Handicapping just got a bit trickier

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, virtually every aspect of life remains in a state of flux and is fluid from day to day.

The NFL continues to monitor the situation and still plans on starting the regular season on time. The league will have the ability to observe how the resumption of the NBA and NHL and the start of the MLB season unfold as far assessing the need to make any modifications for the 2020 season.

But that does not mean things will proceed as usual leading up to the start of the regular season. As July began, the NFL suggested the preseason would be cut from four to two weeks after having already canceled the annual Hall of Fame game. Two days later, the NFL Players Association announced they would prefer no preseason games at all and presented a schedule of a 45-day training camp that would lead up to the start of the regular season.

Regardless of how the preseason is ultimately resolved, the run up to the start of the regular season will be dramatically different from what has been the normal for more than four decades. In 1978 the NFL decreased from six to four the number of preseason games when it expanded the regular season from 14 to 16 games.

Over the past few decades, most teams gave their starters limited playing time in the first two preseason games, using the third game as their “dress rehearsal.” In that game starters would generally play the entire first half and often the first series of the third quarter. Starters would then sit out the final preseason contest to heal and rest up for the start of the regular season the following week.

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It will be interesting as to how the 32 coaches will approach preseason games and how this unique preseason may impact handicapping and betting in the first few weeks of the regular season.

Coaches may take different preseason approaches, especially regarding rookies who are expected to see significant playing time during the season. Top draft choice QB Joe Burrow is expected to start for Cincinnati after longtime starter Andy Dalton was released following the draft.

Veteran coaches such as New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh may play starters on a limited basis in both preseason games, perhaps just a quarter in each. Remember that part of the preseason game process is to evaluate and trim the roster to have the best 53 players possible when the regular season starts. With limited preseason games, the need for more playing time for backups is crucial.

It will also be interesting to learn how New England’s Bill Belichick approaches the preseason with newly signed QB Cam Newton. The veteran is expected to start ahead of second-year pro Jarrett Stidham. For most of the offseason the lightly-tested Stidham was considered the successor to Tom Brady, who left and signed with Tampa Bay.

All of this begs the question of how to approach the early part of the regular season as teams will be preparing far differently than in the past.

An oft-heard axiom is early in the season that defenses have the edge over offenses. This would seem to make sense since the job of the offense is to execute and that of the defense is to prevent execution. One way in which the defense “prevents” execution occurs when the offense fails to execute on its own with little to no contribution by the defense. This can result for many reasons but one of the major reasons is the lack of timing at full game speed. That often takes time to develop once the speed of the game ramps up from the preseason to the regular season.

Thus a question to be asked is whether it might be advantageous to play Unders rather than Overs in Week 1? Unfortunately the answer can be both “yes” and “no.”

Going back a dozen seasons, to 2008, Week 1 has produced a total of 96 Overs, 93 Unders and 2 Pushes (there were only 15 games in 2017’s Week 1 when the Tampa Bay-Miami game was postponed until mid-season due to a hurricane). Thus the overall Totals results indicate basically there is little difference for Totals in the season’s opening week. In fact, in nine of the 12 seasons the Week 1 Totals were between 9-7 and 7-9.

However when you compare the average scoring in Week 1 vs. the average of Weeks 2 through 17, the average total points scored in Week 1 is a half-point less than the average for the combined other 16 weeks. Over a dozen years, that’s a sample size of over 3,000 games.

There is another reason to consider the possibility for more lower scoring games early in the season. This has to do with the absence of any offseason OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mini-camps. Even the ability for players to work out on their own during the offseason has been curtailed since mid-March.

This could result in sloppy early-season play which often translates into an increase in both turnovers and penalties, again related to developing timing.

The effect of the likely absence of fans is harder to gauge. Even if a small percentage of capacity (say 20% to 30%) is present, the feel and sounds of the game for the players will be markedly different.

There has been some talk of piping in crowd noise to lessen the sense of unfamiliarity. It will also be interesting as to whether there will be a public address announcer to recite the results of each play as we are accustomed to hearing.

The approach I shall take into the regular season is that veteran coaches will have their teams better prepared overall to start the season and more concerned about first- and second-year coaches who lack that experience.

For the first two or three weeks, I’ll look to back Baltimore’s Harbaugh, Houston’s Bill O’Brien, Kansas City’s Andy Reid, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, New England’s Belichick, New Orleans’ Payton, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Seattle’s Pete Carroll. Conversely I would look to fade Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury, Carolina’s Matt Rhule, Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor, Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski, Denver’s Vic Fangio. Green Bay’s Matt LeFleur, Miami’s Brian Flores and the Giants’ Joe Judge,

I won’t go against Dallas and Mike McCarthy since McCarthy is not a true first-year coach following a lengthy and successful career in Green Bay. If anything, I’ll consider the Cowboys an early-season “play on” team. The same can be said for Washington’s Ron Rivera who enjoyed a mostly successful run in nine seasons at Carolina.

In games involving two of the above listed “inexperienced” coaches I’ll look first to getting more than three points with the underdog. I’ll also look to back favorites in the “experienced” group if facing a team from the “inexperienced” group, especially if laying under six points. Right now that would have me interested in Minnesota -3 at home to Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

It’s early and things can change. But right now, this is how I plan to approach the first few weeks of the 2020 NFL season.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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