07/30/2003 11:00PM

Preseason NFL a time to do homework

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The NFL preseason was scheduled to begin early Saturday. The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Jets are in Tokyo for a glorified exhibition called the American Bowl, set to kick off at 5 a.m. Eastern, 2 a.m. Pacific, so there's a good chance of sleeping through it (or, if you arrived in Las Vegas on Friday, you might have been gambling or partying at that time).

A lot of people feel these games are meaningless, and they are right to the extent that they don't count in the standings, but there is a wealth of information that can be gained by watching closely. Do the starters look in sync? How are the rookies and free-agent acquisitions fitting into their new teams? Which teams have the best depth? Which backups are likely to break the starting lineup by opening day?

My favorite example is the 1999 Rams. Trent Green was brought in to be the starting QB. He performed well in the preseason, as did his backup Kurt Warner. The offense was really coming together under coach Dick Vermeil. Green got hurt late in the preseason and, instead of trying to trade for an established veteran, Vermeil promoted Warner.

Most experts wrote off the Rams, but the bettors who recognized Warner's ability to step right in made a killing that year. I wasn't one of them, but it taught me a valuable lesson: watch every game you can.

If you missed the first game, don't fret. ESPN2 is offering you a "get out of jail free" card by replaying the Jets-Bucs game Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Pacific.

This month, there are no fewer than 11 nationally televised preseason games (allowing a sneak peak at 20 teams - the Bucs and Packers will be on twice apiece), including one on each Monday night, plus others available on cable and regional TV.

There is an annual debate among bettors about whether you should be putting any money on these games. Some bettors say, "Forget it." Regular-season NFL games are notorious for random pointspread results that can hinge on an interception or fumble return, or on special teams. The chance of those increases when you have third- and fourth-stringers deciding games in the fourth quarter of preseason games.

But others see it as the best time to bet because coaches will be very forthcoming about their game plans. These bettors scour the Internet to search for quotes from coaches about their strategy for an upcoming preseason game: How long will the starters play? Will the rookie QB get some time with the starting linemen? Which wily veterans will be playing in the fourth quarter against a defense of scrubs?

In addition, some coaches are known for either taking preseason games seriously, or for not caring at all about winning or losing. Hall of Famer Marv Levy was one of the latter. His Bills would having losing preseason records year after year but he always had them ready for the season opener.

Others try to instill a winning attitude. Dick Vermeil led the Chiefs to a 4-0 record last year (note: the Chiefs at +1 at Green Bay this upcoming Monday night), and new Cowboys coach Bill Parcells has a career preseason mark of 40-19 (67.8 percent) with two pushes. Parcells was 9-3 in his most recent three seasons with the Jets.

Some early bettors at the Gold Coast sports book have obviously been putting those stats to use, as the Cowboys have been bet from pick-em to -3 vs. the Cardinals for their Aug. 10 opener. That brings up a point that is in favor of bettors. In the old days, bookmakers wouldn't put up preseason lines until as late as possible so that they could do more research. With so much competition from the offshore industry, however, you're seeing books putting up lines earlier and earlier.

Another thing I have noticed is the lowering of pointspreads. You used to see a lot more in the 6- to 7-point range when good teams met bad ones. But smart bettors have done well the past few years by pounding the underdogs.

So, that factor, combined with the general state of parity in the NFL and exhibition games being pretty much unpredictable, has led to there being no pointspreads higher than 4 1/2. That line was found on the Aug. 11 Jets-Bengals game at the Gold Coast, a rare book that has lines up for next week's matchups on the four teams that are playing this weekend.

Other than that game, as of this past Wednesday, every other game is between 1 and 3 1/2, and more than half (nine) of the 17 games on the betting board through Aug. 11 were on the key number of 3. With only one exception (the Seahawks -3 1/2 vs. the Chargers on Aug. 10), every game that opened at either 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 has been bet to 3.

Sometimes a good preseason play is to bet against the line moves. A coach might go on SportsCenter and say he's resting all his starters, and you'll see everyone jumping on the other team, and bookmakers overreact. Value can be found on the other side.

While it's fun to analyze the betting lines, the more important thing at this time is to acquaint yourself with the players and the teams, looking for clues that others might miss.

And while there are betting opportunities, the key is to be selective. We have six months of football ahead of us and there's no reason to blow your bankroll on preseason games.