Over the course of the offseason, with the reality slowly settling in that the pandemic is still going to be around by the time the regular season begins, and that it’s going to affect fans’ ability to come to games, players have given a variety of opinions about the effect that will have on games. Vance McDonald isn’t bothered by it, personally.
“Players fit into two categories. Either the crowd and noise is good for the player and they thrive with it, or it’s a huge distraction”, the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end said on Tuesday. “When I play in front of a huge crowd it only hurts me. Not to say after a big catch or a huge hit it’s not electrifying to have the stadium roar for you in the moment, but you are going to have players suffer from that because they rely on that excitement. You are going to have other players that it’s going to allow them to play in an objective space. All they are thinking about is the man in front of them”.
Still, while he indicated that he is fine for his own game in playing in front of an empty stadium, he acknowledged that the lack of fan presence will have an inevitable and unavoidable effect on the game—including teams who get a lot of traveling fan opposition from the teams they face.
“It’s going to play a role in football”, he said. “You just zoom out and look at the things it can affect, you are talking snap count, defensive communications, signals. Every single thing noise amplifies or restricts. Everything happens faster and smoother without the noise”.
The mild-mannered McDonald transforms himself into the ‘Vanimal’ when he is on the field, playing with ‘speed and violence’, as his tight end coach, James Daniel, told reporters earlier in the week. While some of that is feeding off of the energy from the crowd after a good play, you still have to draw something from within yourself that can elicit that response from the fans.
It does have to be said that, as he readily admits, this will vary from player to player. Some more than others may feed off of the crowd, and as I mentioned earlier, a number of players throughout the NFL have suggested that they wouldn’t want to play in front of an empty stadium, almost as though it defeats the purpose as a communal experience.
Cameron Heyward has suggested—not entirely jokingly, I believe—that the Steelers should just play Renegade throughout the game. How teams handle the game atmosphere once we get to the regular season remains to be seen, and perhaps will vary from team to team and stadium to stadium, but ultimately, as always, every individual player will be responsible for dictating their own motivation level.