NFL Preseason Handicapping Basics–Part 5: Injury Related Situations


We’ll continue our discussion of handicapping NFL preseason football by looking at the impact of injuries on exhibition games. NFL betting enthusiasts make a big deal over player injuries during the regular season and the live odds services offer a daily injury report as well as ‘breaking injury news’. While this is nominally of interest to ‘serious pro football bettors’ in my experience it seems that fantasy football players get more use out of it.

The reality is that during the regular season injuries are overrated and overvalued. You’ll find this point emphasized throughout our NFL betting guides. This is true not only in NFL football but throughout the major betting sports. In fact, the more significant the injury the greater the overreaction. It definitely hurts a team to lose their starting quarterback, for example, but invariably the compensation in the pointspread just isn’t commensurate with the ‘true value’ of the loss. As we’ve noted, you can do a lot worse than being a ‘contrarian’ when handicapping the NFL. One good way to do this during the regular season is to ‘bet against’ public opinion when dealing with a major injury. The more cataclysmic that fans and the mainstream sports media make the injury sound the better the line value you’re likely to find playing against their position.

As is the case in so many other areas, preseason football injuries are a different animal from regular season injuries. Since key players don’t get much time on the field anyway it would seem in theory that preseason injuries are of less relevance. That’s definitely not the case.


In the regular season, a key player injury is problematic to a team but doesn’t necessarily change what they’re trying to do in a game—they’re trying to win with or without the injured player. A team may adjust their tactical approach to better leverage the skill of a backup—for example, if the backup playing for an injured starting quarterback is more mobile a team may add a few more rushing plays. On balance, teams are able to adjust to missing a star player or even multiple players. For that reason, regular season injuries are often overrated among sports bettors.

Preseason injuries impact the game in a different way. In our previous discussion, we talked about how coaches have different ‘goals’ for preseason games and that they play different roles with different coaches within the context of their preparation process. Injuries can force a coach to make wholesale adjustments in what he’s doing to evaluate players and prepare the team for the season. It’s difficult to generalize exactly how this can happen but here are a few examples:

–a starting quarterback gets injured forcing a little used backup into the role. The coach uses the preseason games as a ‘crash course’ for the backup to get used to working with the first string offense.

–in an identical situation, many coaches will do the opposite—since the backup quarterback is assuming the role of the starting quarterback a coach will protect him like a starting quarterback and subject him to little live game action in order to keep him health.

–if a team has injuries along the offensive line a coach might keep the quarterback off the field altogether preferring to throw his backups ‘to the wolves’. Even good backups will struggle if they’re not getting protection.

–if a team has a number of injuries or if they are protecting players from injury some coaches will essentially ‘throw in the towel’ and just go through the motions in the quickest and least painful way possible to just get a game over with.

These are just a few examples that have occurred in NFL preseason play. It’s completely situational so its incumbent upon the handicapper to do the work to understand what an injury means within the current context of the team’s preparation. It’s not always obvious but injuries are more likely to result in a ‘chain reaction’ of responses by a coach. Pay attention and you can find some good handicapping edges this way.