good enough to earn any kind of homefield in the first round.  And five of those ten regular season wins came by three points or less; coinflip type games.

These three key factors – mediocre stats from last year, a strong positive turnover differential and lots of close wins in coinflip type games – are exactly what the markets look for when projecting a team to decline in the upcoming campaign.

Let’s not forget what the markets thought about Baltimore during their impressive playoff run last year.  They were 9.5 point underdogs at Denver, eight point underdogs at New England and five point underdogs on a neutral field in the Super Bowl against San Francisco.  The markets weren’t impressed with the Ravens at any point during their run to a Super Bowl title. 

Nor have the markets forgotten the Jacoby Jones 70 yard TD catch in the waning seconds of regulation against Denver that saved Baltimore’s season; a ‘lucky’ play that allowed them to survive, advance and eventually win the Super Bowl.  Two of the Ravens four postseason wins also came by a field goal or less.  This team was phenomenal in tight games in 2012, but that ability to win one close game after the next isn’t something that the markets expect to carry over from one year to the next.

Enough with last year!  What about 2013?  Well, it all starts with some schedule analysis.  The AFC North is a tougher than average division, and Baltimore has four games against playoff contenders Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in divisional play.  The AFC North draws the NFC North in non-conference play this year; giving Baltimore marquee matchups against other playoff contenders like Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota.  And let’s not forget about a trio of games against AFC elites Denver, New England and Houston.  The Ravens only have four games against ‘patsies’ lined at seven wins or less – Cleveland (twice), Buffalo and the New York Jets.  It’s a fairly difficult slate.

The betting markets certainly don’t like the offseason attrition from the defending Super Bowl champs.  Ray Lewis had a whopping 51 tackles in their four playoff games.  He’s retired now.  Ed Reed had 61 interceptions in his career with the Ravens (not including the postseason, discounting his Super Bowl INT last year), seven of which were returned for touchdowns.  He’s a Houston Texan in 2013.

Safety Bernard Pollard left for the Tennessee Titans.  Linebacker Paul Kruger will play for Cleveland this year.  Fellow linebacker Dannel Ellerbe is now a Dolphin. Cornerback Cary Williams is now an Eagle.  A key piece of the offensive line, center Matt Birk, joined Ray Lewis in retirement.  Part of the reason for all of these veteran departures is the enormous salary that QB Joe Flacco commanded this past offseason. 

Flacco gambled during contract negotiations last year, deciding not to sign Baltimore’s tender, then watched his stock explode during the Ravens impressive run to the Super Bowl.  As a result, a strong Baltimore front office was forced to open up the checkbook, paying Flacco $120 million over the next six years to re-sign him.  That’s an enormous salary cap hit in the modern NFL; hurting the level of talent surrounding him!

The Ravens youth movement has left one gaping hole – at wide receiver.  In a ‘pass first’ league like the NFL is these days, the betting markets are clearly concerned.  Anquan Boldin was their only consistent pass catching threat at WR last year, but he’ll be catching balls for the 49ers this year.  Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are both big play threats, but neither one has been a #1 receiver at any point in their respective NFL careers.

Baltimore didn’t have the money to sign a big name #1 WR in free agency.  Their top four draft choices and top four free agent signings all came on the defensive side of the ball; a D that showed age and vulnerability throughout the season last year.  That leaves a gaping hole at wideout for a $20 million dollar quarterback to throw to!

I’m NOT saying that Baltimore can’t contend in 2013.  Free agent additions like Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff and Chris Canty should help immediately, as will top draft choices Matt Elam and Arthur Brown.  I personally am not as ‘down’ on Baltimore as the betting markets seem to be – one of the best organizations in the NFL isn’t likely to field a non-contending team just one year after winning the title.  But from a betting markets perspective, it’s clear that Baltimore is viewed as a mediocre squad, not an elite one, heading into the upcoming campaign; the ‘poster child’ for regression.