The sixteen game NFL schedule is set up with eight home and eight away games. Fans always ask “how come we’re not winning on the road?” As a former NFL front office executive I can tell you for a fact that it’s extremely hard to win one game in this league, let alone the division. The yearly challenge in the NFL is WINNING on the road. If a team can split and go 4-4 on the road or better, that is really good.
I worked with the Carolina Panthers (1995-2006). After a 1-15 season the team hired John Fox, a highly credited and extremely aggressive Defensive Coordinator from the New York Giants. When I sat down with Coach Fox and General Manager Marty Hurney, Coach spoke of building a team through the draft. He believed in a balanced attack of running and passing. Keeping games close and winning at the end was his philosophy. With outstanding drafts and acquiring players through free agency to fill hot spots, the John Fox philosophy put us in the Super Bowl two years later.
I’ve heard several coaches over the years say “find a way to win at all cost,” “do whatever it takes,” and that all sounds good. What is the plan, philosophy for winning on the road, or winning period? A good run team is not enough. Statistical analysis shows that visiting teams win more with the pass than the run, and teams that are built for the pass win a higher percentage of games on the road by passing the ball. Teams are generally more efficient with the football at home and work to grind the game out with a strong running game, controlling with a high percentage of ball possession. Defensively, stopping the run is important, but on the road or at home, as I’ve seen the trend shows more of a passing spike in data. This means defenses will use more sub-packages in nickel and dime, or five and six defensive backs.
Today’s college football explosion of the spread offense and smaller defensive fronts is slowly leaking into the NFL. Let’s start with the type of players coming into the NFL – shorter quarterbacks, smaller running backs and receivers as well as undersized defensive ends, along with new approach of schemes/formations on the X&O’s. An effective run game sets up the pass, but data shows that giving a running back an extended hand off (short pass) on screens, swings and pitch downs. This contributes to the passing game totals with a high percentage of completion rates.
The higher percentage of passing by the visiting team is due to falling behind in the score and working hard to keep pace in scoring or work to close a deficit quickly.
Also, for some reason, teams that tend to have a high turnover ratio in the form of fumbles, interceptions, or blocked kicks, are most likely at a greater disadvantage as visiting teams. And conversely, teams that don’t fumble tend to have a greater advantage as road teams.
Other issues that affect a team on the road include crowd noise. Teams prepare during the week with loud music, crowd noise, or jet engines blaring during team periods. All NFL teams work a lot of silent snap counts and hand signals – a communicative tool used by the quarterbacks to relay route information or changing the play from run to pass to all receivers and running backs.
It is imperative that teams communicate in a loud and hostile environment on the road. It is tough enough on the road, so what you don’t want to do is beat yourself. It is your team against the opponent’s active roster plus 70,000 screaming fans. It is tough winning on the road at any level of football, especially in the National Football League.