The NFL preseason kicks off on Thursday with the Hall of Fame Game between the Baltimore Ravens (-2.5) and Chicago Bears in Canton, Ohio.
Even though it’s only an exhibition game, it is the first time that fans can bet on an actual NFL game since the Super Bowl. You would think bettors are chomping at the bit to get down on some American football, right?
Not so fast.
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“It runs less than 5% of a normal Thursday night football game,” said Westgate Superbook oddsmaker Ed Salmons. “There’s not a lot of betting, and the limits are so low that you really can’t get hurt by it. It’s more about advertising, telling people ‘Hey, football is right around the corner.”
That said, bookmakers are not in the business of giving away free money, and setting lines for preseason games can be tricky.
“We look at the coaches’ track record a lot,” Salmons explained. “For instance, Marv Levy back in the day really didn’t take the preseason seriously (the Bills were 4-13 in exhibition games between 1990 and 1993) so you have to adjust for that.”
Other coaches, however, take these seemingly meaningless games quite seriously. Take Mike Zimmer, the head coach of the Vikings, for example. Since Zimmer took over in 2014, Minnesota is 14-3 in 17 preseason contests.
Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports Pictured: Mike Zimmer.
“[Zimmer] is kind of the opposite of Levy,” Salmons added. “He wanted to win preseason games, and the Vikings have done well under him in the exhibition season. But that may change this year because he has so many good players on his team and they’re expected to contend. Will he change his approach and protect those guys? That’s what we need to ask ourselves.”
Then, of course, there’s the challenge of trying to guess who is going to play and how many snaps they will see. During the regular season — barring injuries and suspensions — speculators and oddsmakers alike have a pretty clear idea about which players are going to see the field. During the preseason, it’s a completely different animal.
“Last year, Pittsburgh and Green Bay barely played their starters in the entire preseason. I think they played like seven quarters combined,” Salmons said. “Then you have someone like Bill Belichick who does things very differently. He’ll just come out and play his starters for an entire half.”
For the Hall of Fame Game, bettors were waiting for the Ravens to show their hand regarding how many snaps rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson will get in his first taste of the pro game.
Signs point to the 2016 Heisman winner getting significant reps, and the market reacted accordingly, moving the Ravens from a pick ’em to a 2.5-point favorite.
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“When word started to trickle down that Jackson would play a lot, the line moved towards the Ravens,” Salmons explained. “Then it became a waiting game. A lot of times the other team will announce something, and if it’s positive, the line will come back down. These lines can move six points really quickly, so it’s really volatile.”
One thing that you can count on: teams with hyped-up No. 2 quarterbacks, such as Jackson or Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen, will get a lot of action.
“When the Patriots had Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo, you knew they’d have a good quarterback playing for most of the game, so we’d see a lot of bets come in on them.”