There's no place like Tampa for Packers fans
Late in the 1997 season, the Green Bay Packers made Houlihan's Stadium in Tampa their own.
The Packers clinched the NFC Central Division title with a 17-6 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and about 30,000 of the 73,523 spectators were Packers fans, according to estimates at the time.
At one point in the second half, quarterback Brett Favre had to raise his arms to quiet a "Go Pack Go" chant. In the game's final minutes, the half-full stadium was almost entirely a Packers crowd. And after the game, Trent Dilfer, the Buccaneers' quarterback, went off.
"I don't know the politically correct way to say it," Dilfer said in his postgame news conference. "I think it's baloney when you play at home and there are as many Packer fans as Buccaneer fans. They're celebrating winning the NFC Central Division championship on our home field. It's embarrassing."
And that was against a good Buccaneers team that finished 10-6 and made the playoffs.
So what does that mean for this week, when the 10-4 Packers travel to Tampa Bay for another December game with a playoff berth and seeding on the line? Especially against a Bucs team that is 2-12?
Could there be even more Packers fans at Raymond James Stadium, which has a capacity of 65,908 spectators? And would it really matter to the Packers, who like every NFL team have to play eight games on the road every season?
"Damn right it matters," said LeRoy Butler, the Packers' three-time All-Pro safety who played in that '97 game. "Yeah. It gives you a sense of comfort. You look statistically, everybody plays well at home. As a matter of fact, the Packers are undefeated at home.
"You go into a hostile environment, and you've got a lot of help with you. There's such an adrenaline rush and for some reason it just gets you going. If you're at home you're supposed to have fans, but when you see people traveled and paid their hard-earned money to see you play (on the road), it was unbelievable."
Almost all NFL teams draw their fans to road games now, in large part because online brokers make access to tickets much easier than 20 years ago. For at least several seasons, even games at Lambeau, which is sold out for season tickets, routinely include a few thousand fans for the road team.
In some or maybe even many cases, Lambeau itself is the draw. It's on many football fans' bucket list.
But even with road tickets easier to come by for all teams, the Packers, as they have dating back for at least 20 years, still have as strong a following on the road as any team in the NFL. Among the others are Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh.
The '97 Tampa Bay game was unusual only in the excessive numbers, not that there was a large Packers crowd. At that time, the Packers and Bucs were in the same division, so they played home-and-home every year. Fans could count on a road game and build a Florida vacation around it.
Also, Florida is a migration state, so many people there have a favorite from where they're from. Plenty of Wisconsinites live there. So since the mid-'90s the Packers routinely have drawn 10,000 or more fans in Tampa Bay.
But when the NFL schedule came out last spring, a December game in Florida had to be especially attractive to Packers fans. A story on The Tampa Tribune's web site Thursday said all the single-game tickets for Sunday were sold by June.
Then there's the matter of the Bucs' support at home. At 2-12, they're tied for the second-worst record in the NFL and are headed for their seventh straight season finishing out of the playoffs. Their average attendance through six home games is 58,845, which is 89 percent of capacity and ranks No. 28 in the NFL (the Packers are No. 4 at 78,100).
Their last home game, a sunny and 77 degree day on Nov. 30 against the Cincinnati Bengals, drew 56,340 spectators. The Bucs have lost two games since and are on a four-game losing streak. This is not a tough ticket.
Normally, even the Packers' large road fan base doesn't warrant much more than a mention. Historically they've drawn especially well at Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago. When they've played at San Diego, they've had even more fans than usual.
But this week has the makings of another '97, and maybe even more. Is it out of the question that half the crowd (about 33,000) will be Packers fans? Maybe even more?
On a purely practical level, it's hard to know how much of a difference that kind of crowd mix would make on the game's outcome. Maybe quarterback Aaron Rodgers would be able to use mostly voice signals calling the no-huddle offense, which he usually can't on the road.
More importantly, Rodgers might not have to use a silent count as much as usual on the road, which would negate one of the home field's greatest advantages. If it's quiet enough for Rodgers to use a voice cadence, his linemen can anticipate the snap and get a split-second head start on pass rushers. With the silent count, the blockers often have to watch the ball, so there's no head start.
Also, if the Packers crowd is large enough, the Bucs might even have to use some silent count, at least on third downs. That's unheard of for a home game.
"(Packers fans) are loud, they travel well," guard T.J. Lang said. "I don't know what the home team would think about that. I'd imagine if we were playing a game here and half the stadium were Bears fans, I don't know how well that would go over with us."
In some ways, it's hard to think that even a large road crowd would make much difference to NFL players. They have to play eight games in foreign stadiums, and teams often function well in hostile environments. The Packers practice for it year round. They also won't even have the luxury of their usual road contingent if they have to travel for the playoffs to, say, Seattle, which is as tough as any road venue in the league.
But Butler said the '97 game in Tampa was one of the most memorable and exhilarating of his 12-year NFL career. His successors 17 years later just might find out what that's like.
"The biggest thing for players, when you make a big play on the road you normally hear boos," Butler said. "Now when you make a big play you're going to hear a roar. Ooooooh my god, that gets you going."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty