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A Game of Inches?

With the NFL gearing up for the first outdoor Super Bowl in a region susceptible to blizzards, we talk to Terry Bradshaw about—what else?—the weather

Author Paul Flannery Illustration David Plunkert

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Consider the scenario. It’s the middle of winter, and a bitter Arctic wind is howling. There’s snow on the ground and a slushy mix will arrive by late afternoon. Somewhere in the back of your mind you can hear the booming baritone of John Facenda, the legendary voice of NFL Films: This is football weather.

We accept the brutalist tableau for playoff games, yet for almost five decades the Super Bowl has exclusively been played in either the temperate climes of warm-weather cities or in the climate-controlled environs of indoor stadiums. That’s all about to change next month, when the Super Bowl comes to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., right across the Hudson River from Manhattan—the first time the NFL season’s grand finale will be played in an outdoor stadium in a cold-weather city. It may rain. It may snow. It may sleet huge chunks of ice upon bundled-up quarterbacks and feisty linemen huffing breath like smokestacks. The blimp has already been canceled. It will be awesome—as long as you’re sitting comfortably in your living room with a hot toddy in hand.

But what about the game itself?

NFL Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s and is now a Fox Sports analyst, is not fond of the potential for the Super Bowl being affected by the elements. “I think that game ought to be in a nice warm climate or indoors where neither team will be handicapped by the conditions,” he says.

Bradshaw doesn’t think the players will care one way or the other. What concerns him is game strategy. If pro football’s roots were solidly planted on the ground, the modern NFL is played in the air, and nothing affects the passing game more than inclement weather—not even the threat of an unblocked 250-pound linebacker. “Cold and wet and wind is about as bad as it can get for a quarterback,” Bradshaw says.

Here, we analyze three postseason games in which Mother Nature played a role. Bradshaw then offers his expert take on each, perhaps giving us an idea of what to expect next month.

THE ICE BOWL
No football game is as synonymous with bad weather as the 1967 playoff game between Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys. Temperatures in Green Bay were in the balmy mid-teens the day before the game, but a quick-moving cold snap dropped the mercury to minus 13 degrees by kickoff. Players were stranded trying to get to the game when their car batteries died, and television analyst Frank Gifford wryly noted that he’d like to take a bite of his coffee.

The conditions were so unbearable that officials communicated with hand signals after one poor ref took off part of his lip, which had frozen to his whistle. Adding to the legend is the unsolved mystery of what happened to the heating system that malfunctioned overnight. When the tarp was removed, the field froze in a flash. Cowboy-fan conspiracy theorists of course blamed Lombardi.

Still, the Ice Bowl would be a minor historical footnote if not for its fantastic ending, featuring one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, when Green Bay’s Bart Starr scored on a quarterback sneak with 13 seconds left to win it. The play call was as audacious as it was primitive—the Packers had no timeouts left, and if Starr had been stuffed the game would have been over. It was a fitting end to a frigid day.  

Terry’s Take: Gol-ly, that was brutal there, buddy. See, that’s what I’m talking about. When you take away an explosive offense (like Dallas’), the advantage went to Green Bay. Hear me loud and clear: Weather has an impact. It makes a difference.
 
THE TUCK RULE GAME
Perhaps the most famous of recent cold-weather football adventures, the 2002 playoff game between the  New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders was played in a snowy New England wonderland and featured a controversial call and one of the most famous kicks in football history.

Late in the fourth quarter, Oakland’s Charles Woodson sacked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and forced a fumble that the Raiders recovered. Or did he? Referee Walt Coleman invoked the little-known “tuck rule” in reversing the call and ruling an incomplete pass.

The Patriots retained possession and sent the game into overtime on a 45-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri that seemed to drift in the air like a humongous snowflake, helped along by the wintry current, before sailing through the uprights. They won in overtime on another Vinatieri kick, and players celebrated by making snow angels. While New England fans look back fondly on The Tuck Rule Game, in Oakland it’s known by a different name: The Snow Job.

Terry’s Take: I actually liked it when it snowed. I didn’t have a problem when it snowed. It sounds different. The crowd sounds different. Snow is a buffer. It’s an insulator. Now, had it been 20 degrees and snowing…

SUPER BOWL IX
Long forgotten by most NFL fans, and probably for the best, Super Bowl IX was played outdoors on January 12, 1975, because construction wasn’t finished on the Louisiana Superdome. It was cold and rainy, which, combined with Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense and Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters, made for one of the worst offensive games in Super Bowl history.
Fittingly, the only points in the first half were scored on a safety. Neither team could do much on offense: The Vikings missed an extra point and turned the ball over five times, and the two teams combined for less than 500 yards of total offense. Bradshaw’s Steelers prevailed, 16-6, for the first of their four Super Bowl triumphs. This was less a coronation than a survival.

Terry’s Take: You know what’s funny about that game? It was 80 degrees the day before, on Saturday. Man, it was nice! That storm blew in—it wasn’t snowing or anything like that—but there’s a difference between a bitter north cold that’s dry and a bitter cold in the south that has moisture in the air. What I remember is that it
was cold.

Up until now, this last game has stood as a cautionary tale. At next month’s Super Bowl XLVIII, we’ll see if we get a whole new barometer for bad-weather football.

PAUL FLANNERY can’t wait to catch Terry Bradshaw’s upcoming traveling one-man show, “Terry Bradshaw: America’s Favorite Dumb Blonde … A Life in Four Quarters,” in which the former QB sings, dances and tells humorous anecdotes from a life in football.

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