Without looking at a calendar you can tell every year when the endless NFL national obsession is short of real news, because some sort of debate always breaks out. Right now the NFL Draft is in the rear view mirror, most of the free agents have found new homes, coaching changes have been made, and training camps are still a ways off. There’s just not a lot going on.
To fill that gap this year (because we could never have a time when we aren’t talking about the NFL), the most popular debate is not a new one - whether the season should be expanded to 18 games from 16. Most people - myself included - view the move as inevitable because it means more money for teams, and teams love money. Ignoring the business aspect for a second, though, would the move be good or bad for bettors? Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons from a betting perspective:
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Fewer preseason games - This alone is almost reason enough for me to support the change. There is absolutely nothing I hate more than preseason NFL football. It’s totally pointless, and totally useless from a betting perspective. Starters play about a game and a half, and the first and fourth games are totally farcical - unless you like watching guys play who don’t know the plays and will never make the team, or never play if they do. Owners will never get rid of the games, though, because they can still sell tickets at full price, and still sell the TV rights ad lots of beer. This is the best we can hope for - 18 regular season games would almost certainly mean just two preseason games.
More meaningful games to bet - This is really an extension of the last point, but fewer preseason games and more regular season games mean that there are more games for us to bet on in which we can assume that teams are going to show up to win, and that they are going to play their starters.
Teams would have to wait longer before benching starters - The best example to illustrate things here is Peyton Manning and the Colts - the worst offenders when it comes to taking time off. Manning typically plays less than two full preseason games. In most years recently they have clinched their playoff position with a game or two left, so Manning has done no more than make an appearance in the last game or two of the season. That means that we have only seen him at full effort for 15 or 16 total games before the playoffs start. With two fewer preseason games Manning would have to play at least one to get ready for the season. The longer season also makes it more likely that he would be required to play more games before clinching. This change, then, would mean that we would see elite teams playing at full strength for an extra game or two each year. From a betting perspective that’s a very good thing.
Injuries would be a bigger factor - By replacing two preseason games with two regular season games you are asking players to play at full throttle for more games each year. Every time a player steps on the field they are risking injury, so it goes without saying that the more a player plays the more likely he is to be injured. I don’t know about you, but handicapping games in which key players are banged up or out makes my head hurt.
Year over year statistics would be hard to assess - In the short term it would be hard to compare year over year statistics of a player or a team because of the extra games. Milestones like 1,000 yards rushing or 3,000 yards passing wouldn’t mean nearly as much because of the extra games, so it would be harder for handicappers to get a good sense of whether players are improving, and how they compare to the same point last season.
Makes teams even more worn out for playoff runs - As it is teams are already pushed to the limit with the playoffs. Teams that have to play a Wild Card game have played every weekend but one for 20 weeks by the time they have reached the conference finals, and they are just worn out. Under this proposal it would take 21 games to get to the same point. The more tired the teams are, the more important depth and general talent level is, and the less likely big upsets are. That’s good in the short term for bettors, but over the long term it would get boring, and it would negatively impact the odds on the favorites and make value on favorites even harder to find.
Unbalanced schedule - The NFL schedule as it currently stands is really a work of art. Teams play two games against each team in their division, a game against each of the teams in another division in their conference, a game against each team in a division in the other conference, and a game against the two teams in their conference that they aren’t already playing which finished in the same spot in the standings last season as they did. Everyone in a division plays a very comparable schedule.
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More impressively, each team winds up playing four teams that finished first in their division, four that finished second, four that were third, and four that brought up the rear. It’s a mathematical wonder, and it creates a schedule that is fair and balanced for all the teams in a division. As soon as you add in two more games that balance is lost, though. It’s impossible to maintain the same kind of balance with two more games because two games aren’t enough for every team in the division to play the same teams. The beauty of the current schedule is that at the end of the year you can measure teams meaningfully by their records compared to teams in their conferences and divisions. With a new schedule that would be much harder to do. You see some teams getting easier schedules than others now, but that problem would be more common and more of a problem under the 18-game plan.