Handicapping the NFL preseason
The Wunderdog (www.freeunderdog.com)
Can money be made on NFL preseason picks? Absolutely. Can handicappers approach the preseason the same way they do in the regular season? Of course not. Should you bet the NFL preseason? That’s up to you. I like to take a cautious approach in the preseason because honestly, I am less confident about the available handicapping information. There is much less info to work with. For example, power ratings don’t mean a thing. Past season performance doesn’t mean much. And, there are few if any past games to look at that provide any true predictive value.
That being said, there are some indicators of ATS (against the spread) results in the preseason. In fact, the same issues that make these games more difficult to handicap make them more difficult for lines-makers to peg. Remember, it doesn’t take much of an edge – if we can beat 52.4% with our picks, we make money!
In 2002, I went 4-1-1 ATS and in 2003, I went 9-6 in the preseason by analyzing the following:
Do they take the preseason seriously or use it for its intended purpose (to test out players and new schemes)? For example, look at Bill Parcells who is back in the mix with the Cowboys. His focus on making every play count, whether in a real game or practice, and his disciplined approach has resulted in his team covering the spread in roughly two thirds of the preseason games he has coached. The retired Marv Levy of Buffalo was just the opposite and was a great “go-against” preseason coach.
Be careful, however, about blindly betting “good” coach vs. “poor” coach. Over the past five years, “good” coaches (50%+ preseason ATS record) were 51% ATS while “poor” coaches (<50% preseason ATS) were 44% ATS. There is a difference, but it isn’t huge. Further analysis is required to uncover more predictive trends. For example, put that “poor” coach in a favorite position and he’ll cover only about a third of the time. Find another trend or two to combine with that and we have a very good bet.
Finally, “new” NFL coaches have more to prove and more to play for than experienced vets who are secure in their jobs. In the 2003 preseason, the 5 head coaches who were new to their team (Bill Parcells, Marvin Lewis, Steve Mariucci, Jack Del Rio, Dennis Erickson) went 12-8 (60%) against-the-spread. In 2002, the four “new” coaches went 11-5 (69%) ATS.
Backups play more than starters and some teams’ backups are better than other teams’ starters. Look for situations in which starters will be playing against backups. Teams with veteran starters who are not fighting for their job will tend to play these starters very little in the preseason. Look for teams with a couple of good players fighting for the same job. These players will get extra playing time as coaches try to determine the starter. Also look for teams with great backups, especially at quarterback. Some teams’ second or third-string quarterbacks could start for other teams. When they get to play against their opponent’s second or third-stringers, they’ll rack up the yards – and the points.
Coaches often announce their intentions for upcoming games. Sometimes they are looking to give a specific player a lot of playing time and other times they are just looking to get out of there as quickly as possible without any injuries. Sometimes after several weak preseason performances, coaches challenge their teams to show something before the regular season starts and meaningless game becomes meaningful.
Preseason Historical Systems and Trends
It is true that some simple older popular trends (bet on a team in its second preseason game if its opponent is playing its first) are no longer predictive (this one is <50% over the past five years). However, there remain very good predictive trends/systems for the preseason. For example, dogs of over 7 points do very well, especially when facing a team off a win.
Keep these items in mind when handicapping the NFL preseason. I utilize a system that takes these variables into account on my preseason picks.
The Wunderdog has been handicapping NFL games for over 15 years and specializes in picking underdogs (with the occasional underrated favorite). He publishes a free weekly newsletter, available on his website, with an underdog pick each week of the NFL season.