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NFL’s Frequent-Flier Phenomenon

How much does travel affect a team's record? Plus, debunking the franchise kicker myth

Travel. It’s easier on a chartered jet and with a five-star hotel waiting for you upon arrival, but we all know that it still manages to affect NFL teams. Part of the value package we summate as “home-field advantage” is that time the home team actually spends on the ground and not in the air. It’s practicing, sleeping, and eventually playing in your own familiar time zone, especially if you’re traveling west to east. We know that it matters. But who does it routinely affect the most? And will that be any different in 2012?

To answer that question, I built a model to estimate how many miles each team has traveled to and from its regular-season games over the past 10 seasons, including both standard-issue road games as well as the neutral-site games in London and Mexico City. An online distance calculator measured the distance between each pair of NFL cities using the great-circle distance (or “as the crow flies”) methodology.1 The method doesn’t account for refueling layovers or different possible flight paths, nor does it adjust for the occasional situation in which a team with consecutive road games in a faraway part of the country decides to stay in that area as opposed to returning home. Instead, it assumes that every team flies home after each road game. There’s a notable recent exception to that rule that will come up shortly.

What really stood out after crunching the numbers, more than anything, is how dramatic the difference in travel can be between sets of teams. Take 2008, for example, when the Seahawks had to traverse more than five times as much ground on their road trips as the Steelers did:

The Steelers played 15 of their 16 games in the Eastern time zone, with a lone trip to the Central time zone waiting for them against the Titans in Week 16. Part of that is a lucky out-of-division schedule, but the Steelers also benefit by playing in a division with three opponents who each reside within 260 miles or so of Pittsburgh. Seattle, meanwhile, plays in a “West” division that places its teams in three different time zones. Pittsburgh accrues about 1,122 miles in traveling to and from its divisional rivals, while Seattle’s round-trips to their NFC West brethren clock in at a whopping 7,024 miles.

As you might suspect, the NFC West gets royally jobbed by their travel requirements every year. Of the 10 longest distances traveled by teams in a given season over the past 10 years, seven belong to either the Seahawks or the 49ers. Last year, our model suggests, the Niners paced the league with 29,212 round-trip miles, but it doesn’t know that San Francisco stayed in Ohio between road games against the Bengals and Eagles as opposed to flying back to San Francisco. Once you account for that, the Seahawks led the league by accruing just under 27,000 miles. The Chargers were a nose behind them, which is also no surprise; the three remaining slots in our top 10 belong to seasons from the Chargers and Raiders.

Likewise, the AFC North is the division for those who don’t enjoy traveling. Nine of the 10 regular-season travel schedules since 2002 with the fewest miles belong to AFC North teams, with the 2008 Bears sneaking in at the bottom of the list.

The disparity between teams was even bigger before the league realigned its divisions in 2002. In 1998, the Niners played nine road games (including the playoffs) without managing to get even one in their own Pacific time zone. They traveled to the Eastern Time Zone five times and played four more in the Central time zone, averaging over 4,332 miles per round-trip. And they still went 12-4!

With this year’s schedule already released, we know that the Niners won’t be the league’s most-traveled team during the regular season, even if they don’t decide to stick it out in Ohio during another road trip. Instead, by about 100 miles, the Raiders will likely lead the league in miles flown throughout the 2012 regular season. The model estimates that they’ll have to travel 28,700 miles to get to their eight road games, thanks to a schedule that gives them out-of-division matchups versus the AFC North, NFC South, and the Dolphins.

The league’s friendliest travel schedule will also be a team out of the ordinary. In fact, the league’s two freshest faces at quarterback will also enjoy the league’s two quickest sets of trips this season, as the Colts (8,494 miles) and Redskins (8,982 miles) get the league’s shortest travel dockets in 2012. The Bengals and Packers are the only other teams who clock in under 10,000 miles this upcoming season, with the average team spending just over 16,000 miles in flight.

Does the spread in travel distances actually matter? It’s hard to say. On one hand, it’s easy to point to the successful teams in the AFC North and the mostly poor teams of the NFC West and suggest that friendly travel schedules have kept each of them in their respective corners, but there’s just not overwhelming evidence in that direction. The correlation coefficient2 between miles traveled and wins is essentially zero, suggesting that one has nothing to do with producing the other.

On the other hand, though, an interesting trend splits itself out if we separate the travel distances for each game into three distinct groups. Based upon games played over the past 15 seasons, teams seem to play better on the road and win more frequently against nearby opponents than they do against faraway ones:

There’s still more research to be done. If you’re a fan of the Seahawks or 49ers, though, you have every right to make your complaints regarding the travel schedule known. Just don’t expect the old-timers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to harbor much sympathy.


Prater Saver

On Monday, the Broncos came to terms with kicker Matt Prater on a four-year deal. Prater, who was the team’s franchise player before the deal was signed, will receive a $3 million signing bonus as part of a $13 million contract. And it’s not entirely clear that the Broncos should have brought him back if he offered to play for the veteran’s minimum.

In the past, we’ve covered why slapping your kicker with the franchise tag is an ill-advised move. For a quick reminder, consider the table below, which notes the incredible lack of consistency in the field goal percentage of kickers with 20 attempts in consecutive seasons:

The point is simple: There’s no year-to-year consistency with kickers, so there’s no point in paying a premium for an “accurate” kicker. Teams who spend money on their kickers are usually paying for the illusion of certainty as opposed to any real comfort. Do you know who the highest-paid kicker in football was last year? It was Billy Cundiff, who parlayed a career year with the Ravens in 2010 into a $15 million contract before last season. You might also remember Cundiff subsequently missing the single most important kick of the year, a 32-yard chip shot against the Patriots that would have pushed the AFC Championship Game into overtime.

Things are a little different with the Broncos and Matt Prater. Normally, teams lock up their kickers after they’ve had fantastic seasons. It’s fair to say that Matt Prater’s had a noteworthy season. An eventful season. Certainly, an exciting one. But it’s not entirely clear that Matt Prater was an above-average kicker in 2011, and Denver’s decision to lock him up represents one of the many ways in which organizations fool themselves into spending money in the wrong places.

Start with the facts. Matt Prater hit 19 of his 25 field goals last year, producing a conversion rate of 76.0 percent. Among qualifying kickers, that placed him 28th out of 33. And it would be one thing if Prater had just come off of an off year — after all, the chart above points out how random kicker accuracy can be — but he’s now hit 78.4 percent of his field goals across five pro seasons. That ranks 37th out of 44 regular kickers over that time frame, so it’s safe to say that Prater’s not known for his accuracy.

Ah, but his leg strength! Prater is regarded as having a boomer, and the stats back it up, as Prater is 12-for-16 from 50-plus yards during his time with the Broncos. It’s certainly fair to give Prater some bonus points for attempting (and converting) so many field goals from distance, but remember that Prater’s also attempting many of those kicks in the thin air of Denver, where every kicker in the league gets the benefit of some extra leg.

Football Outsiders adjusts every field goal attempt for both the distance of the kick and the stadium in which the kick is being attempted, assigns that kick a value based upon the historical likelihood of success, and then notes whether the kicker’s produced more points on field goals than the league average in the same situations might suggest. As it turns out, in Prater’s case, it’s less. Even if you throw out his dreadful 2008 season, Prater’s been a below-average kicker during his tenure with the Broncos.

It’s hard to find any hint of that big leg on kickoffs, either, especially after the league instituted the shorter field for kickoffs before last season. Last year, there were 75 kickoffs (excluding onside kicks) in Denver home games and just 15 of those were returned. Prater was responsible for just three of the 15 kickoffs that were returned, which suggests that he was booting the ball deeper than opposing kickers, but that wasn’t really the case. Nine of those 12 kicks returned by the Broncos were plays in which the ball went five or more yards deep into the end zone and Denver chose to run the ball out anyway. For the Broncos, that was a purposeful tactic: With an offense that struggled to move the ball, the kickoff return could have ranked among their most effective plays. There were only two kickoffs last season in Denver that failed to reach the end zone, and one was by Prater.

Away from Denver, Prater produced touchbacks on 50 percent of his kickoffs last year. Excluding games played in the thin air of Denver, the rest of the league’s kickers booted touchbacks on the road at about a 47 percent clip. That’s a difference of about one extra touchback on the road per year. Perhaps Prater will do better next season, but at the moment, he looks to be about a league-average kickoff guy.3

So if he has below-average accuracy and is average on kickoffs, why are the Broncos paying Prater? Because he hit a bunch of game-winning field goals, you dummy! In fact, four Broncos games during the 2011 season ended with a game-winning Prater field goal, three of which came in overtime. Throw in a key onside kick against the Dolphins, and you’ve got a clutch kicker on your hands, right?

It’s pretty easy to poke holes in that logic. For one, let’s start with that onside kick. Watch it again and you see a kick that hits an unmolested Miami player right in the hands, only for the snakebitten Dolphins to fumble the kick right away. The outcome was great, but the execution was questionable. Either way, one onside kick isn’t enough to form an opinion about whether Prater’s good or bad at the task. Most kickers don’t produce onside kicks frequently enough over the course of an entire career to form a meaningful sample.

As for the walkoffs, while they were valuable, they’re far more indicative of opportunity than skill. Think about why Prater had the opportunity to kick four game-winning field goals at all. Hint: The reason’s in New York now. The Broncos played a disproportionate number of close games this year, and because they ran an extremely conservative offense with the game on the line under Tim Tebow, they were happy to hand the ball over to their kicker for game-winning kicks, even if it meant ignoring the possibility of scoring a touchdown. Consider that Prater had three game-winners in overtime this past season and just one over his previous four years in the league. Even if he was some sort of clutch kicker, he’s not going to have the opportunities to show that skill off at any sort of meaningful level over the next four years. And in Prater’s case, it’s going to take a heck of a lot of clutch kicks to overcome how average he is before those clutch moments.

Finally, while it’s fun to build myths around kickers conquering their nerves and hitting huge field goals for their teams in key situations, the reality is that there isn’t anything extraordinary about hitting field goals in overtime. From 2006 to 2011, kickers hit 82.2 percent of their field goals in regulation and 82.7 percent of their kicks in overtime. There’s some bias in there, as teams are likely to settle for short field goals in overtime in a way that isn’t the case during regulation, but it’s pretty clear that kickers don’t turn to dust once overtime begins.

OK. So the Broncos overpaid for Prater. It’s only a little over $3 million per year, and Denver gets to reward a player who made their fan base very happy last season. Who cares, right? Well, if you’re a Broncos fan, you should care, because the Prater signing creates problems for the team in terms of opportunity cost. The difference between using Prater and signing someone like Shayne Graham will be close to $2.5 million per year over the terms of the deal. That’s $2.5 million that the Broncos can’t use on a deal to lock up left tackle Ryan Clady or on a steady backup behind Willis McGahee at halfback. And there’s no guarantee that Prater will be any better of a kicker in 2012 than Graham would be.

Denver’s thin air allows them to get more out of average kickers than anyone else in football. They should use that to their advantage and exploit a built-in market inefficiency by being thrifty at kicker and applying the savings elsewhere. Instead, the Broncos have handcuffed themselves to a known mediocrity for years to come.

Filed Under: NFL, Sports

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell