The scenario isn’t difficult to envision. It’s the Sept. 13 season-opener in U.S. Bank Stadium, the Green Bay Packers have the ball at midfield with the clock running down in the fourth quarter and the Vikings are up by a touchdown. It’s third down and quarterback Aaron Rodgers yells instructions to his teammates in the huddle so he can be heard above the noise made by the thousands of fans clad in purple.
They aren’t the only ones generating the deafening sound with which Rodgers must deal. There also is the opening chimes from AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” playing as the crowd noise only continues to increase and bounces off the glass-like ceiling of the venue and right back at the field. This is about the time that Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and others lift their arms and call for more noise. Rodgers, forced to use a silent count because his teammates can’t hear him, takes the snap, drops back to pass and is sacked by a blitzing Smith. Or maybe it’s third and short, and Packers running back Aaron Jones is stuffed for no gain.
Either could easily happen, and the fans would have played a role.
Anyone who has been to a Vikings games since the team moved into U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016 — or who attended games in the raucous Metrodome days– knows the Vikings have had a definite home-field advantage. That been especially true on defense, where many an opposing quarterback has wilted under the combined pressure of the Vikings’ pass rush and the intimidating level of noise from the fans. My former colleague, Matthew Coller, and I used to marvel at how many NFL quarterbacks would get flustered by that Wall of Sound.
The Vikings will enter the 2020 season with a 23-9 regular-season record at U.S. Bank Stadium and 1-0 in the playoffs. Only New England (26-6), Kansas City (24-8) and Baltimore (24-8) have better home records than the Vikings since 2016. Philadelphia and New Orleans are the only NFC teams that have regular-season home records as good as Minnesota during that time.
The issue is that the advantage described in the first two paragraphs of this column is not going to be possible on Sept. 13 and might not be present at any time during the 2020 season. The coronavirus pandemic has the Vikings awaiting word from Gov. Tim Walz and the state Department of Health to see if they will be allowed to put any fans in a stadium that can seat 66,000 for football.
Right now, the state of Minnesota allows no more than 250 people into an indoor event. Lester Bagley, a vice president for the Vikings, recently told the Star Tribune that the team is in talks to see if it can get roughly 20 percent of the usual amount of fans into the stadium. A decision is likely to be made in the coming week.
The Twins have played 15 home games with no fans at Target Field this season. While that certainly has a negative impact on revenue, the crowd at a baseball game doesn’t hang on every pitch and doesn’t generate anything close to the noise that the Vikings get in their indoor stadium.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer loves nothing more than to hear the home crowd generate noise or start a Skol Chant as his defense takes the field. For reference, when Stefon Diggs scored the touchdown to complete the “Minneapolis Miracle” in the Vikings’ overtime win against the Saints in the 2017 playoffs, the peak decibel level was clocked at 120.1, according to the Vikings. That is just a little quieter than a jet engine during takeoff. According to ESPN, the loudest single moment during the Vikings’ first-ever home preseason game was measured at 114 decibels of sound. Zimmer said this week that he expects the Vikings to be able to play in-stadium sound without fans at 80 to 90 decibels.
“It’s going to be very hard because some stadiums they are allowing people in and it looks like we’re not going to have any fans early, which really stinks because we have unbelievable fans,” Zimmer said on Friday. “They make that place rocking every Sunday. The best way to have home-field advantage is to play really good. Execute, make tackles, don’t make mistakes, don’t commit penalties, turnovers, all those things. That’s why we’re going to have to be so disciplined and the way that we approach these things. To go out and just be a better team than the other team that we’re playing.”
The second part of what Zimmer said is true, but professional sports are about looking for any advantage you can get and the Vikings stadium and fans give them an important advantage. In the past four seasons, the Vikings have given up an average of 16.7 points per game during the regular season at home and 21 points per game on the road.
The good news, for now, is that the Bears, Lions and Packers, the Vikings’ rivals in the NFC North, won’t have fans in their stadiums for at least their first two home games and maybe longer. The Vikings aren’t scheduled to play a road game against a division foe until Nov. 1 in Green Bay, so there’s a chance that while Minnesota’s home game against the Packers won’t have fans, the Packers will be able to have some fans in Lambeau Field when the Vikings come to town.
The Vikings likely will play in front of a crowd in Week 2 at Indianapolis. The Colts are planning to allow fans at 25 percent capacity in Lucas Oil Stadium. That means a maximum of about 15,000 would be allowed into the 63,000-seat indoor stadium.
Let’s close this column, by returning to the beginning, only we are going to envision the reality of the situation. That would be Rodgers, trailing in the fourth quarter, breaks the huddle and doesn’t have to worry about a silent count. Yes, “Hells Bells” by AC/DC is beginning to play, but no one reacts. He can bark out orders loud and clear because it will basically be a steady stream of white noise playing over the sound system. The Vikings have been using it in training camp practice to try to get a feel for it, but at the decibels Zimmer described there is no advantage.
“It just plays the same noise the entire time for both home and away,” Zimmer said. “You don’t really get to do any Skol Chants or anything like that. I think television is going to pipe it in to their broadcast but as far as in the stadium it’s going to be very stagnant, just background noise. Which makes a lot of sense, right? I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that.”
Whether he gets in trouble, nobody can blame Zimmer for lamenting the fact that the Vikings could play all of 2020 with little to no home-field advantage.