If ever there was a year the Green Bay Packers need to play well in cold weather, this is it.
They’re in a highly competitive fight just to get into the playoffs, and four of their last five games will be played outdoors in a cold climate: three at home against San Francisco, the New York Giants and Chicago, and one on the road against New England.
Former coach Mike Holmgren’s Packers of the 1990s proved you don’t have to be a running team to thrive in those conditions. Holmgren’s offense was pass first, and he went 19-2 in December and January, playoffs included, in cold-climate venues. Granted, all but two of those were home games, but that’s the point. If you’re based in Green Bay, you better be able to function well in the cold and on slippery fields.
How well the 2010 Packers are likely to fare is open for debate, mainly because of their problems running the ball. Some cold-weather teams are built primarily to play in this type of climate — think the Pittsburgh Steelers with their power running game dating back to the 1990s, or the Chicago Bears’ approach of playing conservatively on offense and trying to win on the backs of their defense and special teams. Or the defense- and run-oriented New York Giants under coach Tom Coughlin.
Holmgren’s teams showed that running the ball in the cold isn’t everything — he skewed heavily toward the pass, with a yearly pass-to-run ratio ranging anywhere from 55-to-45 to 61-39 in his seven seasons as coach. But it’s worth remembering that in bad weather, his running game wasn’t bad.
That in part was because one of his running backs, current running backs coach Edgar Bennett, though a relatively ordinary runner most of the year, was excellent in winter weather. In 1996, Bennett rushed for a combined 288 yards on 60 carries (4.8 yards per carry) in the Packers’ final home game against Minnesota and the next two games at home in the playoffs against San Francisco on a rain-soaked and torn-up Lambeau Field and Carolina in minus-17 degree wind chill. By the final quarter of that season, Dorsey Levens had emerged as a go-to runner who was one of the better backs in the NFL.
Still, the biggest factor for cold-weather success in those years was Brett Favre. His exceptional record in cold-weather games is well known in these parts — from 1992 through 2004, he was 45-3 in games when the temperature was below 34 degrees. The fact is, when the weather was cold or the field was bad, Favre functioned better than most everyone else.
There were several reasons, including a strong throwing arm that helped passes cut through the wind on bad days. But one of the most important was his hand size, which was exceptionally large at 10¾ inches, as measured from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinkie with fingers spread.
That asset was no accident when he became the Packers’ quarterback. Former General Manager Ron Wolf, who grew up as a scout working in the Oakland Raiders’ ultra-particular scouting system and also spent time with the cold-weather New York Jets later in his career, insisted his quarterbacks have large hands.
“I know it sounds strange, but it’s the truth,” said a scout who worked for Wolf. “If you have a quarterback who can hold the football — you can’t be a small guy and play in bad weather. I know people will say, ‘Look at Doug Flutie, he was a great quarterback in the CFL.’ OK, fine, it’s the CFL.
“Big, strong guys play well in cold weather. Look at Ben Roethlisberger, look at Jim Kelly. There’s something to being able to play in cold weather and being able to hold the football and throw the football.”
The current Packers don’t have the run game to suggest they’ll be any better in cold weather than the rest of the season. Could that change? Possibly, but not likely. The left side of their line, especially left tackle Chad Clifton, is subpar on run blocking, and halfback Brandon Jackson has hit his limit. Maybe Dimitri Nance will prove the better player with more carries. Sixth-round draft pick James Starks deserves a shot, too. Why else is he on the roster?
So maybe the Packers will run better, and maybe some bad fields will help. But don’t count on it against the Giants and Bears, who are two of the better defenses in the league. More likely, much will fall on quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is 4-3 in December and January games in cold climates. Several factors suggest he will function well in the cold.
As far as his hands, they're 10 1/8 inches, only slightly smaller than Favre's.
Rodgers also can run — he’s the No. 3 rusher among quarterbacks this season with 245 yards — which is an advantage on bad fields when defenders can have trouble changing directions to chase a scrambling quarterback.
“(The run game) won’t matter in my opinion because you have some nasty bad-weather players,” the scout said. “That Donald Driver is a nasty cold-weather player. They’ve got receivers that can function and know how to play in that. Maybe that’s the great equalizer for the Packers, because of guys like Driver and (Greg) Jennings and Jordy Nelson, those guys catch the ball in bad weather. And you’ve got a quarterback that’s accurate throwing the ball, so that’s not a problem either. I think they’ll be OK in that weather.”
Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at email@example.com.