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Go West! (and then go West again)

Posted by Jason Lisk on October 14, 2008

This season, thanks to the schedule rotation adopted in 2002, both the New England Patriots and New York Jets play four games on the West Coast, against Seattle, San Fransisco, Oakland and San Diego. Until this year, neither has played more than two regular season road games in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones since the merger. Over the previous four seasons combined, the Patriots have played two regular season games and three post-season games (including last year's Super Bowl in Arizona) out West, while the Jets have played three regular season games and one post-season game.

How rare is it for an Eastern Time Zone team to play this many games out West in a single season? As it turns out, pretty rare. My research has found thirteen individual seasons when an Eastern team has played four or more regular season games out West. For my purposes, I'll define West as both the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones, so I will include Denver and thus not have to figure out if Arizona was or was not on the same time schedule as the California teams due to daylight savings. Before the merger of the AFL and NFL, it was theoretically impossible for an Eastern team to play four games in the West (though we'll find out below it did happen once before). Here are the teams that have travelled West four or more times in a single regular season since the AFL-NFL merger:

1979 Atlanta Falcons (1-3 in West, 6-10 overall) 
1981 Cleveland Browns (1-3 in West, 5-11 overall)
1988 Atlanta Falcons (2-2 in West, 5-11 overall)
1989 New York Giants (3-2 in West, 12-4 overall)
1990 Cincinnati Bengals (2-2 in West, 9-7 overall)*
1991 Atlanta Falcons (3-1 in West, 10-6 overall)
1992 New York Giants (0-4 in West, 6-10 overall)
1994 Atlanta Falcons (1-3 in West, 7-9 overall)
1994 Cincinnati Bengals (1-3 in West, 3-13 overall)
1994 Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3 in West, 12-4 overall)
1997 Atlanta Falcons (2-2 in West, 7-9 overall)
1998 New York Giants (2-2 in West, 8-8 overall)
2005 New York Giants (2-2 in West, 11-5 overall)

*also lost playoff game at Los Angeles Raiders in 1990 divisional round

Two other teams, the 1987 Cleveland Browns, who lost in the AFC Championship game in Denver, and the 1990 New York Giants, who won at San Fransisco in the championship game before winning the Super Bowl, played three regular season games in the West in addition to the fourth game in the conference championship.

It should be no surprise, if you recall that Atlanta played in the NFC West, that they would appear on this list five times. What is surprising is that the New York Giants did it four times, while two other East Coast teams from the same division, the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins, have never played that many out West.

The sample size of teams here is so low that there is not much meaningful analysis that I can give you as to whether the cumulative effect of this much additional travel in a single season for an East Coast team matters. I went ahead and looked at the simple rating system numbers for each team in the year before and after the extensive Western travelling, compared to the year in question. In the seasons before and after, our Eastern teams had an average SRS of -1.0. In the season in question, the average SRS was -1.3. The Eastern teams performed about -4.0 points worse than their overall SRS in the Western games, which is not that much different from the generally expected 3 points for home field advantage. (I measured this by taking the end of season SRS for the road Eastern team minus the home team, then comparing the actual results versus the expected results from the SRS differences). There was no real pattern to performing worse or better as the season went on, as a whole, as the first game played out West showed the worst score (relative to season SRS) and the fourth game was the second worst.

Of course, New England isn't just playing four games out West. They just concluded back to back games on the West Coast against San Fransisco and San Diego, and stayed at San Jose in between games to practice rather than travel back East. Later this year, they will also play Seattle and Oakland in back to back weeks. This will mark the first time in the history of the NFL that an Eastern team has played consecutive Western games on two separate occasions within the same season.

Extended trips to the West Coast were not unusual for the old AFL teams, the Boston Patriots and the New York Titans/Jets (as well as the Buffalo Bills). In the old AFL, at least prior to Miami and Cincinnati joining, every team played all other league members on a home and home basis. The East Coast teams usually played two, or sometimes even three consecutive games on the road against Oakland, San Diego and Denver. The worst travel start for a team in the history of the AFL/NFL has to belong to the 1967 Boston Patriots, and it was because the team played their home games at Fenway Park. The Patriots opened the season with three consecutive losses on the road at Denver, San Diego, and Oakland. They returned East and won at Buffalo on September 24. The Patriots were scheduled to play their first home game against San Diego. However, the Boston Red Sox won the American League pennant for the first time since 1946, and advanced to play the Saint Louis Cardinals in the World Series. The Patriots lost out to the primary tenants. Even though the Series opened in Boston, and moved to Saint Louis the weekend of October 7th and 8th, the Patriots moved their game with the Chargers back to the West, playing a second game in San Diego. That game ended in a 31-31 tie, which happens to be the last time the Patriots franchise played in a game that ended in a tie.

So how have other teams done when they have played back to back games in the West? I found thirty occasions where an Eastern team has played a game in the West, then returned West to play again a week later (including the post-season). Based on Sunday night's game between the Chargers and Patriots, you might guess it had a big impact. It is a true factual statement (using the SRS differences to account for relative strength of opponents) that those teams collectively performed worse in the second consecutive game on the West Coast than they did in the first, applying the SRS differences for each team in the matchups compared to the actual scores. The Eastern road team was better (relative to their performance in the first game on the road trip) 11 times, worse 18 times, and about the same once.

That said, it's not so much that the Eastern teams played really badly in the second game. It's that they played REALLY well, as a group, in the first. Excluding the New England-San Diego game, since I don't have end of year SRS numbers, the average result in the first game was +0.97 points better than expected, without accounting for home field advantage and the fact the Eastern team was on the road. The average result in the second game was, in contrast, -2.16 worse than expected without accounting for home field, which is not a bad performance for a road team, regardless of where the game is played. I don't see any strong evidence that the performance in the second game was worse than what should be expected for a road team if we had no knowledge of where they played the week before. So New England may be the first team to play back to back games on the West Coast at two different times in the same season, but I don't see any reason to think this is a competitive disadvantage compared to, say, the way the Jets' trips to the West are spaced this season.