Generally speaking, I think the fan's impact on NFL games is overstated. Take it from Melvin Gordon. There are certainly places – Seattle, New Orleans, Kansas City, Buffalo – where the crowd factor shows up on the occasional third-and-short, but more often than not, the '12th Man' dynamic feels a lot more like projection than reality; it's simply good business to make someone willing to spend $400 feel like they made a difference.
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And besides, the 12th man is going to be sitting on their couch this season. Teams have either already made that explicitly clear, or are leaning on some sort of vaguely-misguided sense of optimism that things will change in the next four weeks. Even if the recently-reported 'pod system' happens, stadiums like Soldier Field aren't going to be rocking for Cuppy Coffee's weekly victory lap (brought to you by Dunkin Donuts: Get Yours at Gates A, D, and F) like they used to. It'll be weird! That's not to say it'll be an advantage – or disadvantage – for anyone, but these guys have spent their football-playing lives in front of fans; it's hard to imagine the gameday atmosphere without your uncle slamming too many Michelob Ultras or your sister screaming profanities you weren't even aware she knew at opposing quarterbacks.
So who does that affect the most? Let's mull it over:
Augusta Silence is vindicated! Here's what the Bears' kicker recently had to say about the idea of making pressure kicks in front of absolutely no one:
"I was just thinking about that. I think it probably will be [weird], yeah," he said. "That's how it was in practice. Nobody talking, nobody screaming it was a little awkward, a little weird. But if that does happen, I think I'll be ready for it because we did a lot of that last year, we probably will do a lot of that this year too. So I'll be ready for it."
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Verdict: Helps a bit. At the end of the day, Piñeiro still has to make pressure kicks, in the elements, from distances beyond 40 yards. Assuming coaches have timeouts to burn, he'll still get iced. If he thinks that last summer's circus makes him feel more comfortable in awkward silence, then who am I to say otherwise.
Nick Foles/Mitch Trubisky
Not having to worry about any silent counts all year must be nice. Things like calling audibles, hot routes, or picking up the Mike should all, in theory, be easier without 60,000+ fans getting in their way. In fact, Tarik Cohen isn't at all worried about it:
"I wouldn't have a problem with it," he said. "Because in college when we had in-team scrimmages and you have to play your team and there's no crowd out there, they're still trying to hit you. You still have to play the game. We'll get over that pretty soon. Beginning of the game probably will look weird, sound weird. But then as soon as the whistle blows, the refs are out there, everybody's out there trying to tackle you, it's going to feel like a regular game."
Verdict: A push. On one hand, not having to go silent during the most critical parts of a football game is surely a huge advantage. On the other, not feeling the buzz of a stadium in anticipation of a game-changing catch, or game-winning drive, is probably a buzzkill too. If I'm a Bears fans, I'm probably cautiously-optimistic that the offense won't have to deal with the former.
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Admittedly, this is where not having fans sucks the most. Fans draw players offsides, which is obviously good news for defenses trying to get off the field. Like new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor recently said, this is where not having the traditional atmosphere might come into play:
"When fans are there, it raises the atmosphere a little bit," he said. "When you go to your own stadium it just changes the atmosphere and tends to add something. Even if you go to a high school stadium, right? It's just a different atmosphere. It just tends to raise the level of intensity sometimes at practice or the field."
Verdict: Hurts, slightly. Like Cohen said, once the whistle blows, everybody still has to go out and hit someone else. There's no question that the fans help on defense more than offense. Still, with a defense that includes the likes of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and Roquan Smith, that's not really an excuse.