How Do NFL Fans Really Affect Games?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterDecember 12, 2013

USA Today

Guinness World Records adjudicator Philip Robertson is a busy man.

He's been crisscrossing the country in recent weeks, measuring the screaming fans of NFL city after NFL city. Every NFL fanbase would love to be certified as the world's most intimidating, and every team in the NFL would love to hang the plaque for "Loudest Crowd Roar at a Sports Stadium" in its trophy case.

In Seattle, belief in the power of Seahawks fans to disrupt opponents is so fervent that they're dubbed "The 12th Man," and the No. 12 jersey is retired in their honor.

On December 1, Robertson certified them as holders of the Guinness World Record after a coordinated cheer reached 137.6 decibels—nearly twice as loud as the 130 dB pain threshold, per Purdue University, and louder than a fighter jet launching from the deck of an aircraft carrier. With that mighty roar, the Seahawks claimed the crown back from the Kansas City Chiefs.

But is a bunch of fans screaming their heads off really like having an extra man on the field?

What exactly does a crazy-loud crowd do to NFL teams? Beyond raw noise, what if a crowd is booing, heckling or even silent? Why are they cheering, booing, heckling or silent anyway?

Why We Cheer

To find out, I talked to Dr. Daniel Wann, Professor of Psychology at Murray State University. A top expert on crowd psychology, Dr. Wann is an associate editor for the Journal of Sport Behavior and on the Editorial Review Board of the Journal of Fandom Studies. I asked Dr. Wann what spurs NFL crowds to roar at eardrum-rending level.

"Not only do fans cheer and yell," Dr. Wann told me, "and not only do they do that in an incredibly loud manner—at Arrowhead Stadium, at Seahawks games, in playoff games—they also believe that cheering has a direct impact on the game." Fans, he said, feel they have two jobs: disrupt the visiting team and support the home team.

"So they cheer, they cheer loud and they cheer for a purpose," Dr. Wann said, "to impact the game—and it does impact the game."

That level of sustained cheering requires the fans to actually care about the game. Cheering, Dr. Wann stated, is directly related to how much each fan is personally connected to the events on the field.

"Most fans at an NFL game are going to be there for a reason; either they're a fan of one of the two teams, or maybe they're just an NFL football fan," Wann stated. But "you're not going to find a high level of cheering with fans that don't have anything at stake." Those who attend a game just to tag along with friends, or who happened to stumble into a free ticket, aren't going to holler their heads off before every third down.

Sometimes, though, a crowd can pump itself up. Just being around lots of people getting excited can spur wallflowers to get involved.

"There's pretty clear evidence that just a small handful of fans can start something," Wann said. "Maybe it's a chant, or 'louder, louder, louder,' or something like that; these types of actions can certainly escalate throughout the crowd." It's amazing, Dr. Wann observed, just how quickly crowd excitement can catch on.

"Eight people could say, 'Hey, let's do the wave,' and in 90 seconds you've got 60,000 people doing something in unison." It's the same, he said, with cheering and chanting. "You get a small group of people chanting 'Let's go Saints, let's go Saints'; within two minutes, 70,000 people are chanting it."

The Deafening Roar

Of course, loud sound directly interferes with the game. When fans roar during the visiting team's huddle on up to the snap, they can drown out play calls, audibles and snap counts—making it hard for an offense to function.

In 1989, the NFL adopted rules to control crowd noise, deeming disruption undesirable. In-game penalties could be assessed if crowd noise interfered with an opponent's offense. Video board messages inciting the crowd to get loud, like "Pump It Up," were forbidden.

Fortunately, the league realized the fun of a rowdy game-day atmosphere outweighs its impact on the game. With the implementation of in-helmet wireless headsets in 1994, crowds were finally free to pump it up and teams free to encourage them.

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen exhorts the Metrodome to make more noise.
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen exhorts the Metrodome to make more noise.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As with any competitive advantage, NFL teams will go to any length to maximize it.

For years, there were rumors the Minnesota Vikings aggressively made their Metrodome artificially (hence, unfairly) louder.

In 1998, then-Packers head coach Mike Holmgren complained the Vikings had set up cheerleaders' sound monitors near the visitors' bench to drown out their communication. Jeremy Green, son of former Vikings head coach Dennis Green, admitted in an ESPN chat (subscription required) the Vikings routinely piped in crowd noise throughout the 1990s. Green later clarified this was "opinion," not firsthand knowledge.

Green's ESPN chat was in response to a notorious 2007 incident at the Indianapolis Colts' old RCA Dome: During a game against the New England Patriots, the Colts fans' roar started looping and skipping, then went nearly silent.

Per the Washington Post, an RCA Dome security guard told a Boston TV cameraman the Colts regularly amplified crowd noise. The Colts denied it, and the league determined the sound was feedback from CBS' broadcast microphones and "in no way related to any sound within the stadium."

Still, suspicions were aroused.

Oh, and those headsets? Sometimes they happen to go out at crucial times, as the Houston Texans' did at Baltimore in Week 3. ESPN's Katie Linendoll recently explored the possible technical explanations for this season's outbreak of suspected headset signal-jamming.

With or without quarterback headsets, though, there are 20 other men on the field who have to adapt to the fury of a crowd. How do they cope? How do they do their jobs? Can it actually help?

What does it feel like to have 60,000 people screaming at you?

In the Lions' Den

In 2011, the Detroit Lions hosted Monday Night Football for the first time in nine years, and the raucous crowd was so deafening the visiting Chicago Bears committed nine false starts. In the wake of the 24-13 win, head coach Jim Schwartz gave Lions fans the game ball, now displayed in a case on the Ford Field concourse.

To find out more about that night, and how crowd noise affects players on the field, I spoke with Lawrence Jackson, a free-agent defensive end who had three tackles and a sack for the Lions that night.

"You have to put it into perspective," Jackson said. "It was a unique energy in that town."

Besides the long-awaited return of Monday Night Football, the Detroit Tigers were in the thick of the ALCS in the MLB playoffs, and Detroit sports fans were buzzing. "We were a highly competitive team," Jackson noted (the Lions were 4-0 coming into the game). "We knew it would be a sellout crowd, and we knew the place would be rocking."

Then again, Jackson noted, that brought its own pressure. "Chicago travels well," he said. "If you're not performing, it'll turn into a mini-home game [for the Bears]." The Lions did perform, though, and the environment was anything but Chicago-friendly.

"The fans," Jackson said, "they just went crazy the entire night. With the penalties they were forcing, it was special. I think that was probably the most energetic game that I've ever played in." 

What happens when a football player taps into the electricity arcing all around him?

"You attach to that energy, and you want to do something that keeps that energy going. It just takes you to a different level, in the sense that you're not afraid—almost like you're invincible."

What about the other side of the line? How can an offensive lineman block a defensive lineman who feels nearly invincible with an entire hostile crowd behind him?

Then-Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson sacks Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on Monday Night Football.
Then-Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson sacks Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on Monday Night Football.Leon Halip/Getty Images

"The offensive tackle, in a normal environment, would like to get his eyes on his man so he can attack, and not just react to my attack," Jackson said. "In an environment where you can't hear, you either have to peer into the ball a little—'periph' the ball while still trying to keep an eye on your man—or you have to look at the ball the whole time, and rely on getting back in your stance before the defensive lineman can shoot."

Not only does the noise put linemen at a physical disadvantage, Jackson said, but when the offense goes to a silent snap count, it gives defensive linemen a chance to jump the snap.

"There's the head bob," referring to a signal centers commonly use to coordinate their silent count, "and you try to time that up, because teams can be predictable. Cliff (Avril) was really great at it. He's very explosive in his takeoff," Jackson said, referring to the former Lions defensive end, now with the Seahawks. So, if you've got a guy like that who can capitalize on it, Jackson said, the results speak for themselves.

Avril, like Jackson, had a sack and three tackles in that game.

What happens when that energy shorts out? What about a road game, when the crowd is cheering for the other team and silent when the defense takes the field? When the other team's fans are giving their offense a nice quiet environment in which they can work—often at the behest of video board messages calling for silence?

"That's very peaceful for me," Jackson said. "You're in your own little world, you're doing your stuff and you're just kind of dialed into the game. Home games are way more intense."

That doesn't mean there isn't energy to tap into.

"On the road," Jackson said, "there's no greater joy than hearing that collective 'AAARGH!' when something bad happens to the home team. That's incredible, as a defender."

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears looks for a receiver as Lawrence Jackson #94 of the Detroit Lions rushes against J'Marcus Webb #73 at Soldier Field on October 22, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Lions 13-7.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

But what happens when the "AAARGH!" moment happens at home? What happens when your fans hit their breaking point? What happens when the fans stop cheering and the life goes out of the building?

In a way, Jackson told me, the energy's current reverses: Players feel pressure to pump the fans up.

"In Detroit," he said, "there were bad offensive performances, in the sense that they weren't very rhythmic, weren't getting first downs like clockwork. Fans would want that big play by Calvin [Johnson, the Lions' All-Pro receiver] to get energetic, but then there'd be that deflation when they couldn't capitalize.

"When [the offense] threw an interception, as a defender you have an immediate shift in focus. You can't let them go downfield and get comfortable. You have to make a play to match that momentum."

That, Jackson told me, is when fans often go silent—but defenders need their support.

"It's a collective," Jackson said. "It's not just one play; it's the whole game. There are times when you need to be loud, no matter what. When [the] offense turns the ball over, cool, that's done with. But the defense is out there now, and—at that point more than ever—we need to let the visiting team know we're not giving in. We're going out there to kick some ass, you know?"

Coping with Noise, Coping with Pressure

Each player on an NFL team may have a different response to crowd noise, be it home or away, friendly or unfriendly.

"It's a function of that athlete's personality," Dr. Wann told me, "and how they respond to pressure situations. Some athletes just seem to have the ability to rise to the occasion in these anxious moments."

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 8:  Place kicker Matt Prater #5 of the Denver Broncos makes a 25-yard field goal on a hold by Britton Colquitt #4 during the first quarter against the Tennessee Titans at Sports Authority Field Field at Mile High on December 8, 2013
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

"What the research suggests is," he continued, "if it's a very difficult task, something the athlete is going to fail at more often than succeed, the distraction of the crowd is going to inhibit their performance. If it's something they're good at, if they're likely to get it right, then the crowd should support their performance and make them better."

Dr. Wann explained it in terms of placekicking: If a kicker is lining up for an extra point—which kickers convert around 99 percent of the time—a raucous crowd is likely to improve performance. If it's a kick when failure is expected, such as Matt Prater's record-breaking 64-yarder from Week 14, even a cheering, supportive crowd will detract from performance.

How can a player combat the negative effects of crowd noise and pressure?

I spoke with Dr. Dan Weigand, editor of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. Dr. Weigand, besides serving as a professor of psychology at many colleges in the United States and United Kingdom, as well as a psychology consultant for athletes and teams in many major professional and Olympic sports, is now a performance psychologist.

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 09:  Philadelphia Eagles coaches hold up Rocky and Elvis signs in the second quarter while taking on the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 9, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

"One of the things that we try to do," Dr. Weigand said, "is limit the effect that crowd noise has if you're the away team." One of the keys to doing that, Weigand said, is to practice in those distracting, disrupting conditions. In practice, teams can deploy loud sound and then develop coping strategies like hand signals, snap counts and play placards (like Chip Kelly uses with the Philadelphia Eagles).

Beyond the preparation for dealing the noise, though, is psychological preparation.

"We try to prepare our team to embrace playing on the road," Dr. Weigand said, "to embrace the crowd noise, and use it as an advantage—to interpret it as they're rooting for you, rather than against you." That kind of mental tenacity doesn't come easily, of course, but rigorous practice in adverse conditions better prepares teams and athletes to handle adverse game situations.

Dr. Weigand related the tale of a basketball team he consulted with that wanted to "own" its home court—that is, to press its home-field advantage and let road wins come as they may. Dr. Weigand saw a better way.

"Why not win on the road just as much as you do at home," he asked rhetorically, "and do as much as you can to make the road feel like home?"

In football, Dr. Weigand said, it's even easier to accomplish. One stadium looks the same as another at the field level, as opposed to other sports (like baseball), where the dimensions of the field can change.

Although, as Lawrence Jackson experienced, crowd noise often comes at the worst possible time for the road team and best possible time for the home team—and "noise" encompasses cheering, booing, taunting, screaming, chanting and everything in between—it's all just sound.

"It's whether or not you're going to hear that noise and interpret it as something that's going to be facilitating or debilitating," Dr. Weigand said. "That's up to the individual. We grow up with the mindset that if somebody is booing, that's a bad thing, and we're supposed to react to it in a negative way. We can just teach people to react to it in a positive way."

SEATTLE - DECEMBER 23:  Line backer Julian Peterson #59 of the Seattle Seahawks urges the crowd to make noise against the Baltimore Ravens at Qwest Field on December 23, 2007 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Ravens 27-6. (Photo by Otto Gr
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The way to accomplish this, Dr. Weigand said, is again through rigorous practice and game-condition simulation.

"Make practice as much like competition as possible, so that competition is as much like practice as possible," he said. With the right mindset, the rowdiest snake pit of a road game can be just another day at the office.

Crowd noise can impact NFL games in a real, physical way. Moreover, the energy of the crowd can disrupt the visiting team and psychologically pump up—or deflate—the home team.

Ultimately, the power to perform is still in the minds and emotions of the players and coaches themselves. The confidence they have in their ability to succeed, and the rigor of their preparation, will determine just how much a stadium full of screaming fans impacts the outcome of the game.

Ty Schalter is a Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer and member of the Pro Football Writers of America. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.