Week 1 of the 2016 NFL Preseason is in the books, with underdog bettors showing a modest profit through the weekend’s action. Non-bettors always seem shocked when I talk about betting (and beating) the preseason. How can you bet on exhibition games? I don’t even know the guys on the field in the second half. Boy, you really must be a degenerate gambler if you’re betting on NFL Preseason.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. A sharp bettor’s mantra is fairly simple and nearly universal: Bet when you have an edge. Pass when you don’t. That holds for regular season NFL and it holds for preseason NFL as well. And there are no shortage of edges to find when it comes to betting August football.
In this two part column, I’ll illustrate the strategies that wiseguys use to attack preseason football. In Part 1 (below), I’ll outline the basic market forces that create preseason pointspreads and show Preseason Handicapping 101 methods to beat those pointspreads. In Part 2 next week, I’ll take a Deep Dive into some Advanced Betting Strategies for beating the NFL markets in August.
The single most basic premise for beating preseason football is this: ‘Don’t confuse a team’s regular season capabilities with their preseason goals.’ Many of the elite teams – the Super Bowl contenders – aren’t looking to do anything in August except for staying healthy, with the notable exception of their preseason Week 3 regular season walkthrough when the starters often play into the third quarter.
Yes, the Green Bay Packers notched a win and cover in Week 1 of the preseason, thanks to two fourth quarter safeties from Browns third string QB Cody Kessler. But Aaron Rodgers didn’t play. Backup QB Brett Hundley didn’t play. Dom Capers didn’t design a confusing defensive gameplan filled with zone blitzes on every other play. The Packers didn’t’ care about winning one iota, only getting the rust out and getting some work for guys fighting for one of the final roster spots. Teams like the Packers might be elite when September rolls around, but they are anything but elite in August.
That stands in sharp contrast with, say, a team like the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins have a new head coach and two new coordinators. They are coming off a very disappointing campaign. Numerous roster spots and starting jobs are up for grabs. Miami isn’t likely to be a particularly good team when September rolls around, but they have more to prove and more to learn in August than the average NFL squad.
Preseason NFL handicapping 101 puts considerable focus on the quarterback rotations for each team. There are a number of bet-on QB rotation situations. The markets like veteran QB’s going up against third string defenders; the Dan Orlovskys of the world (164 passing yards and a TD for the Lions in Week 1). The markets dislike inexperienced rookies or second year players getting their first real work against NFL defenses – the Joel Staves (Vikings QB after halftime in Week 1) or Jameill Showers (Cowboys QB after halftime) of the world.
In addition, there’s an enormous difference between the statue type drop-back passing QBs and the more mobile QBs in the second half of these games. Many of these preseason contests aren’t pretty to watch offensively in the latter stages. The third string linemen aren’t a cohesive unit; the third string receivers don’t know the routes well and aren’t loaded with playmakers. A mobile QB in the second half of these preseason games is worth far more than a big armed downfield passer.
Last, but not least, the markets love QB battles. A battle for the starting job attracts market attention, like we saw for the Denver Broncos in Week 1, with Trevor Siemian and Mark Sanchez battling for the right to defend Denver’s title. Both QB’s have something to play for and the coaching staff has a vested interest in calling passing plays to see what the QB’s can do, (as opposed to running the ball up the gut repeatedly, like many coaches do in the latter stages of these exhibitions).
A battle for the backup job is even better than a starting QB battle, because the backup QBs are likely to be facing backup defenders! Again, both QB’s in a backup battle have something to prove and the coaching staff is likely to take some downfield shots with their play calls. When you’ve got a backup QB battle brewing, you’re also likely to see competitive QB’s in the game for longer stretches.
Coaching track records are key when it comes to Preseason Handicapping 101. Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer is now 9-1 ATS in his ten preseason contests since taking the Vikings head coaching job; a bet-on coach in every sense of the word in August. The Cowboys Jason Garrett, on the other hand, is riding a 2-11 SU, 3-10 ATS run into Week 2 of the preseason this year. Two of their three ATS covers during that span came by a point or less. Garrett doesn’t give a hoot about winning in August, plain and simple.
But beware of veteran coaches that change their stripes. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin used to care about winning games in August and establishing a tone of success for the regular season. In recent years, without publicly stating anything, Tomlin’s supporters have been crushed. After a home loss to Detroit this past weekend, the Steelers are now riding a 2-12 ATS mark in their last 14 preseason contests.
Last, but not least, the NFL betting markets in August react strongly to one thing and one thing only – facts, not opinions. In the regular season, I’ll bet on games where we feel the betting markets are giving one team too much credit or another team not enough credit. These are my opinions; opinions that are strong enough to risk my hard earned dollars to support.
But in the preseason, I’m betting on information and information only. That makes many games a very easy pass – when there’s no strong info, there’s no wager to be made. That being said, in many cases, the coaches themselves are nice enough to tell me exactly what they intend to do. A coach who wants to “evaluate his depth” in any particular ballgame is generally not a coach that I want to wager on.