Yesterday, Football Outsiders published an interesting piece by Brian Stonelake making the case that NFL teams in the Western United States struggle when they have to play on the road in the early slot on Sunday afternoons. He argues that due to the slow adjustment of the circadian rhythm, teams that play at a time where their bodies feel like it’s the morning perform worse against teams that do not.
Since Stonelake’s study implicates the Broncos, and I’m familiar enough with their history, I thought I would break down their performance in early Sunday games to see how they have fared. This is of particular current interest since the Broncos are going to have four early Sunday games in 2016 (Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and New Orleans).
Before I start, let’s begin with a primer on some broadcasting rules. The NFL forbids any games to be played in the morning of the local time of the home team. For this reason, all home games on Sunday afternoon in the Western United States must be played in the late slot. This does allow Western teams to get a bit of extra exposure on TV by being in the late slot more often, but it has also created perverse situations such as the Broncos playing six straight years (2015-2010) opening on the road due to CBS airing the US Open in the late slot. (However, justice has been served with the Broncos having opened all six seasons from 2011-2016 at home.)
Therefore, games in the early slot for Western teams are rarer, and are also always on the road, tough enough as it is. This thus forms the core of Stonelake’s argument. Stonelake goes back to only 2001, but for the Broncos I decided to go all the way back to 1993, in honor of Wade Phillips becoming the head coach that year. Phillips, of course, deserves that honor after the Super Bowl winning defense he put together last season.
It should also be noted that as the only team entirely on sync with the rest of the Mountain Time Zone, the Broncos would have less of an excuse than the rest of the Western teams under Stonelake’s argument. However, since I’m not going to break the other Western teams down, I don’t know if it’s any worse for them.
So let’s start by looking at the Broncos’ overall record versus their record in early Sunday afternoon games:
|Year||Overall Record||Early Game Record||Diff|
While the Broncos do have a winning record in early Sunday games in this time period (32-29), in 12 out of 21 seasons when the Broncos had to play early, they indeed had a worse record than their overall record, with 7 seasons being better.
Now, you may be thinking, as I did, that this doesn’t tell us enough. Sometimes the teams drawn on the road just happen to be easier or tougher than the Broncos are. So I decided to look at the records of each individual team that the Broncos played on the road in the early slot.
First, let’s start with the wins. The key number we’re looking for here are the number of wins against teams with a better record than the Broncos.
|1993||9||7||NYJ (8-8), CLE (7-9), CHI (7-9)||0|
|1996||13||3||CIN (8-8), NE (11-5), MIN (9-7)||0|
|1997||12||4||ATL (7-9), BUF (6-10)||0|
|1998||14||2||WAS (6-10), CIN (3-13)||0|
|2007||7||9||BUF (7-9), KC (4-12)||0|
|2009||8||8||CIN (10-6), KC (4-12)||1|
|2011||8||8||MIA (6-10), KC (7-9), MIN (3-13)||0|
|2012||13||3||CIN (10-6), CAR (7-9), KC (2-14), BAL (10-6)||0|
|2015||12||4||CLE (3-13), CHI (6-10)||0|
As you can see, in 23 years of early Sunday games, the Broncos have only a measly 3 wins against teams with a better record. Now, the good news is that this should be expected to some extent because the Broncos have been one of the best teams in the NFL in this time span, so there aren’t that many better opponents. But for the purposes of this study, it also means that the Broncos don’t get extra credit for defeating teams they should have been favored to defeat, regardless of location or time.
Now, let’s move onto the losses. What we’re looking for here are teams with worse records than the Broncos, teams that Denver should have been expected to defeat.
|1996||13||3||KC (9-7), GB (13-3)||1|
|1997||12||4||KC (13-3), PIT (11-5)||1|
|1999||6||10||TB (11-5), NE (8-8)||0|
|2000||10||6||CIN (4-12), KC (7-9)||2|
|2001||8||8||MIA (10-6), KC (6-10), IND (6-10)||2|
|2003||10||6||KC (13-3), MIN (9-7), BAL (10-6)||1|
|2004||10||6||JAX (9-7), KC (7-9)||2|
|2009||8||8||BAL (9-7), WAS (4-12), IND (14-2)||1|
|2010||4||12||JAX (8-8), BAL (12-4), KC (10-6)||0|
Ouch, now we see the carnage come into play, with 16 losses in early Sunday games against teams with worse records. Aside from seeing the Chiefs way too many damn times on that list (especially to that 2-14 team in 2008, ugh), we also have the Giants wrecking the perfect season bid, the Corey Dillon game, and the Randy Moss lateral among the particularly infamous games.
It is interesting that while Mike Shanahan’s best era featured five losses in early Sunday games, the Peyton Manning era featured only one, the ugly loss at St. Louis that may have signaled the beginning of the end for him.
Putting it all together, at least as the Broncos go there may be a bit of truth to Stonelake’s argument. His solution, on the surface, is simple enough: always have Western teams play in the late slot even if they’re on the road:
It is worth noting that for the non-prime time games of the past 15 years, there is a 68-32 percent split between the first and second TV time slots (games starting at approximately 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. EST respectively). Had all 374 morning body clock games been moved to the second TV time slot, in addition to righting one of the worst wrongs in professional sports, it would have amounted to a more equitable 56 to 44 percent split of games: seemingly advantageous to the fan who prefers to watch as much football as possible. The rise in popularity of fantasy sports, for example, would seem to suggest a preference toward a more equal split of games among these time periods.
Unfortunately, Stonelake does not observe that this imbalance is very much intentional, and it all has to do with the almighty dollar. The NFL wants to cram as many games as they can in the early slot so it makes people more desperate to purchase Sunday Ticket and the Red Zone Channel. The networks, meanwhile, want to be able to show only one “featured” game each doubleheader week to as many homes as possible. And that “featured” game all too often has to do more with popularity than actually showing good games. This leads to such travesties as the 2015 Dallas Cowboys being shown in a standalone late Sunday afternoon game four times despite going 4-12.
Thus, early Sunday games are something that the Broncos and other Western teams are going to have to deal with. However, I’ll conclude with one last thought: if Stonelake is on to something here, this could have even bigger implications for games played in London and other places overseas. Let’s see how the Los Angeles Rams handle their “home” game over there this year, which will be airing at 6:30 AM at their real home’s time.