A Reason Bill Simmons is Bad At Gambling

For those unaware, Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy, is the editor-in-chief of Grantland, ESPN’s more literary (or perhaps intelligent, if you prefer) offshoot. He’s hired a lot of really excellent  writers (Jonah Keri and Zach Lowe, just to name two), but he continues to publish long, rambling football columns with limited empirical support. I find this somewhat frustrating given that the chief Grantland NFL writer, Bill Barnwell, is probably the most prominent data-oriented football writer around, but you take the good with the bad.

Simmons writes a column with NFL picks each week during the season, and has a pretty so-so track record for picking against the spread, as detailed in the first footnote to this article here. Simmons has also written a number of lengthy columns attempting to construct a system for gambling on the playoffs, and hasn’t done too great in this regard either. I’ve been meaning to mine some of these for a post for a while now, and since he’s written two such posts this year already (wild card and divisional round), I figured the time was right to look at some of his assertions.

The one I keyed on was this one, from two weeks ago:

SUGGESTION NO. 6: “Before you pick a team, just make sure Marty Schottenheimer, Herm Edwards, Wade Phillips, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Anyone Named Mike, Anyone Described As Andy Reid’s Pupil and Anyone With the Last Name Mora” Isn’t Coaching Them.

I made this tweak in 2010 and feel good about it — especially when the “Anyone Named Mike” rule miraculously covers the Always Shaky Mike McCarthy and Mike “You Know What?” McCoy (both involved this weekend!) as well as Mike Smith, Mike “The Sideline Karma Gods Put A Curse On Me” Tomlin, Mike Munchak and the recently fired Mike Shanahan. We’re also covered if Mike Shula, Mike Martz, Mike Mularkey, Mike Tice or Mike Sherman ever make comebacks. I’m not saying you bet against the Mikes — just be psychotically careful with them. As for Andy Reid … we’ll get to him in a second.

That was written before the playoffs—after Round 1, he said he thinks he might make it an ironclad rule (with “Reid’s name…[in] 18-point font,” no less).

Now, these coaches certainly have a reputation for performing poorly under pressure and making poor decisions regarding timeouts, challenges, etc., but do they actually perform worse against the spread? I set out to find this out, using the always-helpful pro-football-reference database of historical gambling lines to get historical ATS performance for each coach he mentions. (One caveat here: the data only list closing lines, so I can’t evaluate how the coaches did compared to opening spreads, nor how much the line moved, which could in theory be useful to evaluate these ideas as well.) The table below lists the results:

Playoff Performance Against the Spread by Select Coaches
Coach Win Loss Named By Simmons Notes
Childress 2 1 No Andy Reid Coaching Tree
Ditka 6 6 No Named Mike
Edwards 3 3 Yes
Frazier 0 1 No Andy Reid Coaching Tree
Holmgren 13 9 No Named Mike
John Harbaugh 9 4 No Andy Reid Coaching Tree
Martz 2 5 Yes Named Mike
McCarthy 6 4 Yes Named Mike
Mora Jr. 1 1 Yes
Mora Sr. 0 6 Yes
Phillips 1 5 Yes
Reid 11 8 Yes
Schotteinheimer 4 13 Yes
Shanahan 7 6 Yes Named Mike
Sherman 2 4 Yes Named Mike
Smith 1 4 Yes Named Mike
Tice 1 1 Yes Named Mike
Tomlin 5 3 Yes Named Mike
Turner 6 2 Yes

A few notes: first, I’ve omitted pushes from these numbers, as PFR only lists two (both for Mike Holmgren). Second, the Reid coaching tree includes the three NFL coaches who served as assistants under Reid who coached an NFL playoff game before this postseason. Whether or not you think of them as Reid’s pupils is subjective, but it seems to me that doing it any other way is going to either turn into circular reasoning or cherry-picking. Third, my list of coaches named Mike is all NFL coaches referred to as Mike by Wikipedia who coached at least one playoff game, with the exception of Mike Holovak, who coached in the AFL in the 1960s and who thus a) seems old enough not to be relevant to this heuristic and b) is old enough that there isn’t point spread data for his playoff game on PFR, anyhow.

So, obviously some of these guys have had some poor performances against the spread: standouts include Jim Mora, Sr. at 0-6 and Marty Schottenheimer at 4-13, though the latter isn’t actually statistically significantly different from a .500 winning percentage (p = 0.052). More surprising, given Simmons’s emphasis on him, is the fact that Reid is actually over .500 lifetime in the playoffs against the spread. (That’s the point estimate, anyway; it’s not statistically significantly better, however.) This seems to me to be something you would want to check before making it part of your gambling platform, but that disconnect probably explains both why I don’t gamble on football and why Simmons seems to be poor at it. (Not that his rule has necessarily done him wrong, but drawing big conclusions on limited or contradictory evidence seems like a good way to lose a lot of money.)

Are there any broader trends we can pick up? Looking at Simmons’s suggestion, I can think of a few different sets we might want to look at:

  1. Every coach he lists by name.
  2. Every coach he lists by name, plus the Reid coaching tree.
  3. Every coach he lists by name, plus the unnamed Mikes.
  4. Every coach he lists by name, plus the Reid coaching tree and the unnamed Mikes.

A table with those results is below.

Combined Against the Spread Results for Different Groups of Coaches Cited By Simmons
Set of Coaches Number of Coaches in Set Wins Losses Winning Percentage p-Value
Named 14 50 65 43.48 0.19
Named + Reid 17 61 71 46.21 0.43
Named + Mikes 16 69 80 46.31 0.41
All 19 80 86 48.19 0.70

As a refresher, the p-value is the probability that we would observe a result as or more extreme as the observed result if there were no true effect, i.e. the selected coaches are actually average against the spread. (Here’s the Wikipedia article.) Since none of these are significant even at the 0.1 level (which is generally the lowest barrier to treating a result as meaningful), we wouldn’t conclude that any of Simmons’s postulated sets are actually worse than average ATS in the playoffs. It is true that these groups have done worse than average, but the margins aren’t huge and the samples are small, so without a lot more evidence I’m inclined to think that there isn’t any effect here. These coaches might not have been very successful in the playoffs, but any effect seems to be built into the lines.

Did Simmons actually follow his own suggestion this postseason? Well, he picked against Reid, for Mike McCoy (first postseason game), and against Mike McCarthy in the wild card round, going 1-0-2, with the one win being in the game he went against his own rule. For the divisional round, he’s gone against Ron Rivera (first postseason game, in the Reid coaching tree) and against Mike McCoy, sticking with his metric. Both of those games are today, so as I type we don’t know the results, but whatever they are, I bet they have next to nothing to do with Rivera’s relationship to Reid or McCoy’s given name.

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