By Dave Campbell
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For NFL teams in this year of the virus, the road game has become even more of a business trip than before with the precautions and restrictions accompanying travel to and stay in another city.
Once they make it to the field, though, the potential for reward this season is higher than ever.
The barking baritone voice of Aaron Rodgers is a sure sign of proof.
Green Bay’s indefatigable quarterback broke the huddle with his teammates for a third-and-3 play from the New Orleans 15-yard line last Sunday, carrying a 30-27 lead with less than four minutes left. As he’s done to defensive players so many times over 13 years as the Packers starter, Rodgers drew Saints linebacker Demario Davis offside with his signature hard count. Rodgers took advantage of the free play to throw into the end zone for Allen Lazard and draw a pass interference penalty. That set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to seal the victory.
The din of the usual raucous crowd at the Superdome never would’ve let that happen.
“It’s a new world we’re living in, playing in,” said the 36-year-old Rodgers, who has guided Green Bay to a 3-0 record and ranks in the top five in the league in most passing categories. He has thrown for nine touchdowns without an interception.
In the opener at Minnesota, another one of the NFL’s most daunting environments for visiting teams in a normal season, Rodgers lured Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr offside on third-and-5 late in the third quarter with the same vexing inflection. The no-risk throw after the yellow flag flew went for a 39-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling to set up a score and put the game away.
“Teams are worried about it, because they’re talking about it. Now you can hear everything. They’re yelling it out,” Rodgers said. “They’re yelling out to watch the ball, and it makes a little bit more fun to watch them jump offsides when you know that they’ve been drilling it all week, too.”
Crafting snap count cadence into a competitive edge has been one of many examples of the savviness Rodgers has used to complement talent and opportunity and become one of the best quarterbacks in history. Who knew it would come in so handy in the 16th year of his career?
“It’s been a weapon for us for a long time, discovering defenses out of disguises,” said Rodgers, who watched the skill honed by predecessor and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Brett Favre. Rodgers added: “The ability to do the hard count is predicated on us being able to not false start, and I think we’ve done a nice job with that.”
Three weeks is still a small sample size, but the standings have revealed a clear boost for the visitors on the field. Including Denver’s victory at New York on Thursday night that kicked off the Week 4 schedule, the road team is 23-25-1 in 2020 for a .480 winning percentage.
While that’s down a tick from the aberration in 2019, when visitors logged a combined 123-132-1 mark (.482) in the regular season, the cumulative winning percentage for NFL road teams over the previous 10 years was just .433. According to data compiled by Sportradar, only twice over the past decade have the visitors won above a .450 clip: 2015 (.461) and 2019.
The Vikings, who have found themselves in a rebuilding mode this year and faced two undefeated teams at an eerily and largely empty U.S. Bank Stadium, are nevertheless 0-2 at home after going 23-9 to match the best record in the NFC over the previous four seasons.
“Normally we have to go off the silent count, so a lot of those free plays, drawing them offsides and stuff, usually just don’t happen because of the crowd noise,” Lazard said.
Just as quick as the snap comes to Rodgers on the second hut, coaches and players will downplay the overall impact of the absence of crowd noise on the outcome of these games in 2020. Skill, effort and strategy will still typically be the deciding factors.
“You talk about big plays and momentum: When you have a crowd, you hear them and get to feed off them. Obviously when you don’t,” Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott said, “you’ve got to create that within your team, got to create that within yourself.”
Advantages aside, the strangeness of these games has made the strongest impression.
“It is weird because the opposite team, you can see them try to look in your huddle and figure out what you’re saying and things like that,” Las Vegas running back Josh Jacobs said.
Ultimately, the sport is staged for the fans, which makes those extra free plays for Rodgers and his peers just a little less satisfying.
“I miss the environment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a road game. I miss the cheers and the jeers and the noise on third down and the boos and everything that goes with road games, and obviously I miss our crowd at Lambeau,” Rodgers said.
AP Pro Football Writers Schuyler Dixon and Josh Dubow and AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.