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by Scott Spreitzer - 08/01/2008
The process of handicapping preseason NFL footall is not quite as simple as it used to be. Just a few short seasons ago, you'd get almost all you needed from reading a coach's plan in the local newspaper. But if you've been watching most of the games over the past couple of seasons, you've seen the following:
*The top priority for all teams is to avoid injuries! Star players aren't on the field nearly as often as they used to be, and the plays that are run have a low risk for serious contact.
*The second top priority is to get the timing down between quarterbacks and receivers. They do this all the time in practice anyway. The coaches want to see that it's working at game speed as well. Once they see that, the passing game basically disappears. Teams don't want their receivers or quarterbacks exposed to big hits.
*The third priority is running the clock. This fits with avoiding injuries. The fewer number of plays, the fewer chances for injury. But even with the backups now, you see offenses focused on moving the chains and running the clock rather than storming their way into the end zone. In a sense, ball control offense has become a style of defense, and teams are practicing their defense.
Folks, this isn't even football as we know it any more! It's as if there's a gentleman's agreement NOT to play football in the exhibition season. The players agree to it because they don't want to get hurt. Coaches agree to it because they're conservative to begin with. I don't think the average fan has truly noticed it yet. They're just so excited to watch games again that they don't realize what's really going on.
Well, I noticed what's going on! And it greatly affected my handicapping approach.
*I focus on Unders in the first week of the season, including the HOF game because the games have gotten so low scoring. There are certain coaches that are just automatic Unders early in the preseason unless there are defensive touchdowns or the refs keep handing away free pass interference penalties. These coaches are particularly strong on Unders in the second halves of games because they just want to get things over with and go home. If you can play halftime lines, look to take advantage this year. In general, there have been 21 Unders and just 10 Overs over the last two preseasons during HOF/Week-One action. Overs tend to catch up over the following couple of weeks.
*I focus on the handful of coaches who have established that scoreboard results still matter to them. These guys will usually cover three of their four games. A 2-2 ATS record is a worst-case scenario. So, backing them means you're risking the vigorish in a split record to make some good money. You have to look at the month as a four-game hunk with these teams. Don't try to cherry-pick the wins. Let the tendency play out however it's going to play out, and count up the profit at the end of the month.
*I focus on the quality of the third-team quarterback. Winners in August typically come down to this level of quarterback. In the past, it was the #2 guy that you focused on. The starters would get their timing down, then the backups would come in and determine who won the game. Now, the starters get their timing down, the #2 guy works on running the clock, and it's up to the #3 guy to win the game. I can tell you some local bettors took a bath last year when #2 guys that they loved to bet on were kept on a tight leash by their coaches. If you can find a handful of #3 guys who like to go for the glory, they'll take you to the winner's circle.
*I allow myself the luxury of passing many of the games. This is the toughest thing for the general public to do, but the easiest thing for professional wagerers to do. In past years, there were really a lot of edges to exploit in preseason games. It wouldn't be surprising for me to have more team side action in a preseason weekend than a regular season weekend in the NFL. Lately, it's been about finding the few games each weekend where either a head coach or a third string quarterback is going to sway the equation my way.
As a handicapper, my percentage hasn't changed at all. You take what they give you. If this preseason mirrors the last few, you're going to make money looking for Unders early on, particularly if you can play halftime lines in front of dead second halves.
It won't be fun to watch unless you're a timekeeper with a plane to catch. But preseason football will always be profitable for handicappers who can stay at least one step ahead of the oddsmakers!