Monday, October 31, 2005

NFL Road Rage

The horrendous performances by NFL road teams have been pestering me for a long time and I think it’s time I address this ridiculous phenomenon. Week after week, otherwise good NFL teams go on the road and proceed to get stomped on. I don’t understand it. I never have and I never will. The excuses that you hear from NFL teams range from the effects of the crowd noise and travel schedule to a time change or jet lag or even the field conditions (i.e. domes or cold weather). Those excuses are tired. I’m not buying any of it. I am convinced that NFL teams “mail it in” against good teams on the road because it’s convenient. Sure, every once in a while, a road team will show up ready to play against a good team but that is so rare that it may happen once a week, if that. If the road team is considerably better than the home team, then the road team usually shows up and takes care of business (unless you’re the Jags playing at St. Louis). It seems like NFL teams go into road games with the impression that the game will be no different than home games. Then, when their opponents come out particularly motivated to start the game, the road team makes the decision right away (first drive, first qtr etc.) that they will not match the other team’s enthusiasm and intensity essentially deciding the result of the game. I’m not saying that NFL road teams lose on purpose, or intentionally sabotage their team. I’m saying that they fail to raise their intensity to the level of their opponents when it’s convenient to do so. Unfortunately, it’s generally convenient to do so on the road against an above average team. Players can blame a blasé attitude and poor execution on the fact that the game was played on the road. Generally, the media doesn’t press the issue and teams move on to the next week. There is no accountability for a poor road performance. The built in excuses all but vindicate a road loss.

There are 26 (out of 32) teams in the NFL who are .500 or better at home. Twenty-six! On the other hand, there are only five teams in the NFL that are above .500 on the road. NFL teams are 76-39 (66%) at home. Consequently, road teams are 39-76 (34%). Home teams are outscoring road teams by nearly six points per game, 23.5 to 17.9. These are grown men whose physical attributes do not change based on where they play. If your team has an overwhelming defense then it’s probably overwhelming because the players on the defense are stronger, faster and smarter than most teams. If your team has a high-powered offense, then it’s probably high-powered because your offensive playmakers are more athletic and gifted than most defenses. These things do not change whether a game is played at home or on the road.

Nothing is more infuriating to me than seeing NFL players getting paid millions of dollars to give up on a game before it even starts. I just can’t believe that grown adults, who are being paid so well, would allow their performance to differ so much based on the location of their workplace. Every sportscaster in America ripped in to Ravens running back Jamal Lewis this week for saying that he worries about getting hurt without a long term contract in place and that those “worries” might affect his play on the field. While I agree that Lewis probably should’ve kept that to himself, Lewis is doing no different than what NFL teams do every week. The home team has been favored in 80% of NFL games this season—and rightfully so. Week after week, good NFL teams go on the road and get lambasted by an otherwise equal opponent. Every week, there are hundreds of NFL players who give inept performances because they are playing a road game. I would love it if NFL players were only guaranteed money for home games and the rest of their money could be earned for winning on the road. The lack of professionalism of NFL players in respect to their performance on the road compromises the integrity of the NFL. I might be in the minority, but I have a very difficult time taking the NFL seriously when there’s such a discrepancy in performance based, not on who the opponent is but, on where the game is being played.

Take this week for example (week 8). The Giants and Redskins had the same record and were pretty even across the board entering the game. The Giants annihilated the Redskins 38-0. Unfortunately, I watched this whole game. As an NFL fan, it was a nightmare to watch and an embarrassment for the league. The Redskins had 125 total yards. Domination doesn’t even begin to describe how brutally the Giants obliterated the Redskins. If I didn’t know better, I would think that the ‘Skins were “throwing the game”. Since I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen, the only explanation I can give is that the Redskins gave up before the game started. There is no question that the Redskins would’ve performed significantly better (if not won the game) if this game were played at RFK Stadium. Are we really to believe that playing on the road is so difficult that the Redskins went from a decent team to a laughing stock? It’s important to understand how ridiculous the Redskins looked on Sunday. They couldn’t do anything right. They were terrible in every facet of the game. The odds that every unit and every player on a team could just have the absolute worst possible day on the same day are remote at best. The whole Redskins team decided after the first drive of the game that they were going to lose. I won’t deny that the Giants might have been motivated because they were fresh off the loss of their longtime owner Wellington Mara and playing in front of their home fans. But, that doesn’t excuse the Redskins from scoring zero points and giving up 38. Zero points! They scored 52 points last week.

The Lions and Bears were the first two teams to play a game against a team they already played this season. The first game was in Chicago. The Lions were blown out 38-6. Judging from this week’s performance, you either have to admit that the Lions improved considerably (they only lost 19-13 in OT this time) since their first meeting (which we all know is not true) or you have to admit that the Lions “mailed in” the game in Chicago. How else could one justify such a discrepancy in the score in two different games between the same teams? How could home-field make such a big difference? A players ability doesn’t change based on where the game is played. The playbook doesn’t change. The roster doesn’t change. The coaches don’t change. Everything is the same except for the location of the game and the player’s psyche. So, why do teams get blown out on the road? Like I mentioned earlier, I think it’s an unconscious decision that teams make at the start of a game to not match the other teams intensity. In otherwise, I attribute this phenomenon to an embarrassing lack of professionalism. The Eagles/Broncos, Panthers/Vikings, Rams/Jaguars, and Chargers/Chiefs all featured embarrassing performances by the road team. San Diego and Kansas City are two very similar teams. San Diego destroyed Kansas City this week (the score was not indicative of San Diego’s domination). Denver and Philadelphia are also similar teams. The Broncos dominated the Eagles. As every knows, if this game was played on the road, the ghost of Scott Mitchell would’ve taken over Jake Plummer’s body and the Broncos would’ve gotten smoked. The Jaguars embarrassed themselves by losing to the Rams who were missing their starting quarterback and two All-Pro Wide Receivers. This happens every week.

In the NFL, there are three types of games for the average franchise. These games are; a). Home games, b)Road games against a poor team, and c). Road games against an average to great team. The results of “A” and “C” are pretty much a given considering the 66% winning percentage of NFL home teams. Teams generally win “A” games and lose “C” games. Basically, the entire NFL season comes down to how teams perform in “B” games, or road games against poor teams. If you beat poor teams on the road, you will make the playoffs. If you lose to poor teams on the road, you won’t make the playoffs. It’s as simple as that. It’s sad that there are only a handful of games in the NFL that really matter when you really break down the games. If NFL teams didn’t “roll over” on the road, most NFL games would matter and would take on significance. Instead, there are few surprises throughout the season as home teams hold serve. It almost seems like the season would be better of being played on a computer simulator. That would save everyone the frustration of having to watch NFL teams conveniently “choke” in road games.

No other sport comes close to the discrepancy in the NFL in terms of home/road splits. The closest example would be the NBA. NBA home teams were 744-486 (60%) last season (2004-05). NBA road teams were 486-744 (40%). I think there’s also something to be said about the professionalism of NBA players especially when it comes to their performances on the road in the playoffs. However, the NFL makes the NBA look great because of its absurd home/road split. In 2002-03, NHL home teams were 598-414-218 (57%). NHL road teams were 414-598-218 (43%). In 2004-05, MLB home teams were 1306-1124 (54%). Road teams were 1124-1306 (46%). The NFL is far and away the worst of the four major spots. But, nobody calls them on it. NFL players are clearly underperforming compared to their contracts when it comes to their performances on the road. While I doubt anything will ever be done about this by the league, it would be nice to know that players aren’t getting rewarded for consistently underperforming in certain situations. Players get paid the same regardless of how they play on the road or at home. What’s the incentive for a player to show up, on the road in a game that there’s already a built-in excuse to lose, and give it their all when they’re getting paid the same regardless? If the NFL hurt players in their pockets, you would see an enormous difference in their efforts in road games and subsequently a better product on the field.


Anonymous said...

I really believe in the "homefield advantage" for many reasons. Teams have to pack, travel, unpack, wait, get bused, wait, then play in front of people who are screaming really sobering things about your mother. Outside of Philly, this is not a normal thing teams see at home. The crowd to me makes a big difference and the type of crowd at an NFL game is usually much different than those even in college.

At college games there are 78 year old men with headsets and diapers and then all the students. NFL games feature fans that are usually working stiffs with decent jobs who may have never even went to college. Even the stiffest of pro fans will let out a bellow when their team scores a TD. It's quite amazing.

As far as the players are concerned it's like if you go on a business trip and you have to actually do business. You can never sleep right, you tend to let loose a little, and you feel more free outside of those meetings than ever. If I was an NFL player I'd be thinking about where I was gonna eat, which of my outta town hoochies I was gonna see, and how much room service I could charge to the team. Sure I'd be thinking about the game but only at the stadium. Otherwise I'm getting my drink and eat on and livin' it up a bit.

You might think that is strange but I was in a heavy travel job for three years and it sucked. When I was out there I tended to cut lose after I worked my day and I got paid more on the road than I did at home. NFL players get per diem too and I'm sure they spend every cent of it on the road.

Jake said...

Don't get me wrong. The "homefield advantage" exists. There probably isn't a sport in the world where the home team doesn't win more than the road team. I understand all of the intricacies that a road team goes through before a game. I definitely understand that there will always be a difference in home winning percentage vs. road winning percentage. What I don't understand (and it drives me nuts)is just how big the winning percentage for NFL home teams is (66%!!!!!) and how poorly road teams play on a regular basis. I'm not talking about a road team losing. I'm talking about totally inept performances that you would expect to see if a college team played a pro team.

What you said about going on a "business trip" and how players react is exactly what I'm talking about. No matter how you slice it, focusing on "hoochies" and per diem, and where you're going to party and room service is totally unprofessional. These people are getting paid more than 99.999% of other professions. It is not unreasonable to expect that they take road games as seriously as home games and do everything in their power to be prepared emotionally, and physically for a game. If you go on the road and lose a hard fought battle to a talented team then I've got no qualms. However, too many times, road teams look like the Bad News Bears on the first day of practice. It's inexcusable, yet widely accepted.

These guys get paid for four months of work per year. They have six days of practice for every game not to mention two months of training camp. Most players in the league have been around for a few years so they know what it takes to get up for a road game. Teams have ample time to prepare for the noise and know perfectly well that they will have to dial it up a notch to meet their opponents intensity. For someone making $5 million per year, that shouldn't bee too much to ask. Getting destroyed by someone who you could beat if the game were played in your home stadium is embarassing to you and your team. I don't expect a road team to beat a good team on the road. But, I expect them to play their hearts out for the money they're making. All it takes is to turn on the TV on a Sunday afternoon to see how many NFL teams mail it in because they're on the road. We're not even talking about the fans being loud late in the game. We're talking about a noticeable lack of anything remotely close to execution and passion. After watching the Eagles and Redskins this week, I would love it if road teams were losing because they couldn't hear in the huddle on a game winning drive in the 4th qtr. The games that I'm talking about are long over by that time.

Chris of Dangerous Logic said...

Another potential explanation for the Detroit-Chicago outcomes could be that Chicago is so much better than Detroit that the Bears were able to mail it in at Detroit and still beat the Lions.

Not that Chicago's any good or anything - it's just that the Lions are that bad.

Linda said...

Teams have ample time to prepare for the noise and know perfectly well that they will have to dial it up a notch to meet their opponents intensity. For someone making $5 million per year, that shouldn't bee too much to ask. Getting destroyed by someone who you could beat if the game were played in your home stadium is embarassing to you and your team


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