Home-field advantage redefined this weekend for Falcons, Georgia Tech

Alas, the Falcons will not receive this full measure of support inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday. This was Kristine Ross and her son David Ross back when fans were allowed inside the place.
Alas, the Falcons will not receive this full measure of support inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday. This was Kristine Ross and her son David Ross back when fans were allowed inside the place.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Ah, the strangeness continues: Twice, in preparation for Sunday’s home opener against Seattle, the Falcons scrimmaged at Mercedes Benz Stadium to get comfortable with the absence of noise.

What a divergence from the usual practice of pumping a jet engine’s roar onto the practice field to simulate running an offense over the din of the crowd.

But the crowd has been dispersed. Now quiet is a new X-factor. An unsettling, unnatural quiet. So, does an offensive lineman, his nerves jangled by the stillness, jump offside and then blame the aberrant tranquility?

Two of the hometown teams will be dealing with home-field advantage, as redefined by the coronavirus, from different perspectives this weekend.

Opening at home, the Falcons will face Seattle without the benefit of people in the seats to distract Russell Wilson. There’ll be no outside energy for the home team to draw upon, only piped in noise at a regulated volume that may serve only to irritate rather than incite.

Travelling to Tallahassee to open ACC play against FSU, Georgia Tech will deal with a stadium that is supposed to be only 25% occupied. A young Yellow Jackets team will be spared a full house of political incorrectness, with three-fourth less chopping and chanting. They’ll have mostly only a rebuilding FSU team to contend with rather than 80,000 fans jacked up on tailgating and war paint inside Doak Campbell Stadium.

Now, will any of it make the slightest difference?

Can the Falcons lose something they haven’t really had?

It’s not as if they’ve come to count on home-field advantage. They’ve shown no real affinity for Mercedes-Benz Stadium since moving in before the 2017 season, going 12-12 at home and 12-12 on the road. The place has gained a reputation for pulling the fans away from the action with all its other delicious distractions around the concourse – unless the game of the day is soccer. And Atlanta in general is known to be a welcoming place for visiting fans of the opposing viewpoint.

Still, it’s always nice to have friends around you. And they will be missed, at least for the first two home games. “Hopefully as the season goes it will be a topic that will be revisited, to add some fans back into it,” coach Dan Quinn lobbied this week.

Since the NFL has not established any crowd guidelines – see the smattering of red in the seats Thursday night in Kansas City – teams have set their own. To open the season the Falcons, who were fined $350,000 and lost a fifth-round 2016 draft pick for piping artificial noise into the Georgia Dome six years back, are now the ones facing a competitive noise disadvantage. Karma has a long memory.

Week 1 they play inside a vacant home. Week 2 they travel to Dallas, where Jerry Jones is looking to have his pleasure palace half-full. Put that many oil millionaires in a building, and they are going to make a racket.

One coach facing the same situation as the Falcons – Buffalo’s Sean McDermott will open to an empty house on Week 1 and reportedly play in front of some fans in Miami the following week – was not amused. “I think it’s honestly ridiculous that there will be, on the surface, what appears to be a playing field that’s like that, inconsistent across the league with the different away stadiums,” McDermott said.

Quinn was more measured.

“If it was full stadium and rocking to go, that’s different. The numbers they are setting, their expectations to allow in are pretty small as far as I know around the league. Not until it got to a big number would it be (a competitive disadvantage) in my eyes,” he said.

Half-full is getting pretty close to that line. “Hopefully around the league more people will get to (have a live audience). If nothing else family and friends – I’d love from the players side for them to have some of their families at the games as soon as you could,” Quinn said. And mom and dad had better be loud.

Meanwhile, Tech is kind of digging the idea of empty seats, at least on Week 1. Coming off Geoff Collins' three-win first season, the Jackets can use a break.

Collins has played coy with his starting quarterback, but whoever it is – freshman Jeff Sims or sophomore James Graham – he will be young and impressionable.

And, as offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said, "I think it’s a definite advantage for a young quarterback not to have to play in front of a huge crowd with all of the excitement and the aura about going into a big stadium. I don’t care how much I try to coach 'em up. They’re still going to go out there and go, ‘Whoa, this is really cool. There’s a lot of people here, it’s really loud.’ So that’s one part of it.

“The other part of it is just from a communication standpoint, being able to hear and see the signals and not have to deal with the crowd noise as high a decibel as we would when we have the ball. Especially going in in the red zone, I think that’s a real advantage for any (quarterback), especially a young guy.”

There’s the good news: Tech expects to visit the red zone while in Tallahassee.

Atop other good news: Against a mighty head wind, football season has arrived in Atlanta. Make a loud and joyous noise, at home if not the home field.

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