Discomfort Zone: the impact of travel on NFL games

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 19, 2012





By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts time traveler


Now that the 2012 NFL schedule is out, it’s time to dig into the statistical research that could assist you when picking winners this season. At the very least, we guarantee to provide exclusive data and do some classic myth-busting in this two-part series.
 
If you took the three-hour plunge with NFL Network for the schedule release show Tuesday night, you may have seen the Football Freakonomics feature on “Body Clocks” (link to video). Captain Comeback had the opportunity to provide research for the feature, and since you get only so much time on TV, we’re going to take a healthy data dump right here on CHFF.

The Time Zone Issue

When analyzing the NFL schedule, a heated topic is the perceived disadvantage West Coast teams face when travelling multiple time zones to the East Coast for games that often start at 1 p.m. EST, which would be only 10 a.m. PST (or 11 a.m. MST). This takes the team out of their “comfort zone,” as they are not used to waking up so early to get to the game and perform.
 
Scientists have found that our bodies operate at a circadian rhythm (body clock), which relates to our 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Based on our routine, there is a certain time during the day in which we are operating at peak performance level. For athletics, this time is believed to be in the late afternoon.
 
This suggests that West Coast teams would actually have an advantage in night games against East Coast teams, and the data—well we’ll save those results for Pt. 2 tomorrow.
 
In the NFL, there is an uneven distribution of teams based on their Local Time Zone. The 32 teams fall into four Time Zone categories: Eastern (EST; 17 teams), Central (CST; 9 teams), Pacific (PST; 4 teams), and Mountain (MST; 2 teams).
 
The teams with the body clock issues are the four teams from the Pacific/West Coast (San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle) and the two Mountain teams (Arizona, Denver) that have to start games on the road when there body clock is set to 10-11 AM. Many of our comparisons will focus on these six teams, which we will note, where applicable, as the group of “Western teams” from now on.
 
Disclaimer: Having collected regular season data from 2007 to 2011 (1280 games), we found some significant results, but will note that the term “significant” is used loosely, as the small sample sizes and correlation of teams (the Western teams make up 75 percent of the league’s West divisions) will produce some presumptuous conclusions.

Overall Records and Home/Road Splits

You may already be thinking that Western teams haven’t been as good in recent years, thus a bad road record is expected. Let’s get to know our teams better by splitting them into their time zones.
 
The teams in the Eastern/Central Time Zones have nearly identical records, both overall and on the road, in the last five seasons, while the same is also true for the six Western teams.
 
Home and Road Records of Teams by Time Zone
2007-2011 Results OVERALL HOME ROAD
Time Zone # of Teams GP W L T Pct. GP W L T Pct. GP W L T Pct.
Eastern 17 1360 689 669 2 0.507 680 386 293 1 0.568 680 303 376 1 0.446
Central 9 720 364 356 0 0.506 360 206 154 0 0.572 360 158 202 0 0.439
Pacific 4 320 151 169 0 0.472 160 90 70 0 0.563 160 61 99 0 0.381
Mountain 2 160 75 85 0 0.469 80 45 35 0 0.563 80 30 50 0 0.375
 
Most stunning is that all four groups win about the same percentage (56.6%) of games at home. We’ve looked at the consistency of home-field advantage in the past, but it’s still wild to see unreliable sample sizes of 17, 9, 4 and 2 produce such results. Even though the six Western teams are worse overall, they can win at the same rate at home as the rest of the league. Where the change comes is on the road, where the Western teams are 5.8 percent to 7.1 percent more likely to lose than their Eastern/Central comrades.
 
Four of the Western teams rank in the top 6 for largest differential in home-road win percentage:
 
Home-Road Win Percentage Differential
Rk Team Home Win% Road Win % Diff.
1 Baltimore 0.775 0.450 0.325
2 Arizona 0.650 0.350 0.300
3T Seattle 0.550 0.275 0.275
3T San Francisco 0.625 0.350 0.275
3T Atlanta 0.725 0.450 0.275
6T San Diego 0.725 0.500 0.225
6T Green Bay 0.800 0.575 0.225
6T Minnesota 0.600 0.375 0.225
6T Houston 0.625 0.400 0.225
 

Western Discomfort

In trying to account for the win percentage difference on the road for Western teams, an analysis of the body clock factor is required.
 
Teams that travel from the Eastern to Central Time Zone (or vice versa) suffer no ill effects with their body clock. They are still in a comfort zone.
 
A home team in the Central Time Zone will start their games at noon, 3:15 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. If playing in the Eastern Time Zone, it is just one hour later at 1 p.m., 4:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in primetime, which is all equal to the Central times the team is used to playing at.
 
The two Mountain teams, Arizona and Denver, are used to playing their home games at 2:15 p.m. MST, which is a 4:15 p.m. game in the Eastern Time Zone. When they have to play an early game at an Eastern or Central team, their body clock is at 11 a.m. MST.
 
The four Pacific teams are used to a start time at home of 1:05 p.m. PST. When they are playing an early game at an Eastern or Central team, their body clock is only at 10 a.m. PST. This is why people believe the Pacific teams are at the biggest disadvantage.
 
In 2011, these six Western teams had a record of 15-12 (.556) in road games that started at 10 a.m. PST. That result was much improved from past years, thanks to San Francisco’s 5-0 record in such games. In the rest of their 2011 road starts that had a later start time (in the team’s comfort zone), the teams combined for a 9-12 record (.429).
 
Western Teams' Road Record - Start Times
Team 10 a.m. PST Pct. Later Pct.
Arizona 8-16 0.333 6-10 0.375
Denver 9-11 0.450 7-13 0.350
Oakland 10-16 0.385 6-8 0.429
San Diego 6-8 0.429 14-12 0.538
San Francisco 9-18 0.333 5-8 0.385
Seattle 7-15 0.318 4-14 0.222
Total 49-84 0.368 42-65 0.393
 
The teams win 2.41 percent more games on the road when they are started at a time more in line with their comfort zone (2:15 p.m. MST or 1:15 p.m. PST). This is not the overwhelming number one would hypothesize for the reason these teams have worse road records, but it does explain some of the variation.
 
Removing 2011 to focus on 2007-10 creates a larger gap. In those four seasons, Western teams were 34-72 (.321) in 10 a.m. PST starts on the road, and 33-53 (.384) in later road starts. It is safe to say 2011 was an outlier compared to the previous four seasons.
 

Time Zone vs. Time Zone

What would it look like if we broke down the games by the time zone for the home and road teams? The record listed corresponds to the HOME team’s record.

Records of Time Zone vs. Time Zone (2007-11)
HOME ROAD Games W L T Pct.
MST MST 1 1 0 0 1.000
EST PST 59 44 15 0 0.746
MST CST 26 19 7 0 0.731
EST MST 35 24 11 0 0.686
PST MST 22 14 8 0 0.636
PST PST 24 14 10 0 0.583
CST EST 184 107 77 0 0.582
CST CST 99 57 42 0 0.576
CST PST 55 31 24 0 0.564
PST EST 71 39 32 0 0.549
EST EST 394 215 178 1 0.547
EST CST 192 103 89 0 0.536
PST CST 43 23 20 0 0.535
CST MST 22 11 11 0 0.500
MST EST 31 15 16 0 0.484
MST PST 22 10 12 0 0.455
 
No surprise games between teams from the same time zone saw the home team’s record hover around the NFL’s normal home-field advantage. What is surprising is that Central teams were 11-11 at home when playing Denver and Arizona, and just 31-24 (.564) at home against the Pacific teams.
 
The big news is the Eastern teams dominating the six Western teams, going 44-15 (.746) against Pacific, and 24-11 (.686) against the Mountain. Combined, that is a staggering 68-26 (.723) record against Western teams.
 
Roger Goodell once told ESPN’s NFC West blogger Mike Sando that he had “not seen specific information” regarding Western teams being at a disadvantage with early starts. Perhaps he should be reading these numbers. If home-field advantage is only supposed to be around 57 percent (and Eastern teams are just .536 against Central teams), then this increase of over 15 percentage points for East vs. Western is clearly a significant advantage.
 
However, this table has no adjustment for time, which indicates the actual start time of the game is not nearly as important as the travel itself. We’ve already seen that our Western teams are able to win only about 39 percent of their road games when starting in a comfort zone. While the 10 a.m. PST start may decrease that number even more, our Western teams still lose on the road more often than the Eastern/Central teams.
 
Now let’s add some start times and watch things get weird.
 
This table shows the records our six Western teams had on the road based on playing in the Central/Eastern Time Zones at various start times. The first two entries in red represent early start games where the body clock for these road teams is still set to 10 a.m. PST (or 11 a.m. MST for Denver and Arizona).
 
Western Teams - Road Records (2007-2011)
ZONE Time Games W L T Pct.
CST Noon 60 30 30 0 0.500
EST 1 PM 71 19 52 0 0.268
CST 3 PM 12 4 8 0 0.333
EST 4 PM 13 3 10 0 0.231
EST 8:30 PM 10 4 6 0 0.400
 
Well this shakes things up quite a bit. Our Western teams have managed an excellent 30-30 record on the road in early starts in the Central Time Zone.
 
How can this happen? Isn’t travelling to the likes of Green Bay, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Minnesota, Tennessee, St. Louis, Kansas City and New Orleans still difficult? It may not be as far as New England or Miami, but it’s still a travel.
 
And yet, they are .500 against Central teams, and a miserable 19-52 (.268) against Eastern teams during those dreaded 1 p.m. EST starts. They are even 3-10 (.231) in the games that start at 4 p.m. EST. One of those wins was San Diego's Philip Rivers throwing a late touchdown to Vincent Jackson at the New York Giants in 2009.
 
Does the one extra time zone really make that big of a difference? Based on this data, we have to cautiously say yes. Keyword: cautiously.
 
Remember, it’s not like Central teams are worse than Eastern teams. Having said that, the 30-30 record has been bolstered by some Central teams that haven’t performed adequately enough for the home crowd at noon CST. You should be able to guess the two biggest disappointments.
 
Central Teams (2007-11)
Team Home Record vs. Western Teams
Chicago 0-3
Dallas 3-0
Green Bay 5-0
Houston 3-2
Kansas City 4-11
Minnesota 6-2
New Orleans 3-0
St. Louis 3-10
Tennessee 3-2
TOTAL 30-30
 
That’s right. It’s our two remaining teams, Kansas City and St. Louis, which complete the two West divisions. They are division games, so it’s not a surprise these struggling teams are 7-21 against their division rivals. The Rams are 15-65 (.188) since 2007. They lose to almost everybody, anywhere, anytime.
 
This also means the rest of the Central teams are 23-9 (.719) in early home starts against the Western teams. See, there was a reason we only cautiously accepted the travel between Central and Eastern as significant for a Western team. It’s not. It’s more or less the same.
 

Bill Walsh and the 49ers said “Kill That Noise”

Still a little skeptical over the data for Western teams? We understand. This is based on five years; not 30. Had we extended our research back to the 1980’s, we may have finished with completely different results when the West was run by the likes of Joe Montana’s 49ers, San Diego’s Air Coryell, Seattle’s Ground Chuck, the two-time champion Raiders, swap the (St. Louis) Cardinals for the Los Angeles Rams, and John Elway’s Broncos.
 
No matter what the playing conditions are, we know great teams can overcome such things. There’s no better example than the team that wrote the record book on winning away from home. They just so happened to be an early-rising Pacific team from San Francisco.
 
From 1988 to 1990, the San Francisco 49ers set a NFL record with 18 consecutive road wins. A whopping 10 of those wins came in games where the 49ers had a body clock of 10 a.m. PST at kickoff.
 
Not only did they win 18 straight road games in the regular season, but they also won the 1988 NFC championship in Chicago, and of course two Super Bowls were won on neutral fields. That is 21 consecutive wins away from Candlestick – a record that will not likely fall any time soon, and especially not by a team that traveled this much.
 
San Francisco's Road Winning Streak (1988-90)
G# Date At Opp. W# G# Day Result Time Zone
1 11/27/1988 @ SDG 13 13 Sun W 48-10 1 PM PST
2 12/4/1988 @ ATL 14 14 Sun W 13-3 1 PM EST
PO 1/8/1989 @ CHI 18 18 Sun W 28-3 3:05 PM CST
PO 1/22/1989 N CIN 19 19 Sun W 20-16 5:18 PM EST
3 9/10/1989 @ IND 1 1 Sun W 30-24 1 PM EST
4 9/17/1989 @ TAM 2 2 Sun W 20-16 4 PM EST
5 9/24/1989 @ PHI 3 3 Sun W 38-28 1 PM EST
6 10/8/1989 @ NOR 5 5 Sun W 24-20 3 PM CST
7 10/15/1989 @ DAL 6 6 Sun W 31-14 Noon CST
8 10/29/1989 @ NYJ 8 8 Sun W 23-10 4 PM EST
9 12/3/1989 @ ATL 13 13 Sun W 23-10 1 PM EST
10 12/11/1989 @ RAM 14 14 Mon W 30-27 6 PM PST
PO 1/28/1990 N DEN 19 19 Sun W 55-10 4:23 PM CST
11 9/10/1990 @ NOR 1 1 Mon W 13-12 8 PM CST
12 10/7/1990 @ HOU 5 4 Sun W 24-21 Noon CST
13 10/14/1990 @ ATL 6 5 Sun W 45-35 1 PM EST
14 11/4/1990 @ GNB 9 8 Sun W 24-20 Noon CST
15 11/11/1990 @ DAL 10 9 Sun W 24-6 7 PM CST
16 12/9/1990 @ CIN 14 13 Sun W 20-17 OT 1 PM EST
17 12/17/1990 @ RAM 15 14 Mon W 26-10 6 PM PST
18 12/30/1990 @ MIN 17 16 Sun W 20-17 Noon CST
 
No regular season win may have been more impressive than the comeback in Philadelphia in 1989. Down 11 points in the fourth quarter against Buddy Ryan and Reggie White’s defense, Joe Montana threw a record-tying 4 TD passes in the fourth quarter for a 38-28 victory.
 
When did the streak end? To start the 1991 season, the 49ers played at The Meadowlands on Monday Night Football with a 9 PM EST start (6 PM PST), and lost 16-14.
 
As San Francisco has proven throughout their history, being a good team is still more important than being in circadian rhythm.
 

Pt. 2 Preview

Come back tomorrow when we look at the new wrinkle in 2012’s schedule, and reference The Cure. Either history will continue to repeat itself, or the increased sample size will regress things back to the average. Either way, some fan bases aren’t going to like it. Plus we’ll get as gangster as white guys can get on a bit of the old East Coast vs. West Coast ultra-violence.
 
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 could throw together a NFL schedule in one afternoon. Doesn’t mean it’d be any good. 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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