NFL PRESEASON HANDICAPPING BASICS
PART 6: WEEK BY WEEK
Preseason NFL football has a certain form to it year after year as teams are roughly at the same point in their preparation process in each of the four weeks. Understanding what teams are looking for and/or trying to do during each week of the preseason is essential for handicapping success. As we’ve noted in previous sections of this discussion of NFL preseason betting much of what you want to do when betting exhibition games is ‘counterintuitive’ from what you’d do to handicap games during the regular season. During the regular season the general plan is the same from week to week: try to win games and try to avoid injuries. In preseason, each week has it’s own ‘theme’ that varies little from one team to another:
Note that all of the descriptions below are generalizations. Some teams develop more quickly than others, some teams do the opposite. On balance, however, this is what teams want to be doing from week to week during the preseason:
THE HALL OF FAME GAME
The Hall of Fame game is the traditional start to the NFL preseason. It takes place in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What’s significant about this game from a handicapping standpoint is that its scheduled the week before the rest of the preseason action begins. For example, in 2016 the Hall of Fame Game is on August 7 while Preseason Week 1 begins the following weekend.
This game is very important from a handicapping standpoint. This is not so much for the game itself which is the garden variety sloppy first week of preseason contest but for the reason mentioned above—the extra week. On balance, teams with a ‘game under their belt’ in preseason play have an advantage over opponents who are playing their first game. To some extent, this advantage carries throughout the preseason as the teams that played in the Hall of Fame Game are ‘a week ahead’ of the rest of the league.
Here’s another interesting fact about the Hall of Fame game—the teams involved (in 2016 it’s Indianapolis and Green Bay) don’t get a ‘bye week’ later in the preseason schedule. It would seem logical that this would be the case but instead these two teams get an ‘extra’ preseason game. Depending on how the coaching staff for each team takes advantage of this it can mean for a better prepared squad to begin the regular season.
Week One is usually dedicated to getting the team back in the right mindset for playing football and assessing where everyone is at in terms of conditioning and skill. New players begin their on field ‘evaluation’ in Week One and veterans see little, if any, playing time. In some cases, teams may be ‘breaking in’ new coaches and offensive/defensive coordinators. Depending on how quick a team assimilates a new tactical scheme this can be advantageous or disadvantageous from a handicapping standpoint. If a team is picking it up quickly they’ll be trying to gain fluency in it meaning they’ll give more playing time to starters in an effort to do so. If a team is having trouble getting it right obviously that’s a team you want to go against.
Week Two is more of an ‘evaluation week’ than any of the other preseason weeks. Coaches give a long, hard look to candidates to fill roster holes and give rookies—particularly undrafted rookies—their longest look of the preseason. This can make for some sloppy play and lack of cohesion. There is one exception, however, as sometimes new players vying for a roster spot ‘put on a show’ individually—quarterbacks throw a lot more, running backs accumulate yardage, etc. If a team has a well established backup rotation this is the week where they’ll get the most playing time and most teams let their backups ‘air it out’ during the preseason.
This is considered the ‘dress rehearsal’ week. Teams spend at least part of the game making sure that everything is copacetic to start the regular season. Starters will get the most playing time and to some degree it’s approached with a higher degree of seriousness than other weeks.
There are a couple of dangerous misconceptions for handicappers regarding these ‘dress rehearsal’ games. One is that this automatically means that the better teams will be a good play. That’s not the case. More often than not, the better teams have a lot less to work on than mediocre or bad teams. The Tennessee Titans, for example, will need more of a ‘dress rehearsal’ than will the New England Patriots. The Patriots (and other elite teams) have avoiding injuries as their primary goal even in ‘dress rehearsal’ week.
The other misconception is that a team’s ‘dress rehearsal’ will manifest itself in a more serious effort to win the game. More accurately, the focus will be on execution. This may or may not help a team win a game but seldom is winning the game itself a primary focus. It’s tough to generalize what teams will want to do during week three meaning that good information is essential.
With very few exceptions, this is a week to avoid injuries. Starters see little, if any, game time and the focus is on getting these games over with and looking ahead to Week One of the regular season. In some cases, teams that are winless for the preseason may assert more of an effort to get a victory in order to go into the regular season on a positive note.