How the NFL Cheats: Home-Field Advantage

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistSeptember 16, 2016

SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 18:  Seattle Seahawks fans get ready for the start of the 2015 NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on January 18, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Whether you call it breaking the rules, bending the rules or just getting creative with the rules, cheating has always been a part of the NFL and always will be. This is Part 2 in a Bleacher Report series on how NFL players and teams seek out some advantage, any advantage, over their competition. Part 1 was on the use of foreign substances.

  

Home-field advantage for NFL teams can often feel pronounced. Sometimes it can seem downright preposterous. Unfairly so. Suspiciously so.

Illegally so?

The Falcons are, of course, the poster franchise for this suspicion. In 2013 and 2014, the NFL found, they were playing a low hum in the Georgia Dome—an attempt to infuse energy into a notoriously lifeless stadium. They were docked a fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft and fined $350,000 for the over-the-line attempt to boost their home-field advantage.

But the Falcons aren't the only ones to come up with this idea.

Through the years, visiting teams often have remarked with raised eyebrows about how loud the crowds are in a stadium. Many teams have been suspected of making their stadiums noisier with the aid of loudspeakers in the hopes that opposing offenses couldn't function as smoothly without seamless communication.

The Vikings are one example. They've long been rumored to have enhanced crowd noise in their old stadium, the Metrodome. Former ESPN analyst Jeremy Green once admitted the Vikings were using fake noise when his father Dennis Green was the head coach, though he later backed off the claim, saying it was just his opinion.

Green wasn't the only one with the opinion.

"They pumped in crowd noise all the time," says Matt Millen, who attended games in the Metrodome for over four decades in various capacities. "It was going on when I was playing, and it was going on later. They were warned about it repeatedly."

As a defensive tackle for the Bears and Packers, Steve McMichael played 13 games in the Metrodome.

"I'll never forget the speakers on the sideline," he says. "I heard crowd noise coming out of them. They did it every year. Don't think that doesn't affect an offense. But if I had an inferior team, I would have done it too. It was a compliment if they had to do something outside the rules to beat me."

In 2007, it appeared the Colts were caught pumping in artificial noise to the RCA Dome in a game against the Patriots. Television audio captured a skip in the crowd noise. After a league investigation, however, the Colts were cleared and the skipping noise was blamed on tape feedback in a CBS production truck.

"It was really loud," says Ravens tight end Ben Watson, who was a member of the Patriots at the time. "But once it gets past a certain level, it doesn't matter. I didn't think about it. There are a number of places in the league where you have to get this close to hear the quarterback. It may affect the quarterback's hearing in their helmet. But we can't hear him anyway. We have to be ready to go silent count anytime you go on the road."

Turning up the volume is one thing. Turning up the heat is another.

There were murmurings that the Colts tinkered with the thermostat during their 2006 AFC championship game against the Patriots. This is, at best, urban legend. 

Ed Reinke/Associated Press

Even the Patriots didn't appear to take it seriously.

"To me, you have to be ready for the home field advantage," Watson said. "Coach [Bill] Belichick used to tell us all the time when we played a dome team, ‘Don't think you won't sweat as much because we are inside. Make sure you hydrate.' So we were hydrated. We were ready.'"

There isn't anything teams can do to prepare for gusts of wind. The Giants were long suspected of opening the doors past the tunnel at the old Giants Stadium to invite a swirling wind at an opportune time.

"I know as a returner, they play with the doors," former Eagles running back Vaughn Hebron told Mike Jensen of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2009. "They open the doors and create that wind tunnel—oh yeah, they do it."

The elements can be more deleterious to a visiting team, as the Dolphins found out in a 1982 game against the Patriots. With 4:45 left in a scoreless game at Schaefer Field, the Patriots had a field goal opportunity. But with snow covering the field, a 33-yard attempt was no sure thing. Patriots coach Ron Meyer called for a snowplow to clear a spot for kicker John Smith, who nailed the kick in a 3-0 victory.

Dolphins coach Don Shula protested the game and said he personally should have prevented the plow from clearing the field.

"I think it's the most unfair thing that I've ever been associated with in coaching," he told reporters years ago. "It's the most unsportsmanlike act that I've ever been around."

In the offseason, the league adopted a rule prohibiting the use of snowplows on the field during games.

There are no rules about sprinklers or lawnmowers, though. Some teams are known to maintain their fields in a manner that puts visitors at a disadvantage.

Many opponents have complained about the "grass" at the Oakland Coliseum for decades, claiming the Raiders water it too much and fail to soften the dirt infield. It hasn't seemed to bother the Raiders, though.

"We knew how to play on it, and others didn't," Millen says.

After a 1976 playoff game, Patriots players complained that the field in Oakland was like a quagmire. The Raiders countered that the stadium is below sea level.

Apparently the grounds crew was not required to have a "Commitment to Excellence." 

Other fields also have earned a reputation over the years.

"In Pittsburgh, the grass seemed like it was six inches high," former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon says. "They wanted a slow track there. In Chicago, it would rain and they wouldn't cover the field. Whatever they felt was an advantage to them, they would do."

Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway says Chicago's Soldier Field has a slow surface.

"You have to get used to it," he says. "I don't know if they love it either, but it's an advantage for them, because they play on it more than anybody else. You have to wear different cleats there—the seven studded cleats that no player likes to wear. It gives you more grip and makes you feel like you are planting roots on the field."

Even teams with artificial playing surfaces can try to gain an edge. Former Bears defensive tackle Dan Hampton recalls a game on an uncomfortably hot September day in 1986 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.

"They soaked the Astroturf," Hampton says. "So in those temperatures, it was like a sauna. They were trying to slick up the field to slow down our pass rush and our running game. We wound up killing them, but I remember being so exhausted."

It is not uncommon for visiting teams to report experiencing headset communication problems during games. And it is not uncommon for those teams to imply something nefarious is afoot. There have been repeated issues at the Dolphins' New Miami Stadium and the Patriots' Gillette Stadium. The league usually has blamed problems on faulty wiring and FCC issues.

This summer, the NFL put new headset communication systems in place in every stadium in the hopes of reducing problems. For the first time, the system will be encrypted. 

The reality is the risk of tampering with a team's ability to communicate probably would not be worth the reward. An NFL observer is assigned to monitor the communication devices at every game, and he is within eyesight of the control board.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 2:  Offensive coordinator Todd Haley of the Pittsburgh Steelers adjusts his headset as he looks on from the sideline during a game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on November 2, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

"I honestly don't think teams try to make headsets malfunction," one veteran NFC front-office man says. "The league is sitting right there. You wouldn't just be playing with fire, you'd be playing with a forest fire."

This hardly is a new phenomenon, however. After a 1947 game at Wrigley Field, the Packers were upset because their phone lines from the press box to the bench were inoperable.

Bears coach George Halas had a reputation for doing whatever he could to make things uncomfortable for his guests. And he did not shrink from it.

In his 1979 autobiography, Halas By Halas: The Autobiography of George Halas, he wrote:

"Teams visiting Wrigley Field constantly complained about lack of soap, towels, programs. They put it down to stinginess. But why not deprive visitors, if doing so upsets them? What better location for our band than directly behind George Preston Marshall, tootling in his ears? And if Curly Lambeau had trouble seeing the play from his specially allocated bench in a far corner, so much the better for my Bears."

Halas also admitted to installing air conditioning in the Bears locker room, but not in the visitors' quarters.

"I heard opponents were made very uncomfortable at Wrigley Field," former Bears defensive end Ed O'Bradovich says. "We went into that locker room a couple times for meetings, and I couldn't believe it. Half the lights worked, half didn't. It was like it was from the dark ages. It was as drab and dingy as you could make it. There was a lack of hot water."

A team couldn't get away with that in today's NFL, but teams will certainly be trying something similar to gain some advantage, any advantage. After all, they call it the home-field advantage for a reason.

     

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.

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