The NFL labor standoff continues to drag on though hope remains that the players and owners will be able to agree on an equitable formula by which to distribute their multi-billion dollar ‘pie’ and pro football’s usual late summer/early fall schedule won’t be disrupted. In hopes of generating some positive karma, we’re going to maintain a positive outlook about the situation and start discussing the forthcoming NFL preseason and regular season as if it were already a fait acommplit. In this article we’ll discuss some of the basic concepts of handicapping NFL preseason games.
There’s a lot of conflicting opinions and very little common ground among the sports betting public about wagering on NFL preseason games. Overly cautious handicappers would argue that preseason football is a poor wagering opportunity. Some of the more obnoxious tout services would have you believe that short of a fixed game there is no greater “lock” than preseason football. Like most things that produce such polarized opinions, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Preseason NFL football is a unique proposition for the sports gambler, but when approached with caution, discipline and knowledge it can yield some profit.
First, let’s examine the case against preseason NFL wagering. Clearly the biggest argument against it is the simple fact that the games don’t count. Though spots will exist during regular season games when the motivation and preparation of individual teams may vary, in theory both teams want to win every time out. That’s not always the case in preseason football, since different coaches have different goals. Some might want to just evaluate their personnel, others might want to establish a winning attitude, and all coaches want to keep their stars from getting injured. Factor in all of the variables and conflicting agendas, the preseason naysayer would argue, and there are just too many unknowns to consider taking a financial position on.
The proponent of preseason wagering would argue that this is the very reason that good opportunities frequently arise during preseason. First, additional value is frequently found with the underdog in preseason games by their very nature. To explain, in a hypothetical matchup between a Superbowl champion and an also-ran the “better” team by regular season standards would usually be favored. However, by virtue of their success the “better” teams have not only more ‘marquee names’ to protect, but also valued guys in the trenches who could cause big problems if injured. Frequently, they’ll have more depth and thus fewer personnel evaluation decisions to deal with. They’ll have no need to “create a winning attitude”, nor will they usually have wholesale changes in team composition, offensive or defensive strategy, or coaching philosophies to deal with. In short, the “better” teams often go into preseason situations with little to accomplish other than to get the games over with and stay healthy.
Now, let’s look at the other side of the equation. A “lesser” team by regular season standards might have a number of starting spots or key backup spots up for grabs. They may have new coaches to impress, or new offensive or defensive coordinators whose schemes they’ll have to implement. Certainly, winning any games–whether or not they count in the standings–is of utmost importance to losing teams trying to turn things around. Finally, a bad team can gain a lot more psychologically from beating a playoff team than the playoff team can from beating a doormat. A struggling team that is destined to lose a lot during the regular season won’t have a lot of bright spots, so a preseason win against one of the league’s elite can mean a lot more.
Even among teams that don’t worry much about wins and losses during the preseason, they don’t want to go into the season losing them all. For that reason, one of the most successful preseason situations over the past decade and a half has been teams that lost their first two preseason games. During that span, 0-2 teams have hit right around 60% against the spread.
Perhaps nothing determines a team’s approach to the preseason more than the philosophy of the head coach. Some coaches simply hate to lose anytime they line ’em up to play football, and as a result their teams are usually good preseason bets. Bill Parcells was famous for the preseason focus of his teams. Not surprisingly, many who worked with Parcells earlier in their careers are now carving out their own records of preseason success. This sort of dominance isn’t lost on the linesmaker and a coach like the Giants’ Tom Coughlin (a former Parcells assistant) will have his ATS success factored into the pointspread. Still, a motivated team that wants to win is always worthy of consideration.
One of the best tools that a handicapper has at his disposal during the preseason is the Internet. Actually, it’s a great tool year round but during the preseason it is invaluable. The best source of information on coaching philosophies, game plans, injuries, lineup changes, etc, are the local sports pages of NFL teams. Basically, the situation during preseason is that there is a lot of interest in the team and a lot of anxious beat writers looking to write stories. The problem is that there is little in the way of real news, and for that reason you’ll find the sort of minutiae on teams and players from which you can often extract relevant handicapping information. Even if there aren’t any nuggets of handicapping gold, you can at least get a feel for the coach’s goals for the game and the amount of playing time that key players will see. Sometimes coaches will come right out and say who will play at what juncture of the game, and will occasionally go on record that personnel decisions like evaluating all of the guys they’re considering for the backup defensive secondary jobs are more important than winning. Clearly, operating with this knowledge is a distinct advantage and operating without it can be fatal. There’s nothing more frustrating than betting on a team only to have them look like they could care less whether or not they win the game. During the preseason, however, it can frequently be prevented with some simple research and analysis.
A big caveat to all of the above concepts—in the past few years lines for preseason NFL games have become significantly sharper. This is a reflection of a greater public awareness about the preseason tendencies of some teams—the best example likely being the Indianapolis Colts who are notorious for their lack of concern about winning exhibition games. On balance and for that reason, preseason football may not be as good of a wagering value overall as it was 10 years ago.
The best advice is to not be afraid of wagering on preseason football, but to not get too excited about it either. It’s a good chance to grind out a small profit, but definitely not the moneymaking opportunity of a lifetime. There will be plenty of other football wagering opportunities down the road. Discipline and self-control is always in your best interest when betting on sports, and that certainly is the case in the preseason NFL.
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