At this time of year, I always get a couple of people that ask me something along the lines of, “What’s the best way to prepare for the football season?” These readers are sometimes in a panic because they feel like they’re way behind the oddsmakers and other bettors.
But let’s start with a word from one of today’s great philosophers, Aaron Rodgers, as he famously told his fans a couple of years ago when they were starting to feel high anxiety: “R-E-L-A-X. Relax.”
The NFL preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in a little over a week and college football’s so-called “Week Zero” is just a month away (Aug, 27), with most teams having their season opener a week later on Labor Day Weekend. And, yes, there are plenty of people who have been studying for months.
But believe me when I say this: You still have plenty of time. I have interviewed nearly every major football contest winner in Las Vegas since the turn of the century (that sounds more impressive than saying 1999), and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there's more than one way to skin a cat. I’ve never understood that cliche as it’s pretty morbid and I’ve never been asked for advice on skinning a cat, but in this case I mean there’s more than one way to have a successful season or to win a contest.
Of course, there’s been plenty of cocky winners who have told me they knew they were going to have a great season because they studied so hard during the summer. They knew they had put in the work and if you were to try to convince them otherwise, they would just say “scoreboard” or “the proof is in the pudding.” Mmmmm, pudding.
But I digress. Now, since I do believe other cliches like “we make our own luck” and “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” I don’t want to knock the hard workers out there if they feel that’s the best way to get ready for football season.
However, just as often, I’ve had contest winners tell me they didn’t do any extra work than they normally do, and some even say they didn’t really prepare for the season at all.
What it really comes down to is that if you’re betting Over/Under season win totals or division/conference/championship futures, then of course you need to do a lot of preseason research and make wise decisions before the season starts. But if you’re mostly betting or playing contests from week to week, it’s going to be more important how you adjust your power ratings or your thinking about the teams in real time. Having all the knowledge in the world is certainly a great start, but the challenge is figuring out when to stick to your preconceived opinion of teams and when to adjust after seeing what the teams do on the field.
I was reminded of this on vacation when I watched the movie “American Underdog” on my flight to Hawaii. It’s the story of Kurt Warner going from undrafted to bagging groceries to playing arena football and then winning NFL MVP and the Super Bowl in his rookie year. It was 1999, and Trent Green was the starting QB for the St. Louis Rams. He got injured in the preseason and coach Dick Vermeil named the unknown Warner as the starter. Sportsbooks here in Las Vegas raised the Rams to 200-1 to win the Super Bowl, longest shot on the board. The conventional wisdom was that the Rams were doomed with such an unproven QB. Well, not to spoil the movie (though I trust all but the youngest of our readers remember living through it), but Warner excelled from the start with the “Greatest Show on Turf” while oddsmakers were slow to lower the Rams’ odds and ended up taking a loss. Meanwhile, longtime oddsmaker/handicapper Russ Culver (of the Glantz-Culver Line for old-timers who remember that) was quick to see that Warner was the real deal and nearly swept every football contest in town.
I can aso share anecdotally from my own experience. There have been summers when I’ve studied my ass off. I would read everything I could every single day to keep up on all the player moves. I would then watch every single NFL preseason game, many live and the rest on replay. I would especially grade the starting offensive and defensive lines as long as they were in the games, and also watch the backups in the second halves of games to see who had good depth.
I’ve also had years where I did very minimal watching of preseason games, and I mean close to nothing at all. I would make notes of players who were injured and needed to be replaced, so I wasn’t completely in the dark, but pretty close.
And, frankly, I’ve had great early success both ways. I’ve been in the lead or tied for the lead in the Westgate SuperContest after six weeks on two separate occasions. Unfortunately, both times were before they had an in-season contest like they do now on Weeks 1-6. However, I’ve also had seasons where I was ultra-prepared and started around 25-30%.
This year, I’m somewhere in between. I did a lot of reading for the college football previews that I wrote for our VSiN College Football Betting Guide that’s coming out this week, then picked up a lot of tidbits while helping to edit my colleagues’ articles. I feel like I have a good foundation on all of the conference races and the College Football Playoff possibilities. That would be my first recommendation for readers: Go through the betting guide and save it for future reference. But there is such a thing as paralysis by analysis. I wouldn’t worry about memorizing everything because, as I said with the NFL, a lot of your success will depend on adjusting those first impressions once we see the teams on the field, especially in college football as most of the teams have the early part of their schedules loaded with cupcakes (mmmmm, cupcakes!) and you can see if the offenses and defenses are ready for tougher conference games.
The same goes for the NFL. We’ll have our VSiN NFL Betting Guide out in a few weeks, so again I recommend that in your preparation.
Personally, I’m looking forward to betting NFL preseason games as I’m doing my research (but, no, I’m not planning to watch every game as I didn’t feel it gave me any real edge). There are certainly naysayers about the value of betting NFL preseason games, but let me try to predict what VSiN colleague Matt Youmans and I will write either next week before the Hall of Fame Game or the week after before Week 1 of the NFL preseason:
“The NFL preseason is beatable because there are definitely some coaches that take the preseason seriously and try to win (JIm Harbaught being No. 1), plus this is the only time when coaches will tell us their game plans and how long they intend to play their starters.”
It’s funny because it’s true.
So, stick with us in the coming weeks as I’ll be finalizing my Over/Under season win total recommendations and delving into the NFL preseason. Football season is just about here, but there’s no need to panic.