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NFL Preseason is for study

Aug 5, 2008 7:06 PM

By GT Staff | Although there’s money to be made, players should proceed cautiously when betting on preseason football.

Keep in mind that preseason or "exhibition" games are subject to massive personnel changes and questionable game plans, both of which could make the outcome – sides and totals – highly volatile.

For those who simply can’t wait for the regular season, here are a few guidelines that can help you handicap during the preseason.

Handicapping the coach

First, start with the coach. Does the coach actually care about winning or is he strictly concerned with evaluating talent, fine tuning his playbook or preparing players for the regular season?

Years ago, a perfect example of the latter was Marv Levy of the Buffalo Bills. Levy was famous for "saving" his regular players during the preseason, and thus compiled one of the worst won/loss records ever during the preseason.

Today, Coach Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts operates with a similar mindset. Dungy is another "player’s coach" who doesn’t believe in leaving everything on the practice field.

Consequently, Dungy has been a good go-against in preseason games. Over the past three seasons, Dungy has gone 2-11 in the exhibition season.

This year, the Colts started with another loss, with their loss against the Redskins last Sunday night!

Incidentally, this point – extreme line moves – can be lethal in the preseason. If a number has already moved two or three points, most likely all of your value has been lost.

Back to NFL coaches – others who have compiled losing records in the preseason include Herm Edwards (Kansas City), Mike Nolan (San Francisco) and Dick Jauron (Buffalo).

Coaches who appear to focus on winning in the preseason include Mike Shanahan (Broncos), Romeo Crennel (Cleveland), and Jack Del Rio (Jacksonville).

All of these coaches have a 60 percent or higher winning percentage (straight up) in preseason games.

Rookie coaches

As we saw last Sunday, Jim Zorn of the Washington Redskins had a nice start with his win over the Colts. Many bettors anticipated the trend when they pushed the spread up to nearly 7 from an opening of 5½ points.

It doesn’t always work, but looking at rookie coaches who want to make a splash in their opener is a good starting point (but only a starting point) when handicapping preseason games.

There are a couple of other rookie coaches this year: Mike Smith (Atlanta Falcons) and Tony Sparano (Miami Dolphins).

Preseason trends

Blindly playing trends can be dangerous, especially in the preseason, but they can be helpful in identifying where to begin handicapping a match-up.

One of the best preseason plays over the past several years has been betting a team with two wins playing against a team with only one win. But the team with two wins has to be a home underdog or road favorite. The play is mediocre as a home favorite (50% at best), mostly because the line will be inflated. Otherwise, this play has cashed at more than a 60 percent clip.

Here’s the reasoning behind the numbers: The team with two wins has already shown that winning is important. It’s likely that the team will want to continue the roll.

The team with one win has already acquired the single win, which takes the pressure off of winning a second game. Plus, because they have only one win, stringing together victories has not been a priority.

This play is especially strong the third game of the preseason. This game, which precedes the final and sometimes "meaningless" preseason game, is often the "money" game in which the coach extends the playing time of his regulars and runs a solid game plan, though you can never expect him to fully open the playbook.

There are other match-ups that have fared well, such as playing a winless home underdog when playing another winless team. But those kind of angles can be subject to a variety of circumstances too difficult to handicap in preseason.