NFL Preseason Handicapping Basics–Part 2: NFL Preseason Coaching Strategy

NFL Preseason Handicapping Basics
Part 2: NFL Preseason Coaching Strategy

We began an in depth introduction to NFL preseason handicapping and betting in our previous article. For some reason, the general public—aka ‘squares’ consider NFL preseason betting the exclusive province of degenerates and action junkies. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the public ‘recreational’ bettors have little interest in wagering on NFL exhibition play it attracts a lot of attention from professional and ‘sharp’ bettors.

One of the primary reasons that the general public considers NFL preseason games to not be worth betting is the often heard refrain that “no one cares who wins”. On a macro level, that might be true. When you bet on a regular season game both teams are theoretically out there trying to win which provides a baseline of motivation. The team that exerts more effort and executes more effectively typically wins the game.

If you’ve been paying attention to the sports betting theory articles on this website you might already see what the problem is. The fundamental challenge of serious sports betting isn’t to ‘pick winners’–rather, the goal is to find line value. Finding line value is a methodical, analytical process. If you do it right, the wins and losses take care of themselves and you make money. ‘Picking winners’ is the goal of a clairvoyant, not a sports handicapper.

There’s an old saying that ‘a little bit of information is a dangerous thing’. That’s definitely true in sports betting. ‘Squares’ always want to believe that there’s some secret that makes what is an arduous process easy. It’s the same mentality that attracts people to late night infomercials about ‘no money down’ real estate and spam emails promising that they’ll ‘lose weight overnight’. And clearly this is the mentality that boiler room touts exploit with their ‘locks of the century’ and ‘games of the year’. Even when they stumble upon a piece of information that has some validity the recreational player has a tendency to misuse or over rely on it as we are about to see.


During the regular season there’s typically a confluence of factors that have to be considered when handicapping a NFL game—everything from a team’s previous game to injuries to the weather. Coaching strategies play a part, of course, but are just one of many factors that have to be evaluated to successfully find value in NFL football. Preseason is a different matter and the coach sets the entire agenda. In fact, this is why the public perceives that ‘no one tries to win’–often the coach is too concerned about getting his team up to speed on new formations or evaluating talent to worry about the scoreboard.

The influence that ‘coaching philosophies’ have on NFL preseason games isn’t a new concept. It’s been around for awhile to the point that it’s often ‘baked into the line’. Even recreational players are aware of it though they take a far too simplistic approach to coaching philosophy and strategy. Often they’ll get a ‘Football Annual’ that reprints the pointspread record of each NFL coach in the preseason. He’ll conclude that coaches with a winning record against the spread ‘take preseason seriously’ while coaches with losing ATS records ‘don’t care about preseason’. This concept actually is more familiar to experts on sports betting in Canada–it’s a concept that is also effective in handicapping the Canadian Football League (CFL).

While the ‘square’ that uses this oversimplification will occasionally get the ‘right result for the wrong reason’ what he’s doing is determining if the ground is wet as a predictive component of forecasting the weather. The ‘sharp’ sports bettor takes a more holistic approach and tries to get as much information on a coach’s priorities for a specific game. Most coaches also have their own ‘process’ for preparing a football team for the season long before they reach the NFL. Some coaches have been given a reputation as ‘always wanting to win’ preseason games because they place emphasis on them for evaluating personnel and getting a benchmark of where the team is at in terms of their preparation. The coaches that have a reputation for ‘not wanting to win’ might not have that attitude per se but use other criteria to determine the status of personnel and team preparation.

In each situation the players are well aware of how the coach qualitatively assesses their performance and the performance of the team and their focus and effort usually reflects this. Players who know that their role on the team—and in some cases their spot in the NFL—depends on their in-game performance take it a lot more seriously than those who know it doesn’t factor in to the coaches’ evaluation.

Another mistake that recreational players make is to assume that a coach has a specific ‘philosophical belief’ relative to preseason that he carries throughout his coaching career. This may be true to an extent but more often than not the specifics of how a coach views preseason games is situational. If a coach is taking over a basket case of a team where he needs to immediately instill a work ethic and environment of professionalism he’ll approach preseason games differently than if he were coaching a Super Bowl contender with strong locker room leadership and a tradition of winning.

Finally, it’s essential not to ignore the factors external to coaching. Coaching might be the single most significant component of your handicap but certainly not the only one. Performance in previous games, injuries, weather and the usual areas of concern for handicappers during the regular season play a part in the preseason albeit a smaller one.