When Bud Grant was coaching the Minnesota Vikings, chronic entrant in the postseason football tournament, he was asked how he would feel losing the home-field edge. Bud responded:
“All places I’ve been, the field measures 100 yards long by 53 1/3 yards wide. Each side has featured 11 people at a time. And each has been allowed four tries to make a first down. If I go somewhere and find any variations to the foregoing, I will worry. Otherwise, I won’t.”
It is standard at this time of year, though, for most teams to worry enormously about home field. Is the advantage real, or is it another phantom galloping through the minds of coaches beset with a multitude of other worries?
You begin your exploration of the subject by citing the practices of those who make odds in the neighborly state of Nevada.
To them, home field normally is worth three points. If, for instance, the 49ers were to play the Giants in San Francisco and the oddsmaker saw the 49ers as a point better, he would hang up a price of four points, allowing for home field.
An exception to the rule is Los Angeles, where home field is rated only two points, mainly because of the composition of those inhabiting the seats. A visiting team in Los Angeles picks up more friends than anyplace else.
Why would a partial crowd influence the price on a football game? Two reasons are advanced.
First, noisemaking on its part when the visitors are trying to call signals damages the visitors’ offense. As many as 15% of a team’s plays can be audibilized. When those involved can’t hear, this weapon is partly wiped out.
Secondly, oddsmakers don’t feel officials are crooked, but they do feel, however unconsciously, they can be intimidated by a home crowd.
Discussing home field one time with Dan Reeves, coach of Denver, we were told that atmospheric conditions on the road always must be considered.
“A thrower must understand the wind,” said Dan, “and the receivers have to know where the sun is.”
If, in late afternoon, a receiver doesn’t find the sun in the west, he has a problem shared by many.
When Seattle’s Chuck Knox took his team to the playoffs one year, he was asked if stadium conditions and hostile crowds troubled him.
“Not as much as planes, buses and hotels,” answered Chuck. “When planes and buses are late, your players get upset. They also get upset if service is slow in the coffee shop.”
You can see the case with which the delicate cerebral machinery of today’s entertainer can be tilted.
OK, the last time the Raiders go to the playoffs, in 1985, we ask the celebrated strategist, Al Davis, how a visiting team can suffer playing on alien grounds.
Al answers they suffer for lack of cheers.
“Football players need reaffirmation,” he says. “It begins in college with rallies, bonfires, booster functions. The roar of the crowd makes them feel loved. They seem to draw strength from it.”
He is asked: “Can they do anything in postseason to make it fair for both entrants?”
“Yes,” he replies. “They can play the games in Japan where it is the custom at sporting events to applaud both sides.”
Since the playoffs have become such a vital component of professional football, many have argued that the games be played on neutral fields, principally on the ground that too much is at stake for a team to have a bulge once the tournament begins.
But the counterargument is that if home field in the playoffs isn’t determined by a team’s record during regular season, teams clinching playoff spots before the end of the season will dog it, depriving fans of their money’s worth.
For the playoffs, the home-field neurosis isn’t going to vanish, but if visiting players need love, as Al Davis deduces, a way must be found to get this commodity delivered.