Cold, wind could play major role at Soldier Field

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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On a cold and blustery day in Chicago on Dec. 23, 2007, the Packers try to warm up on the bench during a 35-7 loss to the Bears.

GREEN BAY – When Brett Favre was still the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback, he and backup Aaron Rodgers used to walk the field before pregame warm-ups. Then they’d get in some throws before heading back into the locker room.

At Soldier Field on Dec. 23, 2007, they were forced to alter their routine.

“We tried to walk the field,” Rodgers recalled this week. “And after about 2 minutes we went in. There wasn’t even any use throwing the ball, it was so damn cold.  And the field, the grass was so crunchy we were making indents about six inches down as we’re walking out there.”

It was only 16 degrees at kickoff, not even close to the Soldier Field record of 2 degrees the following year when Rodgers was in his first season as a starter. But the winds were gusting off Lake Michigan at well over 20 mph and as the afternoon progressed it got colder and colder and colder.

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The coldest recorded wind chill in Soldier Field history is minus-15 on Dec. 18, 1983, in another of the 193 games played between the two rivals. But you’d have a hard time convincing anyone who was inside the stadium for the Bears’ 35-7 victory in ’07 that the wind-chill wasn’t way below minus-20.

The wind was so strong that several times equipment people had to run after those hooded jackets players use to keep warm on the sideline.

Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre holds a hand warmer to his face as he gets rid of a long jacket in the second half against the Chicago Bears on Dec. 23, 2007, at Soldier Field.

“That’s the coldest I’ve ever been,” Rodgers said.

Winds aren’t expected to be quite as stiff on Sunday when the Packers (7-6) put their three-game winning streak and playoff hopes on the line against the Bears (3-10) at noon at Soldier Field. But temperatures are expected to drop Saturday night and the stadium’s cold record could fall.

This time, both teams will be ready for the cold.

Back in ’07, the cold and strong winds snuck up on everyone and the Packers weren’t as prepared as they would be a few weeks later when they played the NFC Championship game in minus-23 degree wind chill at Lambeau Field.

What neither team will be able to predict is how the wind will affect the game.

Players have high-tech undergarments to help keep their bodies warm, gloves and heat packs to help keep their hands warm and sideline heaters to keep their feet warm, but they don’t have anything but their skill, concentration and reactions to combat the wind.

“Wind is what you watch for, especially being down there right on the lake,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “That's really where the challenge is. That was (that) day in '07.

“When you get those gusts that are up there at 20, 25 (mph) or north of that, that's where the football is moving and the snap from center in the gun, all those things factor."

Rodgers did not practice outdoors with the rest of the team Thursday because of a strained calf muscle he is nursing, but he has plenty of experience playing in the wind and can usually predict when and where it’s going to affect him and his receivers the most.

When it comes to throwing the ball, Rodgers said, it’s far better throwing into the wind than it is throwing with it at your back.

“The key with the wind is trajectory,” Rodgers said. “You have to know if you’re downwind or into the wind. Into the wind is easier to throw the ball deep because you’re able to get the tip of the ball down.

“When you’re downwind, and you try to throw a ball really above 15 yards off the ground, the wind really affects it and can blow it a lot farther than you’re expecting. The nose just won’t come down.

“If you think of the physics of the ball, when you’re trying to get an arc on the ball, if you’re down wind, the ball just never really gets that arc to start coming down with the tip down. That tip stays up and it just keeps kind of gliding. It’s really like overthrowing it.”

To throw into the wind, however, it takes some arm strength. And it requires a tight spiral.

In 2008, the Indianapolis Colts came to Lambeau Field on Oct. 19. It wasn’t particularly cold, but winds gusted at 20 mph.

One of the best quarterbacks of all-time, Peyton Manning had fits that day. He completed just 21 of 42 passes for 229 yards with two interceptions and finished with his lowest passer rating of the season, 46.6.

The Colts were 12-4 that season, but they lost to the 6-10 Packers, 34-14. A big reason was that Manning didn’t have a cannon for an arm and his ball often wobbled, which is the absolute worse thing for a quarterback playing in a strong wind.

“Any type of wobble, especially with any type of crosswind, a crosswind into the wind, if you throw a little bit of a wobble, it’s not going to go anywhere you want it to,” Rodgers said. “So you really have to have a tight spiral.

“If you have wind and cold, it’s double tough. You have to understand your grip pressure when you want to throw the ball 30 yards.”

Backup Brett Hundley had to run the offense in the cold and wind during Thursday’s practice. The conditions weren’t that far off from what it will be like Sunday. Hundley threw with no glove on his hand and was able to deliver tight spirals.

Teammates said that Hundley delivered the ball accurately.

“When I was out there, throwing to your right was really easy because you’re throwing against the wind,” he said. “But throwing to your left you have to aim a little differently because the wind will take hold of your ball. It sails.

“Just for me, I can better throw a spiral into the wind than if I’m throwing with the wind. If the wind is with the ball, it’s going out (of bounds).”

Tight end Jared Cook said he thought the wind in practice the week of the Seattle game was worse than it was this week. It was the cold that made things more difficult.

He said it’s still impossible to know how the ball is going to travel against the Bears on Sunday, but the chances of it cutting through the wind are better with someone who can throw a tight spiral.

“Sometimes there’s nothing you can do,” Cook said. “But his stays a lot tighter in the wind than most quarterbacks, the different quarterbacks I’ve seen.”

Still, no one is immune from suffering. Not even a guy with one of the strongest arms in league history. Rodgers witnessed it first hand.

“I remember a pass in the flat, it was to one of our running backs and the ball went over his head,” Rodgers said of the ’07 game. “(Cornerback) ‘Peanut’ (Tillman) was there for a pick and it just ducked and down to the right. He looked over to the sideline and we were all shaking our heads, we couldn’t believe it.

“We couldn’t believe it went over the running back's head and then he’s there for the pick, an easy pick, and the ball just dies. I mean, no chance.”

In this game, sometimes you beat the elements and sometimes the elements beat you.

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