Tuesday, Aug. 7
LAS VEGAS – After a summer of analyzing odds to win the Super Bowl, odds to win each conference and division and over/under season win totals (bets that can’t be collected for at least another 4 1/2 months), the bookmakers and bettors here were thrilled to be able to watch and dissect an NFL game this past Sunday.
Yes, it was only the Hall of Fame Game as the NFL preseason schedule kicked off, but it was pro football and it had a spread and a total (as well as first-half, second-half and in-running wagering available) and all the results were determined and paid off in about three hours.
The Saints ended up beating the Cardinals 17-10 and covering the 2.5-point spread, though the result was in doubt until the end as the Cards had first-and-goal at the New Orleans 7-yard line at the two-minute warning. An Arizona TD would have likely given them the cover and potentially an outright upset as they likely would have gone for the two-point conversion, but an interception kept the Saints’ backers safe.
We’re sure to hear two diverse opinions about preseason betting offered up the next four weeks but especially this weekend. One will be that “only degenerates bet on these exhibition games that are nothing but glorified scrimmages” while the other extreme is “these games are the easiest to handicap because the coaches tell you how long their starters will play.” The naysayers will add that many games will be decided late by fourth-stringers that will be bagging groceries by the time the regular season starts, while proponents of preseason prognostication will point to quarterback rotations and the tendencies of certain coaches as ways to find an edge.
This debate has been going on for ages. In doing research for this article, I came across the first pigskin primer by some scribe named William Shakespeare. He called it “Hamlet” (get it? . . . “pig”skin . . . “ham”let . . .)
To bet, or not to bet, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The bad beats of outrageous fourth quarters
Or to take calculated risks against the squares,
And by fading defeat then . . .
The Bard goes on to write about death and other morbid thoughts, but even though we seem to think our wagers are a matter of life-and-death, we hope you’re not betting ye olde rent on these games. Now, the fact you’re still reading tells me that you’re looking for advice to at least place a few bets before they start playing for real, but while I believe there are value bets to be found, I feel compelled to offer the disclaimer that most times these game are meaningless and it’s not whether a team wins or loses but how they play the game (meaning: it’s more important to scout each team’s line play and also how the backups fit into their team’s system in case you need to include them in your handicapping as the season goes on). For proof that these games are meaningless, remember that the 2008 Lions that went 0-16 were 4-0 in the preseason (and the 2005 Colts that started 14-0 were 0-4 in the preseason).
Having said all that, let’s take a look at what we need to consider in making a preseason bet:
Even the most casual NFL follower is bound to hear mentions of which coaches put more stock in having their teams actually win preseason games and which ones are just trying to get through the games without any injuries. A quick Cliff’s Notes version:
Mike Shanahan, 42-32-2 against the spread (56.8%) in his years with the Raiders, Broncos and Redskins, despite being 1-3 last season. That’s pretty impressive over the long haul.
Mike Tomlin, 16-5 ATS (76.2%) in five years leading the Steelers.
Jim Schwartz, 9-3 ATS (75%) in three seasons with the Lions.
On the flip side ...
Andy Reid, 22-28 ATS (44%) with the Eagles and he had dropped seven openers in a row before last year.
Ken Whisenhunt, 7-14 ATS (33.3%) with the Cardinals after losing Sunday’s game.
Chan Gailey, 4-14 ATS (22.2%) with the Bills and previously with the Cowboys.
This is probably a good place to also mention that these trends are also known by the oddsmakers so they’re often factored into the line. For instance, we have two clear examples this week as it shouldn’t be a surprise that Shanahan’s Redskins are a 2-point favorite over Gailey’s Bills on Thursday night despite the game being played in Buffalo. In another case where coaches on opposite sides of the ledger are facing off, Tomlin’s Steelers are 1.5-point road favorites at Reid’s Eagles, though that has just as much to do with bettors going against a Philly team that is mourning the death of Reid’s son.
However, the good news for bettors trying to back or fade certain coaches is that oddsmakers can only adjust the lines so far. As we look at the 16 games this upcoming weekend, the only games with a spread over a field goal are the Patriots -3.5 vs. the Saints and the 49ers -3.5 vs. the Vikings. And this will be typical throughout the preseason with the possible exception of Week 3 which is seen as the “dress rehearsal” with starters playing longer than any other week, so spreads will tend to be higher. Otherwise, oddsmakers aren’t going to shade numbers too far so if you find a coach to back you’re pretty much just asking them to win the game.
The same goes for the next category . . .
This was an area where sharp bettors could really get an edge 10 years ago. It used to be much harder to find out how much each QB was going to play, so those that could get that info (or make educated guesses better than the oddsmakers or general public) definitely had an edge. Nowadays, there are tons of websites with these lists and the coaches speak freely about their intentions so a lot is factored into the line.
However, there is still room for a sharp handicapper to find some spot plays. The best situations are when there’s a quarterback controversy and you know they’re fighting for their job (preferably the starting role, though an even battle for the backup job can fit the bill). It was a bit of a letdown when the Browns announced that rookie Brandon Weeden would be the starter as it was shaping up as a good situation, though Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace could still make the Browns a live second-half play (note: as an addendum to that thought, I’m also a believer in shortening the game if you want to just take a team in first-half betting if you prefer just to wager on the starters and not risk the increased randomness when more subs are on the field in the second halves).
Other potentially strong QB rotations include the Seahawks (Matt Flynn, Tavaris Jackson, Russell Wilson), Jets (Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow – say what you will about Tebow, but he should excel against backup defenses), Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch – though they’re all aging fast), Cowboys (Tony Romo, Kyle Orton, Stephen McGee), and Texans (Matt Schaub, T.J.Yates, John Beck, Case Keenum).
Let’s see how those 6 teams fare overall, but remember that it’s also important to look at the coaching matchups before betting these blindly as well as other positions.
Dave Tuley is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Las Vegas race & sports beat since 1998, first for the GamingToday newspaper in Vegas and has written for Daily Racing Form since 2000. Tuley started his own website, ViewFromVegas.com, in 2007 and has written for other websites, including ESPN.com. In 2006, he won "Best News Story" by the Professional Football Writers of America, the only time a gambling story has won a PFWA award. Tuley, 45, grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is married with children in Vegas. His roots can be seen in the names of his three children: daughters Jordyn and Peyton (named for Walter Payton, not Peyton Manning) and son Maddux. Dave can be followed on Twitter @ViewFromVegas.