NFL PRESEASON HANDICAPPING BASICS
PART 4: QUARTERBACK ROTATIONS
In our previous installment of this series we talked about the importance of learning as much as possible about what the pointspread represents, how it is made and how it moves. This is true not only for preseason and regular season NFL football but for sports bettors in general. We’ll now move on to handicapping individual NFL preseason games and discuss situations that you should be looking for. After that, we’ll turn our attention to where to find and evaluate this sort of information.
Preseason NFL football is unique among betting sports in that it’s the only one where I don’t use power ratings to set ‘my own line’. In the regular season this is the starting point and allows me to have ‘my own line’ on every game before pointspreads for the following week go up on Sunday (some sportsbooks post early lines for the following week’s games but that’s a different conversation for another time). From a handicapping standpoint, everything about preseason football is counterintuitive including the process itself.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
This isn’t an exhaustive list but these are a few areas that can indicate a situation where teams might play well and/or focused (making it more likely they’ll win) or not play well and/or focused (making it more likely they’ll lose). One of the biggest changes in the past couple of decades is that this information is available to anyone willing to look for it and no longer the exclusive province of ‘wise guys’. This has been a ‘good news/bad news’ situation for bettors—it makes it easier to handicap preseason NFL football but the trade off is that most of these situations get ‘baked into’ the pointspread. Most of the time, this isn’t a huge concern in preseason (read part 3 of this series if you want to know why). In fact, when I see a preseason line that looks ‘off’ it’s a sign that I should pay special attention to the game and find out what’s up. Sometimes you can unearth a salient handicapping factor that you previously weren’t aware of.
Many preseason NFL handicappers pay undue attention to the ‘first string’ and how long they’ll be kept in the game. Specifically, they’ll focus on the starting quarterback. This is not a good idea in most cases and particularly when the starting lineup is fairly well set. Even on losing teams, most coaches go into training camp knowing who’ll be in their starting lineup. There might be a few positions up for grabs but even when a coach says that ‘competition for starting jobs is wide open’ it really isn’t. For one thing, some players get paid a lot more than others. If a player is under contract that pays him more than the NFL’s average salary ($1.9 million per) there’s a strong incentive to play him. No team wants to pay a guy six figures to sit on the bench so unless a lower paid player is significantly better the guys getting paid the cheddar will be in the game.
The same is true with quarterbacks—most coaches have a good idea of who their starting quarterback will be even if he publicly says otherwise. In most cases, the top priority will be keeping the starting quarterback healthy going into the season. A veteran like Tom Brady will be ready to play when the games start to count even if he doesn’t get much preseason game action. Even if he’s a bit rusty when the season begins that’s better than him being on the sidelines with his arm in a sling. Brady should be acutely aware of this since it was a preseason injury to Drew Bledsoe that gave him his ‘big break’ to start in the NFL.
What sports betting experts prefer to focus on is the backup and third string quarterback. On balance, the teams that have the higher quality backup quarterbacks win preseason games. In some cases, there’s a competition for the starting job and obviously it benefits every quarterback to put up good numbers. A more common situation is competition for the backup jobs. That might be the strongest situation because the backups have incentive to not just play well but to ‘put up numbers’. Quarterbacks in this situation will also get a lot of game action with the first string offense making it all the more likely that he’ll play well.
In ‘backup competition’ situations the best scenario in my opinion is one where you’ve got a solid #2 QB on the depth chart but multiple candidates fighting for the #3 job. The backup quarterback going into the season will want to play well to further solidify his job. It’s not uncommon to see teams go with untested backups and cutting a more experienced #2 quarterback if he’s not clearly qualitatively superior. The players battling for third string have more at stake than just depth chart position—it could be ‘make or break’ for them playing in the NFL at all.
Even in situations where the quarterback depth chart is well established teams with better backup quarterbacks are still good plays. You’ll often see a capable backup play more aggressively during the preseason. Not only one of the few times all year that he’ll have to personally shine but from a team standpoint it might be the only live game action that a backup might get before an injury to a starter thrusts him into a position where he has to execute.
The reality of preseason NFL games is that the reserves will see significantly more playing time than the starters. For that reason, it’s always advantageous to ‘invest’ in the team with the better backup quarterback rotation. Regardless of the situational context, there’s plenty of ‘upsides’ to betting a team with competent backups and few, if any, downsides.