by Joe Fortenbaugh
January 18, 02014
The noise pierces through your skin like a needle tasked with drawing blood.
The people standing next to you are screaming with every ounce of strength their inebriated bodies can muster, but despite their close proximity, you can’t discern their voices from those of the other 68,000+ who have chosen to brave the elements like yourself. It’s simply too loud to make those distinctions.
No stadium in the country has played host to more home wins over the last two years than CenturyLink Field.
The sky is dark, the air is chilling, the rain falls with relentless fervor. Your head is ringing, at first from the overpowering volume, and then from the avalanche of Skittles cascading down from above following the touchdown.
The opposing offense jumps offside and the cacophonous wail grows louder, celebrating yet another success in the face of the opposition’s failure.
You’re not supposed to feel comfortable in an atmosphere like this, not in the age of HDTVs, La-Z-Boys, indoor heating and surround sound. But you do your part. You stand and scream and pound and stomp. You leave composure and tranquility outside the premises because those traits have no business within the walls of this most hostile of environments. You’ve got a job to perform and a reputation to uphold.
Welcome to CenturyLink Field in Seattle, site of the greatest home field advantage in all of professional sports.
THE AWAKENING OF A BEAST
It all started with a touchdown that shouldn’t have been scored against a team they shouldn’t have beaten.
The date was January 8, 2011 and the 9.5-point home underdog Seattle Seahawks held a razor-thin 34-30 fourth quarter lead over Drew Brees and the defending champion New Orleans Saints in the wild card round of the playoffs. Facing a second-and-ten with 3:37 left on the clock, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch took a handoff from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and ground-and-pounded his way 67 yards for a touchdown, breaking no fewer than seven tackles while leaving a pile of New Orleans defenders in his wake. The legendary scamper sent the Seahawks’ notorious “12th Man” into a frenzy that induced a minor earthquake, forever cementing Seattle’s place in the annals of NFL fandom.
That’s when the rest of the country woke up and began paying attention to what was happening in the Pacific Northwest. What Nirvana’s Nevermind achieved for the Seattle music scene, Lynch’s run accomplished for Seahawk Nation. Something was happening in the NFL’s most remote city. Something special.
At the start of the 2012 NFL campaign, we’d all begin to realize what that something really was.
Since the start of the 2012 regular season, no team in the National Football League has dominated their home turf more convincingly than the Seattle Seahawks. 17 contests at CenturyLink Field have resulted in 16 wins by an average of 17.8 points per game, with enemy offenses combining to average just 277.8 total yards per game in their collective losing efforts.
Armed with a defense that ranked fourth in 2011 and first in 2012, along with a highly productive and ultra-cheap quarterback in Russell Wilson ($749,194 per year/four-year contract), general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll have done a tremendous job turning the Seahawks from a middle-of-the-pack franchise into a Super Bowl contender.
The 12th Man has played a big part in a streak that has seen the Seahawks win 16 of their last 17 home games.
But the problems the NFL’s elite have encountered at CenturyLink Field aren’t limited to the past two seasons alone. Future Hall of Famer and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre went 0-2 (2006, 2008) at CenturyLink during his illustrious 20-year career in the league. Peyton Manning lost in his only visit back in 2005, as did Tom Brady, who came up short in the state of Washington last season. New Orleans’ Drew Brees found a way to win in Seattle back in 2007, but has dropped three straight visits since, two of which came in the form of playoff losses.
And then there’s Aaron Rodgers, who should be considered the most successful of the bunch. Rodgers notched a win in his first visit to CenturyLink back in 2008, but was on the wrong end of a botch job by the replacement officials in Week 3 of the 2012 season, which resulted in a 14-12 Green Bay loss. At 1-1, Rodgers’ record stands out as the most impressive of the aforementioned bunch.
In addition to the talent standing on the opposing sideline, the problems for visitors to the Pacific Northwest begin long before the opening kickoff. Three elements—location, the stadium and the fans—combine to form a perfect storm for home field advantage incapable of being matched anywhere else in the National Football League.
At a distance of 687 miles through the air, the San Francisco 49ers serve as the closest competitor to the Seahawks in terms of proximity. No team in the NFL is further removed from the rest of the competition than Seattle. Compare that to an organization like the Philadelphia Eagles, who can reach 15 different teams at a distance shorter than 687 miles. Longer travel dates mean less time to prepare and more time spent flying on an airplane to challenge an opponent that is no doubt resting comfortably at home.
Just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars, who flew approximately 2,460 miles one-way to Seattle on two separate occasions since 2009, only to suffer two humiliating defeats by a combined score of 86-17. Granted, the travel distance alone wasn’t what did in the Jaguars, but when your football team is already overmatched in terms of gridiron talent, a five-plus hour flight certainly isn’t going to help.
Further complicating the travel dilemma for teams visiting Seattle is the change in time zones. 17 NFL clubs reside in the Eastern Time Zone, while the Seahawks share the Pacific Time Zone with just three other franchises (Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco). This advantageous positioning for Seattle becomes particularly significant during night games, as an 5:30pm start time for the Seahawks feels more like an 8:30pm kickoff for those traveling from the east coast.
A Harvard research study recently analyzed the results of 106 games that took place from 1970-2011 in which teams from the Eastern Time Zone traveled west for an 5:00pm or later kickoff in the Pacific Time Zone. Those results were compared to 293 games played during the same time span in which eastern teams traveled west for a kickoff time of 4:00pm or earlier.
The results? The west coast teams went 143-150 against the Las Vegas point spread in the early games, and 70-36 against the spread in the later contests.
In January of 2000, after having spent the previous quarter century hosting football games indoors at the Kingdome, the Seattle Seahawks moved outside. The organization spent two seasons playing at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium before taking up residence in the $430 million facility known today as CenturyLink Field in 2002.
The transition from indoor ball to the oft-inclement weather commonly found in the Pacific Northwest was a decision made by Seahawks owner Paul Allen from the outset of the design process.
“The Seahawks were coming from the Kingdome and wanted to play outside,” Jon Niemuth, current Head of Sports America at AECOM and former Project Designer for Ellerbe Becket, the firm that designed CenturyLink Field, told the National Football Post. “This was at a point in time when you saw a mammoth wave of construction around the NFL. The thought process was that football should be played outdoors and we’re going to play it outdoors. It’s a better environment and we think it will be better for Seattle.”
While the Vikings opt to keep their team indoors, Seattle chose to embrace the elements.
Unlike the Minnesota Vikings—who will take up residence in a new indoor facility come 2016—the Seahawks opted to embrace their part of the country’s unique weather patterns. This decision provided the organization with yet another element of home field advantage, as indoor dome teams like the New Orleans Saints have found nothing but trouble when traveling northwest to play outdoors in Seattle.
Allen—who grew up attending college football games with his father at the University of Washington—knew he wanted a venue reminiscent of what he experienced as a child.
“The number one design goal from owner Paul Allen’s mouth on day one was that he wanted to capture the feeling, emotion and atmosphere of the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium,” said Niemuth. “The Seattle side told us, ‘We want a building that feels like Husky Stadium. We want roofs that cover 70 percent of the fans. It needs to be open-aired and great for both football and soccer.’”
However, while CenturyLink Field does bear some resemblance to its local collegiate neighbor, that’s not the trademark characteristic of the facility that draws the most acclaim.
Since 2005, no venue has played host to more false start penalties (132) committed by opposing teams than CenturyLink Field. In a Week 2 home tilt against the San Francisco 49ers, the fans in attendance at CenturyLink set a Guinness World Record for loudest crowd roar at an outdoor stadium, measuring 136.6 decibels. That record was reestablished in Week 13 during a Monday night game against the New Orleans Saints at 137.6 decibels. For reference, a jet engine creates a measurement of 135 decibels.
But contrary to popular belief, CenturyLink Field wasn’t designed specifically to maximize crowd noise.
“Were we trying to build the loudest stadium in the NFL? No, absolutely not,” said Niemuth. “The thought process was that we would install bleacher seating in the north end zone, which is known as the “Hawks Nest,” in an effort to make that specific section a bit louder. It would be a place where fans could stomp and bang and create more noise. But we never anticipated the Seattle fans turning the entire building into what it has become today.”
THE 12TH MAN
Following a 24-21 road loss to the Seattle Seahawks in 2005 in which his team committed a staggering 11 false start penalties, then-New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi asked the league office to investigate whether or not the Seahawks had pumped artificial noise through their sound system.
The league found no evidence of a violation. The noise was 100 percent natural.
“All of the greatest architecture and engineering in the world won’t make up for a crappy fan base,” said Niemuth. “But a great fan base can turn a mediocre facility into an amazing atmosphere. In Seattle, the roofs and bleacher seating in the north end zone and the fans who fill those seats have turned that stadium into something truly special.”
Colin Kaepernick has a career QB rating of just 47.1 at CenturyLink Field.
Standing in the upper deck during the Seahawks’ 29-3 Week 2 win over the San Francisco 49ers, I found myself in awe at how this crowd, this “12th Man,” this beating heart of Seattle football was systematically destroying any semblance of rhythm the opposing offense was trying to establish. The obstreperous roar commenced when quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the Niners offense found the huddle, increased when San Francisco came to the line of scrimmage and somehow found a third level when the sticks read “third down.” The 49ers couldn’t communicate, couldn’t endure, couldn’t succeed.
I couldn’t think straight. Never in my 33 years on this planet have I watched and listened as a crowd of jersey-clad fans brought the opposition to their knees.
And when the dust settled on San Francisco’s first loss of the season, all that remained was a stat sheet featuring a season-low three points and season-high five turnovers and 12 penalties.
The 49ers are no stranger to the powers of the 12th Man. San Francisco has dropped four of its last five trips to CenturyLink Field, the two most recent of which came by a combined score of 71-16. In their last ten visits to Seattle, San Francisco has committed 20 turnovers, 82 penalties, been held to six or fewer points five times and converted just 21 percent of its third-down opportunities.
The 49ers are no fools. They know damn well that the possibility of a return trip to the Super Bowl will only become a reality if the team can find a way to defeat both the opponents on the field and the opposition in the stands.
And while the Niners have been playing coy with the media in regards to the Seattle crowd noise in the build-up to Sunday’s NFC Championship game, that doesn’t mean other players who have taken the gridiron at CenturyLink Field have decided to approach the subject with a similar style of evasive maneuvering.
"I thought I had played in some loud atmospheres in college at N.C. State, but nothing could have prepared me for our Week 9 game against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field," Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon wrote this season in an article for MMQB.com. "In most NFL stadiums when you're on the road, it gets loud on third down and whenever you're in the red zone. But in Seattle? It's loud on every single down, no matter where you are on the field."
Credit the stadium itself for doing such a powerful job of magnifying the noise created by the 68,000+ who regularly sell-out CenturyLink Field.
But the structure would be nothing without the people who have transformed it into the NFL’s most dreaded road destination.
“We gave the fans a canvas,” said Niemuth. “And they painted the Mona Lisa.”
Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh