With the news that Tom Brady is expected to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of the great sports dynasties has come to an end. When most fans think of the Brady-Bill Belichick era, the six Super Bowl titles and 17 AFC East titles (including 11 straight) come to mind. But for bettors, the New England Patriots have been the surest bet you could make over the past two decades.
Brady and Belichick were the greatest NFL betting dynasty I've ever seen -- and we will never see anything close in sports betting.
A defining moment
For me, everything about betting a Patriots game crystallized in 2009.
With a six-point lead and trying to seal a win against Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts, Belichick chose to go for a fourth-and-2 on his own 28-yard line with 2:08 remaining rather than punt. Adding suspense, the Patriots called their final timeout and allowed the football world to process this unconventional decision.
I was living in Las Vegas at the time and witnessed the live betting market shift drastically toward New England. Sharp bettors supported the decision; it was more advantageous to control the outcome with Brady needing 2 yards than to give another future Hall of Fame quarterback an opportunity to score a third touchdown in that fourth quarter against a defense that looked gassed.
Following a failed conversion and Manning's subsequent game-winning touchdown pass, Belichick drew heavy criticism. But I was convinced he was eons ahead of his contemporaries and demonstrated a shared belief -- uncovered from a vast history of video games -- that possession mattered more than field position.
At that very moment, I barred myself from betting against New England. I realized there are smarter things to do with my income than lay -110 against Brady and Belichick. My new mantra: "Patriots or pass," and I only deviated a few times over the next decade.
A sports betting dynasty, by the numbers
Perhaps it's easiest to demonstrate just how dominant New England has been in the sports betting world by listing some numbers from ESPN Stats & Information:
• The last time the Patriots experienced a losing regular season against the point spread was in 2002; that streak of 17 is more than twice as long as any other franchise's longest streak in the Super Bowl era (since 1966).
• The Patriots were 189-128-7 ATS with Brady starting and Belichick have the second-best point spread cover percentage (59.6%) of any quarterback and head coach combination (minimum 80 games).
• In those games, they were favored by an average line of 5.8 points (fourth-shortest mark as favorite by any QB in the Super Bowl era with at least 100 starts).
• Off a regular-season loss, Brady and Belichick were 42-19 ATS (68.9%), which ranks third-best (minimum of 30 games).
• Brady and Belichick never lost four straight games ATS in a single regular season.
• Brady has been favored in 74 consecutive regular-season starts, the longest streak by any starting QB in the Super Bowl era.
A conundrum for sportsbooks
Much like facing a blizzard, bookmakers were essentially helpless when weathering these New England storms.
"You have to trust the market, and if the public is blasting away, you just have to take your lumps," Caesars Sportsbook director of trading Jeff Davis told ESPN, explaining his preferred policy of not succumbing to the high volume of recreational bettors. Davis said that sometimes over 90% of bets on a Patriots game were on New England and would occasionally represent the sportsbook's largest single-game loss for an entire calendar year. New England playing in prime-time games (Thursday, Sunday, Monday nights) had the potential to cost books even more.
Usually, sportsbooks already tax the high-profile teams, and thus the market will eventually correct itself. For example, the Golden State Warriors finished with a sub-.500 cover mark in all three of Kevin Durant's seasons. Over the past eight years, Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide have finished more than a game above .500 ATS in only one season. But the betting public relentlessly backed the Patriots under almost all circumstances and still beat an inflated line (New England was a 5.8-point favorite on average with Brady-Belichick) at a successful rate.
"The oddsmakers catch up so fast on good teams," Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook vice president of risk Ed Salmons told ESPN. "That's what makes the Patriots so remarkable. They've been a public team for 16 years."
Statistically, Brady and Belichick have the second-best point spread cover percentage (58%) of any quarterback and head coach combination (min. 80 games). Only Brady's idol, Joe Montana, and Bill Walsh from 1979 to '88 are superior (77-48 ATS). But like any sports discussion, we have to account for longevity and eras, and the NFL betting market is much stronger and tighter during this window than any other period -- or sport, for that matter.
"Back then [with Montana and Walsh], maybe two or three betting groups would influence the market," Salmons said. "There are just way more smart people that are shaping these numbers than ever before."
Alluding to the lack of pre-internet sophistication and tools oddsmakers currently use to track everything in the betting world, Davis added, "There is a lot more information out there. The [computer] screen probably didn't even exist then."
Coincidentally, New England's impressive run overlapped with the sportsbooks' "Moneyball" revolution. In the early 2000s, math modelers and data scientists began to join old-school handicappers who relied on the eye test and their instincts. The result was a betting world that would reduce profitable opportunities and strengthen the house's advantage, as oddsmakers used technology and resources to lean on wagers placed by respected players they classified as "sharp."
"A lot of the analytics and data are out there to set the line to begin with, but the people are then shaping them. The amount of money that pours into the NFL and shapes the closing number is more than any other league," said professional bettor and ESPN sports betting analyst Preston Johnson. "Also, usually the NFL doesn't have much turnover. New seasons don't present much difference, so they just have all this data year over year that holds true."
"I would put them ahead of anything in the [sports betting world] just because they did it for so long in the toughest times," Salmons told ESPN. "These lines come out on Sunday afternoon and [the betting action solidifies the point spreads] into place for eight straight days."
Brady and Belichick combined for six Super Bowl titles over 20 seasons, and those championship rings will always be mentioned first when discussing all-time athletes or coaches. The overwhelming wins, longevity and statistics will also carry weight. But if the point spread is the great equalizer, especially in the salary-cap era, then it's hard to argue against this duo that constantly baffled the betting market.
"If you had any sort of projections you trusted, they would always say to bet against [New England]. But the Patriots would cover anyway, so it was frustrating," Johnson said of his modeling. "I know professional bettors who ultimately stopped betting against the Patriots altogether because, what's the point? Obviously, there was something with the way they're coaching or whatever that there's enough of a sample size that it's reliable. Even though I can't figure out what it is, I can still trust there's something there and stay away."
It's not just sports talk shows and Patriots fans debating the next chapter. Bettors are assessing whether Brady will continue the monetary magic elsewhere or whether Belichick will merely substitute a new quarterback to continue churning out covers. But at the end of the day, nothing will ever match this rare combination of a coach's wizardry and compulsive attention to detail with a quarterback's skill set and competitiveness that rewarded backers for so many years and set gambling's gold standard.
ESPN Stats & Information's Mackenzie Kraemer contributed to this column.