NFL Preseason – great time to make Money? Each and every year about this time, the proverbial preseason question comes in through the Help Desk. It is the same question discussed in chat rooms, all over the internet and written about extensively by industry experts. The question being; is the NFL Pre-Season a viable place to make money? There are varying opinions on this topic and depending on where you look, the answers may be anecdotal. That is, there is not a consensus answer. Many feel the NFL Preseason is the easiest time to make money; while others insist there are too many variables involved. As far as we are concerned, there is without a doubt opportunity in Exhibition Football. The notion of there being too many variables is simply a farce in our assessment, as we have not ever watched a football game—preseason or not—where these very same uncontrollable variables were not at work.
There is actually a very strong argument to be made that Preseason NFL offers the pointspread gambler an even better shot of beating the number than the regular season. If one is aware of all the dynamics in play, that is. In what other sport can you know beforehand whether or not a team is out to win the game or if a team is merely out to practice up for the regular season? The trick to beating the preseason is to throw out any and all regular season handicapping strategies you know and love. Replace these regular season methods with other time tested and extremely worthwhile preseason handicapping tactics.
In one sentence or less; the NFL Pre Season is not the same as the regular season and the variables to consider are completely dissimilar. Let’s take a brief look at the differences.
One of our primary concerns during the preseason is the competence of each team’s second, third, and even fourth string players. It is these players that are going to win or lose your bet, as they are the ones playing late in the game when most pointspread decisions are made. Especially important to consider are the quarterbacks.
During the regular season, we could care less if Koy Detmer and Jeff Blake are the Eagles second and third string QB’s. Donovan McNabb, not Detmer or Blake will be the major influence on the game’s outcome. Not so in Pre Season! Your fate will in all likelihood be in the hands of a team’s second, third and even fourth string QB. While everyone and their brother knows how good McNabb is; the fact Philadelphia has two solid and experienced back-ups is far more important than the McNabb factor.
For the record, Jeff Blake has twelve years of NFL experience, has thrown 132 TD’s in his career and has proven good enough to be a starter for many teams during his NFL tenure. Koy Detmer has not only been in the NFL for eight seasons himself, but he has been with Andy Reid for the past five years and on the Eagles for all eight years. Detmer has stepped in as a starter and performed well several times in the absence of McNabb. A Monday Night Game back in 2002 comes to mind, when Detmer completed 18 of 26 passes (69%) for 227 yards with 2 TD’s and 0 INT’s in a 38-17 drubbing of the 49ers in San Francisco.
In the case of Philadelphia, Blake and Detmer are much better equipped to lead the Eagles’ down the stretch in a preseason game than some rookie 4th round draft choice. And speaking of rookies—and San Francisco for that matter—the 49ers QB rotation consists of Pickett , Dorsey, Doman and Ratay. All four of these guys are potentially talented, but Dorsey, Doman and Pickett have combined to take exactly zero snaps in a regular season NFL game. Pickett (out of Washington) is a rookie, while Dorsey (out of Miami) and Doman (out of BYU) are second year guys. Our notion is that this youthful trio for the 49ers may prove much less effective than other more experienced rotations. The point is; make sure you know who will be playing, where they came from, and what their probability of success is.
Another important factor is a coach’s tendencies. Certain coaches could give a rat’s ass about winning preseason games. They treat the exhibition season just like they do a practice. It is a time to evaluate players and work on getting better. Other coaches like to win no matter what the situation. Sometimes a coach will put forth a more specific effort to win at home to get in good with the fans, while treating the road games less serious. Make sure to study the past preseason records of each coach. Here are a few to take note of heading into the 2004 exhibition season.
Detroit’s Steve Mariucci has notoriously been lax during the preseason. During his time in San Francisco, Mariucci was 11-17 both SU & ATS in exhibition games. Last season in Detroit, he led the Lions to a 2-2 record both SU and ATS. Interestingly enough, both preseason wins SU and ATS came at home and both losses came on the road. Was Mariucci trying to ingratiate himself with the Detroit fans in his first year at the helm?
The ultra competitive Mike Shanahan has led Denver to a wallet stuffing 13-3 SU and 12-3-1 ATS record the past four pre-seasons. It does not seem to matter whether it is a home game or a road game to Shanahan; he simply wants to win. During this same four year span, the Broncos are 6-2 SU and 5-2-1 ATS as a host, as well as 7-1 both SU and ATS when on the road! Bill Belichick took over in New England back in 2000 and has led the Pats to a 13-4 SU and 12-4-1 ATS mark in seventeen preseason games with them.
Then there is Dom Capers, who has led Houston to a back breaking 1-8 SU and 2-7 ATS record in the Texans’ nine exhibition games in franchise history. Mike Holmgren is an interesting preseason coach to say the least. Since arriving in Seattle back in 1999, he has led the Seahawks to a 7-3 SU and 5-5 ATS record when at home. However, the Seabirds are a horrifying 1-9 SU and 1-8-1 ATS when on the road during this same span. You think Holmgren doesn’t understand the importance of winning the confidence of the home crowd?
One must also consider a team’s motivation. Usually when a club performed well the previous year, they have much less to prove than a team that was 2-14. The players and coach that endured the awful season may try real hard to break the losing pattern by starting the next year off with some wins. For this reason, teams off a bad campaign can often times be a good bet the following year in the preseason. The Arizona Cardinals endured a 5-11 SU and 6-10 ATS record in 2002, yet came out firing on all cylinders posting a perfect 4-0 SU and ATS record in 2003’s preseason. McGinnis obviously wanted to set a winning tone for his team, which worked just fine until the regular season started.
We also prefer to bet younger teams. Younger players seem to play harder in the preseason than do veterans. The veterans have already established their ability and are much more concerned with risking injury. The young guys are often fighting to make a name or a spot on the roster and tend to play with a higher level of intensity. The veteran Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams combined to go 2-6 both SU and ATS in the 2003 exhibition season, while the young and hungry Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers combined to go 8-0 both SU and ATS in 2003’s preseason.
We also look to play teams that have a quarterback or running back controversy. Not only does this type of situation bring out the best in key position players, but often times a coach will give these players more time on the field. Take for example Cincinnati and the New York Giants this year. 2002 Heisman Trophy Winner Carson Palmer and John Kitna (who surprisingly had a great season last year) will be fighting it out in Cincy for the top spot. In New York, former Ole Miss Star Eli Manning will do battle with former NFL and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner.
Look for each of these players to give just a bit extra this Pre Season to prove themselves worthy of being named starter. Also, expect both Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati and Tom Coughlin in New York to give the players ample time to prove themselves on the field. This translates into less time for the proverbial third and fourth stringers to mess up a bet late in the game for you.
Some of the more complex variables involve your perception of a team. Do you remember opposite day in grade school? Well, get yourself in that mindset. Preseason is almost always the opposite of what you would expect. If a team notoriously has an excellent running game, then expect that team to be throwing the ball. And vice versa. Coaches use the preseason to work on their weaknesses, not their strengths.
We could go on all day about the various handicapping aspects we deem important during the preseason. We’ve shared a few examples above to illustrate two overriding beliefs we hold about the NFL Preseason in general. First; there are indeed ways to handicap it and more importantly ways to beat it. Second, handicapping the exhibitions is an entirely different animal than handicapping a regular season NFL game. And not differentiating the two is a surefire path to the poorhouse. Those that adjust their methods correctly, usually end up with extra ammunition heading into week one of the regular season.
by William Foot sports handicapper
by William Foote. William originally published this article in 1999, and revises it each season with new data and insight.