NFL's Frequent-Flier Phenomenon
Bill Barnwell
July 3, 2012

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. 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 coefficient 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...
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