2012 NFL schedule: The Cure for primetime-itis

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 20, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts gridiron Goth kid


Yesterday we looked at NFL teams travelling across the four different time zones and the struggles of our six “Western teams” (Arizona, Denver, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle) when they headed east the last five seasons.
 
Today we will look at data on games that break away from the tradition of “Sunday NFL football,” which means games that are played on Monday, Thursday or Saturday. Ever wonder how much the road team is at a disadvantage for a Thursday game, or how teams do the following week after playing a Monday night game? Read on for some surprising results. We’ll also continue our look at circadian rhythms and body clocks with primetime games in the scope of East Coast vs. West Coast.
 

New Schedule Wrinkle: Thursday Games For Everyone in 2012

You may have noticed something very different about this season’s schedule, and that is the addition of more Thursday night games. You’ll see it right away with the Bears and Packers in Week 2. In fact, all 32 teams will play a Thursday game this season for the first time ever. Is this a good thing for the NFL? Well, the 16 teams that get to stay at home for these games might say yes.
 
I don’t care if Monday’s blue
Tuesday’s gray and Wednesday too
Thursday, I don’t care about you
It’s Friday, I’m in love
 
The song (oh, you really need reference?) could become the anthem for the road team of a Thursday night game in recent years, as things have not been kind to our short-week travelers. Surviving the Thursday game without significant injury may be the road team's real win. The only bright side of a short week is the extra days to prepare for the next game.
 
Since the NFL Network started airing Thursday Night Football games in the 2006 season, the home team in these primetime affairs has gone 31-12 (.721). Wow. This does include a perfect 6-0 record by defending Super Bowl Champions to start the season on NBC, and those are games where the “short week” really isn’t in effect yet (preseason ends on previous Thursday). Though, subtract them out and 25-12 (.676) is still a 10 percent increase on normal home-field advantage.
 
The history of Thursday football has been hard to describe, as the league has built a great tradition with Thanksgiving football, but experiments in the 1990s with TNT and ESPN for a few Thursday night games never caught on. In the 1970s there were just four games on Thursday that were not Thanksgiving games. This number increased to 18 in 1980s; 20 in the 1990s, 52 since 2000.
 
We looked at the 178 Thursday games played since the 1970 NFL merger.
 
Home Teams on Thursday Football (1970-2011)
Split Games W L Pct.
All Teams 178 104 74 0.584
Thanksgiving - Afternoon 84 45 39 0.536
Thanksgiving - Dallas 40 25 15 0.625
Thanksgiving - Detroit 42 20 22 0.476
Primetime - All 94 59 35 0.628
Primetime - 1978-2005 51 28 23 0.549
Primetime - 2006-2011 43 31 12 0.721
 
Overall, the home team holds a 104-74 (.584) record on Thursday, which isn’t significantly above average. The sampling of games also isn’t as random as a normal sample of games, because Detroit and Dallas have hosted 82 of the 84 Thanksgiving games (the . Louis Cardinals hosted twice in the 1970s). That’s almost half of all Thursday games right there. Needless to say Dallas (.625) has had the better of days than Detroit (.476); not just on Thanksgiving, but in general since the merger.
 
“Thanksgiving – Afternoon” represents all the games played on Thanksgiving by Detroit and Dallas (plus two by Cardinals) that start in the afternoon (usually 12:30 p.m. EST in Detroit and 3:15 p.m. CST in Dallas). Since 2006, the league has played a third Thanksgiving game in primetime with a random location. Those games are not included in our Thanksgiving - Afternoon splits.
 
The last three rows are for the 94 Thursday games that were played in primetime, which has usually been a start time in between 8 p.m. EST and 9 p.m. EST. These home teams have wonn 62.8 percent of the time, which does show an extra advantage for being the home team on the shortest of weeks.
 
What’s more surprising is the upward trend in this percentage, as from 1978-2005, the home team won 54.9% of Thursday games, compared to 72.1% since 2006.
 
However, it would be cherry-picking to say the upward trend started in 2006. That was provided because of the shift to NFL Network games that season. If you looked at the 23 games played before 1990, the home team actually had a poor losing record at 9-13 (.409). Included was a 2-9 stretch from 1982 to 1986. The league played no Thursday night games in the 1987-89 seasons.
 
Since 1990, the home Thursday team is 50-22 (.694) in primetime games. That includes a 19-10 (.655) record from 1990-2005. The poor showing in these games early on in the late 70s and then 80s could be a sign of today’s improvements in medicine and recovery. Also, it’s not like a 1985 team could pull up an easily accessible DVD to study their next opponent on film.
 
Here is a quick comparison of home-field advantage on different days based on the 2007-11 regular seasons:
 
Regular Season - Home-field Advantage
Years Games Wins Losses Ties Pct.
2007-11 1280 727 552 1 0.568
Day Games Wins Losses Ties Pct.
Monday 86 49 37 0 0.570
Thursday 47 30 17 0 0.638
Saturday 20 10 10 0 0.500
 

Detroit on Thanksgiving: No Favors Here

Including Thanksgiving games, the Thursday home team has compiled a 30-17 (.638) record from 2007-11. League-wide home-field advantage for all games in this time span is .568.
 
The 30-17 record even includes the Detroit Lions’ 0-5 record on Thanksgiving, which is the earliest game in any NFL week (12:30 p.m. EST kickoff time). Of the 17 losses, the Lions own the three worst in terms of margin of defeat, and they make up 5 of the 8 losses by more than 7 points.
 
Detroit’s recent poor home showings on Thanksgiving can simply be explained by the quality of the opponent. The teams the Lions have played are a combined 66-14 (.825) in those seasons. Detroit’s played the team that finished with the best record in the NFL on three of the last four Thanksgiving’s: 2008 Titans (13-3), 2010 Patriots (14-2), and 2011 Packers (15-1).
 
This year Detroit will host the defending AFC South champion Houston Texans on Thanksgiving.
 

Thursday Games: Time Zones

Keeping our study of time zones from Part 1 in mind, there were 37 Thursday games where a Mountain (MST) or Pacific (PST) team went on the road. Nine times they played each other, leaving 28 games where our Western teams had to travel to the Eastern/Central Time Zone on the shortest of weeks.
 
The Western teams went 10-18 (.357) in these Thursday games in the east, which is just a little under the mark we observed last time. Only 5 of the games saw the Western teams have a body clock out of their comfort zone, and their record was 2-3. None of these games were played since 1990, and it was Denver going to Detroit three times.
 
The league has done a good job of not forcing a Western team to play at Detroit with a 12:30 p.m. EST kickoff on Thanksgiving.
 
Since 2006, the Western teams are 1-4 in the East when playing a primetime Thursday game. That includes the 49ers losing in Baltimore last season in the Harbaugh Bowl. These are also the kind of situations the NFL should continue to avoid, and from the looks of the schedule, only Arizona will have to travel on a short week for a Central game against St. Louis in Week 5. Of course with every team having to get a Thursday game, this pick reeks of “let’s just get the Rams’ game over with early.”
 
With everyone joining the Thursday party in 2012, we’ll see if the trend continues with the home team dominating. In theory, as teams get used to this type of scheduling every season, the advantage should dissipate.
 
We’ll see.
 

The Quirky Nature of Late-Season Saturday Games

There’s really not much to see here, as the league doesn’t often play games on Saturday. They only come into play late in the year when college football is getting ready for bowl season, and we have the holiday season.
 
From 2007-2011, there were seven unique games played on a Saturday evening late in the season. The home team was just 2-5 in those games. The Dallas Cowboys played in five of those games, posting a 3-2 record, with all their wins on the road. Included on that list was Dallas's 24-17 victory in New Orleans over the 13-0 Saints near the end of the 2009 season.
 
Then in Week 16 last year, because of Christmas, the league played 13 day games on Christmas Eve on Saturday. The home team went 8-5. Oakland won in Kansas City in overtime in a 10 a.m. PST start. Both Mountain teams (Arizona and Denver) lost on the road in games that started at 11 a.m. MST.
 
Overall, the home team was just 10-10 (.500) in the 20 games played on a Saturday. In 2009, Tennessee hosted San Diego on a Friday evening game with a start time of 6:30 p.m. CST. San Diego won 42-17.
 
This season there will be just one Saturday game: Atlanta at Detroit in Week 16.
 

Case of the Monday’s

In the 86 Monday Night Football games from 2007-2011, the home team has a record of 49-37 (.570) from 2007-2011. This is almost identical to the overall home-field advantage number of .568.
 
As for both teams having a shorter week to prepare for their following game, the numbers are actually positive. After playing on Monday night, teams are 92-80 (.535) in their next game, and that includes a split of 58-46 (.558) when the next game is at home, and a respectable 34-34 (.500) record on the road.
 
Excluding 14 instances when a team had a bye week following their Monday night game, then their next game’s overall record was 85-73 (.538): 53-42 (.558) at home, and 32-31 (.508) on the road.
 
At least based on the last five years, this dispels the idea that it’s much harder to win your next game after playing a Monday night game and having one fewer day to prepare.
 

Monday Night Football – East Coast vs. West Coast

In 1997 there was a study done by Stanford University that looked at circadian rhythms (the body clock) and enhanced athletic performance. Scientists believe that peak athletic performance is reached in the late afternoon. For this study, they collected data on Monday Night Football games from 1970 to 1994 when a West Coast team played an East Coast team.
 
The hypothesis is that if peak performance comes in the late afternoon, then these Monday Night Football games that used to start at 9 p.m. EST would actually benefit the West Coast teams, regardless of game site, as they were always closer to that peak performance time of late afternoon. If the game was on the East Coast, the game wouldn’t end until after midnight, which is when the East Coast team would be near their sleep cycle.
 
Since their data only went to 1994, we went and did the same for 1995-2011. However, now we won’t be using the same definitions for East and West as before, as this Stanford study defined West Coast teams as the four Pacific Time Zone teams in that era (San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, Seattle), and East Coast teams are the 17 teams that play in the Eastern Time Zone.
 
Note: for the Stanford study, there were 5 West Coat teams, as the Rams were in Los Angeles during 1970-1994. The Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, thus the updated data only has 4 West Coast teams.
 
All-Time West Coast East Coast
Split Home Away Home Away
1970-1994 59.3 47.5 56.5 42.7
1995-2011 57.4 39.0 57.5 42.8
MNF West Coast East Coast
Split Home Away Home Away
1970-1994 71.0 56.3 43.8 29.0
1995-2011 72.7 80.0 20.0 27.3
 
The top half represents all regular season game results. West Coast teams have lost 8.5 percent more games on the road from 1995-2011 than they did from 1970-1994. The East Coast teams have remained very consistent overall.
 
The Monday Night Football splits are very interesting.
  • From 1970-1994, in head-to-head West Coast vs. East Coast games, the West Coast won 63.5 percent of the 63 games.
  • From 1995-2011, the West Coast has won 76.2 percent of the 21 Monday night games against East Coast teams.
  • That is a 16-5 record: 8-2 (.800) on the road and 8-3 (.727) at home.
 
One of the three East Coast wins on the road came in a 2003 game between Miami and San Diego. That game actually was played in Arizona’s Sun Devil Stadium due to wildfires in California. The start time was 7:09 p.m. MST.
 
The lack of recent success for the West Coast teams has led to a decrease in their MNF appearances; hence the sample size is just 21 games for the last 17 seasons. The West Coast teams' 8-2 record on the road actually makes sense once you look at the 10 games.
  • One game involved the 2005 Seahawks, who would reach the Super Bowl, against an overmatched Philadelphia team that was missing Donovan McNabb & Terrell Owens during a 6-10 season. Seattle won 42-0.
  • Last year’s San Diego Chargers were clearly better than Jacksonville.
  • The other eight games all involved the 49ers. San Francisco went 6-1 in seasons they made the playoffs, and 0-1 in a 1999 game in Atlanta. The 49ers finished 4-12 in 1999.
  • Only three of the 10 games have been played in a season since 2000.
If one were to look at our nine Central teams against West Coast (Pacific) teams, then the Central team has a 12-5 record against the West Coast team on MNF since 1995. That includes a 6-4 record on the road, and 6-1 at home.
 
This also suggests we could use more data.
 

Expanding the Stanford Study

While the results of these 84 Monday Night Football games since 1970 are interesting, we now have more primetime games that should be added to the data. There wasn’t a weekly Sunday Night Football game until 1987 when ESPN started airing them, which is likely the reason Stanford did not include Sunday primetime games in their research.
 
If the hypothesis is all about the peak performance time being met by the West Coast team and not the East Coast team, then it shouldn’t matter if the game was played on a Sunday (which is normal for all teams) or Monday. However we would exclude Thursday games for the aforementioned advantages the home team has on the short week.
 
We don’t have data back to 1987 (yet), but we can add the last five years of Sunday Night Football games to the results. Unfortunately, that only adds four more games to the dataset, as Sunday Night Football on NBC has become the premiere game of the week, and our West Coast teams just haven’t been an attractive sell.
 
San Diego has appeared in three of the games: winning in Indianapolis (2010), and losing in Pittsburgh (2009) and New England (2007). The other game was a forgettable meeting between Seattle and Tampa Bay in 2008. Tampa won at home, 20-10.
 
Expanding the study for all Sunday Night games would work. Another idea would be to group the Mountain teams together with the West Coast (our six Western teams again), and then group the Central and Eastern teams together as well. A primetime (Sunday or Monday) game for a Central team these days starts around 7:30 PM CST, which is still going to favor the Western team when it comes to the late afternoon body clock.
 

Final Thoughts

While our Western teams haven’t particularly earned more primetime opportunities with their level of play, it would be good to see them play more late games in the Eastern/Central Time Zones just to help the statistics and make sure we do have a disadvantage here.
 
Currently the breakdown of start times for Western at Eastern/Central games is heavily slanted towards the early start:
 
Time Central Pct. Eastern Pct.
Early (12-1) 60 80.0% 71 75.5%
Mid (3-4) 12 16.0% 13 13.8%
Primetime (7+) 3 4.0% 10 10.6%
 
Can it really be that difficult to get those percentages of early starts down to 60 to 66 percetn?

Just a few hours after part one of this study was posted, the league already changed a 2012 start time. Oakland will now have a fifth game that starts at 10 a.m. PST this season when they go to Miami in Week 2. Meanwhile the Peyton Manning-led Broncos will have 5 primetime games. Keep this in mind when you’re picking your AFC West winner.
 
That will conclude this week’s look at the factors that go into a NFL schedule, and the difficulties of working around time zones and short weeks.  Needless to say this is something that should come under more scrutiny as the schedule evolves.
 
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He might not have been accepted to Stanford, but could have done their 1997 study. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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