Wednesday, May 18, 2011
West Coast teams' uphill fight with NFL
By Mike Sando
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the Seattle Seahawks agreed upon a noon PT starting time for a recent conference call with season-ticket holders.
How hard was that?
Alas, the NFL will force the Seahawks and other West Coast teams to rise 21 times this season for games kicking off at 10 a.m. in their local markets, despite complaints Goodell acknowledged in that very same call with Seahawks fans. The Arizona Cardinals will play three additional games kicking off at 11 a.m. Phoenix time.
San Francisco quarterback Shaun Hill fumbled on the first play of a 2009 game at Minnesota. The kickoff time was 1:00 p.m. ET.
West Coast teams have complained about the early starts for years, presenting the league with anecdotal and statistical evidence affirming what is obvious to anyone with a frequent-flier account. Time-zone issues make travel tougher from West to East, and the early kickoffs compound matters by forcing players to begin game-day preparations when their bodies are telling them it's still 6 a.m.
Goodell has dismissed such concerns in the past, telling me in 2009 that the NFL had "not seen specific information" suggesting early starts could create a competitive disadvantage for visiting teams. I sensed a significant shift when Goodell told Seahawks season-ticket holders the matter is "something we’ve got to try to find a way to deal with." But when I attempted to follow up with Goodell for specifics, a league spokesman said there had been no shift at all.
"It's something we were looking at in 2009 and a factor we continue to be mindful of when constructing the schedule," spokesman Greg Aiello said. "We try to avoid it if possible, but it’s not always possible due to the complexities of the schedule."
In other words, be prepared for more early wakeup calls.
Goodell referred generally to "broadcast patterns" as one of the obstacles preventing the league from simply scheduling West Coast teams' road games for later in the day.
Since 2005, the 49ers have played in 33 games with 10 a.m. PT kickoffs, winning only six of them (not counting a game against the Denver Broncos in London). They are 6-9 in road games kicking off later in the day.
The time change doesn't account for all the differences, of course. Five of those later kickoffs fell against division opponents, and the NFC West hasn't exactly been a powerhouse lately. But given the 49ers' run-oriented offense, they have been particularly ill-equipped to generate the offensive spark necessary to overcome the morning weariness West Coast teams naturally feel.
The 49ers, Seahawks, Raiders and Cardinals could help themselves by fielding more competitive teams. The fifth West Coast team, the San Diego Chargers, have shown the way.
The networks obviously prefer having attractive games across all time slots, and too many West Coast teams just haven't fielded a competitive product consistently enough.
Moving all West Coast road games into later Sunday time slots could, in theory, leave the networks with fewer attractive matchups to feature. But it seems to me the league could protect itself by scheduling at least one or two bigger draws -- the New York teams, the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh, etc. -- for late games.
Also worth noting: Teams with big-name quarterbacks command air time.
The St. Louis Rams are on the right track with Sam Bradford, who helped them command two prime-time games in 2011. The Cardinals and Seahawks did not draft quarterbacks this year, putting pressure on them to address the position in free agency. The 49ers are a couple years away from knowing whether Colin Kaepernick is the answer. The Raiders are still recovering from the JaMarcus Russell fiasco.
While San Diego cruises along with Philip Rivers -- the Chargers face only one 10 a.m. PT kickoff this season, by the way -- the other West Coast teams are reduced to taking a number at the NFL complaint department.
"We’ve been working with the clubs," Goodell told Seahawks ticket holders. "The Seahawks, in particular, and the 49ers have raised this issue with me."
Add Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt to the list. He has seen both sides of the scheduling imbalance, having played and coached in the Eastern time zone before heading West.
"From having been an East Coast team that played in the NFC West when I played for Atlanta, it was much easier going East to West than it is going West to East," Whisenhunt told me at the NFL owners meeting in March. "In my opinion, for what it does to your body and getting ready to play, it is more difficult."