No trophies are raised for dominating the NFL in August, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s run of success in recent preseasons puts him on top of a short list that includes Vince Lombardi, so that’s good company.
Harbaugh has guided Baltimore to a 20-0 record in preseason games since 2016, the longest winning streak in league history, one game better than the Lombardi-led Packers from 1959 to 1962. Harbaugh’s accomplishment is not a big deal in the big picture, but if winning in the preseason is meaningful to any coach, it’s an angle that matters to handicappers and oddsmakers.
“I have a hard time going against Harbaugh in the preseason,” said Chuck Edel, a professional bettor from Las Vegas. “I don’t have to bet on him, but it’s not my cup of tea to try to beat him.”
Edel is another example of someone who takes the NFL preseason seriously. Contrary to a common perception that only degenerates and fools wager on these games, several sharp bettors are ready to fire.
“Our (betting) limits are much, much lower than they would be during the regular season,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “It’s the swings in the spreads — you will see six games in a week move four points.”
Read between the lines to see sharp money is more fact than fiction in the preseason, on a relative scale. The wagering limits at a majority of Las Vegas books are around $2,000 for sides and $1,000 for totals, which means bookmakers are proceeding with caution. If the bettors were always losing, the limits would not be so low.
Avello’s point about swinging spreads is evident in the first game of Week 1 on Thursday, when the Giants are 2-point road favorites against the Patriots. Sharp money has moved the number after it opened New England -2.
For several hours each week in August, Edel listens to press conferences and reads stories in a search for insightful quotes about how coaches plan to use their starters and how much emphasis might be put on winning a game. Preseason betting is mostly about information, finding an edge and getting ahead of the line moves.
Edel was watching Monday afternoon when Brian Daboll, first-year coach of the Giants, said, “I anticipate all of our guys playing” against the Patriots.
“Daboll was talking about different philosophies with coaches and how they handle preseason,” Edel said. “With a new team and new scheme, it sounds like he might play his starters. I am leaning to the Giants in that game.”
Many of the starters, including quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley, might play only a couple of series or a quarter, but that could be a significant advantage if the Patriots opt to rest most of their starters. Barkley has played in only one preseason game in his career. The Giants have a quality quarterback depth chart, with veteran Tyrod Taylor as the backup and Davis Webb as the No. 3.
A new philosophy is probably needed for the Giants, who started 0-2 in each of the past five regular seasons with three different head coaches. Daboll was the Bills’ offensive coordinator under coach Sean McDermott, who’s 7-0 straight up and against the spread in the past two preseasons (there was no preseason in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
It should be noted that Patriots coach Bill Belichick does not treat the preseason as a joke, compiling 9-2 SU and 8-3 ATS records since 2018.
Harbaugh’s 20-game winning streak in August comes with an 18-2 ATS record — the non-covers were in a pair of one-point wins in 2018 — so bettors will be paying a tax to back Baltimore. The Ravens are 3.5-point home favorites against the Titans in the other Thursday game. Tennessee does not plan to play star running back Derrick Henry.
Edel said he’s wondering if Harbaugh will approach this August schedule a little differently after Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins went down with a season-ending knee injury in last year’s final preseason game. Harbaugh said quarterback Lamar Jackson and at least six other starters will not play Thursday.
While Jackson’s absence is no surprise, Baltimore has a competitive situation behind him with mobile quarterbacks Tyler Huntley, Brett Hundley and Anthony Brown. Mobility is an important part of playmaking in the preseason, when several backup offensive linemen are on the field and plays often break down.
“You look at the coaches who like to win, and you look at the second-string and third-string quarterbacks,” Avello said.
The Panthers have an intriguing quarterback battle going for the top job between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, and it should lead to preseason success. It helps that rookie Matt Corral and veteran P.J. Walker are theoretically fighting for the third spot. Also consider that Matt Rhule, who’s 10-23 in two years as Carolina’s coach, needs to get his team ready to win now. Rhule could be entering his last year.
Prior to last week’s preseason curtain-raiser in Canton, Ohio, Edel said he sensed new Raiders coach Josh McDaniels was more motivated to win than Jaguars coach Doug Pederson. McDaniels’ play-calling approach was aggressive from the start, and Edel’s bet on Las Vegas -2.5 paid off in a 27-11 win.
“If you find the right first-year coach, it works out sometimes,” Edel said.
Not all first-year coaches are worth a bet. The Falcons’ Arthur Smith went 0-3 a year ago with an average losing margin of 16.3 points.
The Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, a Super Bowl-winning coach who’s never had a losing regular season, posted a 3-1 straight-up record in each of the past four preseasons.
But not all Super Bowl winners care about the preseason. The Rams’ Sean McVay is riding a five-game preseason losing streak, and McVay is unlikely to play quarterback Matthew Stafford, wideout Cooper Kupp or defensive stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey again this August.
Harbaugh has won a Super Bowl and is the current king of the preseason, yet will his historic winning streak soon come to an end? That’s the biggest question of the month.