08/03/2006 12:00AM

Digging for reasons to bet preseason


Football handicappers here in Las Vegas are asking themselves a very important question this week: "Should I bet on the NFL preseason?"

Betting on the NFL preseason is an issue with which I have struggled over the years. When I first came to town in the 1990's, I thought it was a symptom of the degenerate gambler to bet on exhibition games. With starters generally playing just a few series at most, and with no real incentive for teams to actually win these contests, it seemed like a fruitless exercise to try to handicap what would happen.

Then, from talking to fellow bettors and reading up on handicapping theories, I thought I started to see some value in it (which a psychologist would probably say is just my way of rationalizing a chance to gamble instead of admitting I might have become a degenerate). For example, coaches are much more likely to discuss their game plans in the preseason than they are in the regular season. They'll come out and say how long their starters will play and if they need to work on the running game or the passing game. It's not like a coach has anything to gain by lying in these situations - anyone ever hear of a coach having a preseason win-loss record incentive clause in his contract? - so it seems logical that you could often gauge a team's level of intensity going into a game. I also started looking at coaches' tendencies in the preseason to see if they emphasized winning or just went through the motions waiting for the regular-season games to start. New coaches tended to want to make a good first impression, whereas veteran coaches typically put less stock in the preseason, choosing to just use the games to evaluate young players.

Another key handicapping factor I favored was looking at the quarterback rotations, looking at teams with quality backups, especially if there was a battle for the top spot or between the second and third stringers. The theory is that the more intense the quarterback battles are on a team, the more likely the quarterbacks are going to be playing hard in the fourth quarter.

After a few short seasons of success, it all seems like flipping a coin again. Maybe the oddsmakers caught up to some of these theories, or maybe any success was just a result of the small sample of games in the preseason.

I won't criticize anyone who dives deep into the preseason pool and thinks he has an edge, but I'm not planning on getting involved much.

The first exhibition is Sunday's Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. The Eagles are 3-point favorites over the Raiders, with the total at 36. I would think that the Raiders have the edge. They have a new coach in Art Shell who may stress the need to instill a winning attitude, whereas the Eagles, who have a more stable coaching staff and organization, will really be viewing this as an exhibition. However, I prefer the Eagles' QB rotation of Jeff Garcia and Koy Detmer behind starter Donovan McNabb as opposed to the Raiders' Marques Tuiasosopo and Andrew Walter behind starter Aaron Brooks. Those factors seem to cancel each other out, so I'll have to pass.

But just because I won't be betting many games doesn't mean that I won't be watching. You can pick up a lot from watching preseason games, such as how the offensive line works as a unit, the timing of the quarterback and receivers, and the depth (or lack thereof) on both sides of the ball. The major news out of these games will be reported, but there are nuggets to pick up, and if you're not paying attention, plenty of other bettors will be putting in the extra effort.

The second preseason game is next Thursday, and it certainly is a scheduling quirk. The Eagles - yes, the same Eagles who play on Sunday night - are hosting the Browns. If you're leaning toward playing the Raiders on Sunday, that's another notch in their favor, since it can be assumed the Eagles can't possibly put in a top effort knowing they have another game in four days, right? Conversely, the league gave the Raiders more than a week off; they don't have to play again until the following Monday night vs. the Vikings. The silver lining is that the Eagles don't have to play their first game in Japan like some teams have had to in recent years.

The other game next Thursday is the Colts at the Rams. This also illustrates how meaningless preseason games are, since oddsmakers have made the Rams a 3-point favorite. If this was a regular-season game, what would the line be? Probably Colts -6 or thereabouts. The total is 40 1/2. If this was the regular season, the total would be in the upper 40's and possibly even the 50's. As it is, it is the highest total of the opening week of the preseason, when totals tend to be lower.

There will be five games next Friday, then another seven games Saturday, plus a Sunday night game and the aforementioned Monday night game. When looking over the lines, you'll probably also notice that the point spreads are all low. The Panthers -4 1/2 vs. the Bills is the biggest spread, and only two other lines are more than a field goal. That's another sign that these games are pretty much coin-flips and can go either way. Just another reason to pay attention during the preseason but to not get involved betting it.

Still, that Raiders play is looking a little better. Uh-oh, someone call my shrink.