The Buffalo Bills are going to rack up the frequent-flyer miles in 2020.
The team is scheduled to make four trips to the Mountain or Pacific time zones, with games at Denver, Arizona, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
That comes after a season in which Buffalo’s longest trip was to Houston, for the AFC wild-card playoff game. Before that, the Bills’ only other trip to the Central time zone was for the Thanksgiving Day game against Dallas. Buffalo ranked 29th last year in the regular season in total air miles traveled, with 8,710. The Jets had the least, with 6,730, while the Raiders led the league with a whopping 32,023 (Oakland’s total was more than the last three teams – the Bills, Giants and Jets – combined).
The Buffalo News estimates that the Bills will fly 20,060 miles round trip in 2020. That total would have ranked 12th in the NFL in 2019 and could fluctuate slightly depending on which airport the team uses (for example, The News used Providence, R.I., instead of Boston to play the Patriots; Fort Lauderdale, instead of Miami, to play the Dolphins; and Newark, N.J., instead of LaGuardia to play the Jets).
The Bills’ 2020 schedule could get more demanding, too, from a travel perspective. Two of Buffalo’s opponents are scheduled to host games as part of the NFL’s International Series. The Arizona Cardinals will play a home game in Mexico City, while Miami will play a home game in London. As part of being hosts of Super Bowl LIV, the Dolphins agreed to give up a home game.
If Buffalo were to play the Cardinals, it would add 190 miles round trip by going to Mexico City instead of Phoenix. The change in going from Miami to London would be much more substantial. Instead of going 2,332 miles round trip, the Bills would go 7,106 miles across the pond and back. If that were to happen, their air miles traveled would jump to 24,834. That would have ranked sixth in the NFL in 2019.
Unsubstantiated Twitter rumors have the Bills being the Dolphins’ opponent in London, but it should be stressed that those are just rumors. The Bills seem unlikely to be the opponent in Mexico City, given that a large fan base awaits them in Arizona, where they have not played since 2012.
An international game on top of three or four West Coast trips (depending on if the Arizona game moves to Mexico City) would be a tough ask, but it’s not unprecedented. Last season, the Raiders went through one of the most difficult travel stretches in NFL history. Following a Week 2 home game, Oakland visited Minnesota and Indianapolis for road games. They then headed to London for a “home” game against Chicago, followed by their bye week. When Oakland returned to play in Week 7, it visited Green Bay, then went to Houston in Week 8. In all, it amounted to 49 days between true home games.
The Bills shouldn’t bet on a scenario like that facing them when the NFL schedule comes out in mid-April. There is no doubt, though, that the team will face a longer, more difficult travel schedule based simply on time in the air in 2020. The Bills have visited the West Coast just once in Sean McDermott’s three years as coach. That came Nov. 19, 2017, at the Los Angeles Chargers. McDermott elected to keep the Bills on a regular travel schedule for that game as opposed to leaving early to get accustomed to the three-hour difference in the Pacific time zone.
“This is a lot of research by our staff and also trying to keep our guys in a routine, where they can sleep at home, sleep in their own beds,” he said then. “We’ll approach it as a normal game.”
It’s safe to say it didn’t matter when the Bills flew out for that game, which is best remembered for former quarterback Nathan Peterman throwing five first-half interceptions in a 54-24 loss.
The Bills’ only appearance in London is similarly infamous. The Bills lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 34-31, on Oct. 25, 2015, a game best remembered for former quarterback EJ Manuel’s second-quarter meltdown. On consecutive plays, Manuel lost a fumble and threw an interception, both of which were returned for Jacksonville touchdowns. Three plays after that, he threw another pick. Manuel lost his starting job after that game and never regained it.
If the Bills don’t participate in the International Series this year, their turn figures to be coming up again soon. They are one of 16 teams who have played in one game or less as part of the series (the Green Bay Packers are the only team to not participate). The rest of the league has made at least two International Series appearances. For those wondering, the Bills’ farmed-out home games in Toronto from 2008 to 2013 are not included.
All that leads to the question: How much does this extra travel really matter? Based on the 2019 results of teams who had road games of at least 4,000 miles round trip, one might conclude not much. Road teams went 20-9 in those games last year. Of course, the biggest determining factor in any game is the quality of the teams involved (duh) and that record was boosted by San Francisco and Seattle. The NFC West powerhouses went a combined 8-1, with the Seahawks a perfect 5-0. Given their locations, the Seahawks and 49ers are always going to have longer flight times for away games.
In the five-year span between 2014 and 2018, road teams that had to travel more than 4,000 miles round trip had a record of 51-72, a winning percentage of .415, based on research from CBS Sports. That winning percentage is slightly less than teams traveling less than 2,000 miles, which is a much bigger sample size (486-652-4, .427).
As it stands now, the Bills have just one trip of 4,000-plus miles scheduled in 2020. That’s to San Francisco. The trips to Las Vegas (3,972) and Phoenix (3,824) come up just short. With or without an international trip, the added time in the air will be another wrinkle for McDermott and his staff.
The Bills are 11-15, including playoffs, away from home under McDermott. They won six of their first seven road games last season, the first time that's happened since 1964.
One possible way the Bills could cut down on air travel is to stay somewhere for a week in between games. That’s what the team did in 2012, when it had back-to-back road games against San Francisco and Arizona. After losing to the 49ers, the Bills spent the week in the Phoenix area, practicing at Arizona State University, before playing the Cardinals.
Whether McDermott elects to do something similar if the schedule shakes out that way remains to be seen. Even though the Bills are on a chartered flight with a five-star hotel waiting for them, they still will have to deal with the impact air travel has on the human body. That includes dehydration, jetlag and increased risk of exposure to germs with so many people in close proximity.
The increased travel in 2020 is just one reason the Bills’ schedule is more difficult than the 2019 version. Buffalo’s strength of schedule in the fall had a combined record of 131-121-1 in 2019, a winning percentage of .525 that ties for the Bills for the fifth-hardest schedule. That comes after a year in which the team had the seventh-easiest schedule.
In either case, what McDermott said last November still applies.
“We control what we can control. That’s what we do,” he said then. “We don't make the schedule. We didn’t make the schedule last year; probably good odds we won't make it next year, either. We're focused on who we play.”