Without Fans, Lamar Jackson & Baker Mayfield’s Road Wins Lack Some Luster

The Cleveland Browns‘ first playoff win since 1994 essentially came in an NFL Bubble. No, the NFL didn’t have all of their teams staying in one place, but the absence of fans and media was similar to the NBA’s disconnect with the outside world while hustling and contorting to get the COVID season completed, so that another lifeless season could start-up in December, which would once again exclude fans from the arenas.  

While the Wild Card playoff win by Cleveland was impressive and long overdue and a great story for Baker Mayfield, Kevin Stefanski, GM Andrew Berry and the franchise, the advantages of not having to play in front of a raucous crowd in Heinz field definitely detracts some of the luster from the win. Mayfield executed and proved his worth as a No. 1 pick in his third season. That’s undeniable. 

But it’s not the same. With attendance limited to friends and family of players and the team, those numbers can’t compare to the 68,400 the stadium usually holds. Any way you slice it, it’s a let down for the home team and a boost for the road team. 

Sure they are playing under the same circumstances, but the psychological edge that the home team usually holds is dead. You can’t convince me that all of a sudden, the 12th man doesn’t matter. The entire point of winning games and securing homefield advantage is so you don’t have to go on the road, into someone else’s house, with rabid fans drooling at the mouth and affecting the momentum of the game. 

When that entire advantage is eliminated, the outcome of the game is inevitably changed. The absence of the fan has been miserably underplayed by TV networks and pro leagues just trying to get to the end of the season and make sure the check clears at the bank. 

Aside from the game, the entire culture of football has been sideswiped. No tailgating or thunderous roar as the players take the field. The game has been stripped down to the basics, like some futuristic movie we’d see back in the 90s.

Everything is virtual, so the feeling ain’t really there. The blind fandom, however, remains and that’s what makes this all work. 

As fans, we are addicted to sports and will basically accept anything they present to us. But as a reporter, I can’t honestly act as if the games I am witnessing has the same energy, excitement and personal connection that they would usually have. 

I mean, Drew Brees’ sons were up in the box focused on everything but the game, in a lackluster 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears. You could probably hear a pin drop in that place. They let 3,000 fans into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a stadium that usually holds close to 75,000. 

Of course, I enjoy watching the games. Of course, I can kind of tune out the absence of the crowd or play mind tricks to make myself believe that artificial crowd noise is a real crowd, but it’s definitely not the same. 

The props I’m giving out for road teams are limited. Yes, Cleveland won the game. They beat the Steelers for the first time in 17 meetings. If anything, it’s a captivating narrative.  

It took a pandemic, a Steelers late-season collapse and 50,000 missing fans to create an atmosphere that made the game truly “up for grabs.” The Steelers laid an egg (HC Mike Tomlin says they “died on the vine,”), but they never had the energy of the crowd to motivate them or inspire a true comeback. Again, take nothing away from Cleveland, who won the game fair and square under the circumstances, but let’s temper the accolades and enthusiasm for the legacy of Baker Mayfield.

Mayfield wasn’t balling in front of a packed house in Heinz and history should definitely reflect these things. Why do you think it’s been so hard for Cleveland to win until this season in Pittsburgh? And he’s not the first QB to win a playoff game. Let’s stop acting like he won the Super Bowl. 

Lamar Jackson, who was drafted 31 picks after Mayfield in 2018, also won his first playoff game on the road. In fact, maybe I give Lamar a bit more credit for his win as Baltimore played in front of its biggest crowd of the season in the wild-card game against the Titans on Jan. 10. Tennessee officials allowed 21% of Nissan Stadium’s capacity, which means attendance for the game was14,520. The stadium usually holds over 69,000.

The Titans got to play a home game for the first time since 2008. Imagine how loud a capacity crowd would have been? We can only imagine because the attendance numbers were similar to what you’d find at a high school championship game in Indiana back in the days. 

Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh even admitted how much easier it is to play in an empty stadium. 

“We’ve been in stadiums with that kind of number – 8,000, 10,000, 12,000 – and it’s been pretty … It’s not deafeningly loud, but it’s more realistic,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “When you have fans there, it feels more like a game. When you don’t have any fans, it’s really different; you definitely do sense that it’s different.” 

It’s like watching a video game, but under the circumstances, we will take what we can get. Besides, the world of gaming and pro sports has merged to a point where it’s hard for upcoming generations to separate the two. The best place to watch a game is now in the comfort of your own home.

This traumatizing pandemic has altered the world in unimaginable ways. College and pro sports had to strip its protective moral lining (the fans) and dive in naked — and they are pulling it off, save from some muffled criticism from journalists such as myself.  

With fan attendance virtually nonexistent, winning on the road doesn’t deserve the same props. Don’t try to convince me that I’m watching the same game, because emotion doesn’t have to be manufactured and the heart is fully-tested when the stadium is packed. The game will NEVER be the same without the fans  — on so many levels.