The Preseason Admonition warns against using Preseason NFL performance to handicap the regular season.
As with almost every admonition, however, there are exceptions. One of those exceptions occurs in cases in which a team tries to win in the Preseason, but can't beat an opponent that is simply going through the motions.
One of the most important factors in handicapping NFL exhibition games is the intention of each coach. Coaches often hint at their intent before the game.
As a general rule, the coach that wants to win a Preseason game will win when matched up against a coach whose primary goal is something other than winning the game.
The above rule will produce winners a very high percentage of the time. Following coaching intentions in Preseason games is similar to picking stocks based on purchases by a top executive. Who better to know if a company's stock will increase in value than the men on the inside whose responsibility it is to run the company? Likewise, who better to know if his team will be trying to win and has the ability to win an exhibition game than the guy whose responsibility it is to run the team?
The biggest problem in applying the rule is accurately gauging the intentions of the coaches. Coaches rarely, if ever, lie about their intentions, but they often don't state them clearly. Handicappers must read between the lines, and it is at that point that errors occur.
Thus, built into most preseason handicaps is an error factor based in a possible misinterpretation of a coach's statements. In the rare circumstance that both coaches make clear and unequivocal statements about their intentions, the possibility of misinterpretation as a source of error is eliminated. Clearly stated coaching intentions add a great deal of accuracy to a preseason prediction, and serve to greatly increase the probability of an accurate prediction. Under Kelly betting principles, an increased probability of accuracy allows for a safe increase in the amount that can be invested in relation to total bankroll or, in other words, a stronger play.
The annual preseason meeting between the Oakland Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers has come to be known as the "Battle of the Bay." Two weeks ago, the 2011 Battle of the Bay not only determined bragging rights between two San Francisco Bay area teams, but provided evidence of the overriding principle that applies to every sport, every investment, every type of handicapping, every type of fundamental and technical investment analysis, and every type of prediction that can be made based on information, analysis and handicapping. That is:
NOTHING WORKS ALL THE TIME.
New coach of the Oakland Raiders, Hue Jackson, lost his first game of the Preseason played at Oakland. Most new coaches want to win the first Preseason home game in order to garner favor with the fans and management. Oakland was on he road for the Battle of the Bay, but they weren't far from home, and winning bragging rights could be considered more important than the first home game. The Raiders and the 49'ers are in such close proximity geographically that winning or losing the Battle of the Bay could have an effect on ticket sales for the season.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is also in his first year. Theoretically, his desire to win the Battle of the Bay game should have been equal to that of Jackson. Add to that the fact that it was San Francisco's first home game, and that San Francisco lost its first game of the season, played at New Orleans.
Both coaches should have wanted to win the match, resulting in a game that is an unpredictable no play in the preseason. Instead, the game turned into what I believed to be the best investment opportunity of the entire Preseason. The reason was based in the occurrence of something very unusual. Prior to the Battle of the Bay, the coaches of both teams made statements about their intentions that were absolutely clear and unequivocal.
Coaches rarely state outright that they intend to win. Rather, they only allude to it in order to leave room for saving face if their desire to win does not translate into the final score. For that reason, if a coach states an unequivocal intent to win a preseason game, it demonstrates extreme confidence in his team's ability to do so. If the team fails to win a preseason game after the coach declares clearly that he intends to win, the coach appears to be incompetent. That is particularly true if his team is matched against a team whose coach has declared that it will simply be going through the motions.
In his two press conferences before the Battle of the Bay, Raiders coach Hue Jackson said that he wanted to win the game not just once, but an amazing six times. During his final press conference before the game, Jackson said specifically,
"I don't like to lose. This is the Battle of the Bay. We're going to San Francisco to win. Our goal is to win."
In case that wasn't clear enough, Jackson continued, "We're not paying the toll on the bridge just to play. We're making the trip to win."
Still not content that he made his intentions clear, Jackson said, "After the game I want to walk into one of those great San Francisco restaurants with all eyes on me, and feeling pumped."
I don't think I've ever heard a coach make such a strong statement of intention. The only thing Jackson could have added to make his desire clearer would have been to actually predict the final score.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, on the other hand, said before the game, "After all the sacks last week we'll be emphasizing protection of the quarterback and avoiding injury. This is the preseason, we're not out to kick anybody's teeth in."
Thus, we had Oakland with a coach that said six times, "I want to win," playing against the Niners with a coach whose intent was to protect his players and not "kick anybody's teeth in." Statements like that create a huge probability of a win by the coach that wants it. There was virtually no possibility that the intentions of the coaches had been misunderstood. The biggest error factor in handicapping a preseason game -- possible misinterpretation of the intent of the coaches -- was eliminated.
To make matters even better for an investment on the Raiders, they were installed as an underdog. The close proximity of the teams made any home field advantage for the Niners negligible. Oakland appeared to be a very high probability play at a bargain price, and a dream investment.
Nevertheless, Oakland, the team that was "not crossing the bay just to play," managed to score only 3 points in the fourth quarter, and lost badly to a team that was merely trying to protect its players and "not trying to kick anybody's teeth in." It was a lesson in why money management is so important, no matter how certain a predicted game result may look.
Rather than walking into an excellent San Francisco eatery feeling pumped, Hue Jackson probably hid in the car while his driver ordered Big Macs to go. If he did show his face at a real restaurant, Jackson walked in looking like a complete fool, and likely wearing sunglasses . Not only did his team lack the talent and plays to win, but they were not even competitive on offense.
Jackson's knowledge of his team's abilities was faulty, and the inability of the coaching staff to call winning plays against a team that is not playing hard indicates a mind-boggling degree of incompetence
The 2011 Battle of the Bay did, however, more than make up for the loss of a single strong bet by providing an insight into the Oakland Raiders that can result in future profits far in excess of the loss. The reason that preseason results normally cannot be used as a basis for regular season handicapping is that the best team may lose in the preseason simply because it is not trying, and poor teams may look terrific simply because their opponents are lying down.. In the Battle of the Bay, however, we can be certain of the intention of the coaches. Had Oakland won, it would have meant little because San Francisco was not trying. But if a team trying hard to win loses to a team that is merely going through the motions, it provides a very accurate measure of a bad team and poor coaching.
It was no surprise that Oakland went on to lose once more in preseason Game 3, again with coach Jackson saying he would be trying to win. Amazingly, in his press conference before tonight's Game 4, Jackson was still proclaiming his desire to win. The following exchange took place with a reporter:
“Q: What are you looking to accomplish in this last preseason game?
Coach Jackson: Another dress rehearsal. You know obviously I like to play to win and I haven’t won yet so it is pissing me off. That might be why I am pissed, but other than that I think it is another opportunity for us to get ready before the season starts. I think our players understand that, at least they know that and that is what we need to do.”
We know what happened in the Game 3 dress rehearsal, and in the Battle of the Bay. It is not obvious that Jackson likes to win, but rather that Oakland can’t win. Don't count on Oakland winning tonight either, although the game is best avoided because Seattle coach Carroll's intentions are unclear in this final game, and.there is no limit to the extent that Seattle might lay down.
Remember the Raiders preseason performance when the regular season begins next week. At least until all of the starters are back from injury, Oakland will be one of the few exceptions to the maxim that the preseason should be ignored when handicapping the regular season. Once the first team fully returns, watch one game to see if there is any difference in performance. If not, Oakland may be one of the surest go-against teams ever to play in the NFL.