Every August, I head to the beach for a week to enjoy a nice family vacation. Over the years, that week has been a reminder that signifies a transition into a new National Football League season. Preseason kicks off to fire up my palate just enough to surge into September’s main course. The cravings shift to a roaring hunger that has accumulated ever since the Super Bowl clock hit 0:00.
This year hits different. Vacation came and went without any preseason or entertaining hyperbole on why a certain team’s success hangs in the balance of their decision to cut the fourth quarter hero of the fourth preseason game. The palate is as dry as the Sahara, and the rest of the world wonders exactly what the NFL is serving up this season. Fans across the globe are starving for a season, but like the first time dining in a foreign restaurant, they are uncomfortable because they can’t quite comprehend the menu.
The NFL is sacred and has always been captured as such in our childhood memories. We want to believe it will be the same. I want it to be the same product that makes Sunday mornings a welcomed ritual that has us waking up Monday morning looking for the fast forward button to the following Sunday.
The good news is that football is coming. The bad news is that it’s going to look different. At its core, sports wagering is about predicting outcomes. Entering what is likely to be the most unpredictable season in history, preparation for the 2020 NFL season is paramount. How do we prepare for a season that we have never seen before? That’s a critical question that I won’t pretend to be able to answer in its entirety. I can start by evaluating how the NFL will be different this season. Let’s hit on a couple of key points I was able to identify that will impact how the game is played in 2020.
• Reduction in attendance
I used the word reduction loosely here by design since there is still a level of uncertainty regarding how many fans will be in attendance throughout the league. The league has yet to enforce a uniform policy.
As much as fans like myself were raised to believe their performance in the stands is just as important as the players on the field, home-field advantage in the NFL is more of a byproduct of travel than anything else. That doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be a very significant impact to empty stadiums. Screaming fans and crowd noise can make life difficult for visiting quarterbacks. Crowd noise causes real disruption to an offense’s ability to function at critical junctions of the game. Compromising an opposing quarterback’s ability to communicate impacts the snap counts and audibles. The NFL is considering allowing some artificial crowd noise, but it’s highly unlikely they approve anything as effective as the real thing. Life just became much easier for road offenses which means offensive output overall should increase.
Betting angle: Target road teams with an advantage offensively or teams with significant offensive splits. One team that immediately comes to the mind is the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys averaged 10 more points at home versus on the road in 2019 and suffered losses at New York to the lowly Jets and in Philadelphia with the season on the line. They have an emerging star at quarterback who may be able to take advantage of the opportunity of playing on the road without screaming fans to exceed expectations on the road this year.
Green Bay faces Minnesota in Week One as +3.5 point underdogs in a dome that is historically a huge advantage for the Vikings. While the Vikings had the slightly higher scoring offense in 2019, the Packers were more efficient based on football outsiders DVOA rankings. Factor in the loss of Minnesota’s Stefan Diggs, and you have a situation that is worth taking a hard look at. The NFC North champs are getting points with the better offense in an empty stadium against a Minnesota secondary that has three new starters and a limited offseason to build chemistry. There are more games like this on the schedule you want to look for. The NFL doesn’t typically yield a huge home-field advantage to begin with, so this year road teams with superior offenses should provide value.
Mike Zimmer Home Record: 34-13
Mike Zimmer Away Record: 23-24-1#SKOL
— Dustin Baker (@DustBaker) December 27, 2019
• Limited offseason training
The restrictions across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in the elimination of preseason games and a reduction of off-season activities. Teams are simply not as physically prepared to start the season as they would be in a typical year. In the past, we see fundamentally sound teams like the Patriots have success early in the season due to the emphasis the staff puts on tackling. Defensive teams are sloppy early in September, and this year those shortcomings will be more prevalent across the league and magnified.
Betting angle: Focus on the totals and evaluate for over opportunities. Sloppy defenses result in more explosive plays. Offenses could be scoring early and often. Road offenses, as mentioned above, should be able to have more success. Totals with strong road offenses could provide value. Overs are the popular side with the public, so it’s important to shop for the best opening line.
• Rookie Quarterbacks
There isn’t a singular transition in football that is more difficult than the leap a rookie quarterback must take in year one. Imagine having to make that leap in today’s environment of limited reps, virtual offseason training, and how that affects the chemistry with your team. Absorbing the playbook is challenging enough, but being able to process it mentally at NFL game speed is a whole different world. That world only slows down through experience, and this year’s rookie quarterback class will have less than anyone we have seen before.
Betting angle: Fade first-year quarterbacks in September. One game I will take a hard look at in Week One is the Chargers at the Bengals. Joe Burrow faces an elite secondary the very first time his cleats touch the grass in a professional football game. The Chargers are currently -3.5 in what should be a quick reminder that Burrow isn’t playing Clemson any longer. Take a hard look at opportunities on Burrow’s player props as well. Stay alert for circumstances that could thrust Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa or L.A.’s Justin Herbert into similar situations. These opportunities should provide more value than years past.
Do the Chargers have the best secondary in the NFL after signing Chris Harris Jr.? pic.twitter.com/a6Y2kBDEM7
— PFF (@PFF) March 18, 2020
• More offense impacts the derivative markets
The central theme of the variables that will make this NFL season fun and unique all point in the same direction – offense and scoring. I touched on this in my Futures Faceoff piece featuring the Chiefs and Saints several weeks ago. Teams with high-powered offenses and superstar quarterbacks are set up for record-breaking seasons. Let’s be honest, the general public likes scoring and they should see plenty of it. The combination of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson’s natural development and this year’s advantages for offenses should lead to spectacular results. I am sure the NFL won’t mind as the higher scoring leads to increased ratings, especially with a new TV deal on the horizon in 2022.
Any increase in offensive production overall impacts much more than the totals on NFL games. Player props and team totals are just two examples of the derivative markets that are impacted. If the Chiefs are averaging 35 points a game (they averaged 39 in the postseason), there is a good chance there are numerous opportunities to hit overs in the derivative markets whether it’s individual player props, 1Q/1H totals, or team totals. Be prepared to find opportunities early in the season as the bookmakers always adjust quickly.
• Testing and Line Movements
That leads us to the final observation that is going to make this year intense. The impact and timing of players missing games due to positive COVID-19 tests. Line movement typically follows a pattern throughout the week based on team news, including injury reports. NFL teams start reporting injuries on Wednesday and while it’s typical for a player’s status to be in doubt until game time, good information is available throughout the week.
This year will be different. Key players receiving surprise positive COVID-19 results the day before the game will cause bettors and bookmakers to adjust rapidly. The rule of thumb is always to beat the closing line. In order to successfully do that, you need to evaluate the lines before the rest of the market has the entire week to impact them. The COVID testing schedule brings a new element of volatility to the market enhancing risk early in the week. It will be interesting to see how the markets react and whether the typical line movement we see during points of the week will be delayed causing a “flash flood” effect in the market over the weekend.
Several high profile players missing multiple games will obviously mitigate any anticipated offensive increase in production, especially if they are coming from the quarterback position. It will also be very important to track how COVID impacts individual team travel on the road and if teams that follow similar schedules have success. This roller coaster ride of a season will be a week-to-week evaluation, and the key will be monitoring and adjusting. I think it’s valuable to identify these differences now so we can get in front of these angles and adjust more efficiently during the season. Buckle up and enjoy the ride. It’s a whole new NFL, but the goals never change – beat the game and pick winners!