Jimmy Smith knew it was real the first time he walked up the big hill to football practice, his 18-year-old lungs unable to find enough air. In the years that followed, the images of husky linemen, gasping on the sidelines, only confirmed the potency of Colorado's thin, Rocky Mountain air.
The Ravens cornerback played at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which sits about a mile above sea level. That's almost exactly the same elevation he and his teammates will encounter at Denver's Sports Authority Field on Saturday when they try to keep their season alive in an AFC divisional-round playoff game against the top-seeded Broncos.
With Peyton Manning at quarterback, a wickedly fast defense and 11 straight wins under their belts, the Broncos are formidable enough without the climate affording them any extra advantage. But many players and analysts say the thin air gives them exactly that, literally stealing the breath from visiting opponents who have not had time to adjust.
"I watched teams cave all the time from the altitude," Smith says. "It's just nothing you can really get used to."
Though it's hard to pinpoint altitude as the cause, the Broncos have been one of the league's best home teams for decades and have been almost unbeatable at home in the playoffs — 13-3 all-time.
"There are real physiological and therefore psychological advantages to the team that plays at altitude," says Randy Wilber, a senior physiologist at the U.S. Olympic Committee's lab in Colorado Springs and a longtime expert in high-elevation training. "If the talent on the field is equal, I'd put my money on the team that plays at altitude."
The Ravens have not played in Denver since 2006, and many of the team's players have never experienced a game a mile above sea level. "It's an advantage, obviously, for the Broncos," says Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "They live there. They play there. They practice there. No matter who goes out there and plays — playoff game or not — it's got to be an advantage for them. It has been over the years."
Based on consultations with team doctors, Harbaugh decided not to fly to Denver until Friday evening so players would spend only about 24 hours in the thin air. He says Ravens physicians have also dispensed health tips.
But the reality, says Smith, is that the Ravens can't do a whole lot to acclimatize themselves. They practice in Owings Mills, about 500 feet above sea level, which will never compare to Denver's 5,280 feet above sea level.
"There's nothing you can really do," Smith says. "You've just got to go in and tough it out. It takes about two weeks to get used to it, but we haven't got two weeks."
Altitude is a fascinating subject to broach with professional football players. Though it's a scientific certainty that the human body behaves differently at higher elevations than at sea level, these guys widely disagree on how big of a deal it is in the context of a game.
Ask Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who has played at Denver four times in his career, and he'll tell you it's "going to be a problem." Linebacker Ray Lewis, who has also played four games there, says it's "not that big of an issue."
How about former defensive end Trevor Pryce and former cornerback Domonique Foxworth, guys who played for the Broncos and Ravens and two of the sharpest, most thoughtful athletes you'll find?
"It's very real," Pryce says. "Some people say it's psychosomatic, but I watched [former offensive lineman] Lincoln Kennedy almost pass out from it in the middle of a game. I was back in Denver recently and just walking up the steps, I couldn't breathe."
And Foxworth: "I didn't feel like it was real issue except that it felt like a psychological advantage. I never remember anything happening in the course of a game that I would attribute to the altitude."
Less oxygen the higher you go
The science of altitude performance is simple. The body takes in less oxygen at higher elevations, and it must produce more red blood cells to compensate. But that adjustment doesn't happen instantly. As Smith says, it takes up to two weeks. So when athletes land in Denver, they often experience quickened heart rates and some shortness of breath. It's all routine, unless you're trying to perform at an optimal physical level against guys who have played at altitude for months.
Wilber says the most common concerns for visiting teams are fatigue or breathlessness because of low oxygen saturation in the blood and dehydration because of the dry air. On the more extreme end, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark lost his spleen and gallbladder after having a bad reaction to the high altitude because he carries sickle cell trait, a genetic abnormality. Clark has sat out subsequent games in Denver, adding to the Broncos' home-field advantage against the Steelers.
On the plus side, Wilber says, players will be able to run faster and throw and kick the ball farther because of reduced air resistance. Of the four 63-yard field goals in NFL history, two were kicked in Denver as was the longest punt, a 98-yarder in 1969. Harbaugh has already talked about unleashing Justin Tucker to kick longer field goals against the Broncos.
Wilber says Baltimore's preparations should be fairly simple — supplemental tanks of pure oxygen on the sideline and plenty of fluids to battle dehydration. He says some teams also give players supplemental oxygen the night before the game. Others check hydration levels using pen-sized devices that analyze small urine samples.
The physiologist does not recommend practicing hard in the 24 hours before the game, saying such exertion only heightens the risk of fatigue. "The bottom line," Wilber says, "is that there's no magic pill or workout to get you ready if you're only going to get out there a day or two in advance."
Those who dismiss altitude as a serious issue tend to speak of it more as a psychological obstacle. Don't treat it as a big deal and it won't be, they say.
Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo has taken several teams to play at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where the elevation is about 6,600 feet, even higher than in Denver. He says he never makes a big deal about it in preparation and that his players, in turn, have never showed significant signs of weakness.
"I remember talking to [former Southern California coach] John Robinson about it," Niumatalolo says. "And he said that if you make a big deal of it, the players will make a big deal of it. There's probably scientific stuff that says it's different, but we haven't taken that approach. I mean, it's not like there's a different species playing football in Colorado."
Foxworth offers a similar take on the issue based on his three seasons in Denver. He remembers lining up against players who complained that they couldn't breathe after two or three plays. But he says he never felt such effects and tended to regard such kvetching as psychological weakness.
"If I was in the Ravens locker room right now, I'd tell them that the only advantage is psychological," Foxworth says. "They aren't a different breed of humans up there. You just have to accept it as an obstacle, like Peyton Manning is an obstacle or blocking [Broncos linebacker] Von Miller is an obstacle or beating [Broncos cornerback] Champ Bailey is an obstacle. It's nothing that should or will intimidate anybody on the Ravens."
Not just a state of mind
For the players who regard the high altitude as a serious concern, however, it's not about a state of mind.
"Ain't no psychological thing," Pollard says. "That's reality. If I tell you to go take a jog here and a jog there, it's going to be different. … You think you're trying to breathe in air, and it's like your lungs and everything just reject it."
Pryce, who played nine seasons in Denver before signing with the Ravens, says he didn't notice the effects as a young player but says he realized over time how much the elevation hampered opponents, especially bulky interior linemen.
"There's a reason they have the best home record in football over the last 40 years," he says of the Broncos. "It isn't because their teams have always been great."
Pryce talks about the altitude like he's working through a high school biology problem. He'd advise his former Baltimore teammates to get a lot of rest and drink a lot of water, maybe switch out some carbohydrates for green vegetables.
He's convinced Manning signed with the Broncos in part because the great quarterback grasped how potent a rapid-tempo, no-huddle offense would be against oxygen-deprived defenders.
"It's hard enough to play against the no-huddle at sea level," Pryce says forebodingly. "At altitude, it's almost impossible."
The believers and the skeptics agree on two things: The only way to deal with the altitude is to suck it up and play on, and the climate is unlikely to be as important as the underlying quality of the teams.
"If a team is better, they're going to win," Smith, the Ravens cornerback, says thinking back to his college days. "I mean, it helped us at times, but teams that were just better than us, they would still come in and win. They'd be tired, but they still beat us."
The Broncos own the NFL's best home record since 1975 in the regular season and postseason with a 227-87 (.723) mark.
Team ;Regular season ;Postseason ;Total pct.
1. Broncos ;214-84-0 (.718) ;13-3 (.813) ;227-87-0 .723
2. Steelers ;211-84-1 (.715) ;16-7 (.696) ;229-91-1 .715
3. Ravens ;94-41-1 (.695) ;3-2 (.600) ;97-43-1 .691
4. Patriots ;193-104-0 (.650) ;13-3 (.813) ;206-107-0 .658
4. Vikings;196-101-1 (.659) ;8-5 (.615) ;204-106-1 .658
Source: Denver BroncosCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun