Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NFL Preseason Handicapping: Pros and Cons

By Ross Everett

Betting preseason NFL games never fails to elicit an irreconcilable difference of opinion among sports betting enthusiasts. Some consider it a very poor wagering opportunity, while others maintain that there's no better moneymaking opportunity in sports than pro football's preseason. The truth is probably somewhere between the two extremes--NFL preseason betting must be approached with caution and discipline, but offers the potential to make a tidy profit before the regular season kicks off.

The opponent of preseason wagering would suggest that its a bad wagering opportunity by its very nature alone--simply stated, the games don't count meaning that the motivation and focus of individual teams is always in question. It's hard enough to identify teams that are in a desirable 'spot' during the regular season, the often conflicting agendas of personnel evaluation, playbook testing, and injury prevention found in the preseason makes it impossible. All told, this uncertainty makes it very undesirable to get financially involved with preseason NFL games.

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 invariably 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.

On the other hand, consider the 'lesser' team in a preseason matchup. They often have a number of key starting positions they need to fill, along with backup positions up for grabs. They may have new coaching staffs that players want to impress, new offensive or defensive schemes to implement. Most significantly, 'lesser' teams often view the preseason as an opportunity to build team chemistry or create a winning attitude. A team trying to rebuild can benefit from winning *any* games, regardless of whether or not they count in the standings. For a league doormat, a win over an elite level opponent can serve as a rare highlight of a losing season.

Even teams that put a low priority on preseason games don't want to lose them all. For this reason, a longterm winning situation has been to bet on teams that lose their first two preseason games outright. Over the past twenty years, 0-2 teams in this spot have produced a winning percentage right around 60%.

There may be no greater determining factor of a team's preseason success than the philosophy of their head coach. Some coaches just don't like to lose *any* game, and usually these hyper-competitive teams are good preseason bets. Bill Parcells, for example, was legendary for his serious approach to preseason games. The coaches that he mentored like the NY Giants' Tom Coughlin have to some extent carried on this legacy. While the "good" preseason coaches are often reflected in the pointspreads assigned to their team, a motivated team is almost always worth a look.

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.

In conclusion, there are certainly strong opportunities for profit in NFL preseason wagering but its essential to understand that it cannot be approached in the same manner as the regular season. And, as always, its important to remember that there will be more strong opportunities down the road and that discipline and rigor in handicapping is just as crucial in the preseason NFL as it is at any other time of the year.

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