Last year, with stadiums permitting either partial crowds or no fans at all, home-field advantage vanished. Road teams won more often for the first time on record, posting a .502 winning percentage. When NFL stadiums welcomed back fans this season, home-field advantage was expected to rejoin them. It has not. Teams playing in their home stadium went 137-131-1, just barely back above .500 and, aside from 2020, the worst record since at least 2002.
“You’re not getting the types of crowds you have in the past,” Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera said. “Hopefully if [the pandemic] ever does ease up and we know how to deal with it, it may change things.”
But the age-old presumption that playing at home provides a significant benefit has been dwindling for years, for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. A constellation of factors ranging from sports science advances to the size of visitors’ locker rooms to the online secondary ticket market have conspired to negate the home team’s edge.
For much of the NFL’s existence, frenzied home crowds intimidated visitors and made it difficult for road quarterbacks to communicate and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage, travel presented disorienting challenges for players, and conditions inside stadiums discomforted visiting teams. From 2002 to 2018, home teams won at least 56 percent of the time during all but two seasons and in three seasons won at least 60 percent.
In various ways, effects of those factors have dissipated. In the past three years, home teams have not cracked a 52 percent winning percentage. More than half of this season’s playoff teams — the Bengals, Patriots, Raiders, Cowboys, Eagles, Rams, Cardinals and 49ers — posted a better record on the road than at home. The Cardinals averaged seven points fewer in Arizona than they did on the road and finished with a losing record at home. So did the Eagles, who allowed 2.6 points per drive at home, the second-worst mark in the NFL. So, too, did the Patriots, who hadn’t had a losing record at home since Bill Belichick’s first year as coach in 2000. The 12th man needs to watch the film and regroup.
“Winning on the road is not as big of a challenge, in my opinion, as it was probably 10, 15 years ago,” Dallas Cowboys Coach Mike McCarthy said, according to the Associated Press.
Sports books, which long offered a standard three-point edge to the home team, have caught on. Home teams were favored by an average of just 1.7 points this season. With the exception of 2020 — when the pandemic largely prevented fans from sitting in stands — that’s the lowest mark since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams. The Raiders, a playoff team, were actually net underdogs at home. The AFC North champion Bengals were, on average, just a one-point home favorite.
“This is part of the evolution, and if anything, it is going to go away from where we were, not toward it,” said Jeff Sherman, vice president of risk management for SuperBook USA. “It’s just not a thing of playing at home in front of fans. There is a lot more to it now.”
Road teams have refined how they travel with the help of modernized technology and study. Around 2015, Rivera began rethinking how his teams traveled, driven by data culled from player-tracking devices. When Washington played the Broncos in Denver this season, Rivera relied on a study that showed altitude affects performance less in the 24 hours after arrival, so Washington arrived the night before the game.
“There are certain metrics that tell you your guys are going to perform this way,” Rivera said. “Certain things as far as the analytics or the sports science tells you about how to travel, what to eat when you travel, what’s the best time to meet, all those things.”
Scott Trulock, now the head athletic trainer at Florida State, worked in the NFL for two decades, most recently as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ director of player health and performance. He saw firsthand how road teams chipped away at their disadvantage, from studies about the effects of changing time zones to having players travel wearing compression sleeves.
In the past, when teams arrived, they would check into the hotel, go out to dinner, attend team meetings and go to sleep. Now “they’re a MASH unit,” Trulock said. “A mobile training unit is set up within minutes.” Trainers and strength coaches drag trunks full of recovery devices off the bus and wheel them into a ballroom, turning it into a treatment center in about 15 minutes. On schedule, players stick their feet in Normatec compression boots, receive massages and lounge in cold tubs, all to counteract the effects of flying and recover from the toll of practices.
Trulock believes road teams may even have the advantage with recovery on the eve of games. Fewer teams require all their players to stay in a hotel the night before home games. On the road, players can focus on their bodies without distraction. “It’s much more controllable when you’re traveling,” Trulock said.
Over the past five years or so, teams that previously used medium-sized charter planes have either chartered larger planes — a 777 used for international travel — or partnered with airlines to own their own. (The New England Patriots were at the forefront of that.) The entire plane is essentially a first-class section.
“That really was a game-changer in terms of lowering the stress of travel,” Trulock said. “Players can be comfortable. They can sleep better. They can eat without being on top of each other. That was a real significant change.”
Another change unnoticeable from outside a franchise: the size of visiting locker rooms. As new stadiums proliferated, the NFL updated the standards of what teams must offer in the opposing locker room. Visiting locker rooms now are roomy enough for training staffs to set up portable tables, so players’ massage therapy and muscle activation can be the same as at home.
“Just having a bigger locker room made it much more comfortable and easier to do those things,” Trulock said. “In the past, you just could get in there, get your gear on and get on the field.”
Visiting teams haven’t just refined how they reach far-flung cities; they also find a less hostile atmosphere once they arrive. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, now an NFL Network analyst, has noticed a difference as he traveled to games this season for “Monday Night Football” radio broadcasts.
“I haven’t felt like the stadiums have been quite as full.... as we’ve seen before,” Warner said. “I haven’t necessarily felt the fans be quite as engaged as we have in most situations. Maybe some of the fan bases, not everybody is willing to come back to the stadium. When I go to the games, it just doesn’t feel the same.”
Ken Johnson of Rochester, N.Y., had attended 423 consecutive Buffalo Bills games, home and away, before coronavirus restrictions kept him home last season. He cherishes the bonhomie among fans. Under the nickname “Pinto Ron,” the result of his car and a long-ago case of mistaken identity, Johnson has become an attraction himself: Before Bills home games, at 11:30 a.m. sharp in front of a crowd, he allows his friends to douse him in mustard and ketchup.
Johnson hit the road again this year and observed the continuation of a trend. Home crowds, especially outside Buffalo, tended to be more hospitable for road teams. As prices rose and teams introduced personal seat licenses, the demographics of the crowd changed.
It’s a stretch to call an NFL game a tame or sober environment. But Johnson insists that teams have grown stricter in limiting alcohol and removing fans who have been overserved. “It drove the riffraff into the bars,” Johnson said.
Johnson remembers placing newspaper classified ads in opposing cities looking for tickets. Now it takes five minutes to buy seats on the online secondary market. The ease has created a compounding effect. The more visiting fans who travel, the more attractive it becomes for others to join, to make a weekend of it as fans organize events and take over bars. On game day, those fans mitigate the effect of the home crowd. Sometimes they overrun the stadium.
“If you were blind and sitting in the stands, you wouldn’t be able to figure out who the home team and road team was if you listened,” Johnson said.
On Sunday, San Francisco 49ers fans inundated SoFi Stadium and roared as they watched their team erase a 17-0 lead against the host Los Angeles Rams. Afterward, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford called his home stadium “a tough environment for us to communicate in, really, the whole second half.”
After the opening kick, road teams are less disadvantaged in subtle ways. More offenses have adopted fast tempo, which forces quarterbacks to dictate plays at the line of scrimmage. Paradoxically, that can make it easier to communicate in front of road fans. Those plays can typically be communicated with just one word or one hand signal, and a no-huddle offense tends to simplify how defenses play. The style also robs home crowds of a cue.
“Think about a typical game,” said one NFL quarterbacks coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his organization had not cleared an interview. “It gets noisiest on third down and close to the goal line. When an offense is in the huddle, it’s loud. When does it really get loud? When you break the huddle, the announcer starts screaming, ‘It’s third down!’ It’s like a crescendo. [With tempo], you run a play on second down, you can go ahead and sprint to the line of scrimmage. That tends to make it not as loud.”
The Cardinals, who went 8-1 on the road this season, used a no-huddle offense far more than any other team during the regular season: 402 plays (at home and on the road). The Rams, who went 7-2 on the road, ran the third-most plays without a huddle. Dallas (7-2 road record), Tampa Bay (6-3) and Philadelphia (6-3) also finished among the league leaders in no-huddle snaps.
In response to offenses that change plays at the line and use motion with greater frequency, defenses have grown more sophisticated in how they rely on presnap communication to change schemes and plays. In the moments when a home crowd can impact the offense, it may be affecting its favorite team’s defense just as much.
Home-field advantage may be endangered, but it is not yet extinct. At the NFL’s more venerable stadiums, the home team has kept out the invaders and created an old-fashioned atmosphere. The Green Bay Packers, guaranteed to play at home until the Super Bowl as the NFC’s top seed, went 8-0 this season at Lambeau Field, where frigid conditions make life uncomfortable and the fans know to stay quiet so Aaron Rodgers can fool defenses with a hard count. At Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest places in the country on Sundays, the Kansas City Chiefs went 7-2.
But things have shifted. Trulock’s first full-time job came with the Eagles in the late 1990s. He remembers watching the upper deck bounce at Washington’s RFK Stadium and wondering whether it would collapse. Before one home game, he peered up into the 600 level of Veterans Stadium and saw Philadelphians tossing around a man in a Cowboys jersey.
“Certainly,” he said, “the hostility has changed in a lot of stadiums.”