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Lessons The Ice Bowl Can Teach Us This Week

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Poor weather conditions rarely impact the Super Bowl when it is played indoors or in a warm-weather city. JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images.
Poor weather conditions rarely impact the Super Bowl when it is played indoors or in a warm-weather city. JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images.

The best-known bad-weather game, and the frequent mention by sportscasters and seen in highlights, is the iconic Ice Bowl in December 1967.

We all knew a few things about it. It was bitterly cold. The Packers were behind and had to score at the end to win. Bart Starr called his own number, and followed Jerry Kramer on perhaps the most famous block in NFL history. The Packers won 21-17, and sports immortality was theirs.

This worked out for the league. Helped by mythmakers such as Steve Sabol (and his dad), images of that game helped people see the NFL as the arena for character.  The Packers’ dynasty was sealed with this win, and they went on to beat the Oakland Raiders in the anticlimactic Super Bowl.

This was a great game in some other ways. It was the old NFL, represented by the Packers, against the new breed, the Cowboys, with their array of formations. It was a dynasty in its golden years battling one that had yet to prove itself. It was the last time a game would outshine the Super Bowl: The following year the upstart AFL had its first win, with Joe Namath and his Jets beating the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.

But I hope NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has studied this game. There’s so much more that happened. Not all of it bodes well.

The weather forecast for the Ice Bowl game was for a game-time temperature of five degrees. According to Wikipedia, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle considered postponing (not canceling) the game, but the forecast for the day it could be held was no better.

It turned out that the weather was much colder than anticipated.  When the game started, the temperature was -15, with an average wind chill was -36 (the way it’s calculated now, that is).

But forget numbers. This game was about stories, some of which aren’t well-known.

Some players had trouble starting their cars, including, Sunday morning, Packer safety Willie Wood, who thought the game would be canceled. Linebacker David Robinson had to hitchhike. 

The Packers had installed a turf-heating system at Lambeau Field, but it didn’t work. When the tarpaulin was removed from the field before the game, it left moisture on the field, which of course froze. Which made the footing treacherous.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse marching band was unable to play because of the cold weather. Woodwind instruments wouldn’t play. The mouthpieces of brass instruments got stuck to lips. After a few minutes of warm-ups, that was it for the band.

The referees couldn’t use their whistles after the opening kickoff. According to Wikipedia, When referee Norm Schachter “blew his metal whistle to signal the start of play, it froze to his lips. As he attempted to free the whistle from his lips, the skin ripped off and his lips began to bleed. The conditions were so hostile that instead of forming a scab, the blood simply froze to his lip.”

Several players suffered frostbite, including Ray Nitschke and Bart Starr for the Packers and Willie Townes and two other Cowboys players.

The game itself? Look at the stats. They’re just plain weird.

Dallas gained little through the air, except on a halfback option pass from Dan Reeves to Lance Rentzel for 50 yards that put the Cowboys ahead as the fourth quarter started. That was a great play call, something Tom Landry was known for.

Starr had a good day, all things considered, going 14-for-24 for 191 yards and two touchdowns, both to Boyd Dowler. But he was sacked eight times.

Neither team gained 200 yards. Each team had two turnovers, which had to be expected. The Cowboys got back into the game in the second quarter by 10 points off turnovers.

The speed of the Cowboys’ Bob Hayes was useless on this field, as he had three catches for 16 yards.

Some time after the game, Cowboys defensive lineman Jethro Pugh admitted that he thought Jerry Kramer jumped early on the winning play. I ask you fans out there to check out videos and decide for yourself. I don’t see it.

Don Meredith was interviewed in the losing locker room after the playoffs by Frank Gifford. It was a memorable session, with Meredith emotional and reflective, and though it wasn’t an audition, it might as well have been. He joined Gifford on the cast of Monday Night Football, at least partly on the basis of that.

Here are some other notable bad-weather games:

 The Fog Bowl 

This was held exactly 21 years after the Ice Bowl: Dec. 31, 1988, and only a few hundred miles miles away from Lambeau Field. The Bears beat Philly in Chicago, 20-12. The fog set in during the second quarter and never left. The surprising thing was that the Eagles were able to pass the ball well, but though Randall Cunningham was able to throw for more than 400 yards, he also suffered three picks. The Eagles scored four field goals but no touchdowns.

Viewers could barely pick up anything. Announcers guessed about what was happening. Players couldn’t see first-down markers or the end zone. I wish I could tell you more than that. 

The Freezer Bowl

Jan. 10, 1982. It was the coldest game in NFL history in wind chill. The temperature was -9, but the wind chill was -37. It wasn’t a great game, but at least players, referees (theoretically) and fans could see what was going on. The Bengals won the game, 27-7. The weather had to hurt the Chargers, who moved the ball but had trouble scoring.

The Mud Bowl 

(I’m referring to the December 1977 game between the Vikings and Rams in Los Angeles.) Don’t tell either of the participants that there’s no such thing as fate. Or luck. By this time the Vikings were past their prime and the Rams a better team. The Vikings had been to the Super Bowl the previous season and been stomped by the Raiders. Their best team of that dynasty was in 1975-76; that was the year Drew Pearson pushed off Nate Wright, the ref swallowed the whistle and the Hail Mary was born. The Vikings would see the second and third of their greatest teams ever also suffer strange misfortunes on their way to losing the NFC championship and missing the Super Bowl.

It must’ve been bittersweet that the Vikings used all their luck the next season and not in 1975. Facing a superior Rams team at the old Metropolitan Sports Center, the Vikes scored a touchdown by blocking a field goal and scoring a touchdown on the runback. 

But finally the Rams had a home game a year later, in the 1977-78 playoffs. Surely this would be the time they would overcome the hated Vikings, who had always managed to win in the cold weather of Minnesota. So their players and fans had to believe.

During the '77-78 season the Rams had beaten the Vikings 35-3 on Monday Night Football. Add to that the fact that Fran Tarkenton would not play against the Rams after getting hurt in the earlier Rams game.

But fate intervened. Los Angeles was inundated in a rainstorm. The Vikings, led by running back Chuck Foreman, scored two early touchdowns, and the field’s condition worsened during the game. The Vikes held on to win 14-7. (I think it was superior coaching: Bud Grant decided to have backup quarterback Bob Lee pass early, while the field was still in decent shape.)

You have to wonder what Rams players were thinking. It must’ve seemed as if they were battling not only another team but the elements. Of all the days to play in L.A, they had to go on that one ... It was one in a million. 

What are the common elements in all these games? The game is changed, the possibility for mistakes increases, and passing is tougher. You have fewer chances, so you have to cash in.

But you have to adapt. The Vikes’ Grant did. The Packers’ Starr did. (Watch footage of him on the game-winning drive -- he was terrific. He wasn’t just a game manager, folks.) The Bengals did. The Bears did -- at least from what little we could see.

Still, for all that, some teams are hit harder by bad weather than others. 

Seattle would love weather that would ground Air Peyton and wouldn’t faze Marshawn Lynch

We’ll have to see if it comes to that.

But who ever said luck wasn’t a factor in sports? Injuries, refs’ calls, matchups.

And weather.