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The "X" Factor

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Football’s “X” Factor – An Attempt To Explain the Unexplainable

Last week we introduced our Statistical Spreadsheet. One stat we touched on just briefly and promised an expanded definition this week was the ‘X’ Factor. We first began to publish this statistic several seasons ago. Here’s the explanation we used when we introduced this very interesting, unique and revealing statistic.

Statistics are a necessity in determining and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of teams in all sports and in making comparisons. Stats are the fundamental building blocks of handicapping and all other factors used in handicapping spring from some raw statistical data. In football the most common statistics used in evaluating teams are points and yards. Teams need to gain yards on offense to score points and on defense the objective is to prevent your opponent from scoring points by gaining yards.

It would seem reasonable that a team that gains the most yards would also score the most points, all things being equal. Likewise, the team gaining the fewest yards would be expected to score the fewest points. But, of course, all things are not equal. And there is rarely, if ever, a direct correlation between yards gained and points scored, or yards allowed and points allowed, for more than just a handful of teams. Some teams, such as Minnesota’s 1998 offense, will rank first in both categories, or sixth, or last. Usually there are differences in a team’s yardage ranking and their scoring ranking. These differences are generally accounted for by a team’s ability or inability to score within the opponents’ 20 yard line (the ‘red zone’), the performance of a team’s “special” teams, and the performance of a team’s defense to score on fumble and interception returns or to at least establish good field position.

A measure we’ve relied upon more and more in recent seasons to explain the reasons why a team’s yardage rankings differ from that same team’s scoring rankings is what we refer to as the “X” factor. It is very easy to calculate and by comparing two teams’ “X” factors we are able to draw some conclusions and understand why certain teams win despite having below average stats or why losing teams seem to move the ball well but fail to cash in. To determine a team’s “X” factor, simply subtract a team’s scoring rank from its yardage rank. A neutral team, having an “X” factor of 0, will have the same yardage and points rank. A team that ranks 15th in yards gained but ranks 9th in points scored (using averages) has an offensive “X” factor of +6, indicating they are scoring more points than their yardage ranking relative to the other 31 teams suggests. That team is either benefitting from cashing in when inside the red zone, is getting good field position and has less yardage to gain in order to score, or is getting points from defense and special teams’ play. A team that ranks 17th in yardage but ranks 25th in average points scored has an offensive “X” factor of -8, indicative of a team that moves the ball but doesn’t score as much as they should. Similarly, a team ranking 12th in yards allowed but 5th in points allowed has a defensive “X” factor of +7. This is a team that makes the big plays on defense despite allowing yardage, or faces teams that fail to get good field position or whose defenses and special teams don’t often score. A team ranking 8th in yards allowed but 13th in points allowed has a defensive “X” factor of -5. This is a team that surrenders more points than expected, meaning that they often provide their opponents with good field position or allow big scoring plays, including allowing special team and defensive touchdowns.

Part of successful handicapping comes from looking beyond the obvious numbers, beyond the wins and losses and pure points scored and allowed. Factoring Factor ‘X’ into your handicapping regimen will point you in the direction of many undervalued teams and away from many that are overvalued.

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