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We don’t know what the American landscape will look like by Sept. 10, when the NFL season is scheduled to start, but it seems the possibility of full stadiums in the fall is remote.
The thought of NFL games happening in front of empty stadiums is hard to fathom. Players don’t seem to agree what it will be like.
“I don’t see how you could play a game without the fans,” Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald told reporters. “I feel like that takes out the excitement and the fun out of the game.”
“Bro, we didn’t have fans anyway,” former Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who signed with the Denver Broncos this offseason, said.
But former Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long, who retired this offseason, believes fan-less games could help flip the overall power structure in the NFL.
“I can promise you this: There will be teams that have historically have been juggernauts at home that may look like puppy dogs this year,” Long said. “The road is no place for the weak of mind. I think this levels the playing field for a lot of people.”
How would playing in an empty or quarter-full stadium affect NFL games? We asked former players their best guesses on an unprecedented situation.
Crowd noise can affect road teams on offense. But former NFL quarterback Mark Sanchez didn’t think the silence would necessarily be a good thing.
“What are you going to do about checks and signals at the line?” said Sanchez, who hosts the “4th and Forever” podcast for Showtime. “Usually checks are the same for a game. Let’s say you use one — ‘Cadillac,’ let’s say — now a team has heard that and can figure it out.”
Beyond a single game, Sanchez also wondered about the boom mics on sidelines and how that will affect audibles. Without any crowd noise, the mics will be able to pick up everything said on the field. That makes studying signals very easy for future opponents, Sanchez noted.
“That TV copy is going to be sacred,” Sanchez said. “You’ll commission someone on your staff to watch all the TV tape.”
There are positives for quarterbacks, too, of course. Eliminating crowd noise helps with communication. There will presumably be fewer false start penalties. And we’ve all seen a receiver line up wrong and a quarterback frantically motioning to them to move before the snap. That will be a lot easier. There will be fewer missed calls.
“For a rookie quarterback, that stuff happens all the time,” Sanchez said. “You’re directing traffic.”
Longtime NFL quarterback Carson Palmer had a different perspective. He didn’t think the lack of fans would make much difference at all. Palmer thought there would be a difference for games early on — he said he got emotional before each of his season openers due to the electricity in the stadium — but players would settle in quick once the strangeness of the situation sunk in.
“I think guys will adapt quickly,” said Palmer, who is promoting personal-care CBD products from Level Select, which he said has alleviated pain from his 15-year NFL career. “The first couple games could be sluggish, but this is the best of the best. They’re pros. They’ll adapt and adjust. It’ll still be great.”
Palmer said players practice without fans, so at least they wouldn’t be entirely unaccustomed to the situation.
Palmer said if there’s a difference, it’s with the emotional side of the game. Palmer thought that prime-time games might feel a little strange, and late-season games between two losing teams would be tough for players without fans to provide some extra juice. Players usually feed off the energy of the crowd.
“I think everyone does. Coaches do, too,” Palmer said. “That’s the adjustment.”
Skill position players also wondered about verbal signals in a quiet stadium.
Not necessarily because of the strategic element, but the confusion that would come with changing calls every week.
Gary Barnidge, who played tight end for eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns and made the Pro Bowl in 2015, worried that checks at the line would need to be more complicated and have to be changed every week. When you’re constantly thinking about assignments, you can’t play as fast.
“It would definitely be an advantage to the defense because they don’t have as many checks,” Barnidge explained. “You can hear ‘Cover 3,’ but they can change it with a hand signal and do it without talking.”
Barnidge wondered about the possibility of defensive players hearing the offense’s huddle. He thought teams might have to start using wristbands. Barnidge figured there would need to be about 200 plays on the wristbands, but each player would have his assignment next to the play.
“If the play is ‘73 Miami,’ it’ll say ‘You have a post route.’ So they know exactly what their assignment is,” Barnidge said. “Without fans, that’s the only way you could do it without the defense hearing.”
Eric Metcalf, who spent most of his 13-year NFL career with the Cleveland Browns as a dynamic running back, receiver and returner, thought the lack of fans would be a big help to the visiting team. It’s easier to communicate without crowd noise, but he also thought the home team might lack the normal energy without fans.
“The guys scoring touchdowns and giving the fans a chance to cheer and yell for you, if you’re at home and you have a great play you’re going to hear it,” Metcalf said. “A lot of the joy of doing what we did was doing it in front of people.”
In the trenches
Kyle Long was primed with the basic question by text: How will NFL games be different if there are no fans? The recently retired Chicago Bears offensive guard — seldom one to hold back on his thoughts — wanted a night to ponder the question.
When he answered, Long’s thoughts were clear and direct.
“I think that defensive linemen will be at a disadvantage,” Long said.
Typical O-linemen response? Hardly. Long explains.
“Communication is key. It’s something that offenses can’t do on the road,” he said. “And it’s something when the pre-snap communication breaks down offensively, the [defensive] linemen love it.”
Long mentioned a former teammate, someone he faced off against often in practice for four seasons, as a good example.
“Akiem Hicks thrives in chaos,” Long said. “Akiem Hicks wants the stadium to be raucous. He feeds off the energy. I use him as an example because I know him well.”
As Long noted, teams preparing for a tough road game in a loud environment — think Seattle, Kansas City and New Orleans foremost — will spend Wednesday and Thursday practices with “massive rock-band PA speakers blasting music because they want to simulate what it’s like when you go to New Orleans and you can’t hear yourself (expletive) think.”
That’s great and all, Long said. But what if that time now can be spent more productively during a potentially muted season?
“I’ve heard this in the offensive line world where people are asking, what’s going with offensive line play and coaching and stuff?” Long said. “But you know what? Now [if there are fewer fans at games] you’re going to get more coaching in practice, maybe more of a hands-on approach, less screaming, and you’re going to have a lot more teaching. It’s going to be great for the game of football.”
Can that really make that big a difference?
“One thousand percent,” Long said. “Especially if they have to shorten the schedule. That will provide for more quality reps.
“If they shorten the schedule, I pray to God that NFL coaches do not say, ‘Practice harder, practice more because we’re playing less.’ I hope they say, ‘Learn more, study more, get to know one another more.’ Because the teams that play well are the teams that are more fundamentally sound and they don’t [screw] things up.”
Offensive guard Geoff Schwartz, who played for four teams over eight NFL seasons, doesn’t believe the crowd-noise issue will have as vast and notable an effect for NFL players. But he does agree with Long on the OL communication matter.
“It’s the continual noise throughout the game that makes the difference,” Schwartz said. “Here’s what the problem with the noise is: Seattle is loud all game long. It’s just stupid loud and you’re trying to make your adjustments, and you can’t hear anything. That’s when you notice the effect most.
“You have a three-and-out, and you come to the sideline and you can’t even hear anything still. The fans haven’t gotten quiet again (when the offense has the ball).”
Long estimates that when it comes to tough road opponents, 80 percent of the challenge is the stadium and the crowd and 20 percent is the team itself.
“Like, I couldn’t tell you who the rushers are for the Seahawks — I mean, I could tell you, of course,” Long said. “But if I am preparing to go to Seattle, my biggest concern is not Michael Bennett. My biggest concern is Michael Bennett with the crowd noise and all of that.”
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