08/02/2001 12:00AM

Should you wager or just watch?

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NFL preseason football is here, and bettors are torn between whether to head to the windows or just watch the games for entertainment. Some professional bettors say these games are impossible to handicap and not worth their time or money. Others say they can find an edge and exploit it. And after all, the money spends the same whether it's won in the regular season or in the preseason.

On Larry Grossman's "You Can Bet On It" show Wednesday, professional sports bettors Lem Banker and Mike Lee both said they don't like to bet preseason games. But Dave Cokin of Jim Feist's National Sports Services, said there are definitely games where a sharp bettor can win if willing to do his homework. Cokin, the Stardust Invitational defending champion who appears on the "Clubhouse" radio show during the week and on the "Stardust Line" on Sunday nights, does warn, however, that it's harder today to get information before the bookmakers or the rest of the public.

Preseason handicapping involves weighing a lot of factors that don't come up during the regular season: What is each coach's philosophy on preseason games? Does he try to get his team used to winning, or does he just want to get everyone through without any injuries? How long will the starters play? What will the quarterback rotation be, and who will be playing with the starting offensive line?

Cokin suggests that handicappers make token bets during the preseason just to force themselves to watch the games. You never know what nuggets you will uncover in preseason games that can help you get an edge on other bettors.

Here's an example: In 1999, Trent Green was supposed to lead the Rams' offense, but he was hurt in the preseason. Many people were surprised when unknown Kurt Warner was given the starting job by Dick Vermeil. But in his only preseason start, after only three days of practice with the first team, Warner led the Rams to two touchdowns and a field goal in three possessions against the Lions. It foreshadowed things to come, and bettors who paid attention in the preseason had a jump on everybody else.

Information is the key to betting preseason games, and with wall-to-wall sports shows on radio and TV, plus the increasing influence of the Internet, information is more readily available than ever before.

Here's an illustration of how information can move the line dramatically. Last week, Rams coach Mike Martz said he was treating Monday night's game with the Dolphins as a scrimmage. The Rams went from a 4-point favorite to a 3-point underdog in less than two days.

Obviously, the Dolphins are the side to be on. If you didn't get them at +3 or +4 last week, however, it makes no sense to lay -3 now. Never take a bad number just because you still think a team will win. There's a very real chance the game will fall in the middle and turn a winning ticket into a losing one. Those kinds of swings will bury a bankroll. So even though it's tempting to lay the field goal, you have to have the discipline to pass on the game.

Bengals at Bears (under 34)

The Bears are a two-point favorite, and is game is truly a toss-up, so I won't take either side. Both teams have quarterback controversies, and neither is reminiscent of Doug Flutie/Rob Johnson or Jeff George/Brad Johnson. Nope, this is Jon Kitna/Scott Mitchell/Akili Smith for the Bengals and Cade McNown/Shane Matthews, and the injured Jim Miller, for the Bears. Also, expect the 1,000-yard rushers for both teams (Corey Dillon and James Allen) to see limited action. The Bengals will be without Darnay Scott and the Bears will be without Marcus Robinson. This looks like the perfect case of a defense being ahead of the offense, so I will put 11 units on the game to fall under the total of 34 points (Station Casinos had the total at 34 1/2 on Thursday morning, so snatch that up if you can still get it; everywhere else around town it was 34).

Cowboys at Raiders (-5 1/2)

This line opened with the Raiders as a 6 1/ 2-point choice and money has come in on the Cowboys. I've heard handicappers say how the Cowboys need the game more, but I don't think that will make up for the decided edge in talent that the Raiders have. Tony Banks is the Cowboys' new starting QB and he will be backed up by rookie Quincy Carter. I don't see the Raiders being scared of either. In addition, Emmitt Smith will see limited action, if any. If the line were more than a touchdown, I would have to pass, but I have no reservations about laying 11 units on the Raiders -5 1/2.