I always thought that betting on preseason football was for degenerate gamblers and masochists. I assumed that only the ragged, the beaten and the depraved had the will to handle a to wager that came down to a third-and-13 with a fourth-string quarterback just days away from a job selling insurance trying to toss a perfect fade to a fifth-string wide receiver destined to be driving a delivery truck the following week. It was a gruesome and reckless way to make a buck, I thought, and the idea sent a shiver down my spine.
In the matter of full disclosure, certain parts of my soul still feel that way about NFL preseason football betting. But ever since I chose to make my career as a professional sports handicapper, a tempter of fate and warlock of mathematics, I've softened my stance on the Bet That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I've come to respect the accessibility of NFL preseason odds and betting and have learned that the money that's paid out for winning wagers on these games has the same color and value as the money that's won during the regular season.
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Below I have a few NFL preseason betting tips that I have picked up along my path. These are just a few of the tips, indicators and strategies that can help you experience some success and set the tone for another profitable NFL betting season. There are a lot of facets that make NFL preseason handicapping unique, and here are a few of the primary ones for novices looking to dip their toe, and their bankroll, into the NFL exhibition season:
1. Remember: Each Week Is Its Own Season
One of the main reasons that I like handicapping the NFL in preseason is that it gets me back in the flow. I’m not talking about getting back in the habit of making excruciating, gut-wrenching decisions on plays or hustling in picks with just seconds to spare before the books close off the lines. No, I’m talking about getting back in tune with the mental and emotional flow of each NFL team.
Motivation, momentum and situational factors change for NFL teams on a weekly basis. Sure, the fundamentals of how to handicap the NFL are relatively firm and unfaltering. But the shifting intangibles are what make NFL betting a moving target. The NFL preseason is the perfect example.
In Week 1, for instance, you want to look for teams with new coaches. These new headmen are taking the field for the first time with their new teams. They want to make a statement. They want to show the front office, the fans, and the local media that they are The Right Men For The Job and every coach wants to start his tenure on a winning note. Compare that to a coach that has a veteran roster, a proven system, and a five-year contract with a $5 million buyout and you tell me who is going to have his team more ready to play in the opening week.
In Week 2 and Week 3 you have completely different factors at work. For instance, teams with quarterback competitions, or teams with a lot of jobs up for grabs in general, are going to get more sustained, focused play and should be better against the spread.
Also, there are instances where a team gets blown out in Week 1 or Week 2 – I’m talking about a 38-10 or a 28-3 beatdown – and they have a chip on their shoulders to come back and give an extra effort the following week.
Understand what teams are playing for each week and which ones have an actual motivation to compete – and vice versa – and wager accordingly.
2. Know Which Coaches Care And Which Ones Don’t
We already touched on how being able to handicap NFL coaches is an important facet of preseason handicapping. But being able to pinpoint first-year coaches is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to determining which NFL coaches to play on and against.
Some coaches want to use the preseason to set the tone for the regular season. They want their team to play physical, they want their team to play tough, and they want their players to get into the habit of winning. These are the coaches that are still calling timeouts in the fourth quarter and that are willing to leave their starters or even second-teamers in for that extra series. And these are coaches that you want to get your money on.
Mike Shanahan is the quintessential example of a coach that wants to win in the preseason. And in his coaching career he has gone 43-21 against the preseason spread. Mike Tomlin (13-4 ATS), Tony Sparano (9-3 ATS) and Jack Del Rio (20-12) are other coaches who give that little extra effort in August as well.
Conversely, there are some coaches for which the NFL preseason is simply a nuisance. These coaches don’t want to tip their hand on formations and they are just trying to get through August without any devastating injuries. Naturally, these are not coaches that you want to have anything to do with.
Andy Reid’s teams have always been a good “go against” in the preseason and Reid is just 18-30 ATS in his career in Philadelphia. Jim Caldwell (1-7 ATS) has picked up where his predecessor, Tony Dungy, left off in terms of mailing it in during the preseason while Todd Haley (1-7) and Ken Whisenhunt (5-11) are not far behind.
3. Handicap The Quarterbacks – All Of Them
In the thickets of November, when you’re desperate for a big winner you will find your money gravitating to a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees. But these stud quarterbacks play very little in the preseason because their coaches simply can’t risk an injury that could submarine the entire team’s season.
Instead, you are left to sift through John Skelton, Adam Froman, and Rhett Bomar while looking for an arm to back. As a result, you need to familiarize yourself with the third- and fourth-string quarterbacks of each NFL team. Because in the first two weeks of the preseason these are the players that will receive the lion’s share of the snaps, playing as many as two quarters while the starter and backup rest.
Handicapping third-string quarterbacks isn’t as difficult as you think. I always favor players that have experience; especially preseason experience. Guys like Caleb Hanie or Kellen Clemens, career preseason all-stars, are always a solid bet because they are familiar with what it takes to play in these situations. Also, teams that have two or three guys with real, regular season starting experience are very valuable for the same reason; someone like Trent Edwards might not have been good enough to cut it as a starter in Buffalo, but he can carve up some undrafted rookie free agents or former Arena League players during the fourth quarter of the preseason.
On the other hand, guys like Jonathan Crompton, Jerrod Johnson or Drew Wily – rookies or young players that could barely cut it in college – will be overwhelmed if they see any real action in the NFL preseason. And you have to handicap them accordingly.
Finally, as teams get further along in the preseason (Week 2 and Week 3), keep an eye on teams with quarterback controversies. There is extra pressure on signal callers to win their jobs. Not only will they end up playing a bit longer, but they will be that much more focused and likely play that much better because they are playing for their position.
4. Don’t Go Crazy With Your Wagers
Look, I know you’re excited about the return of football season. I’m sure you are sick of trying to get excited about MLB betting, WNBA betting, soccer betting, or whatever other fringe sport you’ve been rolling the bones on to get through the summer. However, just because football is back I wouldn’t dare wager on it as freely as I will during the regular season.
I recommend scaling back your bets. Because no matter how much you handicap the coaches, the motivations, the weather, the third-string quarterbacks, and the itineraries, you can still watch your bet get busted because a running back twisting his ankle spooks the coach and he ends up pulling his starters early. Or because some fifth-string scrub cornerback is getting abused in the fourth quarter. Or because a coach decides he wants to work on his onside kick or fake punt formations.
The last thing you want to do is begin the regular season in the hole. If you lose a chunk of your bankroll in the preseason then you are setting the tone for a negative regular season. Obviously, losing money in the preseason isn’t a death knell. But you should be extra cautious with your wagering during one of the most volatile periods on the sports betting calendar.
Every NFL team has shifting priorities during the preseason. Some teams want to make a statement. Some teams just want to stay healthy. Some teams need to sort out their roster. Keep in mind what each coach/player/team has to play for each week and, as always, look for appropriate line value. If you keep some of these NFL preseason betting tips in mind you can pad your stack with a little extra cash and hit the ground running for another successful NFL betting season.
Robert Ferringo is a professional NFL handicapper and is coming off an exceptionally profitable 2010-11 football season (college and pro). Over the last year his clients have more than tripled their bankrolls with his predictions in all sports. He is looking forward to building on his stellar football handicapping resume again this fall and you can check him out here.