Sam Mellinger

Why home-field advantage at Arrowhead may not be what you think

Chiefs fans make Arrowhead Stadium the loudest outdoor sports venue in the world. But how does that translate into wins and losses?
Chiefs fans make Arrowhead Stadium the loudest outdoor sports venue in the world. But how does that translate into wins and losses? The Kansas City Star

The thinking goes that if the Chiefs are going to play a game they absolutely must win, then thank goodness it’s at Arrowhead Stadium, home of barbecue smoke and suffocating noise and one of the strongest home-field advantages in the NFL.

The Chargers will get the Chiefs’ best, you would think. This is where the loudest crowd roar on record occurred, after all. You can even buy the T-shirt, and if the Seahawks ever get the record back, you can be sure you’ll hear Chiefs fans talk about how they do it without architectural advantages.

Defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson is in his eighth NFL season. He’s played in 27 different stadiums, including three on both the home team and visitor, and two that no longer exist. He played four years with the Broncos and now this season with the Chiefs — two of the league’s toughest places to play.

He has a good way of comparing them.

“In Denver, you can’t breathe,” he says. “Here, you can’t hear.”

That’s not an exaggeration, at least at times. Back in 1990, with the Broncos backed up near their own goal line, quarterback John Elway refused to snap the ball because Arrowhead was so loud. Incredibly, the referee threatened to charge the Chiefs with a timeout if the crowd didn’t hush.

That sounds made up, but there is video evidence.

The Chiefs have actually incentivized fans to create as much noise as possible, giving season-ticket holders extra “points” for each false start or delay of game called on the opposing team.

It’s a terrific way for the team to bond with fans, because noise at Arrowhead Stadium is a particular point of pride for Chiefs fans and Kansas City — like a burnt end that melts in your mouth or a 20-mile commute that takes 21 minutes.

But what would you say if I told you that for well over a decade, Arrowhead Stadium hasn’t always been that tough of a place for visiting teams to play?

/ducks rotten tomatoes, waits for cussing to stop/

The Chargers, actually, have won two straight at Arrowhead and five of their last seven going back to 2007. It’s the same record the Chargers have against the Chiefs in San Diego, so for the last seven years home field hasn’t meant a thing in this series.

Now, especially if we can forgive losing to the awful Titans in the season opener, the Chiefs have had a solid homefield advantage this year. They are 5-2 at Arrowhead, including wins over the Seahawks and Patriots, who enter the final week holding the No. 1 seed in the NFC and AFC, respectively.

That 5-2 record is fairly representative of the home-field performances of the nine other teams with seven to nine wins overall this season (46-28, 62.2 percentage).

Entering the final week, NFL home teams are 136-100 this season, a 57.6 winning percentage that’s typical of the historical data.

Over the last 15 seasons — starting with the turn of the century — the Chiefs are just 64-55 (53.8) at home.

Compared to the division’s other teams, that’s worse than the Broncos (81-38, 68.1) and Chargers (73-47, 60.8), but better than the Raiders (52-67, 43.7). Compared around the league, the Chiefs’ record at home this century is behind teams like the Bengals, Cardinals and Titans.

In seven of the last 15 seasons, the Chiefs have had the same or better record on the road compared to at home. This is the first season since 2010 that the Chiefs will have been better at Arrowhead than on the road.

But there is one way to look at the Chiefs’ performance at home in a more positive light, though this won’t make fans any happier.

The truth is, in the last decade and a half, the Chiefs have been bad more often than good. They are 108-131 overall, with an average of 7.2 wins per season — with one more game to play on Sunday, of course.

If we judge NFL teams on a curve, the difference between the Chiefs’ home and road winning percentages (17.1 points) is bigger than the league’s overall (13.8).

So if you look at it like that, the Arrowhead advantage is still there — it just needs some help from the Chiefs themselves.

According to the brilliant book Scorecasting, NFL home teams win at a higher rate than teams in Major League Baseball or the NHL, but a lower rate than the NBA or MLS.

The book’s research indicated that home-field advantage comes mostly from influencing referees. There is no strong evidence about athletes having more energy, or hitting more free throws, or making more kicks in home stadiums and arenas.

The biggest part of the margin seems to lie in officiating — we assume subconsciously, it should be pointed out — making a relatively small number of calls in the home team’s favor.

You might remember the last time the Chiefs beat the Chargers at home. It was Halloween three years ago, so long ago that Todd Haley was the coach and Scott Pioli was the general manager and nobody outside the Chiefs’ offices had any reason to know the whole thing was doomed.

The game was shown coast to coast on Monday Night Football. A few Chiefs players put on all-red socks before the game, knowing they’d be fined, and afterward celebrated by wearing those weird masks from the movie Scream.

It was a grand show that ended with the Chiefs (temporarily) nudging their way into first place in the division. As it turned out, that was the franchise’s last truly proud moment before Haley and Pioli were fired, eventually making way for Andy Reid and John Dorsey.

Arrowhead helped win that game for the Chiefs. There is no question about that. Tamba Hali and the noise freaked the Chargers’ Pro Bowl left tackle into six penalties. The Chargers were called for 12 penalties in all that night, including an offensive pass interference flag that cost them seven points.

Scorecasting could’ve used this game for a chapter. The Chargers had the ball late in the fourth quarter; they had control of the clock and were setting up for what would’ve been the game-winning field goal. Then a single firework went off just as the Chargers snapped the ball, and Philip Rivers fumbled his first exchange in six years.

The Chiefs recovered and won the game in overtime.

Afterward, many Chiefs players talked with amazement in their voices about what they said was the best atmosphere they had ever played in. It is hard to imagine the Chiefs winning that game on the road. It doesn’t happen often, but crowd noise can tilt close games.

It will have been 1,154 days from that night when the Chiefs and Chargers kick off at Arrowhead on Sunday, the home team needing a win for any chance at making the playoffs.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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