Bookmakers have maintained for years that no single player in the NFL is worth more than a touchdown on the point spread. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady cast serious doubt on that assertion going into Week 1 of the season, as he began serving a four-game suspension for 2014’s Deflategate scandal. After a federal appeals court upheld the three-time Super Bowl MVP’s suspension in July, the Patriots gradually went from a pick ’em in their game at Arizona to 9.5-point underdogs.
Although a point or two can be attributed to injuries—tight end Rob Gronkowski, most notably—the implication of the massive movement was that the betting market thought bookmakers had undervalued Brady’s worth. And, for one game at least, gamblers were proven wrong. Arizona never threatened to cover as New England won outright, 23-21, behind an efficient performance from Brady fill-in Jimmy Garoppolo, who completed 24 of 33 passes for 264 yards and a touchdown. It was likely the most profitable result of the week for casinos—Arizona was not only one of the heaviest bet sides on the board (78 percent of the game’s action at William Hill came in on the Cardinals) but also played a national prime-time game, which typically draw the most action.
The result reignited a longtime debate over how bettors can best account for star players’ absences. There’s no easy answer, since it’s situational and virtually anything can happen over a miniscule one-game sample. But it’s almost guaranteed that perception will swing the other way in Week 2 and that bettors won’t devalue Garoppolo as much this time. The Patriots opened as 6.5-point favorites over the Dolphins—only three points below a 9.5-point spread available for the game at CG Technology sports books in April.
Barring any major changes, New England will also be favored in its final two games without Brady—home dates with Houston and Buffalo. Conservative moneyline projections give the Patriots a 35 percent chance of winning all three games. That means anyone who took the 5-to-1 price on the Patriots going undefeated without Brady in a proposition wager posted at the South Point over the summer could be sitting pretty. The prop had New England starting with a 3-1 record as the most likely outcome, at a payout of plus-180 (risking $1 to win $1.80), with 2-2 close behind at an even 2-to-1 price.
In the immediate wake of the suspension, an offshore sports book posted an over/under of 1.5 wins for the Patriots under Garoppolo. After one win, it already sounds foolish that such little was expected from a team that has made the playoffs for an NFL-high seven straight seasons. Brady was out with injury the last time the Patriots missed the postseason, in 2008.
His importance in sports books almost matches his value to the Patriots—he’s the single most bet-upon player in the past 15 years. And Brady has rewarded his backers at a remarkable rate, going 142-102-10 against the spread for his career, according to database Covers.com. Underestimating him has been a surefire way to bust a bankroll. But last week, for a change, discounting his impact was actually the easiest way to win.