But perhaps a more important question is this: Can FedEx Field ever provide the home-field advantage that Norman seems to want?
The Redskins’ home has gone from being the NFL’s second-biggest stadium to the biggest to one significantly smaller, with a capacity the team would not provide before this season’s first home game. In FedEx Field’s 21-year history, seats have been added and removed. Whole sections of the upper deck have been chiseled away, whittling the building’s silhouette until it looked nothing like the symmetrical old Giants Stadium that was supposed to be a model for its construction.
What hasn’t changed is the Redskins’ mediocre 87-85-1 home record since moving to the building that opened as Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in 1997. Since the start of the 2008 season, they are 70-98-1 overall, the seventh-worst record in the NFL. But have fared incrementally better on the road relative to their peers (31-52-1, eighth-worst) than they have at home (39-46, sixth-worst). Washington has a 3-2 home record entering Sunday’s game with the visiting Houston Texans. Several players have suggested that it’s no accident that they are a better team on the road, where they are 3-1 this season.
Blame for Washington’s lack of success has to be placed on a quarter-century of poor personnel decisions that have kept the Redskins from being consistently dominant the way they were in the franchise’s brightest days in the 1970s and 1980s, when it went to five Super Bowls in 20 years, winning three of them. Back then, RFK Stadium was considered one of the NFL’s most challenging venues for visitors.
But what former players talk about most in their nostalgia for RFK is the huge roar that rolled down from the three rings of stands that loomed over the field — as well as the intimidating vision of RFK’s shaking, lower-level stands. FedEx Field, with its open design and stands that pull away from the action, has never truly scared opponents.
“I hated to go to RFK as a visitor,” said ESPN 980 host Rick “Doc” Walker, who played for the Bengals and Redskins and later was an original season ticket holder at FedEx Field. “This place is ill-designed. There is nothing about it that gives it noise.”
More than just noise
Some stadiums are built with intimidation in mind. The architects of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, which opened five years after FedEx Field, designed a great swooping roof with the dual purpose of keeping fans dry and amplifying the roar of the crowd by directing the noise back to the field. It is considered one of the most uncomfortable places for an opponent to play, twice holding the title of loudest crowds, measured by Guinness World Records at decibels of 136.6 and 137.6.
What does home-field advantage mean?
To Redskins quarterback Alex Smith, it is being able to shout his pre-snap cadence without worrying about the roar of opposing fans. To offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom, it is being able to look only at the defensive player across from him because he can hear his quarterback’s cadence and they don’t have to employ silent counts or hand signals. For defensive players such as Norman and safety D.J. Swearinger, who also complained about the home crowds this week, it’s the thrill of running across the field with the boom of home fans behind them.
“When the crowd is into it, it gives you a lot of juice,” Swearinger said. “We feed off the crowd.”
FedEx Field has never seemed popular with Redskins fans. Cries to tear it down arrived less than 10 years after it opened. Although the team long boasted of a waiting list for season tickets, its bright gold ring of club seats has gleamed empty even through playoff seasons. A few years ago, the team unveiled renderings for a more intimate 60,000-seat stadium for the team, and club officials have been working toward finding a site for a new home.
FedEx Field was never designed with noise in mind. News accounts of the stadium’s construction in the mid-1990s focused on topics that had little to do with how it would help the Redskins win. Many of the stories celebrated the building’s low cost, just $180 million, paid for by owner Jack Kent Cooke, and they raved about the fact that it took just 18 months to put together.
The architects, from Kansas City’s HOK, praised the stadium’s barren facade, saying all the money was focused on the structure’s guts. Exposed steel beams on the outside were painted white in a homage to the ailing Cooke’s obsession with the color as well as an attempt to recall the District’s monuments several miles away.
Mostly, though, the spartan exterior did little to hide the stadium’s mercenary purpose. Like all sports facilities, it was built to make money. Cooke died five months before the opening, but the building was clearly designed to recoup his investment, with 80,000 seats and two levels of suites that ran in a ring between the second and third decks. All three tiers were exposed to the sky, and the two-story tower of suites in the stadium’s middle pushed the upper deck high and away from the field.
The building’s architects made the argument that the 23,000 extra seats would make Jack Kent Cooke Stadium even louder than RFK.
“The effect you’ll see on the Redskins will be an additional 23,000 more fans cheering for their team,” HOK architect Ben Barnert told The Post. “Those people could really rock RFK, and I think it will bring the level of intensity up even more."
The extra seats did not make FedEx Field louder, and concerns about its lack of home-field advantage quickly arose.
“It may be the way the stadium is constructed,” wide receiver Jacquez Green told The Post midway through the 2002 season, just 5 1/2 years after FedEx Field’s opening. “It’s noisy, but it’s not loud-loud noisy.”
In the same story, Redskins legend Bobby Mitchell, then a team executive, fretted that the extra seats (soon to be 33,000) were an opportunity for opposing fans to buy tickets from season ticket holders who were not as passionate as those who went to RFK, creating the very problem Norman raised last weekend.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are; you’re not going to have 100 percent of the fans cheering for you,” Mitchell said in the story. “Twenty percent might cheer for the other team. At RFK they wouldn’t be sitting there because Redskins fans wouldn’t give their tickets to any jokers like that.”
An opportunity lost
Complaints about a lack of noise have lingered. There have been brief periods when FedEx Field has felt loud, such as during the surges to the playoffs in 2005 and 2007, and Robert Griffin III’s rookie year of 2012, when the Redskins went 10-6, won the NFC East and the stadium filled with chants of “RG III! RG III! RG III!” But even then, it never drew comparisons to the dins heard and felt in the NFL’s more intimidating stadiums.
The team has brought in new business and marketing executives, led by chief operating officer Brian Lafemina, a former official in the NFL office. Those new hires have added changes to the game-day experience, but the adjustments are more cosmetic. The issues with FedEx Field are bigger than a marketing team can fix.
This week, Bergstrom talked about the importance of the stands near the end zone to a stadium’s home-field advantage. Loud crowds are always the hardest for an opposing team as they approach the goal line or are pressed against it.
“When you’re in the middle of the field, yeah, it gets loud, but it’s multiplied once you get to the end zones because you have it coming on three directions, kind of like surround sound right there,” Bergstrom said, speaking generally and not about any one stadium.
Fans are close to the end zones at FedEx Field, but stadium planners, at Cooke’s request, intentionally left seats out so they could build the two giant scoreboards that take up the middle level and some of the lower level, too. Cooke, they said at the time, wanted fans to be able to look at the scoreboard without having to move their eyes far from the field.
Innovative, perhaps, but a missed opportunity to create a more intimidating home setting.
Over the phone, Walker sighed. While some fans have complained that FedEx Field doesn’t offer fans enough, Walker said the amenities it does have, including fancy clubs and a cigar bar, pull customers away from making the stadium loud.
“The people who went to RFK,” he said, “had one interest: us winning.”
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