Your Team Lost? Don't Blame Jet Lag West Coast teams have been terrible on the East Coast this season. But far too many commentators have taken a one-year statistic and jumped to the conclusion that those teams are at an unfair disadvantage because of the rigors of travel.
NPR logo Your Team Lost? Don't Blame Jet Lag

Your Team Lost? Don't Blame Jet Lag

Maybe you heard it a few thousand times before the Arizona Cardinals traveled to North Carolina to play the Panthers: West Coast teams are terrible on the East Coast this season. The Cardinals were 0-5 in the East before they picked off the Panthers. The Fox broadcast team mentioned the travel woes so often that I half expected to see Daryl Johnson IDed as "Fox Analyst/Circadian Rhythm Expert."

West Coast teams compiled a 3-12 record when traveling to the East Coast. That's a fact. But far too many commentators have taken a one-year statistic and jumped to the conclusion that those teams are at an unfair disadvantage because of the rigors of travel.

In reality, there are just so many problems with the "West Coast teams have it rough" complaint that it's hard to know where to begin.

First, let's look at what happens when teams travel long distances to the East, but not quite transcontinentally. When the West Coast teams play in the Midwest, there is no discernable jet lag effect whatsoever. It's 1,724 miles and two time zones from Seattle to St. Louis, yet the Seattle Seahawks have won four straight games when traveling to the Gateway City.

The same is true for the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers when traveling to play division rival Kansas City Chiefs. Despite the 1,500 miles and two time zones, both teams have beaten up on the Chiefs in Kansas City in recent years.

My favorite counterargument is that good teams like the San Francisco 49ers of the '80s and '90s were dominant when they traveled East.

During their playoff years, the 49ers traveled and beat East Coast teams 39 times, lost 10 and put up one tie. That's a .796 winning percentage. Their overall winning percentage during that those years was .776 — so they actually got better when they played three times zones away.

The explanation for all this is quite simple: This year, the West Coast teams were very, very bad. The Chargers did have a late-season surge, but they played most of their East Coast games while they were still a patsy. Bad teams lose on the road and they lose at home. They lose when they travel east or north, when they stay at a Holiday Inn Express, when they sacrifice live goats in a pagan cleansing ceremony before night games on artificial turf.

I'm glad the Cardinals' victory put to rest the theory that a lack of rest, rather than a lack of talent, was the most important reason that teams won or lost.

Flying-Helmet Theories

I saw more helmets popping off the heads of Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens players during last weekend's playoff than I've ever noticed during an NFL game.

From Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' tremendous lick on fullback Ahmard Hall in the second quarter to Titan Defender Cortland Finnegan blowing his stack in the fourth, lids were flying. CBS announcer Dan Dierdorf mentioned that players wear their helmets "looser" these days.

Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz agrees. He's chairman of the department of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and one of the nation's leading experts on head trauma and football-related concussions.

Guskiewicz says that right before I called him, he had been co-teaching a class with a neurosurgeon in which they were discussing this exact issue. Guskiewicz says he's noticed flying helmets in more games this year than ever before — and has two theories to explain why. One is that more players are wearing the less-stable, single-chinstrap helmet that was popularized by quarterback Boomer Esiason in the late 1980s. Guskiewicz's other theory is that with the NFL clamping down on head-to-head collisions, more defenders are delivering their hits from an angle, dislodging the chinstrap fastener on the side of the helmet.

Either way, it's a problem because it indicates that helmets aren't being worn properly. It's also a tragedy waiting to happen — a direct blow to an exposed skull could be catastrophic.

Playoff Pecking Order

Three of the four teams still alive in the postseason are nicknamed for birds, which is unusual since the Ravens are the only AFC team with an avian nickname. To determine the pecking order were the teams to face each other using a round-robin format, I spoke with ornithologist E. Vernon Laux.

Not surprisingly, Laux reports that an eagle would have the advantage. However, it's worth noting that he calls the bald eagle "a glorified vulture" because of its habit of trailing wounded deer and feasting on the carcass. Coincidentally, this is exactly how Asante Samuel gets all those interceptions.

The cardinal, with its thick beak, is "feistier than you'd imagine," Laux says. But he seems most impressed with the raven, which is the smartest of all birds. Ravens are able to count to 13, a skill which seems to constantly elude coaches like Brad Childress of the Vikings when trying to manage the clock at the end of a half. On the downside for ravens, they do take over a year to reach full maturity, which doesn't portend well for rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.