I consider it the 14% rule, that is 86% of the time the team that dominates the action on the field, is the right call from a handicapping standpoint, wins the game and covers the point spread. Then, there is the 14% of the games that one side dominates, appears headed for a point spread win, and has it taken away on a fluke play.
Before the Cal Bears had the miracle win over the Stanford Cardinal in 1982, the game in which Cal lateraled the ball five times and returned it for a touchdown on the kickoff that followed the apparent winning score by Stanford in John Elway’s last regular season college game.
You remember the play, it is memorialized in history with Joe Starkey calling the Cal returner running through the Stanford Band for the winning score.
Ever since that happened, teams with nothing to lose and trailing in the game by eight points or less, run some kind of dipsy-doodle in an attempt to pull a win from the jaws of defeat.
More often, that final desperate play turns into something positive for the defending team. Either with a stop, or often, a recovered fumble resulting in an extra score for the team already leading in the game. Sometimes, that extra score shifts the point spread winner from the team that battled the entire game and looked to win on the line even in a straight-up loss, to a stinging defeat for the backers of the team with points on the spread.
Chalk it up to the 14% rule.
How would you have liked to have the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in San Francisco with 9½ points on the spread. The Cardinals bolted to a 16-0 early lead and still had an advantage over their hosts, 26-23, with just 34 seconds left in the game. Then the 49ers scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point to take a 30-26 lead.
On their first play from the line of scrimmage after they surrendered their advantage on the scoreboard, the Cardinals fumbled a completion and the 49ers recovered with just 25 seconds left on the clock. San Francisco was content to run out the clock and get off the field with the four point victory. But Arizona had all three timeouts left, and got the ball back with just six seconds left in the game.
What could go wrong here?
Kyler Murray’s first down pass was incomplete. Two seconds left in the game, and the Cardinals were at the 22-yard-line.
What could go wrong here?
Turns out, for those holding tickets with the Cardinals plus 9½ points, everything. Murray completed the second down pass four yards up field to future Hall of Fame member Larry Fitzgerald, who fumbled after the short gain and the ball was batted backward towards the end zone and D.J. Reed collected it at the four-yard-line and carried it into the endzone for an extra six San Francisco points. That late score changed everything for most of the people betting on this game.
Some people had the 49ers laying the 9½ points, and got an early holiday gift. For those that had the closing line on the game, 10 points, the fact that the 49ers didn’t convert the point after saved them from a loss in the 36-26 49ers win. But for those with the plus 9½ points, they had spent an afternoon seemingly enroute to an easy point spread win for 59 minutes and 58 seconds of game clock. But, alas, an NFL game is 60 minutes.
While the result can be chalked up to the 14% rule, there is another aspect of this game to consider. More people were wagering on the underdog Cardinals in this game, both wiseguys and the public figured the points were too many for the 49ers to cover. The only difference, is the public bet the game all the way up to kickoff, and many were stuck with the 9½ points or had the 10 point closing line.
The wise guys, who got in on this game early, had the opening 13½ points or numbers all the way down to 10½ that still would have allowed the Arizona backers to win the wager. Here is another stat to consider, if a line moves off the opening point spread, 7% of the time it will affect the point spread decision. Less points on an underdog, or having to give more points with a favorite, is never a winner when the line move affects the result.
Generating consistent profits from NFL point spreads requires the knowledge and ability to get your games at the right number. To know that when you give more than the opening line or get less will cut into your winning margin 7% is a good reason not to chase a point spread.
It still won’t erase the flukes that turn a sure winner, like Arizona, into a loser. To play the game is to know that even the best handicapping work requires surrendering to the 14% rule and know that sometimes an anticipated trip to the payout window doesn’t happen.