Cross-country trips in the NFL

In my recent post titled NFC West miles away from the rest of the NFL I tried to point out the difference between teams and their respective divisions from the stand point of miles they have to travel when playing on the road.

Teams from the West Coast not only have to travel a lot more miles but also have to travel multiple Time Zones more often than the rest of the league.  There are 4 different Time Zones in the Unites States of America.  For the purpose of analyzing games between West Coast teams and teams from the East, lets group NFL teams into 4 Time Zone ‘divisions’.

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In the Eastern Time Zone division fall 17 NFL teams (Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Miami, New England, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington) and in the Pacific Time Zone division fall 4 teams (Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle). In between, there are 9 teams in Central Time Zone division (Chicago, Dallas, Green Bay, Houston, Kansas City, Minnesota, New Orleans, St.Louis and Tennessee) and 2 teams in Mountain Time Zone division (Arizona and Denver), not shown on the map.

In past 10 NFL seasons, from 2002 (the year when NFL re-aligned its divisions) to last 2011 season,  there’s been 246 regular season games in which road team had to travel cross-country ( Pacific → Eastern or Eastern → Pacific). What follows is a number of cross-country trips for all teams from Pacific and Eastern Time Zone ‘division’ for each year in past decade. Teams from Pacific Time Zone are in bold.

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A few quick observations from the table above:

  • 2005 San Diego, 2007 & 2011 San Francisco and 2007 Seattle had to make the most cross-country trips in a single season (5),
  • 2008 season saw the most games between West Coast and East teams (33),
  • highest number of teams which had to make cross-country trip in one season (18).

It’s no surprise that teams from AFC and NFC West (Pacific Time Zone)  each year have to make most of the cross-country trips. Over the years, NFL did little to change current scheduling format to help West Coast teams. But after Patriots and Jets had to visit all 4 West Coast teams in 2008, NFL decided to modify scheduling format that’s been in place since the 2002 season. The changes came into effect after 2 full rotations after the end of 2009 season. That way, teams from the East cannot face all 4 West Coast teams away from home in a single season. West Coast teams would probably love to get some help too, since they regularly have to make 3, 4 or even 5  cross-country trip as we’ve seen in the table.  San Francisco 49ers did help themselves a bit last year when they decided to stay on the East side for a back-to-back road games. The same did the 2008 Patriots, staying on West Coast for a back-to-back away games.

This upcoming season will be no different. All together there’s 29 games scheduled between Pacific and Eastern Time Zone teams, and no team from the Eastern Time Zone will have to travel far West more than once. On the other hand, Oakland has 5 cross-country trips on its schedule, San Diego and Seattle each have 4, and San Francisco will travel cross-country 2 times. That makes it 15 cross-country trips for West Coast teams and 11 of those are scheduled for 1 PM Eastern Time, which is 10 AM Pacific.  It seems like West Coast teams can’t catch a break.

On the left side is a list of total cross-country trips by each team from 2002 season, included 2012 season which is yet to be played.

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NFC West miles away from the rest of the NFL

We are less than a month away from the opening kickoff of the new 2012 NFL season. It is well-known fact that under the current NFL format each team plays 16 regular season games, 8 of those on the road. Geographically speaking, NFL teams are unevenly distributed across the United States of America and teams located far West, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals, have to travel a lot more than the rest and are among teams that each year have a high total of miles traveled.

Last season, it was the San Francisco 49ers who led the NFL with 29196 miles traveled. The 49ers stayed in Youngstown, Ohio between Week 3 and Week 4 when they played the Bengals and the Eagles on the road, so their actual total miles traveled in 2011 is a bit lower, but never the less, San Francisco still was a team with second-most total miles traveled, only behind division rival Seattle Seahawks.

I put up a list of teams’ total miles traveled from last season (source: NFL.com) and this upcoming season. I analyzed 2012 NFL schedule and calculated total miles traveled for each team using this great site – Sports Map World. As already mentioned, teams from the West, members of AFC West and NFC West division in particular, have to travel most. This season, it will be the Oakland Raiders with most miles traveled, followed by Seahawks, 49ers, Chargers, Rams, Cardinals, …

Patriots and Rams will play in the 2012 NFL International Series in London. Rams will be the home team, but both teams, obviously, will have to travel to London. One other note, since the Rams are located much closer to the East Coast their total miles traveled are significantly lower compared to 3 other NFC West teams, as we can see from the list of total miles traveled in 2011. In 2012 Rams’ total is higher than ‘normal’ due to their scheduled trip to London.

In 2012, teams of the NFC West division will have to travel a combine total of 104074 round-trip miles, which is more than twice as much as teams from AFC North, NFC North or AFC South for that matter. Here’s a complete list of 2012 total miles traveled by each division.

There’s one other interesting aspect of analyzing NFL schedule within divisions. Out of 8 road games that each NFL team has to play each season, 3 of those games are divisional. For example, St. Louis Rams have to travel to San Francisco, Seattle and Glendale, Arizona for their 3 divisional games on the road. The Rams have to travel a total of 9491 ‘divisional’ miles. That’s the most in the NFL. Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland with a total of only 1138 miles, the lowest in the NFL and only 12% of what the Rams have to travel each year when visiting their division rivals.

It would make things a lot easier for teams from NFC West if the Rams never moved to St.Louis and stayed in LA. Just for speculation purposes I calculated total ‘divisional’ miles for each NFC West team as if the Rams moved back to LA and became Los Angeles Rams again. The difference, in terms of miles traveled within division, would be huge.