Winning on the road still a mystery to many

Over the past 10 seasons, just a half-dozen NFL teams have winning road records and, not surprisingly, five of the six rank among the franchises with the best records overall in that stretch.

The point is a pretty obvious one, said Pittsburgh inside linebacker James Farrior, part of a Steelers' team that since 1996 has compiled the league's best road winning percentage (.550) and the fourth-best winning mark overall (.616).

"Good teams win, period, no matter where they're playing," Farrior said. "It's always a challenge in this league to win consistently on the road. It's definitely one of the best feelings you can have, to go into someone else's place and come out with a win, but that is what the good teams do. Really, being able to win on the road is what sets teams apart in this league. I mean, you don't see many playoff teams with losing road records, right?"

Uh, no, you don't. At least not lately.

Since 2002, when the NFL adopted its current eight-division alignment, just three of 48 playoff teams have had losing road records -- Seattle (2-6) in 2003, and St. Louis (2-6) and Minnesota (3-5) in 2004. In that span, playoff teams registered an aggregate road mark of 235-148-1, for a .613 winning percentage.

But extend the numbers even further out, to include championship ramifications, and they are even more staggering, demonstrating that franchises that return to their home base clutching a Vince Lombardi Trophy, do so, in part, because they are road warriors. And the teams sitting at home for the playoffs are there, to some degree, because they are roadkill.

"When you walk into a [road] environment, you want as many character guys walking in there with you as you can get, because at some point on the road, something negative is going to happen, and it's how you respond to that incident that determines the outcome. And leaders always respond better to those kinds of things. You've got to have a focus, a single-mindedness, and tough people have that."
Montae Reagor, Colts defensive tackle

Some numbers to chew on: The six teams with winning road records over the past decade have combined for seven Super Bowl titles. Of the group, only Indianapolis has failed to make a Super Bowl appearance in the past 10 years.

No team with a losing road record has ever advanced to the Super Bowl in its 40-year history, and of the 80 teams that have competed in the championship game, only six finished at .500 on the road. Denver, at Super Bowl XXXII in 1997, was the last team with a non-winning road record to participate in the title game. The combined regular-season road record of the 20 franchises that have played in the past 10 Super Bowl games is 112-48, a mind-blowing .700 winning percentage.

Clearly, it's difficult to succeed in the NFL if a team wins only at home.

"Winning on the road ... clearly is a formula for success," said wide receiver Rod Smith, whose Denver Broncos own the best record in the league in the past 10 years, a .663 winning percentage, fueled by the third-best mark on the road. "It's what separates teams."

Indeed, there are just six franchises with losing home records over the last decade, but only six who are on the plus-side of the ledger on the road. It seems that when a lot of teams pack their luggage, they also stow any chance of winning.

Why is it, though, that in a league where roughly 25 percent of the games every year are decided by three points or less, and about 45 percent of the contests have margins of seven points or fewer, the statistics are so skewed against road teams? If, as Rod Smith suggested, winning road games is a formula for success, why haven't more teams and their coaches been able to divine the recipe for triumphing over travel? Why, in a league whose overriding bedrock is competitive balance and where everyone claims that teams are so evenly matched, is venue such a factor in victory?

Most players and coaches have no easy answers to those questions.

Teams travel on charter flights, typically bivouac at upscale hotels, are well-fed and operate on a tight, well-planned schedule, with only a few hours of road time not occupied by meetings or club functions. There is a kind of regularity and rhythm to it, but for whatever reason, hitting the road is excess baggage for many teams.

"I think [travel] gets into people's heads sometimes," said Jacksonville middle linebacker Mike Peterson. "It becomes a psychological deal. You hear all this stuff about, 'Well, the routine has been [interrupted].' Or, like, 'We've got to accept the challenge of going on the road.' Really, how many times have you heard teams talk about going on the road as a positive thing? You don't every hear guys saying, 'OK! A road trip!' It's like you're set up for failure. That's why you've got to be strong and ignore all that stuff."

Said a veteran safety one AFC team: "There's no excuse for some teams to be so bad on the road. Yeah, the environment is tougher. But, I mean, if a doctor has to go to a different hospital to do surgery, he can't just say to the patient, 'This is going to be tough, because I'm not [familiar] with this operating room.' Or if you're some businessman on the road and negotiating some big contract, you can't blow the deal because the meeting isn't in your own office, right? A lot of people travel for business, do their jobs and don't think twice about being on the road. The good teams view road trips as just that, a weekend business trip, and the bad teams have kind of a woe-is-us [mind-set]."

In speaking with players, coaches and team officials about performance on the road, it was notable how often three elements that have been the overarching themes in this week's NFL coverage on ESPN.com were cited -- character, leadership and toughness.

It isn't just happenstance, acknowledged Indianapolis defensive tackle Montae Reagor, that most good road teams are usually good teams, period. Or that those teams don't lack for leadership.

"When you walk into a [road] environment, you want as many character guys walking in there with you as you can get," Reagor said. "Because at some point on the road, something negative is going to happen, and it's how you respond to that incident that determines the outcome. And leaders always respond better to those kinds of things. You've got to have a focus, a single-mindedness, and tough people have that."

That helps explain why the Steelers, the league's best road club over the past decade in the regular season, were able to win three playoff contests away from home on their way to the Super Bowl XL title. Over the past two seasons, Pittsburgh's record on the road and at home are the same, 13-3 in both instances. There are few coaches as tough-minded as Bill Cowher, and he has surrounded himself with players who share that kind of mentality.

But it isn't only intangibles that make for successful road teams. And it isn't merely lack of character that accounts for the abysmal road performances of many franchises. There is a football element involved, too, and that should not be overlooked.

Good road franchises tend to be teams that run the ball well. Why so? Because even in an era of highly sophisticated passing games, running the ball is the surest recipe for victory. On the road, it often takes the home crowd out of the game because, for fans, there is nothing more energy-sapping than watching the opposition's offense monopolize the ball. Teams that win on the road tend not to panic and abandon their game plan if they fall behind early, and they find a way to hang in against adversity. And they don't turn the ball over -- a transgression in any contest, but particularly in road games.

Generally, teams that succeed on the road are simply, as Farrior noted, good teams. But they are also teams with collective will, resilience and staying power, and those are traits only the best teams possess.

"They talk about road warriors, but good teams are warriors no matter where they play," Farrior said.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.