When the Washington Redskins face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, they will be forced to deal with one of the noisiest outdoor stadiums in the NFL. In addition to the racket created by a partisan sellout crowd of 66,000, the Redskins will be bombarded by the sound of cannon fire each time the Bucs penetrate the Redskins 20-yard line. And then there's an eight-cannon barrage after every Tampa Bay score.
"It is definitely an advantage to us," Bucs Coach Tony Dungy said yesterday, "especially if you can get ahead. Our crowd is really into it. For some reason, a 4 o'clock crowd will tend to be a little louder than a 1 o'clock crowd. I'm not exactly sure what the fans are doing between 1 and 4, but it is a good atmosphere. It is loud, and obviously that does make a difference."
Noise in NFL stadiums has become such a factor that the NFL adopted guidelines in 1989. A directive spells out what is permissible in terms of teams artificially turning up the volume to provide a competitive advantage for the home team. Those guidelines were faxed to every team that made the playoffs last week by the league office, with teams being reminded that they are subject to fines for violations, as well as penalty yardage and loss of timeouts.
"Artificial crowd noise in NFL stadiums has increased to the extent that teams have notified the league office that they have experienced difficulty communicating within their bench area as well as on the field," according to the guidelines. "While the league does not wish to place restrictions on spontaneous crowd noise or to diminish fan enjoyment in our sport, it is each club's responsibility to exert proper controls over cheerleaders and mascots, use of scoreboards, message boards, etc."
According to the guidelines, noise under team control "must cease when the offensive team breaks the huddle and moves to the line of scrimmage, as well as during kickoffs."
"The use of noise meters or such messages as "Noise!," "Let's Hear It," "Raise the Roof," "Let's Go Crazy," "Pump It Up," "12th Man," or any video to incite crowd noise are prohibited at any time during a game."
The league also requires that fans not be permitted to bring noise-making devices--bullhorns, megaphones, or whistles, for example--into the stadium. It also requires that the number of field level speakers be limited to four. They have to be placed between the goal lines and the 20s and be pointed away from the bench area and the playing field.
Yet noise remains a huge benefit for the home team. The Redskins found that out during their regular season game against the Detroit Lions at the Silverdome. They committed 14 penalties, many of them false starts because players could not hear snap counts or audibles from quarterback Brad Johnson.
"It gives you energy when you hear the fans support," said Chris Walsh, a wide receiver and ace special-teamer for the Minnesota Vikings, who play at the Metrodome, arguably the loudest stadium in the league. "When the fans can get so noisy that the other team can't function in their offense, it gets you jacked up. It's an advantage if it's used properly."
An unfair advantage, according to some.
"The game is getting down to not a contest of two teams, but which teams make the most noise," said Redskins radio analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. "I think it's gotten way out of hand. It's being done electronically. It's who can have the biggest speakers on the field. I'm talking mostly about the domed stadiums, but even some of the outdoor places are getting loud. I know the league says it has restrictions, but I really don't think they're enforcing it. It's something the league really has to address."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said that noise levels have been an ongoing issue, particularly with more domed stadiums being built over the last 20 years, "but it's not a major issue. Teams know what the rules are. If they see something when they're on the road, they'll call the league and we'll take action. We don't want to discourage fans from cheering, but we do want a level playing field."
This week, there will be playoff games in domes in St. Louis and Indianapolis, with the Rams' facility considered among the noisiest domes in the league. The New York Giants complained to the league about excessive and artificially produced noise after a game this season, but no fine was assessed.
Brian McMurtry, head of operations for the Trans World Dome, said decibel levels have gone as high as 109 in the stadium, and it was even louder before sound batting was installed on the stadium roof two years ago to soften the sound and cut back on reverberations. By comparison, a lawnmower generally operates at about 98 decibels; a jet takes off at about 115.
The Metrodome, also known as "the Thunderdome," has had readings as high as 120 during football games. Last year, before the NFC championship game, Atlanta Falcons Coach Dan Reeves complained about the speakers on the field, which the league eventually ordered moved and pointed away from the Falcons' bench.
The Tennesseean newspaper in Nashville hired a firm to measure noise at new Adelphia Coliseum this season during the Titans' 16-6 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. A decibel reading of 106 was the highest recording, a big number for an outdoor stadium.
Sam Birchfield, a professor of audiology at the University of Tennessee, has studied the effect of noise on football games for the last nine years. He told the newspaper that fan noise begins to become a factor in games when it breaks 90, and that players on the field have trouble hearing each other when crowds cheer in the 90-99 range.
"When it goes above 100," he said, "it's virtually impossible."