Bitter cold, swirling wind can make Lambeau Field a Rubik's Cube for kickers

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby (2) and Green Bay Packers punter J.K. Scott (6) react to a misssing the potential game-tying fieldgoal as time expires against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, December 2, 2018, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. 
Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Sunday, December 2, 2018, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. 
Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

GREEN BAY – Game on the line, Mason Crosby knows just what to do.

The football followed this same path from his right foot through Lambeau Field’s south uprights all day. There’s a strong, northeast wind, your typical Wisconsin cold front. As Crosby aligns his 49-yard field goal, his mind draws back through the past several hours.

“That whole pregame that end,” Crosby recalls, “that ball is right to left. There’s no question that ball is going to fall left.”

Crosby, playing the wind, locks into his target just inside the right upright. Three seconds left, snapper Hunter Bradley smacks holder JK Scott’s hands. Laces out, the football is exactly where Crosby wants it.

His right foot swings through the ball, and for a moment Crosby thinks he’s sent the Packers to overtime against the Arizona Cardinals. He’s hit it true, staying low to drive through the kick, but not quite low enough. Mother Nature takes over. The howling, swirling wind steers Crosby’s kick right, not left. Crosby hunches over at his waist as he watches, hands on top of knees, helpless.

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After the football sails wide right, falling the opposite direction expected, all Crosby can do is turn to his holder and motion with his hand the flight path his kick should’ve taken.

A few hours later, the Packers fire head coach Mike McCarthy. Maybe McCarthy remains employed this week if Crosby’s kick splits the uprights. Such are the high stakes attached to late-game field goals. The pressure can be overwhelming, yes.

The real challenge is inclement weather kickers encounter in northern, outdoor stadiums late in a season.

Lambeau Field, especially, can be a Rubik’s Cube for kickers. Crosby chuckles as he recounts all the veterans he’s watched flounder in pregame warmups, struggling to decipher the tricky combination of frigid temperatures and unpredictable winds. A couple years ago, he says, the great Adam Vinatieri approached Crosby after a particularly rough pregame session, not-so-jokingly suggesting the Packers build a roof.

“He just goes, ‘What’s going on in here?’” Crosby says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, it can be a little goofy.’”

You’d expect the Packers to play kicker roulette. Instead, no NFL team has found more stability at perhaps the most unstable position.

Since 1989, the Packers have had only four place-kickers. It’s the fewest in the NFL, remarkable given four teams don’t even count their history back that far. Of the 28 teams around since 1989, the only other teams with fewer than 10 are the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, with nine apiece. The Minnesota Vikings, who play inside a dome, have had 17. Four teams have had at least 20.

“A little bit is luck,” says Packers Hall of Famer Chris Jacke, who started the lineage with his arrival three years before Brett Favre. “It’s kind of like the quarterback situation. We’ve just been really fortunate for so long.”

Jacke, an All-Pro in 1993, kicked eight seasons in Green Bay before Ryan Longwell replaced him. Longwell, inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame last summer, kicked nine seasons before finding refuge in Minnesota.

After Dave Rayner bridged a one-year gap in 2006, the Packers drafted Crosby in the sixth round. They haven’t needed another kicker since. Crosby, the Packers’ all-time leading scorer, will join Jacke and Longwell in the team’s hall of fame after retirement.

The three each kicked in a Super Bowl, but that’s not what’s most impressive. Somehow, Jacke, Longwell and Crosby brought consistency to one of the NFL’s toughest jobs. They’ve earned their Ph.D. in advanced aerodynamics, mastering how to kick inside Lambeau Field.

Maybe it is a little bit of luck. But if there’s one thing kickers believe about luck, it’s this: You create your own.

Baby, it's cold outside

Subfreezing temperatures built Lambeau Field’s reputation. It’s the first thing Longwell considered when he signed out of California. On a cold day, Longwell found the football might drop roughly 5 yards shorter.

“Leather,” Longwell says, “is an unforgiving surface.”

But those 5 yards aren’t the only thing a kicker loses when temperatures plummet. No, Longwell says, it’s more complicated.

A football stiffens in cold. Inside, the air flattens. A firmer, flatter ball is harder to kick, more thud than boom off a kicker’s foot. The “sweep spot” to strike for maximum distance shrinks.

Ordinarily, Longwell says, a kicker’s target is about half a square inch. In the cold, that square shrivels closer to a quarter inch. So a kicker must strike the football just right, and only then it will travel 5 yards shorter.

Miss the sweet spot, and it pumps the brakes even quicker.

“The only way to hit that solid,” Longwell says, “is to hit a clean ball. The ball has to be rotating from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock. I mean, rotating perfectly end over end to go through the wind, but also rotating perfectly to go through the cold. I think the cleaner you hit the ball, the better the ball is going to rotate, which means the better you can aim it. And the better you can aim it, the more it’s going to play to the wind. And the better you can play to the wind, the better it’s going to go through the cold air.

“So it kind of all starts from contact.”

That’s just the kick. The process of making a cold-weather field goal starts before contact.

Kickers get fewer snaps than teammates on offense or defense. To stay loose on the sideline, they are constantly in motion. If the Packers’ offense had a good day, Jacke estimates he’d kick “a couple hundred” times into the net to stay loose. Crosby says he’s careful during road games not to kick so frequently his leg fatigues.

It took Jacke a couple years, but eventually he climbed the Packers’ internal hierarchy enough to cop his own sideline heater. Better than having just a seat warmer, he says. It helped his body keep warm, but Jacke got preemptive to prevent the football from becoming a frozen lump.

“I always talked to the ball guy,” Jacke remembers, “and said, ‘If it’s third down, come walk over here and put the ball in front of the heater and warm it up a little bit.’ Because sometimes you’d be kicking a ball that was as hard as a rock.”

No, the cold wasn’t fun. Jacke groans as he recalls those December days on the sideline.

There’s something kickers fear more than Lambeau Field’s subfreezing temperatures.

“I’ve always said,” Longwell insists, “I would take it zero degrees with no wind over 35 or 40 with wind. Because I can handle kicking a ball in cold. The wind becomes the big question mark that makes it far more difficult.”

Weather outside is frightful

Imagine standing in the middle of Lambeau Field, facing south. Over your shoulder, two American flags atop the stadium are whipping in the wind, pointing at you. Naturally, you’d expect the wind to be at your back, Wisconsin’s winter cold front blowing from the north.

You’d be wrong.

The wind instead is blowing in your face.

That’s because wind rolls into the stadium from the north, bounces off the south, lower bowl, and rebounds back into the field. That’s where it stays, swirling in all sorts of directions, a pinball in constant motion.

“If you get a chance ever late in the year to get around the 40- or 50-yard line,” Longwell says, “throw up grass like five times, and see it go five different directions. And then say, ‘All right, where would I aim this?’”

When Jacke first started kicking in Green Bay, the Packers were six years from expanding on their north end zone. Winter wind smacked him directly in the face. That’s why, Jacke says, it was usually more difficult kicking toward the north uprights. He remembers kicks falling woefully short, unable to slice through the locomotive force.

When the Packers filled the north end in 1995, it solved one problem for kickers while creating another. Now, the difficulty of Lambeau Field’s wind isn’t that it blows hard, but that its varying directions create deception.

“So you and the announcers and everybody else that’s never been down there look up at the American flags,” Longwell says, “and say, ‘Oh, he has the wind at his back. He should be able to hit this from 50 yards.’ Well, guess what. You’re worried about getting it there from 43. You can look like a fool, and everybody thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, his leg is so weak.’ But you’re actually hitting into that north wind going south. So it’s a crazy place.”

Longwell thinks it’s no coincidence he, Crosby and Jacke found longevity inside Lambeau Field. Each, he says, naturally kicks straight. “If you’re playing a hook or slice,” Longwell explains, “it gets really sketchy to have to aim that through the wind.” Especially when wind doesn’t blow directly from the north.

If wind comes more from the east or west, there are times one American flag will be whipping while the other is calm. That, Longwell says, is when wind ricochets at especially odd angles. A “figure eight” pattern develops, with northeast wind hitting the stadium’s southwest corner, sliding behind the end zone to the southeast corner, then bouncing northwest.

Crosby has an added element. He says wind dynamics changed after the Packers added 7,000 seats above the south end zone in 2013. Unlike the bowl, there are gaps high in the south stands. Those gaps, Crosby says, layer different wind patterns. So some northerly wind drops into the bowl and ricochets onto the field, but some keeps going straight, through the stadium.

Kicking south, Crosby says he tries to keep the football low. If it gets too high, his kick can be knocked offline with an unexpected gust. That’s what happened to his potential game-tying kick against Arizona.

“About halfway,” Crosby says, “it hit something. Kind of started falling right, and then at the end you see it, it’s trying to come back. But just pushed it a little too much.”

Longwell says he often aimed 12 inches inside the right upright when kicking south. Directly at the upright, the wind bouncing off Lambeau Field’s south bowl pushed kicks wide. Closer to the center, wind usually pushed left.

He collected data all day, starting hours before opening kickoff. Longwell tossed grass in the air, checked the flags.

But there was one rule he adopted after a couple years inside Lambeau Field.

“I would know what the wind was doing perfectly,” Longwell says, “and if it was left to right, left to right, everything was left to right, and I went out there to line up the kick and the last ounce of breath of wind I felt on my neck was right to left, I went with the right to left. And so I went with the last, possible thing I felt, and that always worked well for me.

“You just can’t go with what it’s done all day, or what it's done in the past. You have to go at the moment.”

A winter wonderland

When Longwell moved four hours west to Minnesota’s Metrodome, he found a kicker’s paradise. There was a roof, ensuring a weather-controlled environment, but the real benefit wasn’t above the field.

It was the field itself.

“Knowing your plant foot no matter what was going to stick every single time,” Longwell says, “was just the greatest thing ever.”

Today, Lambeau Field is renowned for its playing surface. It wasn’t always that way. If Crosby has more variables with the wind, Longwell — and especially Jacke — had a much tougher time finding solid footing.

When Jacke arrived, Lambeau Field’s surface was basically a mud pit.

“They had those electric coils,” Jacke says, “and they really couldn’t use them because they didn’t know where the coils were, and they were afraid guys would step on them and electrocute themselves. There were several games where the field was just frozen. I’m kicking on grass, and I basically have tennis shoes on. Your cleats can’t dig into the ground, because it’s frozen.”

The field got worse before it got better. Early in Longwell’s career, the Packers laid down a “90 percent sandy” surface, unaffectionately called The Beach. A kicker’s plant foot had no traction. So, Longwell says, he often kicked flat-footed, choosing accuracy over power.

In 2007, the Packers installed a GrassMaster turf (a hybrid of natural grass and artificial fibers) similar to their practice field. (It was replaced this offseason with SISGrass.) Longwell says the field was “pretty slick” for a few years, but late in his career the Packers had one of the best playing surfaces in the NFL.

Crosby sure appreciates it. He says it’s why Chicago’s Soldier Field can be a tougher place to kick. The Bears are infamously unable to maintain a quality playing surface.

“I don’t think they always consider the kickers when they re-sod,” Crosby says of Soldier Field, ”because they’ll do it a yard or a couple feet outside the hashes. So you’re taking your steps on the left hash, usually you’re dropping off of the new sod. So you’re kind of going between a couple different footings.”

Credit the Packers for perfecting the one element they control. Their lone victory over Mother Nature: at least the field stays green.

So much of kicking inside Lambeau Field remains tricky, sometimes bordering on impossible. Longwell says the Packers easily could play kicker roulette. There’s a good reason they don’t.

It takes a few years to master Lambeau Field’s intricacies. Maybe that’s why the Packers retained Jacke, Longwell and Crosby immediately following the season with their lowest field-goal percentage.

Once a kicker earns their Ph.D. in Lambeau Field’s aerodynamics, it’s less enticing to start from scratch.

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