The NFL landscape looked a tad different on the morning of Sept. 8, 1991.
The Patriots were the league laughingstock, coming off a 1-15 season and playing their home opener under new head coach Dick MacPherson. Meanwhile, on the visitor’s side was some 39-year-old rookie head coach named Bill Belichick.
Bill’s career record that morning was 0-1. I remember thinking, “Man, I bet this guy wins five Super Bowls by the time he’s 65.”
Actually, what I do remember from that first NFL road game I ever covered is, A, the Browns beating the Patriots 20-0; and B, the bright sunshine that bounced off a half-empty stadium that looked like some cheap, supersized Erector Set.
Foxboro Stadium is gone. And so are the other eight stadiums the Browns played in that year. Three of the cities — Houston, San Diego and Cleveland — eventually lost their teams, although the NFL did return to new stadiums in Houston and Cleveland.
On Nov. 28, 1993, the Browns played a game in Atlanta. The Georgia Dome was only a year old. Belichick was 18-24. No way this guy amounts to much.
“You got to see this new place,” people said of the Georgia Dome.
Built with the lofty sum of $214 million of state money, the stadium made the Falcons the envy of the league.
Last week, I watched live on television as the Georgia Dome was imploded. Considered state-of-the-art not all that long ago, it looked like the guesthouse to nearby Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Once again, people are saying, “You got to see this new place.” I’ll visit the $1.6 billion venue next weekend when the Vikings take their 4-1 road record into Atlanta.
This will be the 55th stadium I’ve been to for an NFL game. The best explanation for such a high number probably comes from the second sentence in Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ Pro Football Hall of Fame bio:
“Jones’ leadership in areas of sports marketing and promotion have not only profoundly impacted the Cowboys but has influenced the landscape of the entire National Football League and America’s sports culture.”
What that means is Jones was the face of the movement to maximize unshared revenue via one’s home venue. That has led to this schlub covering 18 teams in multiple home stadiums.
I’ve covered teams that had two home cities (Raiders, Rams), and a home city (Houston) that’s had two teams. I covered the Browns, who became the Ravens; the Oilers, who became the Titans; the Rams in Anaheim before they moved to St. Louis and on to Los Angeles; and the Raiders in Los Angeles before they moved back to Oakland and on to Las Vegas someday.
For the most part, not much character was lost in the stadium evolution. Old RFK Stadium in Washington had a college game-day feel to it. And there will always be a personal soft spot for the absolute dump that was Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
Today’s stadiums are much more fan friendly while staying loud and unfriendly to the visiting team. But the top teams in the league this year aren’t letting the road slow them down.
The top six teams in the NFC — Eagles, Vikings, Saints, Rams, Panthers and Falcons — are a combined 24-7 on the road. The first five are all 4-1, while the Falcons are 4-2, but only 2-2 in their new home palace.
In the AFC, the top three teams — Patriots (5-0), Steelers (5-1) and Jaguars (4-1) — are a combined 14-2 on the road. Jacksonville won 30-9 at Pittsburgh, while the Patriots won at New Orleans.
Heading into Thursday’s game, the Vikings didn’t really have a signature road win. That changed when they finally found a way to play offense against the Lions.
The Eagles and Saints have won at Carolina. The Rams won at Jacksonville. Carolina won at New England. And Atlanta won at Seattle.
Yes, a lot has changed since Sept. 8, 1991. The Panthers didn’t exist and the Rams were in Anaheim. As for Atlanta? Well, that was three stadiums ago.