NFL Preseason Handicapping Basics–Part 12: Correlation To Regular Season Results


In this entry of our series on NFL Preseason Football Handicapping we’ll ask a question that I hear often—does anything that happens in the Preseason have any bearing whatsoever on the regular season? More specifically, is there a correlation between a team’s preseason record and their regular season record? Do teams that have a good record at the end of the regular season show that during the preseason? And what about the opposite? Do bad teams have bad preseasons?

On balance, the answer to all of these questions is ‘not really’. Year to year it varies but it’s hard to find any type of correlation between what a team does in the preseason and what they do in the regular season. In 2015, for whatever its worth, the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers were both 3-1 in the preseason. On the other hand, in 2014 the Indianapolis Colts went 0-4 in the preseason and finished the regular season 11-5. The New York Giants went a perfect 5-0 in the preseason and went 6-10 in the regular season.


So why is there little to no correlation between what happens in the preseason and the regular season? There are several reasons but they all go back to what we’ve been talking about throughout this series. The goal in the regular season is to win games. Some games may be more important than others to a team but in general we can assume that every team would like to win whenever they take the field. This is debatable in some other sports but with the short NFL season every game is important and teams can’t really afford to ‘take the day off’.

This isn’t the case in the preseason as we’ve discussed throughout this series. The primary determinant of what happens in a preseason NFL game is the respective coaches’ priorities for the game. Even teams that perform well in the preseason seldom ‘go out to win’ every time. What happens is that teams that frequently win in the preseason have a different ‘process’ than the teams that don’t. Few, if any, coaches place much significance on the outcome of preseason games. What does happen, however, is that some coaches may use preseason game performance as an important evaluation tool. If players know that they’re ‘being graded’ on their performance they’ll exert more of an effort. If you have a team full of players focused on playing well and playing hard—even if it’s for ‘personal’ reasons—they’ll win games. This is especially true if they’re playing a team that doesn’t place any sort of priority on preseason games.

What this means is that by definition teams have completely different goals in the preseason than they do in the regular season. In the regular season, the goal is to win football games. If a team doesn’t win football games the fanbase will quickly complain that the players, coaches or front office staff aren’t doing their job. In the preseason, the goals of coaches vary widely. Additionally, a team may be pursuing several goals at the same time that may or may not work in conjunction with one another. For example, a team may be trying to install a new offensive scheme, evaluate players at several positions, get rookies acclimated to the NFL and to get everyone physically and mentally ready to play football on Sundays.

These rules apply to all teams but there are plenty of reasons why teams can underachieve in the preseason and excel in the regular season or vice versa. Some good teams simply don’t care about the preseason to varying degrees. The Indianapolis Colts have all but ‘tanked’ their preseason games for a long time dating back to the early days of the Peyton Manning era. That was the case under coaches Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell and to some extent under Chuck Pagano. The coaches knew that Manning (and now Andrew Luck) would be ready to go when the regular season kicked off and that there was no reason to expose him or any other key personnel to injury. They weren’t necessarily trying to ‘lose games’ but that was the byproduct of their ‘process’.

The other extreme also has obvious explanations. Teams can overachieve in preseason for a number of reasons (including a schedule full of disinterested opponents) but have a losing record in the regular season due to among other things tough scheduling, injuries or even a self satisfied team that thinks because they win meaningless games in August they should automatically win meaningful games in November.

There are a few things that you might be able to pick up about individual players. In general, however, you should just close the book on preseason when it ends. The few nuggets of information that you might be able to extract from preseason data aren’t really worth the time and effort it’ll take to find them. There are many better ways to spend your time and energy getting ready for a successful NFL betting season.