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11-03-2020 07:00

The Weather’s Impact on NFL Games

by Stephen Juza | 11-03-2020 07:00

By Stephen Juza,

As the NFL season enters November and the temperatures drop around the country, cold weather will play an increasing role in games around the league.  Teams need to prepare differently for the snow or rain than for a game played in sunshine.  Players may opt to wear different equipment to help protect themselves from the elements, or, coordinators may shift their play calling to account for new conditions.  Regardless of how they prepare, whether they play in a dome, or they play a lot of warm weather games due to their division, winter disproportionately affects teams.

But, how does it affect the outcome of the game?  Does the type of weather affect games differently, between rain, snow, or just freezing temperatures?  Does it affect game planning and how teams execute those plans to win the game?  Most importantly, which coaches seem to prepare their teams the best to deal with inclement weather?

Home Field Advantage:
Since 2009, 337 regular season or playoff games have been played in inclement weather (defined as below freezing temperatures, snow, or rain during the game).  During the regular season, the weather gives a substantial boost in performance to the home team.  Home field advantage already plays a noticeable impact in every game, with the home team winning about 55% of the time during normal conditions.  However, during inclement weather, this rises to 66% of the time.  This 11% boost in winning percentage accounts for an average of two additional wins across a 16 game season.

Bill Belichick Bill Belichick. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

There are several possible explanations for this.  Teams in Seattle, Green Bay, and the northeast regularly play games in the cold and rain.  This means they also have ample opportunities to practice in those conditions.  Meanwhile, Los Angeles only has a few rainy days on average during the football season and the average low temperature never dips below freezing in any month of the year.  The only opportunity they have to experience these conditions is during a game as the visiting team, leaving them potentially unprepared.

In fact this results in a sizable home field advantage to the one-third of the teams in the league that play in the most inclement weather games.  Winning 59% of their games under normal weather conditions, this advantage grows to 67% when the weather plays a factor in their home games.  The experience significantly boosts the “cold weather” team’s chances of winning.  There is also a hefty penalty at the opposite end of the spectrum--the one-third of teams in the league that rarely plays in inclement weather has their winning percentage drop from 45% in normal road games to 26% during harsh weather.

However, during the playoffs, the weather levels the playing field, making it far easier for the visiting team to pull off the upset.  This could be because teams are likely more evenly matched in the playoffs compared to regular season matchups.  In the playoffs, the home team is always the better seed and more likely to win the game.  Under normal weather conditions, the home team wins 66% of their playoff games but this drops to 54% during inclement weather.  Having to shift their game plans due to the weather may benefit the underdogs and helps offset the home field advantage. 

Offensive Play Calling
The snow and rain affects the offense more than just cold temperatures alone.  Offenses put up just shy of 350 yards during an average game.  This drops about ten yards (339 yards) when the temperature dips below 32 degrees.  It drops another five yards when it snows during the game (334 yards), and drops another six yards if it rains (328 yards).  However, where those yards come from shifts depending on the type of weather the teams have to prepare for.

Mike McCarthy Mike McCarthy. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

While rainy weather causes the biggest decline in a team’s offensive output, snow appears to cause the biggest shift in the game plan.  Teams throw the ball for 30 fewer yards during snow games, contributing to the decline in yardage.  However, teams lean on their running backs during these games, increasing their rushing output from 113 yards to 131 yards.  The rushing increase, paired with the reduced yardage through the air, causes the rushing attack to contribute almost 40% of the yards during snow games, up from less than 33% during non-snow games.

With the shift toward rushing yards, it becomes more important to be able to sustain a drive to eventually win the game.  Teams that rack up more yardage win 66% of the time and this doesn’t shift when they are playing in the snow or the rain.  Outgaining yardage against your opponent is a major key in winning the game.  However, a premium is placed on first downs.

Teams racking up more first downs win more than 70% of the time during inclement weather, up from 64% in normal conditions.  Letting an offense set the tone for the game through sustaining drives rather than relying on one-off explosive plays is more important when having to account for the weather in the game plan.

Who Prepares Their Team the Best?
It should come as no surprise that the coaches who are best at preparing their team for inclement weather are also the same that are best at preparing their team for every other game.  Since 2009, the five coaches with the best winning percentage in inclement weather have all won a Super Bowl, combining for a total of ten wins amongst the group.

Head Coach Total Inclement Weather Games (Since 2009) Winning Percentage
Bill Belichick 44 82%
Doug Pederson 12 75%
Gary Kubiak 11 73%
Mike McCarthy 42 73%
Mike Tomlin 39 71%

This group also elevates their squad during these games.  While they are all successful in their own right, boasting an average winning percentage of 65% since 2009, they clearly bring it to another level when the weather plays a factor by winning 75% of their inclement weather games.  

While each of these coaches have led teams in some of the coldest NFL cities (Foxboro, Philadelphia, Denver, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh), home field advantage does not entirely explain their success.  These five coaches win 74% of their home games, but this rises to 79% when just looking at inclement weather games.  They see an even larger boost on the road, raising their collective win percentage from 55% to 65% when faced with adverse weather conditions during away games.

As the NFL season progresses through November, these coaches hope to continue to tap into their historical success.  Only Tomlin is currently leading a team with a winning record with the Steelers sitting at the top of the AFC conference at 7-0.  While Pederson has the Eagles at the top of the NFC East, their record sits at 3-4-1 in a tight race for the division lead.  The other three coaches’ teams have a combined six wins. 

Follow Stephen on Twitter: @Official_PFH or at ProFootballHistory.com

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