In the last week or two of the regular season in the NFL it is not at all uncommon to see playoff teams rest their starters. It can be very frustrating for football fans and bettors, but for the teams it is often the logical approach. If the team can’t improve their playoff position in any significant way then it really doesn’t make sense to risk having a key player hurt in a meaningful game. It also gives those key players a chance to get some rest and to heal the bumps and bruises of the long season before the drain and strain of what the football team hopes is a long playoff run. Some NFL coaches won’t rest players because they fear it builds rust that will hamper the team in the playoffs, but resting is certainly the more common approach.
For sports bettors the resting of players can cause real headaches. Until the game starts you can rarely be totally sure of who will play or how much they will play, so you are forced to make even more guesses and assumptions than you would in a normal week of NFL actions. When bettors try to deal effectively with this situation there are many mistakes that can be made – costly ones that can put a real hole in the bankroll of unsuspecting bettors. Here are six of those mistakes that it is important for handicappers to avoid:
Assuming all players will rest – Casual football bettors will assume that a team that is resting players will rest all starters, but that just isn’t the case. Some teams will allow players to choose how much they want to play. Some NFL teams will rest some players and not others depending on their health, the risk in their play, or the depth and quality of the backups that are available. Sometimes a player who has been hurt during the year will play to recover their fitness and game speed so they are more ready for the playoffs. There are all sorts of reasons why a player may or may not play, so any assumptions you make on this front are meaningless unless you can confirm that they are true.
Overvaluing importance of starting quarterback – if there is one player that is going to rest it is most likely to be the quarterback. The betting public overreacts about the importance of the quarterback and the difficulty of replacing them more than they do for any other position. Sometimes the starting quarterback is truly irreplaceable and the team will be far less competent without him. Often times, though, that just isn’t the case. Perhaps the backup is a veteran with starting experience, or a talented youngster who is more than capable of playing at a high level. Maybe the offensive schemes rely more on avoiding mistakes than making big plays. If the absence of the starting quarterback isn’t likely to have as much of an impact as the public will assume then there could be a chance for NFL handicappers to grab some very nice value.
Ignoring scheme and matchup issues – Like any other football game these games come down to how the players and the schemes match up on the field. Regardless of who is or isn’t playing in a particular game this is still what is important. Instead of dwelling on distinctions between starters and backups it is important to look at how those players match up with the ones they will line up against. Nothing else matters.
Undervaluing skill of backups – The public tends to assume that the starters are very good and that the backups are dramatically worse. That’s a lazy assumption, and often an incorrect one. Instead, you need to focus on how good the backups really are. How much have they played during the year? Have they started in the past? How healthy are they? What are they going to be asked to do? When you are objective in your analysis you’ll often find that the gap between starters and backups isn’t particularly large. Sometimes the backups will actually be better than the starters at this point because they are fresh and healthy.
Ignoring public reaction – Perhaps the biggest factor for football handicappers when looking at games with rested starters is how the public is reacting to the situations. Often the public will bet heavily against a team that is resting players because they perceive that the team won’t be nearly as good as they have been, and that they won’t be motivated to put forth a good effort. If the public is doing that then it is quite possible that they are overreacting, and that they are creating real value as a result.
Betting when you don’t have to – It is hard enough to pick a winner in the NFL when teams are at full strength and fully motivated. Rested players create even more uncertainty than normal, and can make it even harder to pick a winner as a result. Sometimes betting on these football games makes very good sense because they offer a real edge for smart bettors. If that isn’t the case, though, then the smart move might be to avoid making a bet and wait for the NFL playoffs when you have a better chance. For the serious sports handicapper money not bet is always better than money lost.