Lately I’ve been looking in to NFL penalties, and I’m hoping to have a larger project on them in the near-ish future. But for today, just one penalty: the false start. As football fans, we know what causes false starts: miscommunication and confusion between members of the offense, usually brought on by the home crowd cheering its defense to the tune of more than 100 decibels or so. It’s pretty common knowledge that in CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Seahawks enjoy probably the best home-field advantage in the NFL. That may well be true, and an oft-cited statistic is that the Seahawks have benefited from more opponent false starts at home than any other team in the league. We all know it’s true, everyone in Seattle, and all the visiting offenses that have played there, and of course I took that added difficulty for granted when my 49ers went up north to play there. The thing is, uh… it’s a myth.
Let’s start with that claim, “the most”. ESPN Stats & Information keeps tabs on opponent false starts in every stadium in the league. Then, for reasons I don’t fathom, they hide this information so no one can access it, even people who are willing to pay for it. I found an occasional reference to one or two stadiums in their various blog posts, but no go. The most comprehensive list I can find is only the top four, proudly displayed on the Seahawks’ own website. They proclaim that since 2005, visiting offenses have false started 121 times at CenturyLink Field, 115 at Mall of America Field (Vikings’ home field), 107 at Ford Field (Lions’), and 104 at University of Phoenix Stadium (Cardinals’). Well, that settles it I guess.
Wait, hold on! Since 2005… why? CenturyLink opened for the 2002 NFL Season. The selection of 2005 is what statisticians call “arbitrary endpoints”, or what I call “arbitrary endpoints used to make whoever is using the statistic sound cooler than they really are”.1 By perusing the “Home field advantage” section of CenturyLink’s Wikipedia page, I discovered that counting from 2002, the Vikings actually have the most opponent false starts. (The Seahawks are second.) Hm. The stadium hasn’t changed since then… maybe the fans have? Maybe, or maybe in an infamous 2005 game, the visiting New York Giants false started 11 times in Seattle. Hey, that’s exactly what happened! Without that one game2, the Vikings have the most since 2005 (as well as 2002).
Well still, offenses are false starting in Seattle a lot, right? Well… probably not. NFLPenalties.com has logged every NFL penalty since the 2009 season. Their false start data includes which teams have drawn the most false starts from opponents, although tragically without home/away splits. But in fact, that doesn’t really matter. Over the last five seasons (Week 1, 2009 through Week 15, 2013), 50.79% of all (3,103) false starts have actually come when the offense is at home. Seriously? The data must be wrong right? Well, NFLPenalties.com is just conveniently reformatting the information from NFL.com‘s play-by-play data, so the information should be as accurate as anything else NFL.com compiles, and is quite official.
Back to Seattle. Even without knowing in which stadium, I know how much all of each team’s opponents have false started against them the last five seasons. Even better, these aren’t just raw sums, but come with how many games each team has played. Leading the way is the Arizona Cardinals, with a whopping 1.75 opponent false starts per game; the Vikings are second with 1.46 per game. Seattle is tied for 18th (with Cleveland) at 1.15 opponent false starts per game. Could the Seahawks still be forcing a league-leading number of false starts (on a per game basis) at home, and just be unlucky by having played offenses that seldom false start when the Seahawks themselves go on the road? It’s possible, but quite unlikely, especially over five years’ worth of opponents.
Consider: the 49ers, Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks make up the NFC West, and have eight common opponents each year.3 Any two of those teams, say the Cardinals and Seahawks, have 10 common opponents, the eight plus the 49ers and the Rams, whom they place twice each, once at home and once on the road. So the Seahawks and Cardinals (and 49ers and Rams) have mostly played the same teams over the last five seasons. If the Seahawks were playing a lot teams that just didn’t false start very much (either at home or on the road or both), the Cardinals would play many of them too, and have the same difficulties. But the Cardinals lead the league with 1.75 opponent false starts per game over the last five years, while the Seahawks are tied for 18th with 1.15 per game. This may be because no such Seahawks advantage truly exists, or because teams are preparing for them much better than they used to (while perhaps not taking the Cardinals as seriously). Regardless, the extra false starts in Seattle seem to be a myth of the past. I wonder how long the legend of CenturyLink Field will continue into the future.
- Rolls right of the tongue. ↩
- It’s also not clear how many games we’re talking about. Most teams play eight home games a year, with a couple each year playing a “home” game in London. Of course there are also playoff games at home. But we’re looking at 60+ games, at least. ↩
- It’s the brilliance of NFL scheduling. The divisions rotate. Last year, every team in the NFC West played every team in the NFC North & AFC East; this year, every team in the NFC South and AFC South. Next year, it’ll be the NFC East and the AFC West. And so on. ↩