Saints psyche enticing NFL preseason opener

Aug 2, 2012 6:45 AM

It’s back!

The great American obsession known as the NFL has returned and after six months of controversy and commentary the first of 65 preseason games will be played this Sunday in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

The Hall of Fame was the only game missed last season when labor peace was reached in late July. But with a 10 year contract in place this has been a relatively normal off season, save for the New Orleans Saints and "bounty gate."

We had the draft, mini camps and other OTAs that have led to the opening of the 32 NFL training camps over the past week or so.

Players are prepared to start in better shape than last season. Those teams that were hurt by the inability to work new players, coaches and schemes into their operations due to the last of an off season last year have no such excuses for 2012.

Next week’s GT column will take a look at the first full week of preseason play that begins on Thursday, Aug. 9 and runs through Monday, Aug 13.

But this week some general thoughts about preseason football and the game that kicks it all off Sunday between, ironically, the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals.

Betting on preseason football has increased greatly in recent seasons. The NFL continues to receive year round coverage and an incredible amount of information is disseminated on a regular basis. There are hundreds if not thousands of internet websites and blogs devoted exclusively to the NFL.

ESPN has year round shows and segments dedicated to the NFL. And, of course, the NFL itself has its own cable TV network. All of which feeds the appetite of the public for more NFL.

Years ago the NFL began referring to these August games as "preseason" as opposed to the former terminology that was used which referred to them as exhibition." But these games are exactly that -- exhibition games.

Often they are barely exhibition games and more like glorified workouts or scrimmages. But NFL owners have found that marketing these games as "preseason" is an easier sell to season ticket holders, many of whom object to being forced to buy the tickets regardless of how the games are labeled.

Preseason games are handicapped unlike the regular season. Power Ratings, recent matchups and other "traditional" handicapping tools are irrelevant.

Coaches are more forthright about discussing their intentions or goals in preseason than in games that count. To the extent you have the time to scour the internet for reports from training camps and can follow the local beat writers, it’s possible to glean some information that might provide an edge.

Winning games is often more a byproduct of play execution rather than design. While coaches always like to "win" that is rarely the primary objective of coaches in preseason. Coaches are more interested in evaluating personnel, making decisions, implementing new players and plays in offensive, defensive and special teams’ schemes.

Betting on coaches in their first season or two at the helm of a new team often makes for winning wagers.

Often these coaches will be making critical decisions about players and playing time. Players may be more motivated to go all out, both in practices and games, with their jobs more on the line than in more relaxed camps or where coaches have been in place for several seasons and positions’ pecking order is more established.

Similarly, teams that have position battles -- most usually at quarterback -- often provide edges in determining game outcomes. Although starters usually see very limited playing time, especially in the first couple of preseason games, teams with quality backups and depth have inherent edges over ones with less depth or experience.

If winning these games was important, don’t you think the starters would be playing the fourth quarter rather than the first few series?

The fact is that many of the games are decided in the final quarter and by players who may not even make the opening day rosters. Play can often be sloppy and produce random results.

The ‘intangibles" become a very significant aspect of handicapping games in the preseason, including the factors cited above.

As an example, in the upcoming Hall of Fame game. New Orleans has opened as a 3 point favorite over Arizona with the Over/Under at 35.

QB Drew Brees should see very little action for the Saints before giving way, perhaps after just a series or two, to a battle for his backup. And that battle for Brees’ backup is vital to the Saints’ success this season given the value of Brees and the impact if he should go down with an injury.

Arizona has a QB battle for the starting position with John Skelton and Kevin Kolb the combatants. Neither was outstanding in 2011 although Skelton was the QB for much of the success the Cardinals had in going 7-2 following their 1-6 start.

The Saints may well have a chip on its collective shoulder following the harsh and unprecedented player and coach suspensions handed out as a result of their defensive bounty hunters.

New Orleans might want to use this national stage -- when they are playing the only game of the week -- to send a message to the NFL and the nation that they are prepared and motivated to overcome the obstacles placed in their path.

Often these early games are low scoring, which makes sense from a fundamental standpoint. Teams will have been in training camps for a very short time, often barely more than a week to 10 days.

Scoring generally requires plays to be executed on offense. It takes a while for quarterbacks and receivers to develop their timing just as it takes time for offensive linemen to hone their blocking schemes.

Defenses are generally ahead of offenses early in the preseason as they are more concerned with merely reacting rather than scheming as they do once the regular season starts.

Canton is a neutral site yet the Saints have been made FG favorites. Normally a play on the underdog in what is essentially a pick’ em situation would be the preferred way to go. But the unique situation surrounding the Saints is enough to suggest we might see a better than expected effort.

Thus if you were to bet on the "fundamentals" you would back Arizona plus the FG based on the starting QB battle between Skelton and Kolb. If you prefer to play the "unknown intangibles" you might lay the points with the Saints.

Over the balance of the week we may learn more about the Saints’ approach to this game and their comments should be more meaningful.

If those comments suggest that this game is no big deal for the Saints and they are just looking at this game as a glorified workout then Arizona becomes more attractive.

On the other hand if comments from the Saints’ camp indicate that this game is a chance to show that this is a unified team despite the sanctions then New Orleans is worthy of consideration, especially if the line drops below 3.

Above all, remember that these preseason games don’t count nor do they serve as much of a barometer as to what will occur once the regular season begins.

After all, you can probably name the winners of the last 10 Super Bowls. But how many of you can name the teams with the best preseason records in 2010 and 2011?

See what I mean?