Calling audibles for judging pro football preseason lines

Aug 14, 2012 3:10 AM

I write a “How to beat the NFL preseason article” just about every year. But this is no cut and paste from previous editions, because my strategies for betting (and beating) preseason football have been altered over the years, in some ways quite dramatically. 

The betting markets are not static entities – they’re changing and shifting, year by year. Betting strategies that gain attention because they work become the status quo, and the bookmakers adjust appropriately. 

Part of the change is the point spread itself. What was once a +7 becomes a +5; instead of laying -2½, the books adjust and force you to lay -4½. As a natural consequence, the overall winning percentage of relatively popular and successful strategies drops as time progressed.

At the same time, the game itself changes from season to season, decade to decade. Coaching game plans change over time, as do locker room mentalities and the overall capabilities of the athletes that we’re betting on. Frankly, there’s an inordinate amount of outdated information circulating around the betting world; info that should be retired. 

My goal this week is to debunk some of those aging myths while focusing on strategies that work here in 2012. I’ll delve deeply into the games from this past weekend to illustrate my points.

SparaNO!

Last Wednesday, New York Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano told reporters about his offensive game plan for Friday’s game against Cincinnati. “It’s going to be vanilla. We didn’t plan at all here.” 

Sparano is in the midst of installing a brand new offense in New York. It’s a process, not a done deal. Throw in a vanilla game plan and voila – you gets the Jets anemic output at Cincy. New York managed just two field goals for the entire game and just 57 net passing yards. 

Anyone who bet the Bengals and/or UNDER was in a “no sweat” situation for most of the ballgame, as the Jets only trip to the red zone ended with a Tim Tebow interception. They did exactly what their offensive coordinator said they would do.

I used to be very concerned with finding and interpreting a head coach’s comments prior to preseason games. In the modern era of largely innocuous coach-speak, I’m definitely more interested in what the coordinators are saying. That goes doubly when we’re talking about first year coordinators installing new systems, like Sparano in New York.

Neither coordinators nor head coaches are likely to give away tidbits like that in the regular season. But in the preseason, sometimes they’ll tell you exactly what they’re going to do, allowing you to cash some relatively easy winning bets.

BLITZkrieg!

Most coaches don’t like to see their star veteran quarterback take big hits in the preseason. I don’t blame them! That simple fact gives teams with aggressive, blitzing defensive schemes a legitimate edge in August.

Look no further than the New Orleans Saints. They played in the Hall of Fame Game against Arizona and did what they do – blitzed like crazy throughout. ‘Zona’s starting quarterback Kevin Kolb was under constant pressure every time he dropped back to pass. He lasted three series, than was pulled because of bruised ribs. 

Cardinals backup John Skelton threw nothing but dinks and dunks; his longest completion going for just 11 yards. Arizona put together only one TD drive for the game, finishing with 10 points. A Saints and UNDER parlay were the right sides here.

In Week 1, the Saints were matched up against the mighty Tom Brady, the veteran backup Brian Hoyer and the impressive youngster Ryan Mallet; a pretty good QB rotation. You can already guess what happened. 

Brady took several big hits from blitzing New Orleans defenders and left the game without producing any points on his drives. Hoyer did nothing but dink and dunk against the blitz, throwing 15 passes for a net of 45 yards. The inexperienced Mallet made mistakes against the pressure, throwing an interception. And the Pats scored a grand total of 7. Again, a Saints/UNDER parlay produced a relatively easy cash.

Teams that blitz early and often tend to have preseason success shutting down opposing offenses. Once again, finding out the coordinator’s game plan can pay real dividends.

Value of ‘3’

NFL bettors are conditioned to think about the point spread number of + or -3 as being the single most important or key number in football betting. That certainly holds true for the regular season, when nearly one out of every seven games finishes with a final margin of 3.

But in August, coaches don’t play for overtime. We saw two prime examples of that this past weekend. Jacksonville rallied from 17 down against the Giants, scoring their final TD with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. 

Instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game – making it quite likely that one of the two teams would win by a field goal – Jacksonville head coach Mike Mularkey went for the two point conversion and the win. The Jags made that conversion and won by 1, a great result for line shoppers and lousy for the house.

On the very same night, the Lions were a -3 home favorite against the Browns. Cleveland, like Jacksonville, rallied from a double digit deficit in the second half. With just over six minutes left in the fourth quarter – plenty of time – Browns head coach Pat Shurmur made the same decision that Mularkey had made. Instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game, the Browns went for the 2, which failed. 

Bettors who were hoping for a push with their Lions -3 tickets were not happy campers. Cleveland ended up kicking a game winning field goal in the closing seconds to win by 2, otherwise the Lions would have won by 1. This is not unusual in the slightest.

Bottom line

The lesson here is perfectly clear. The value of point spreads like 1, 1½, and 2 increase in August, while the value of the almighty -3 declines rather precipitously. 

Four games were decided by a single point last weekend, and that Browns-Lions game was decided by 2. We didn’t see a single one of the first 16 preseason games in 2012 finish with a 3-point final margin. It was a similar story last year, without a single three point decision in the first two weeks of preseason action.