By: Dan Grant
Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend not one but two NFL Games. First, my lovely fiancée Emma bought me tickets to see my favourite team, the Green Bay Packers, take on the Detroit Lions in their annual Thanksgiving battle last Thursday. Then, at the last minute, my Dad hooked myself and little brother Patrick up with tickets to see the Buffalo Bills play the Atlanta Falcons in their annual jaunt up to Canada, right here in Toronto, on Sunday.
It was a pretty wild thing, considering that in my entire life, I’d only ever attended one previous NFL game – a rowdy bus trip to Buffalo in 2003, my first year of university. We saw the Bills beat the division rival Jets 17-6, Travis Henry rushing for nearly 170 yards for the victors. I got to see Hall of Famers – Curtis Martin for the Jets and Drew Bledsoe for Buffalo. Five members of our bus trip got in fights and were arrested immediately- fights are so common at Bills games that we were scarcely delayed in returning home to Canada. All it really gave us was more time to drink wonderful duty-free beer. All in all, it was a great first game and there were three major factors that made the experience so enjoyable.
First, the stadium. In Buffalo, in December, there was snow on the ground and a nip to the air. It was a fantastic environment for my first game. Ralph Wilson stadium is old – it was built in the early 70’s and at the time, didn’t look like much had been done to update it beyond adding a few scoreboards.
Secondly, the fans. The Bills fans are insane. They mostly live in Buffalo, first of all, which immediately puts a notch against their sanity, but their passion in supporting their beloved Bills was one of the coolest things I had ever seen live. It was a different experience from attending the buttoned down Toronto Maple Leafs games or the sometimes sparsely attended Toronto Raptors games. It was an event. Remember, in football, there are only 8 guaranteed home games per year, so every single one is a party.
Finally, the game itself. My first experience was a pretty boring game, I can’t lie. Drew Bledsoe, a prolific NFL gunner, threw for just 72 yards in the game and his Jets counter-part Chad Pennington added just 155 to that total. While Travis Henry rushed for 169 yards as I mentioned earlier, he also carried the ball 32 times, with a long run of 16. It was a freezing cold monotonous running battle between two teams that ended the season 6-10.
I thought it would be fun to compare my two newest NFL experiences while they were fresh in my mind. Both were quite different from my first game, and extremely different from one another.
Ford Field in Detroit is an unbelievable modern NFL stadium. Built around ten years ago, it has the feel of entering an indoor mall. Friends who had seen games there warned me of this, but it really captured the exact sensation when we walked through our gate. The field is built in a massive cavern towards the back of the facility, while there are myriad merchandise and food options throughout the stadium. Lines for everything were pretty short because, well, there was just so MUCH of everything. As my Dad’s friend Dave would say ‘America is the land of the big!’ and Detroit definitely personified this.
The field itself was amazing. We sat in the upper deck, about ten rows up and the sight lines were perfect. There is actually not a bad seat in the house. We were on the ten yard line in the Packers end, and could see everything clearly. As a Packers fan, it was debatable as to whether this was a good thing, but it was certainly worth the dough.
The Rogers Centre (forever SkyDome in my heart. Really, you couldn’t just call it Rogers SkyDome? Get bent Rogers!) is a building with which I’m all too familiar, having watched the Blue Jays lose games there for the past 20 years. However, for this swanky gentlemen, the tickets to last Sunday’s Bills game were actually in a luxury box, or as the Dome (screw it!) calls it: a ‘hospitality suite’. Now, I’ve lived something of a charmed life in terms of sporting events, and my mom’s boss (a dentist) growing up was a Jays season ticket holder. He shared the tickets among his staff and once a year, he was given the opportunity to rent a box and he would always do so, bringing his staff along as a sort of work outing. My mom alternated taking myself and my brother to these events. Basically, what I’m saying is, I’d been in a box before. So while I wasn’t boggled by the free food and beer, it was still awesomely free, awesomely food and awesomely beer. Also, Thurman Thomas came by our box, and I got to say hello, which just about blew my mind.
Which was a good thing, because the Dome is a dump to watch a football game in and having my mind exploded by meeting the 1991 NFL MVP might have distracted me from that for a few minutes. The stadium just looks wrong when it’s not set up for baseball. The ugly concrete and dated blue seating are one thing, but the fact that the half time show (The friggin’ Beach Boys!) were forced to set up in a corner of the end zone instead of mid-field for ‘acoustics’ was a disgrace, and their performance was terrible. The fact that only 38,000 fans (roughly) showed up to the game was another problem, as the Bills regularly sell out their 68,000 seat home field.
We were sitting on the 40 yard line in a hospitality box, pretty much the best seats in the house, and it was still a disappointing environment. I can only imagine what the folks up in the 500 level were feeling.
Huge Advantage: Ford Field
We’ll start with the Bills this time. The annual games in Canada were supposed to be a fun change for the Bills. What they wound up being was a huge cash grab for a team that desperately needed it. The NFL assumed that due to the close proximity of Buffalo to Toronto, most fans in the region would be rooting for the Bills. While it’s certainly true that there’s a big Bills fan base in Toronto, with the advent of things like NFL Sunday Ticket and video games like NFL Blitz and Madden, loyalties in the city are definitely not aligned with one particular franchise.
The crowd last Sunday reflected this disparity, with nearly half the crowd looking like they were fans of the Atlanta Falcons. Randomly, I also saw some Jets, Steelers, Ravens and Patriots jerseys in the crowd, suggesting that the fans were there just to watch some football, not because they gave a good gosh darn about the Bills.
If you’ve never been to an NFL game, you won’t be familiar with the competitive advantage a home crowd is supposed to give its team. When a team has the ball and is about to run a play, its fans are virtually silent, allowing the team to communicate with one another. When the opposition has the ball, the crowd makes thunderous noise, attempting to cause miscommunication or even force a time out. Watch games hosted in Seattle, Indianapolis or Green Bay and this comes through right away.
Playing a game in Toronto basically negates this advantage for Buffalo and strips them of a home game. I’ll give an ‘A’ to the fans who showed up – they were rowdy and in jerseys and painted up – but an ‘F’ to the fans who didn’t, if that makes sense. The Bills might be nearly out of it, but to have a ‘home game’ so poorly attended and then, to be nearly out cheered by other the fans of other teams was something of a disgrace.
Meanwhile, we attended the game in Detroit on American Thanksgiving and that experience was a fantastic time. We were a bit worried about hanging out in downtown Detroit, but honestly, the time spent there was nothing but positive. The area around the stadium is full of parking lots where fans tailgate, though it’s not one enormous lot like there is at other NFL stadiums. We met a hilarious family of people (hello Andy, Cheryl, Zack and Rod!) who fed us and beered us, gave us hot apple cider and gave us advice about when to enter the stadium and anything else we cared to talk about.
‘We’ve been here since 6am!’, Andy proudly and drunkenly proclaimed. Since he was eating bear sausage (made from real bears!) and spouting invective about Obamacare, I completely believed him. It was a genuinely ‘Murican experience.
Myself and my buddy Tom, who came along to the game, are both big Green Bay Packers fans so we were worried about wearing any cheesehead gear – we were going to Detroit after all. It turns out our fears were again unfounded. Packers fans littered the stadium, though the majority of people were Lions fans. We saw friendly razzing back and forth but the atmosphere was one of light hearted fun and camaraderie. The outcome of the game may have had something to do with this, but it was still a pleasant surprise. The Lions also have an excellent fight song and every fan screamed it along with their hilarious hype man after each Lions score. For there to be that much passion for Lions football after 50 years of futility is really remarkable. I mean that genuinely.
Huge Advantage: Lions fans
As I’ve alluded to a couple times already, the Packers game didn’t turn out exactly how I’d hoped my first one would. The Lions decimated the Cheeseheads 40-10, with the scoreboard frequently turning to a fan who brought in a sign reading ‘Why have turkey for Thanksgiving when you can just eat cheese?’.
The Packers, missing All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, failed to score an offensive touchdown in the game, getting their only score from safety Morgan Burnett on a Matthew Stafford fumble recovery. The Lions lit it up thereafter and I got to see the best receiver on the planet in Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson rip the Packers apart for 101 yards and a touchdown. If I were a Lions fan, it would have been a sweet victory, as it was the first time the Lions had managed to best the Pack on Thanksgiving since 2004. As I was a Packers fan, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
Despite the cavernous conditions in the Dome, the game was actually a thrilling one. A back and forth scoring affair, featuring 77 and 36 yard runs from dynamic Bills back CJ Spiller, fumbles galore and lead changes in nearly every quarter. We saw a successful challenge result in a rushing touchdown for Bills QB EJ Manuel and then we saw the ‘home’ team blow it with a terrible pass interference call that let Atlanta tie the score at 31 with 1:28 left. Buffalo had a final chance to get into field goal range, completed a huge pass downfield, only to fumble the ball away, sending the game into overtime.
In overtime, Buffalo won the toss and got the ball, and again began to storm downfield through a porous Atlanta defense. Unfortunately, tight end Scott Chandler fumbled away the ball again, Atlanta recovered and moved the ball downfield, kicking a field goal and winning the game, 34-31.
After recounting those events, I have to give the edge to the Bills and Falcons game. It was genuinely exciting, even if it was played between two teams with minimal playoff aspirations. I hope to head to Lambeau Field next season to see my Packers play a much better game, hopefully with Aaron Rodgers back in the fold.
And the winner is:
Despite my vitriol for them as a division opponent, I have to give the win to the Lions. The combination of the state of the art stadium with the pleasantly hammered fans and seeing my Packers for the first time was just too much for an exciting Bills game that was played in a tomb in front of mostly indifferent fans.
If you’ve never been to an NFL game, make sure you do go at least once in your life, even if you’re not a big football fan. The environment is really like nothing else; it’s a totally unique experience.