Imagine that Major League Baseball instituted a new rule for the postseason. Only the home team may use signals to put on plays, such as from the third-base coach or dugout. What about the road team? Too bad. Just chalk it up to home-field advantage.
Preposterous? Of course it is, but the equivalent of such competitive disparity is not just on display in the NFL, but it is also celebrated. Domed stadiums, especially the effect of crowd noise, is changing how football is played and the equitability of its competition.
Bear with me on this, baseball fans, because this entire week is given over to that little football game Sunday, and because you will appreciate even more that your sport enjoys a greater timelessness and connection to its history.
The most underreported aspect of the NFL is how much it has changed. The league has torn loose from what we knew to be its traditional tenets of championship football. Consider these facts:
• This is the first Super Bowl matching two dome teams, Indianapolis and New Orleans. Four of the past six teams to reach the Super Bowl have been dome teams.
• The NFL has played 10 postseason games this year. Only two of them have been played in temperatures below 63 degrees.
• Dome teams at home are 7-0 in the playoffs. Teams without a dome are 0-3 at home.
• Nearly one-third of all NFL games this year were played in domed stadiums (79 of 266, or 30 percent).
• A dome team is 15 percent more likely to win at home than a non-dome team at home -- worth an extra win over the course of a season.
• In 36 combined games this season, the Colts and Saints have won one game in cold weather -- one.
• The Colts and the Saints reached the Super Bowl with below-average defenses, ranked 18th and 25th, respectively. (2009 World Series equivalent: Athletics vs. Diamondbacks.)
• Peyton Manning has put himself in the argument among the best quarterbacks in NFL history, in great part because of his mastery of indoor football.
Baseball players and teams are often put in the context of their homefield advantage, whether it's Mel Ott at the Polo Grounds, Wade Boggs at Fenway Park, Larry Walker at Coors Field or even David Wright at Citi Field. For teams, Whitey Herzog gained fame for building speedy teams in Kansas City and St. Louis that took advantage of large ballparks with artificial turf.
The Minnesota Twins will lose one of the greatest homefield advantages in baseball this year when they move from the Metrodome to Target Field, an outdoor ballpark. The Metrodome's white ceiling, fast turf and tricky lighting played havoc on opponents. The Twins played .541 baseball in the Metrodome since 1982 and .441 baseball elsewhere, a 27 percent greater home/road split than the major league average in those years. Over the past decade, here are the biggest home/road splits in baseball:
The top five homefield advantages include three domes and a ballpark at high altitude -- venues well outside the norm. The Twins' home/road splits are likely to be more in line with major league averages over the next decade simply by moving outside.
Such differences in where games are played and how they are played have not been as often examined in the NFL as they have been in baseball. But this football season, particularly the playoffs, should bring new light to the power of the dome.
Jets coach Rex Ryan had said he would be "shocked" if his team lost in the playoffs because it played rugged defense and relied on running the football. The idea sounded good, especially because we grew up thinking those were the pillars of playoff football, when the weather turned worse and such a "smashmouth" style was weather-proof. My, how quaint. If you believe that now, I have a VCR, turntable and cathode-ray tube TV to sell you at great prices. Maybe Rex can enjoy the Super Bowl on his Trinitron.
The NFL has transformed from an event sport to a studio game. The ratings for its conference championship games were so great they stunned even people in the TV business. The league has prospered like no other sport by the social acceptance of gambling (legal and non-legal, office pools, fantasy leagues, etc.) and the development of high-definition flat-screen TVs.
Just as those societal changes were occurring, rule changes were designed to protect the quarterback and encourage the TV-friendly passing game. Coaches immediately schemed to take advantage of the rules with spread formations, empty backfields and no-huddle offenses that empower the quarterback, after scanning the defense, to frequently determine what play to run at the line of scrimmage. The 1996 tightening of the five-yard rule -- in which a receiver cannot be touched five yards beyond the line of scrimmage -- was the equivalent of the NBA establishing a shot clock. All football before it was rendered a different, extinct game.
Football became a game decided less by the collision of bodies and more by the space between them. Teams that could exploit spatial relationships -- receivers gaining separation on defensive backs, shotgun quarterbacks decoding defenses and having the arm strength to put balls into seams, etc. -- gained a greater advantage over teams who were built on trying to push bodies out of the way.
The really smart clubs deployed one more weapon to capitalize on this changing game: the domed stadium. The dome did more than just remove elements that harmed the passing game (rain, wind, mud, cold, etc.). It added elements to enhance it. Guaranteed-dry artificial turf, for instance, makes for a faster game and, more importantly, allows receivers firmer, sharper cuts to gain better all-important separation from defensive backs.
Moreover, the noise of a sold-out domed stadium changes the level of fairness of the competition. The road team often cannot change a play at the line of scrimmage because of the noise, losing a key stratagem in today's game. The road team often cannot use a "hard" snap count from the quarterback because the other players cannot hear him. That means the quarterback loses the ability to draw the other team offsides. Worse, the road team loses the important split-second advantage of knowing when the play will begin, its inherent "head start."
Instead, a team might have to go to a silent "soft" count, such as snapping the ball one beat after the center bobs his head. Some teams will have the linemen count in their heads "one-two-three-go" after the center bobs his head to time the snap. Some teams will work off the play clock, meaning the quarterback might say in the huddle, "On five," meaning the center will snap the ball when the play clock hits five. All such tactics are workarounds to crowd noise that the home team does not face.
There are two major disadvantages created by the soft count: offensive linemen often draw false start penalties by mistiming the snap and defensive players with full view of the center can anticipate the snap -- often starting the play before the offensive linemen, making it easier to pressure the quarterback and disrupt the passing game.
The noise, because it forces teams to play by two different sets of rules, is patently unfair. Dome teams take pride in describing their fans as "the 12th man," but it's all too true. Yes, it is 12-against-11 football.
Years ago a quarterback trying vainly to have his signals heard by his teammates could petition the referee to restart the play clock. But in 2007, the NFL did away with this rule, effectively deciding crowd noise was a legal means to disadvantage a team.
There are nine dome teams in the NFL. Take a look at how much greater is the homefield advantage for dome teams than teams that do not have a roof over their heads:
That's a significant difference, a 15 percent advantage. One of the colossal blunders in recent NFL history may turn out to be the decision by the Giants and Jets to build a $1.5 billion stadium and not put a roof on it. It was a decision tied to a past that is gone -- that fans want outdoor ambience and football contested in the elements -- that misses out on the competitive advantage of today's game. It's the equivalent of building an SUV factory in 2010.
If there is one person who has best leveraged this new studio game that is the NFL it is Peyton Manning. He is the perfect quarterback for this era, a grandmaster of this chess game of spatial exploitation. Much of his game is built on his ability to read defenses and to be heard by his teammates, an advantage his foes do not enjoy in Indianapolis.
Here is how much the NFL has changed: Manning will have played 19 games this year -- 13 of them indoors and only one in which the temperature at kickoff was colder than 56 degrees (a game the Colts lost at Buffalo in which he played only part of the game). Comparing him to say, Bart Starr -- on the frozen tundra in Green Bay, trying to throw footballs through a biting wind to receivers getting jostled every step downfield by defensive backs -- is as pointless as comparing a Porsche to a horse and buggy.
Manning, in fact, has not just leveraged indoor football; he also is indoor football. If a quarterback's legacy is established on how he leads his team in the playoffs, then Manning's legacy is built largely on the indoor game. He has played 17 playoff games in his career, but it is only the indoor versions of those games that put him in the argument with the best quarterbacks of all-time. Check out his indoor/outdoor splits:
In baseball, think of Larry Walker as a poor man's Peyton Manning; a guy who hit .381 at Coors Field but .282 everywhere else. Such splits become well known in baseball, but are rarely explored in football.
The story for Kurt Warner is not so different. When he announced his retirement Friday, the talk immediately turned to his candidacy for the Hall of Fame -- and Warner certainly has a strong case. But he, too, is a product of indoor football. Warner played 13 playoff games in his career -- all but two of them indoors. Can you get to the Hall of Fame having just one outdoor playoff win, a game in which you threw for just 220 yards? Go to the NFL Network for an appreciation of Joe Namath trying to throw passes through the icy winds off Flushing Bay at Shea Stadium, on a half-grass, half-dirt goat track.
The next Peyton Manning, by the way, could be his Super Bowl opponent, Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Since 2005, Brees has not won a game in which the temperature was below 45 degrees -- what's just as amazing is that he has played only five such cold weather games in those five seasons. Brees is 50-28 in games played above 45 degrees and 0-5 in the cold (postseason included).
So welcome to the new NFL and a Super Bowl that defines the massive changes that have hit football. This is the matchup wrought by the Age of Domes. Forget what you learned about defense winning championships; there are 17 teams with better defenses than the Colts and Saints sitting at home.
Instead, we have two teams that spread the field and leveraged crowd noise and benign conditions to get here. The Colts and Saints played 25 of their 36 combined games indoors, going 22-3 in those games. They played 33 of their 36 games in temperatures of 56 degrees or warmer, rolling to a 31-5 record in such pleasant conditions. In the three games they actually played in cold weather -- 36, 30 and 12 degrees -- they went 1-2.
The Colts and the Saints deserve to be there at the Super Bowl. They are the best at how today's NFL game is played.