FOXBOROUGH — With 5:23 left in the fourth quarter Sunday, referee Ron Torbert went to instant replay to see if Rex Burkhead had scored his third touchdown of the day.
The review was taking a little too long, and someone from the Patriots’ sideline — it sounded like Julian Edelman — got impatient.
“WHAT IS IT?” screamed the Edelman-sounding Patriot. His cry could be heard all the way on the other side of the stadium in the 200 level. “INCONCLUSIVE!”
When the touchdown was confirmed, the player could be heard again.
“YEAHH! LET’S GO!” rang throughout the stadium.
Welcome to the NFL in 2020, where there are no fans in the stands, fake crowd noise is pumped into the stadium, and field-level chatter can be easily heard when the PA system is turned down.
I won’t be attending many Patriots games this year, since all interviews will be done on Zoom and I can be more productive working from home. But when I learned that the Patriots allow media to watch the game outside in the 200 level, I jumped at the opportunity to cover Sunday’s game, a 1 p.m. start in the nice, late-September weather.
The Patriots’ 36-20 win over the Raiders Sunday may have looked and sounded fairly normal on TV, but the in-stadium experience is beyond bizarre.
Of the more than 200 NFL games I have covered, a few stick out. I’ll always remember the game in Mexico City. I’ll always remember the two trips to Lambeau Field. And I’ll always remember attending a regular-season game with zero fans in attendance.
“Eerie” and “weird” were the most commonly used adjectives in my conversations with fellow reporters. “Dead. Silent.” was how one friend described it when the music was turned off.
What is it like watching a game in an empty stadium?
▪ Watching a dry run for a football game. It felt almost like a preseason scrimmage, with two teams just trying to get in some reps.
▪ Telling jokes in an empty room. There was no emotional feedback for the players.
▪ A Zombie apocalypse. Shuttered concession stands, dark concourses, and everyone wearing a mask.
▪ A Dolphins home game. No lines for anything.
▪ Attending the taping of a sitcom. You get to see how the sausage is made.
Patriots-Raiders was filmed in front of a live studio audience.
Football always has been a TV sport, but that point was really driven home Sunday. The Patriots still run out of an inflatable helmet with the smoke machines. The DJ still blares “Crazy Train” during pregame intros and “Baba O’Reilly” at the end of halftime. The PA announcer still announces the result of the plays. It’s all for show.
I now have a much better understanding of why players and coaches across the league have said how difficult it is to get pumped up for the games. Without the crowd, the football players are just actors on your TV screen.
For a normal Patriots home game, I leave my house around 9 a.m. and hope I can get to Gillette in an hour. Sunday, I left my house at 10:40 and cruised into Lot 10 in exactly 40 minutes, even stopping to get a sandwich along the way.
You could hear the stadium music from the parking lot, but the scene was dead. The Trader Joe’s lot at Patriot Place had more cars than the lots at Gillette. Most notably, it didn’t smell like a football game. No wafts of propane and grilled meat as you walk through the lots. No party buses, no touch football, no airplanes overhead, no Sons of Belichick.
Everything was different about covering this game — different parking spot, different media entrance, different seat (whoever sits in section 227, row 2, seat 14, you have a great view of the action). The NFL and the Patriots required everyone in the stadium to wear a mask the entire time. You don’t have to take a COVID test, but you do have to fill out a wellness assessment before entering the stadium.
The pregame festivities lacked the usual pomp. Owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft and Mark Davis were on the field, but missing were the dozens of sponsors and celebrities that usually watch warm-ups from field level.
Halftime was a breeze. Stretch your legs, go to the bathroom, grab a bottle of water, and get back to the seats in plenty of time.
One of the biggest adjustments was getting used to the artificial crowd noise they pump into the stadium. The audio itself sounds authentic, and it is played just loud enough — it hovered around 80 decibels all game, as per the NFL’s rules — that it masks most of the conversations happening on the field and the sidelines.
The artificial noise enhances and normalizes the TV broadcast, but in person, it takes getting used to. The noise only comes from one direction, from the speakers behind you.
And the crowd noise is constant, and takes much of the emotion out of the game. Sony Michel rips off a 48-yard run? Chase Winovich strip-sacks Derek Carr, or Hunter Renfrow makes a big catch right before halftime? The crowd noise remains flat and doesn’t reflect the action on the field.
T.J. Connolly, the stadium DJ, had to be the busiest man not playing football Sunday. He still blared the foghorn on third down, and filled almost every moment of down time with pop songs.
But there were a few moments Sunday where the artificial noise and music were turned off, and Gillette Stadium became disconcertingly quiet. It felt like the silent moment right before a massive power surge, a la the Super Bowl blackout in the Superdome eight years ago.
During warm-ups, you could hear the sound of slapping skin as the Raiders’ specialists high-fived each other. During a penalty announcement in the third quarter, one player’s voice rang out, “Hell yeah!” When Adam Butler stuffed Josh Jacobs for a 1-yard loss in the fourth quarter, you could hear the polite golf claps from the Patriots’ sideline. The Minutemen’s muskets were so loud that I jumped out of my skin every time they were fired.
I am glad I attended the game, because it’s an experience that may never be duplicated after this season. But it was off-putting. Football is an emotional game meant to be played in front of 65,000 roaring fans. Playing this game in an empty stadium served only a reminder of how strange and upsetting the world is during the pandemic.
But the game probably looked great on TV, though.
More Patriots coverage
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- Against the Raiders, a motivated Sony Michel had the breakout game the Patriots have been waiting for
- The Raiders' Darren Waller was second in the NFL in catches. On Sunday, the Patriots rendered him useless
- Tara Sullivan: On a big day for Patriots running backs, the one who wasn’t there was sorely missed