Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 9/20/13
If you’ve ever played competitive sports at any level, you know how important home field advantage is. Travel makes you cranky, the home team knows their surroundings, and the stress of a three-hour bus ride may or may not make you reveal to a bus full of your coaches and teachers how frequently you smoke pot. There’s a reason Vegas swings home lines by three points, and there’s a reason Seattle never loses at home. Ah, Seattle. Some teams get better at home. But the Seahawks? Well, how many times do we need to see the 49ers travel up north to Seattle and magically transform into the Jaguars before we acknowledge how special CenturyLink Field really is. There are millions of ways to quantify performance, and we’ll get into plenty of them, but for now, the most important stat is this: Seahawks home record 2002-2012: 59-29 Seahawks road record 2002-2012: 33-55 Why 2002? Two reasons. First and most obviously, that’s when The CLink (nee Qwest Field) opened. Second, it was Seattle’s first season in the NFC, as expansion brought the Texans into the newly formed AFC South and pushed Seattle out of the AFC West and into the reformed NFC West. Across the NFL, Freakonomics writer Stephen Dubner found that home teams win 57.3% of the time. At the CLink, the Seahawks win 67% of the time. There are teams that have even better records at home (such as New England), but remember, those teams win most of their road games as well because they’re great teams. During this span Seattle is only four games over .500, making them an average team. Is it possible that they haven’t been very good, but CenturyLink Field covers it up? The evidence seems to support that theory. Winning 67% of your games in the NFL means that you’re an 11-win team. Therefore, by virtue of their total record, Seattle has essentially been an 8-win team in total that plays like an 11-win team at home. That’s only half of the story. If you look at how badly the Seahawks have played on the road, you start to get a glimpse of what’s really going on. If the average NFL team wins 57.3% of their home games, that means they lose 57.3% of their road games. The Seahawks lose 62.5% of their road games. Their road winning percentage of .375 projects them as a 6-win team on the road. Now let’s think about that for a minute. Why is Seattle so much worse on the road? Is it possible that they really just haven’t been very good in that time, but CenturyLink Field covers it up? The evidence seems to support that theory. In 2003, the Seahawks went 2-6 on the road and still made the playoffs. That’s because they won all eight of their home games. They did the same in 2005, when they made the Super Bowl, though their road record jumped to 5-3. They happened to be the NFC’s No. 1 seed that year. If you take that Seahawks team out of the mix, the average No. 1 seed in the NFC from 2002 on won 6.3 road games. Even in a Super Bowl year, the Seahawks got a big boost from their home field. Need more counting stats? The Seahawks have three undefeated home seasons since 2002. Only New England matches or bests that with five, but remember, they’ve been the best team in football over this span while Seattle is in the middle of the pack. The Seahawks have also only lost one playoff game at CenturyLink Field and have a record of 5-1. Not even New England can match that, as they’ve gone 11-3 in that span. Now let’s look at some advanced numbers. The best true measure of team performance over a long period is their Pythagorean winning percentage. This stat measures how well a team is playing based on point differential rather than record, as close games tend to be statistically random and a 40-point win is more impressive than a single digit victory. If a team’s Pythagorean winning percentage is significantly higher than its actual winning percentage, that implies that the team has gotten unlucky in one or several categories, mainly fumbles and close games. Seattle’s actual home winning percentage at CenturyLink Field is around 67%. Their Pythagorean winning percentage there is 70.8%, meaning that based on their level of play, they should be expected to win 70.8% of the time at home. This takes Seattle from just below an 11-win team at home to just below an 11.5 win team (and 11-4-1 team has a winning percentage of .719). The Seahawks also happen to have an unlucky deviation on the road, but it’s much smaller, as their road Pythagorean winning percentage in that span is 38.9%. As the difference in home percentage is larger than the difference in road percentage, we can assume that the gap between Seattle’s home and road play is even larger than their records imply. What else can we learn from these numbers? First of all, the Seahawks are good at home even when they’re horrible in general. In 2008, when they went 4-12, they had a home Pythagorean winning percentage of 47.9%, which means that they played at the level of around a 7.5 win team at home despite actually winning two games there during the season. The same thing happened in 2009, when the 5-11 Seahawks had a home Pythagorean winning percentage of 63.1%, which approximates to around 10 wins, yet they only won 4 at home. Even if it’s not reflected, the Seahawks ALWAYS play well at home. More importantly, these numbers can tell us where exactly home-field gives the Seahawks the biggest advantage. The difference between their offense at home and on the road is fairly small, only 4.25 points per game. But the defense is massively hurt on the road, as they give up 6.3 more points per game than they do at home. That may not seem like a huge disparity, but remember, this is over an 11-year span. Those two points mean everything. If you’re looking for bigger numbers, then consider some of these. Remember how those 2009 Seahawks managed to play like a 10-win team at home despite winning only five games total? Well, the reason they were so terrible was their road defense.  The 2009 Seahawks were outscored by an astonishing 19.7 points per game on the road. The total difference between the Seahawks at home (where they outscored opponents by around two points per game) and on the road amounts to over three touchdowns per game. This is largely due to their defense. They gave up just under 34 points per game on the road. Over the full season, that would have placed them dead last in the NFL by three full points. The story stays the same in several other years. In 2003, the Seahawks gave up 11.9 more points per game on the road than at home. It was 8.1 in 2005, 8.25 in 2007, and 8.75 in 2010. Time and time again the Seahawks give up over a full touchdown more per game on the road than they do at home. Again, it might not seem like a huge number, but these are all full season averages. If you’re looking for bigger numbers, the 2009 defense gave up 270 points over eight road games in 2009. Big enough for you? Overall, the sheer amount of sound that Seattle fans create at home gives them an advantage unlike any in the NFL. Generally, Seattle’s defense hasn’t been too bad on the road. The difference stems mainly from how good the defense is at home. The 2005 team gave up only 12.9 points per game; in 2007 it was 13.9, and in 2010 it was 18.6. If sustained on the road, the 2005 team would’ve been ranked No. 2 in the league, the 2007 team would’ve been No. 1, and the 2010 would’ve been No. 6. Obviously, those numbers would be pretty hard to keep up with on the road, explaining the enormous disparities in each of those seasons. The same is true of almost every season the Seahawks have had at the CLink, but those are the most pronounced examples. There are several things that can explain this beyond the usual “home cooking” and “sleeping in your own bed” argument. First of all, consider the weather in Seattle against the rest of their division. The Seahawks play in one of the NFL’s coldest cities, whereas two of the divisional opponents, San Francisco and Arizona, come from warm weather cities and the third, St. Louis, plays in a dome. This puts the Seahawks at a massive advantage if they play home divisional games in the winter. But the biggest factor for several reasons is noise. CenturyLink Field was built specifically to keep crowd noise in. This, combined with Seattle’s already rabid fan base, makes it the league’s loudest stadium by far. What does this noise do? Plenty of things. First of all, it motivates the team. Motivation is impossible to quantify, but a cursory glance at any game in Seattle shows just how big of an impact the crowd has in terms of getting the Seahawks pumped up. More importantly, the noise wreaks havoc on the opposing offense. In some way, shape or form every offense relies on calls at the line of scrimmage. Those audibles are nearly impossible to make when receivers and linemen can’t hear the quarterback. This forces offenses into more conservative play calling and less adjustments based on what the defense presents. This essentially makes the no-huddle impossible and slows down even the fastest paced offenses. It also influences flags. A study by economist Thomas Dohmen found that in soccer referees are more likely to call penalties the closer fans are to the stadium. This pretty easily transfers to football, where Seattle’s stands are not only close to the field, but also the loudest in the league. Part of the closeness factor has to do with noise, and in that regard Seattle fans actually manage to influence referees by making it. On a more easily quantifiable level, the noise created by Seahawks fans causes more false starts in the opposing offense than any other stadium. From 2005 through November of 2010, CBS found that road teams in Seattle had committed 99 false starts, by far the most in the league. Those numbers have continued since, especially now as the Seahawks have more to play for and therefore the fans have more reason to generate noise. Overall, the sheer amount of sound that Seattle fans create at home gives them an advantage unlike any in the NFL, where most older stadiums are too big to match it and most newer ones are built to accommodate luxury suites rather than crowd noise. It’s an incredibly unique stadium in that it's one of the few that was built to give the home team a competitive advantage. This is what makes the Seahawks so dangerous. When their roster is as good as it is now, they’re a virtual lock to win all of their home games. From there, all they need to do is win four or five road games to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they do that, it would be nearly impossible to stop them from reaching the Super Bowl.
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