Polar opposites: NFL experts engage in climate debate - The Buffalo News

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Polar opposites: NFL experts engage in climate debate

Nobody wants to be outside in this mess. That’s why this afternoon’s game between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium didn’t come close to selling out. That’s why games in December were blacked out here even during the Super Bowl years. ≈ Winter weather is objectionable for all of us. The mere thought of it is depressing, sometimes stressful. Stepping away from the warm indoors and through the threshold, out into the wind and sleet and wetness that’s about to drench the clothes to your skin, requires extra motivation. ≈ The players on the field are human beings, too. Some handle the conditions better than others. But how much do wintry elements impact a game? A season? To what extent should teams mold their rosters for particular conditions? Does practicing outside in the cold matter? Is fielding an all-weather football team just a myth? ≈ The Buffalo News asked around.

The timing seemed proper, with the Bills – peddlers of home-field advantage for a cozy dome game in Toronto – about to wrap their home schedule with one of the great cross-climate division rivalries, the annual Peyton Manning can’t-win-in-the-cold debate raging and a New Jersey outdoor Super Bowl coming up.

In addition to speaking with the head coaches from today’s game at The Ralph, we reached out to three former NFL executives who have built winning squads in various environments:

• Bill Polian, architect of Buffalo’s Super Bowl teams, Carolina Panthers general manager and champion with the domed Indianapolis Colts.

• Ron Wolf, championship GM with the Green Bay Packers after a terrific tenure with the Oakland Raiders.

• Phil Savage, Senior Bowl executive director, former Cleveland Browns GM and Baltimore Ravens college-scouting director when they won their first Super Bowl.

There was dissension among our experts. On some atmospheric issues, opinions were polar.

Overall, though, they suggested winter weather probably isn’t as much of a big deal as folks treat it.

“It doesn’t matter,” Polian said. “By and large, good players will flourish in any climate.”

And yet, countered Savage, “If it wasn’t important, then they wouldn’t keep stats on quarterbacks’ records below 40 degrees and things of that nature.”

Polian said he couldn’t recall a single instance when he drafted or passed over a player for weather considerations in Orchard Park, Charlotte or Indianapolis. Savage came up with one example in which he drafted a quarterback he regretted taking because the player lacked an arm that could throw in the wind.

Wolf, however, said he kept Lambeau Field in mind when drafting rookies and signing free agents who would play eight games there and another one at Soldier Field each year.

“You have to take it into consideration,” said Wolf, who traded for Brett Favre and went 92-52 in nine seasons as GM. “You have to get your team ready to play in your place. You have to build your team so that it’s competitive in your division and gives you an opportunity to be successful.

“Weather is a huge part of that. You need a different kind of person to play. Starting in November, it’s a different world.”

Today’s forecast is for an unseasonably high temperature of about 48 degrees, but showers throughout the day and a low of 32 degrees. Brisk winds at The Ralph always are a safe bet in late December.

The Bills this past week had to summon extra workers and industrial equipment to the stadium to remove mounds of snow that buried seats and the turf.

Inside the Dolphins’ practice bubble, they jacked up the air conditioning until the temperature dropped to 61 degrees, coach Joe Philbin said. Outside the team’s facility in Davie, Fla., the temperature was about 80. Skies were clear.

“I think it’s going to come down to, really, the execution,” said Philbin, a Packers offensive assistant for nine years before the Dolphins hired him last year. “That stuff is kind of good to talk about before the game, but I think when the game occurs it’s about football.”

Ice, wind and cold likely have more of a mental impact on players than the physics of gaining traction on a slick surface, throwing through a blizzard or punting a brick.

That’s where outside practices come in. While it’s impossible for the Dolphins to replicate Western New York in late December, many teams choose to take practices outdoors this time of year to acclimate their players.

Bills coach Doug Marrone is a proponent of the outdoors approach. So was Marv Levy. But former Bills coaches Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey were not.

“We always practiced outside as long as we could,” Polian said. “The players hated it, and Marv wanted it that way. I don’t know if that gave us a physiological advantage in any way, to tell you the truth. Physiologists told us that, in fact, it didn’t.

“Now, is there a psychological edge? Maybe. But don’t forget the Dolphins beat us 20 times in a row before we got good. We were not good, and they were. It didn’t have anything to do with the weather.”

Don Shula won in every climate. He could’ve stood on the Rich Stadium sideline in those tight Sand Knit coaches’ shorts at 18 degrees and still beaten the Bills back then.

But nasty weather can help the home team play head games.

“You get pretty good propaganda that you could have a lot of fun with,” Wolf said.

Wolf recounted a game against the Los Angeles Raiders at Lambeau Field the day after Christmas, 1993.

Temperature at kickoff was 0 degrees, with a wind chill of minus-22. The Raiders wanted to show how tough they were before the game by refusing to bundle up. Wolf just laughed.

“Players can lose the game before it even starts,” Wolf said. “Here come the Raiders, walking down the ramp onto the field for warmups, and they’re in their T-shirts.

“Well, we knew we had them. There isn’t any way you’re not colder than the dickens. Our guys are wearing parkas, and they practice in this stuff and play in it.”

Green Bay beat Los Angeles, 28-0.

Polian claimed offensive or defensive philosophies shouldn’t be tailored by weather concerns.

He pointed out the K-Gun offense Buffalo used in the early 1990s was virtually the same system Manning operated in Indianapolis and the same one he’s thriving with in Denver now.

“Because we played 10 games in ideal conditions every year, we were able to build our team along speed lines,” Polian said of the Colts. “That certainly would differ in a place like Green Bay. But we were a pretty fast team in Buffalo, too.”

As for a general roster approach, Polian and Wolf were diametrically opposed.

Polian insisted weatherizing a team doesn’t matter overall, although it should be a factor at quarterback.

“You have to look at arm strength because you play in windy conditions and in some nasty conditions from Veteran’s Day on,” Polian said. “The onset of winter is earlier in Buffalo and sometimes windier, especially in the beginning. You need a quarterback who can drive the ball.”

Wolf claimed weather should be factored at every position except quarterback.

“That’s a different position inasmuch as if you’re great at that position, then it doesn’t matter what the weather is,” Wolf said from his winter home in Jupiter, Fla.

“Aaron Rodgers went to the University of California and doesn’t lose a thing when he plays half his season in Green Bay. Peyton Manning goes from Indianapolis and out to Denver in a different setting, and he’s successful.

“If you’re good at that position, you’re good.”

Wolf won a Super Bowl with a Southern Mississippi quarterback who became known as the NFL’s greatest cold-weather passer. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, from San Mateo, Calif., hasn’t fared’ too poorly in the snow either.

But Savage, who oversees one of the most important scouting events at the Senior Bowl, insisted weather must be measured in the quarterback evaluation process.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s different playing quarterback in Cleveland on Lake Erie than it is playing at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis,” Savage said Friday while driving along Interstate 10 from Pensacola, Fla., to Mobile, Ala. “There’s absolutely a difference.”

Savage admitted he made a mistake in his first draft with the Browns in 2005. He miscalculated when he took Northern Ohio native and University of Akron quarterback Charlie Frye in the third round.

Frye started as a rookie, but he wasn’t suited for success in Cleveland.

“He threw a loose ball,” Savage said. “He wasn’t a tight-spiral thrower. I think we should’ve given more credence in terms of, ‘Is his ball going to pierce through the wind?’ It really didn’t once he got on the field.”

Savage stressed hand size as an important trait for a rough-weather quarterback. The Bills liked how large Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel’s are. That wasn’t the reason they drafted him, but it helped ease concerns about playing at The Ralph.

“Every team that plays with the possibility of those circumstances should at least take hand size into consideration,” Savage said. “It shouldn’t keep you from taking a player, but it should be a description point, for sure.”

Wolf recalled two examples of big-name defensive backs the Packers moved away from because they weren’t viewed as cold-weather performers. One of them wasn’t evaluated as such until after Wolf drafted him, however.

The Packers took cornerback Terrell Buckley fifth overall in 1992. He lasted only three seasons in Green Bay because, Wolf said, Buckley “did not fit into, overall, what you needed to be successful to win in cold weather, but he had a heck of a career.” Buckley played 13 seasons and won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots.

Wolf took him instead of Wisconsin cornerback Troy Vincent because Wolf thought Buckley would handle harsh winter conditions better than Vincent. The Miami Dolphins drafted Vincent seventh overall. Vincent played 15 years, including two with the Bills, and was chosen for five Pro Bowls.

In general, Wolf said he wanted “mudders” for the Packers.

“Scrawny guys can’t play in that weather,” Wolf said. “You can win a race with a team of Clydesdales. My answer was bigger people, bigger receivers, bigger defensive backs, bigger runners.”

Savage broke down each positional group in weather-oriented terms. He mentioned quarterback, at least one running back, perhaps a blocking tight end and kickers as players who should be evaluated with the winter in mind.

“We would have conversations in the draft where we’d say, ‘You know, this guy’s never played below 50 degrees.’ But at the end of the day,” Savage said, “if the guy can play football, he can play in most of the elements.”

So, like Polian and Savage say, maybe wintry weather shouldn’t influence a team’s identity.

But why, then, were the Atlanta Falcons so thankful their game against the Bills was played under the Roger Centre’s retractable roof?

Why were the 2008 Dolphins, on their way to winning the AFC East on a tiebreaker, so happy they avoided The Ralph that December and met the Bills in Toronto?

“You’re giving away something,” Wolf said. “I would not want to take a game out of Lambeau. November and December cannot be a pleasant place. I wouldn’t want to play there as an opponent, which is an advantage for the Bills. When you play somewhere else, you take that advantage away.

“Cold is cold. I think it’s advantageous for the Buffalo Bills to play their home games at home. You’re giving up a game. You’re giving up a win is the way I would look at that.”

email: tgraham@buffnews.com

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