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During preseason, the primary goal of a coach is not to win; it's to get ready to win in the regular season

Too many sports bettors pass when it comes to betting NFL preseason games.


Many sports bettors pass when it comes to betting NFL preseason games. They've done battle with preseason games before and had their backsides handed to them. One prevalent reason is, they used the same handicapping methods against exhibition games than they use against regular season games.

That won't work. An exhibition game is an entirely different animal, and it demands an entirely different mindset with an entirely different perspective. For anyone trying to handicap exhibition games the same way as 'real' games, passing preseason is good advice.

...But that doesn't mean these practice games can't be beaten. They certainly can. In fact, our own winning percentage in Professional Gambler Newsletter is actually somewhat better against exhibition season than against the regular season.

A handicapper's first task is simple: Just consider for a moment why preseason games figure to be different. Much of that difference stems from one obvious but usually overlooked fact: The primary goal of a coach during preseason is not necessarily to win the game; the primary goal of a coach in preseason is to get ready to win in the regular season.

That fact makes all the difference to handicapping preseason games. Think about it: The purpose of preseason, after all, is to practice; to make improvements, to fix weak spots. It's a time for the head coach to work on his team's worst features. After all, why would a coach use this special time to work on his strongest stuff? Doesn't it make sense that he figures to concentrate on what he thinks needs the most work? Isn't that what you'd do if you were a coach? Wouldn't you try to fix your weaknesses, try to get ready for the 'real' action to come? A coach's new contract will not be based on how many practice games he wins. Who cares? The only thing that really counts is how many 'real' games he wins during the regular season.

As a matter of fact, it could often be a good idea for a coach to avoid using his team's best stuff during exhibition season. After all, why tip the enemy to what the team does well?


The primary goal of a coach during preseason is not necessarily to win the game; the primary goal of a coach in preseason is to get ready to win in the regular season.

During preseason, it can help if you have stats from last year, alright, - but not for the same reason stats are used during regular season. Last year's stats can show you what a team needs in order to improve. Last year's worst running teams, for example, are very likely to do a lot of running during this year's preseason; last year's worst passing teams are very likely to do a lot of passing. If a team's offensive line let them down last year, we can expect a lot of personnel shifting and experimenting on the offensive line. If their deep pass defense was shaky last year, look for a lot of new ideas and new players in their secondary. If they had trouble stopping a rushing game last year, look for new people on the defensive line, or even new styles of defense. Just as important, teams with last year's best offensive lines don't figure to overwork their first string linemen in an exhibition game. Why do that? If their starting linemen are more-or-less predetermined, why would a coach risk undue injury to those locked-in starters? Isn't it smarter to develop depth by playing backup players? If a team's passing attack got them into the playoffs last year, why risk injury to their predetermined receivers? If you were a coach, would you really make your zillion-dollar wide receiver play a whole practice game?

…It's as though past stats can often actually work in reverse during preseason. Put yourself in the coach's shoes. Ask yourself, what would it take to turn this particular team into a playoff contender? If you were the coach, what part of this team would you work on...And how? In other words, forget using stats the way you're used to using them. Don't think 'talent'; - think 'motive.'

Once you get the hang of it, many winning situations are surprisingly obvious. One excellent proposition happens when a coach must decide between two potential starting quarterbacks. In order to compare the two candidates the coach is likely to use all his first string offense during most of the game, including his best receivers, best running backs, and best offensive linemen. You can also figure both quarterbacks want that starting job, so both are likely to play their best behind that first string. And that particular situation is intensified if the other team is - strangely enough - an extra good defensive team! An opposing team with locked-in starters on their defense is very likely to be auditioning new defensive talent. After a brief 'tune-up' period for his defensive starters, the opposing coach is likely to pull his 'A' players. That leaves a bunch of try-out defensive players facing a first-string offense and a hungry talented quarterback. The correct play in such a situation could hardly be more obvious, once you understand what to look for; once you understand the motives of the respective coaches. 

...And it's also obvious that last year's stats must be interpreted with care in the above situation.

Other circumstances can present very different problems for the coach, but still offer just as much value to a bettor. Some teams have a well-established quarterback and a well-established running back, but they might be shopping for new offensive linemen. This condition often signals good value in going against such a team. This coach figures to use a backup quarterback, rather than risk his starter. After all, why risk your best quarterback behind inexperienced linemen who are trying out for a job? Same with his A-1 running back. Consequently, this situation presents us with untried rookie linemen trying to protect a second string quarterback and trying to open holes for a second-string running back. It's obviously a good circumstance to consider betting against.

So betting the preseason requires recognizing a team's needs, what a coach wants to accomplish before Week One of the regular season. Teams famous for defense can be involved in very high-scoring exhibition games, teams famous for high scoring shoot-outs can be involved in defensive standoffs, passing teams can suddenly become running teams, running teams can suddenly become passing teams...Everything can seem inconsistent and illogical. That's why many bettors are convinced there's no way to handicap exhibition games; they've been burned because they use the same methods they use during regular season. Those methods and that criteria simply won't work against practice games. It's no wonder things can seem crazy.

...But it's not at all that way if you know what the coaches are trying to accomplish. A general rule is to beware of teams with established starters at key positions. We are not likely to see much of those established starters during exhibition games. Don't look for Peyton Manning to be throwing balls in the second half of the first two or three preseason games. And he won't be throwing himself on any swords to gain an extra yard or two, either. Be aware of a coach's history concerning past exhibition seasons. Consider retired Buffalo Bills' coach, Marv Levy, for example. Levy and the Bills posted one of the best records in the AFC in the early 90's during regular season, - but one of the most dismal preseason records in the NFL. Levy was notorious for shrugging off preseason games. It is useful to note that during those years Levy's starting players were, for the most part, foregone conclusions even before exhibition season began. Levy saw no reason to risk undue injury to those starters. He used preseason games to build depth. With the luxury of having predetermined starters Levy spent the preseason looking at new people for backup positions.

Just keep in mind that a coach's only real goal is to make the playoffs. He needs to work on whatever frustrated that goal last year. He needs to put together those people who will help him make the playoffs, and he needs to cull the rest. Consequently, those plays in which a coach has least confidence he is likely to call the most during practice games, those plays in which he has most confidence he is likely to call the least. And along with that, those players in which a coach has most confidence he is likely to use the least; those players in which he has least confidence he is likely to use the most. Once you stand back and allow yourself to understand what's really going on, preseason games can, indeed, be easier to beat than regular season games.

(This article was adapted from J. R. Miller's book, How Professional Gamblers Beat the Pro Football Pointspread.)



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