Betting Preseason Football

Last week I talked about how the House comes up with a pointspread and what it represents. Preseason football is the first opportunity we have to bet pointspreads each year (in the bookmaking world, your year starts in August) so naturally that is the topic for this week.

Unlike college football where there is no preseason, the pros play four or five games to work out the kinks before the regular season starts. Coaches use these games to sharpen skills that are tough to work on in practice (special teams, tackling, etc.), to determine starting positions, to test new offensive or defensive formations and to practice new plays at game speed among other things. Some coaches are also under pressure to perform well in preseason to help sell tickets or to gain a little job security. Starting players use the preseason to sharpen their skills and improve their timing while rookies and backups try and gain starting positions. Unlike the regular season, where winning every game is everyone’s goal, the preseason features a variety of mindsets for players and coaches alike. This is the key to making money betting on preseason football – understanding the motivation for every player and coach on a team.

Lets use the opening game between Washington and San Francisco (played in Japan on August 3rd) as an example. The 49ers were 12-4 last year (two of their losses were to the powerhouse St. Louis Rams), their key personnel on offense are all returning (QB Jeff Garcia, RB Garrison Hearst, WRs Terrell Owens and JJ Stokes) and the team understands the philosophy and playbook of their coaching staff. The ‘Skins were just 8-8 last year (although they did finish 8-3), have a new coach (their fourth in less than two years) who emphasized the passing game in college so they have a whole new playbook to learn and will have to so without any of last year’s QBs (Tony Banks, Jeff George and Kent Graham who is now with Houston) or leading receiver (Michael Westbrook who is now with Cincinnati). The two teams had unimpressive preseason records in 2001. Both teams were 1-3, but Washington failed to cover a single pointspread while the 49ers were 2-2 ATS (against-the-spread). On paper the 49ers had to be the favorite team and the opening line was San Francisco -2.5 based on talent alone.

Early action was very light as bettors waited to hear how the coaches would approach the game. It became evident very quickly via interviews that Washington’s rookie coach Steve Spurrier was going to play his starters much longer than the 49er starters, especially on offense where his playbook is very complex and key starting roles have yet to be determined. He was going to use this game to teach the playbook to the entire offensive unit as well as evaluate the best players for starting roles. Washington also has a new defensive outlook with former Ravens defensive whiz Marvin Lewis at the helm and he too was looking to teach his schemes to his squad. San Francisco on the other hand has relatively set starting units and familiar playbooks so head coach Steve Mariucci was looking at this game as a chance to evaluate second and third-string players for back-up roles. Books quickly moved the line from 49ers -2.5 all the way to Washington -3 as action came the Redskins way at every point in between.

The game wasn’t close for long. San Francisco’s second stringers scored to go up 7-0 early in the second quarter but it was all Redskins from there. The Redskins starting offensive line was in the game in the third quarter while the 49ers starting linemen were resting well before halftime. Washington’s starting QB Sage Rosenfels played the entire first half and attempted 20 passes while San Francisco’s starting QB Jeff Garcia played just 10 minutes and attempted only four passes. Washington’s second-string QB Danny Wuerffel played the entire second half and attempted 25 passes, many with a large lead and against the third and fourth string-players of San Francisco. The 49ers on the other hand played three other QBs who attempted just 19 passes. Spurrier wanted his new team to believe in his system and his bosses to be impressed. Mariucci wanted to evaluate talent and expose some bench players to more playing time to help his team later in the regular season when injuries take their toll. One other item of note, these two teams meet again in September and so the 49ers did not run any plays from their regular playbook that the Redskins will see in the regular season game. The Redskins demonstrated no such forethought. It all boiled down to a 38-7 Redskins win but it was evident on the field that talent wasn’t the deciding factor, motivation was.

Preseason NFL handle has grown steadily over the past few years as more and more bettors begin to understand how to handicap the games. It wasn’t very long ago that just a handful of books offered lines on these games. Now, every sportsbook takes the basic wagers such as spreads, totals, parlays and teasers for the exhibition season and many shops are adding other modern wager types like first-halfs, half-times, quarter lines and even the occasional prop bet. From the House’s point-of-view, more games are always better so I expect this trend to continue in the future.

The biggest difference between regular season and preseason for the books side is that they are far more aggressive with line moves. I asked Bodog’s top book manager Kent for his thoughts on preseason line moves. “With regular season lines, we have a pretty good idea what the spread should be and where it will close so line moves are made with calculated precision. With preseason we have some ideas but because the handle is lower for every game and there are so many player changes we just follow the money and try a lot harder to balance action. This means there are a few more games where the score falls on a bad number for the house because of the extra line moves so we compensate by keeping the maximum a little lower.”

I also asked for his thoughts on the first full week of preseason games. “Last weekend we did very well when late public money came in heavy on the 49ers and Texans in the Hall-of-Fame Weekend games. The total in the Texans-Giants Monday Night game was bet heavily down from 31 to 29 and with the total landing on 51 we got the NFL season off to a great start. On Thursday, everybody was in on Pittsburgh and the Over so that game (Jets 16-6) was great as well. Friday saw big action and players winning with the Falcons and a moderate win for the House with Dallas beating the Raiders. Saturday was a little ugly as big line moves were the order of the day. For example, Denver moved from +1 to -3 and the Titans went from +1 to -2. There were also a few scores resulted in sides and middles in favor of the players. The Redskins opened and closed as 7-point favorites with some moves to -7.5 and -8 in there so their 37-30 win wasn’t great for us. The Giants/Pats game also fell on the line (Giants -3 and 22-19 final score), as did the Titans/Rams game (28-26 final). We lost on the Broncos and Browns, but did well on the Saints and Chargers. Overall, it was a break-even day but it was good to have to think through the key-number line moves that we haven’t had to do since Super Bowl. Then there was the Monday Night game where we were heavy on Miami +6 and Gruden elects to punt in the last minute with a 4-point lead from the Dolphins 27 instead of kicking a Field Goal to go up 7 and cover. Oh well, that’s why they play the games.”

For those of you that are new to betting, I will be talking a little more about sides, middles, line moves and key numbers in upcoming columns so stay tuned. Next week I will cover balancing action, which involves all of these factors. For now, remember to think about the motivation of the team you are playing. I also recommend checking coaches past records in pre-season for an indication. Perhaps knowing the 49ers were just 2-7 in the last two pre-seasons (4-5 ATS) would have helped you cash in on the Redskins last Saturday, if you didn’t already!

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Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino