NFL Preseason Betting: Handicapping the Third Exhibition Game
by Trevor Whenham - 8/18/2014
I hate the NFL Preseason. It is dull. Misleading. Endless. It is a tease before the real season begins, and it just doesn't mean enough to justify the time and effort involved in it. They could shorten it to two games, and the only ones who would shed a tear are the owners who get to sell full-price tickets to half-value games.
From a betting perspective the preseason is no better. You can't typically predict who will play and for how long, and you can never be sure of how much teams care about winning the games. It is, in short, a betting nightmare.
There is one minor exception, though - while the other three preseason games are a total waste of time from a betting perspective, there are some aspects of the third preseason game that can occasionally make it worthwhile. That game is the one that teams most often take the most seriously and the one in which starters are likely to play the most. It is still far from a regular game, but it is much closer to the first two preseason games, and especially the ridiculous waste of oxygen that is the final preseason contest.
So, what makes this game different, and more attractive, to bettors? Here are four keys:
Starters actually play: It's not uncommon in the first two games for starters not to play at all or to only play a few possessions before they shut it down for the night. In most cases this third game is where those starters want to play more to smooth the rough edges and get ready for when games really matter. It is rare for a top-level starter to play the whole game unless they have a particular need to, but they will likely go much deeper than they normally would. It's still less than a regular game, but it at least makes it easier to predict what we will see.
Playbooks are closer to real: No coach is going to show off all the wrinkles and tricks in a playbook in the preseason. In the third week, though, we will see more plays and more variations than we have up to that point. Coaches need to make sure that the players know what is expected of them and that they understand what they are asked to do. The deeper and more complex the playbook, the more fairly matched offensive and defensive units are, and the more likely that the team with an edge will come out on top.
Fights for starting roles intensify: In a lot of cases the third week is when races for starting spots that have not yet been settled will be decided. Players who are vying for those roles are going to be giving absolutely their best efforts, and they will be leaving it all on the field. Being able to anticipate a high level of effort is very useful for bettors - especially if that race is between players in a key position.
Coaches care: There is no coach who cares about winning a preseason game nearly as much as a regular-season game. In the third game, though, coaches will at least be likely to care about the outcome of the game more than they have up to that point. When a coach doesn't care about the game at all then it is very hard to predict how the game will turn out. It makes sense, then, that the more coaches care, the more predictable the outcome of the games is likely to become.
The game doesn't matter: It can be easy for bettors to get too invested in this game. It has been forever since we last saw a meaningful game, and all we want is to bet on good football. While this game is by far the best we have seen so far, it's still likely a long way from what we will see in the future. You can allow yourself to get excited relative to what you have already been subjected to, but don't fool yourself into thinking that this is a football game in all of its glory.
Coaches can focus on more than the scoreboard: It is exceptionally rare that a preseason win or a loss will have any real impact on the coach and his career standing. He doesn't need to win, but he does need to make sure that his team is as ready as they can be when the games do actually matter. That means that it could be quite possible for a coach to be perfectly satisfied with a game even though his team loses badly. He might have aspects of the game he is focused on, and success in those aspects might not lead to a win.
Rust runs deep: In a lot of cases this is the first extended action for starters. If they have played already, they still haven't played much, and a lot of their action will have come against lesser opposition. When you haven't played in a meaningful game in eight months you are all but certain to be rusty, and that rust will impact some players differently than others. You can't just look at the names on the back of the jersey when handicapping these games, because what you will see from players in November is likely very different from what you will see from them in August.
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