Compendium of cold quarterbacking

Bart Starr

Growing up outside Pittsburgh, Jim Kelly threw his share of snowballs.

"I had five brothers," the Hall of Fame quarterback said earlier this month in his office in suburban Buffalo, N.Y. "That's all we did from November probably until February. We played in the snow."

Ben Roethlisberger was a high school and college quarterback in Ohio.

"It's just part of being a kid in the Midwest," Roethlisberger explained at the Steelers' facility, "knowing that part of the year your football's going to be played in the snow. You loved it because you had fun and you were sliding. You always wore snow pants and the warmest stuff you can find."

None of the Seattle Seahawks or Denver Broncos players will be wearing snow pants in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium, but by game's end they may wish they had. The coldest previous Super Bowl was played 42 years ago at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans when the temperature at kickoff was 39 degrees.

If the forecast is correct, it will be colder than that Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J., probably hovering around freezing. The wind will blow, and snow remains a possibility.

"Fine with me," said Doug Flutie, the former Boston College quarterback and 1984 Heisman Trophy winner. "There's nothing wrong with football and cold weather in the same sentence."

Flutie, it should be noted, is deeply biased. His professional career was played in a succession of places that can be astonishingly cold: Chicago, New England, Calgary, Toronto and Buffalo.

"Yeah," Flutie said, laughing, "didn't get to San Diego until late in the game. My reward near the end of my career for good behavior."

The Super Bowl XLVIII quarterbacks, the Broncos' Peyton Manning and Seahawks' Russell Wilson, have been asked so many weather questions over the past week they might be qualified to forecast.

"Obviously, it's snowing like crazy," Wilson said last week at the Seahawks' facility while the New York metro area was receiving a foot of snow. "I have tons of friends back on the East Coast, and they're letting me know. Hopefully, it will pass. Hopefully that will go away.

"If not, we'll have to play in it."

Back on Dec. 15 at MetLife Stadium, of all places, the Seahawks beat the Giants 23-0 in a game that saw the wind chill dip below freezing. Manning, who has spent the majority of his career playing home games in a dome, and the Broncos are 1-1 in games played in less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Denver lost 34-31 in overtime at New England in Week 12 and two weeks later beat the Titans at home 51-28.

Manning's historic inability to function well in cold games has become a leading storyline going into Super Bowl XLVIII.

This season, the Broncos have made it a point to practice outside whenever possible. On several occasions, Manning has prepared for a cold game by soaking his throwing hand in a bucket of ice water.

"Anytime you can have ... a situation that you can simulate during practice that might be in a game," Manning said last week in Denver, "that's always a good thing."

Don't even think about it

Bart Starr grew up in Montgomery, Ala., and missed out on the whole coming-of-age snow scene.

"No," he said, sitting in his office in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, "never had that opportunity."

He actually sounded sad. The funny thing? Starr, still remarkably spry just past his 80th birthday, helped win the coldest game on record in NFL history, the 1967 league championship game.

Coming out of the University of Alabama in 1956, Starr was a 17th-round pick by the Green Bay Packers.

"It can get very, very, very, very cold," Starr said of that modest Wisconsin city. "This may surprise you, but I really loved it. My wife was of a different nature. She thought I was crazy, and I may have been."

Starr's sparkling résumé includes MVP performances in the first two Super Bowls. Those games were played in Los Angeles and Miami, and the temperatures were recorded at 72 and 68 degrees. But before that, there was a record cold game for the ages -- the ice ages.

The Dallas Cowboys visited Lambeau Field on Dec. 31, 1967, to play for the right to represent the NFL in that second Super Bowl. They were greeted by a temperature of minus-13, the equivalent of minus-46 when the wind was factored in.

The Packers were trailing 17-14 when they got the ball back on their own 32-yard-line with 4:50 left in the game. Starr, completing three passes, took them all the way down to the 1-yard line. Once there, he twice handed the ball to running back Donny Anderson, who slipped on the frozen field and was stopped for no gain. It was third-and-goal with 16 seconds left when Starr took the Packers' last timeout and walked to the sideline to discuss things with Vince Lombardi. The head coach wanted to try Anderson one more time.

"I said, 'Coach, the back is great, but he's hard-pressed to do this,'" Starr said. " 'He's slipping and sliding trying to get to the line of scrimmage. I'm standing upright there. I can shuffle my feet and just lunge in.'"

Lombardi didn't hesitate. "Then run it," he said, "and let's get the hell out of here!"

In the huddle, Starr called Brown Right 31 Wedge, a run by Anderson. But when the ball was snapped, Starr followed right guard Jerry Kramer over the goal line. The Packers won 21-17, in a contest that would famously become known as "The Ice Bowl."

Starr's advice for the Super Bowl quarterbacks?

"Find a way to put that weather factor in the back," he said. "Don't even think about it. Concentrate on what you need to do to get the job done. I think your attitude is the key to your success."

Starr, who won all five of his playoff games played in freezing conditions, said he forced himself to focus on his mechanics even more than usual.

"What you have to overcome is how cold the ball feels in your hand," he said. "I understand they have gloves today that actually you can pass the ball with. I wish we would have had some of those in those days."

A chilly narrative

Ah, the miracle of the passing glove. It changes everything.

Manning, sheltered by a dome for his 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, experimented over the years with a number of models in practice. He will almost certainly be wearing one on his throwing hand in the Super Bowl. Maybe his left hand, too.

Last year, Manning first wore one in Week 16 against the Browns – and threw three touchdown passes, including lasers to Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. He tried it again the next week in a win over the Chiefs. The Broncos outscored their opposition 72-15 in those games, and the glove seemed to take the wobble out of Manning's spiral.

He has worn at least one glove in 10 of his games with the Broncos but insists that the move was less predicated on the weather than the goal of achieving a better grip after undergoing neck surgery. Denver is 8-2 in those games, including the two playoff contests that delivered them to the Super Bowl, and Manning's passer rating is a lofty 111.9.

In Week 14, part of the pregame discussion concerned Manning's 3-7 career record in games when the temperature was 32 degrees or below at kickoff. It was 18 degrees at Mile High, and maybe it was a coincidence, but Manning threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns in Denver's blowout victory over the Titans. Maybe not.

"Whoever wrote that narrative," Manning said afterward, "can shove it where the sun don't shine."

Grammar aside, it was a nice moment for Manning, who set a franchise record with 39 completions and tied another with 59 attempts.

"I wasn't trying to answer [the critics] because I didn't give it any validation in the first place," Manning told reporters.

Who wants to play?

When the Cincinnati Bengals hosted the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game after the 1981 season, they had a powerful home advantage. The temperature at Riverfront Stadium was a bone-chilling minus-9. The wind chill was minus-59 -- the lowest ever recorded for an NFL game.

Ken Anderson, the Bengals' quarterback, had played in cold games before, but this one was different.

"When you woke up Sunday morning and walked outside, it kind of hits you in the face," he told ESPN recently in an interview in Hilton Head, S.C. "You say, 'Oh my gosh, what are we in for today?' Fifty-nine below zero is something you certainly didn't expect."

Bengals head coach Forrest Gregg was not fazed in the least, for he had played with the Packers in the Ice Bowl as an offensive tackle in front of Starr.

"Guys, this is going to be a lot like going to the dentist," he told his team. "You know it's going to hurt but you've got to go anyway. I want to find out not only what guys on their team don't want to play, but what guys on our team don't want to play because of the conditions."

As it turned out, the California team wasn't particularly keen on playing. The Bengals won 27-7 and Anderson, who would go on to win the NFL's Most Valuable Player and Comeback Player of the Year awards, completed 14 of 22 passes, two for touchdowns.

"The first time you get a chance to go to a Super Bowl in franchise history was really, really big for us," Anderson said. "The opportunity to play that game at home was something special."

If Super Bowl XVI had been played outside in the Cincinnati weather, the Bengals might have beaten the San Francisco 49ers. Indeed, it was the first Super Bowl played in a northern city. While Detroit was visited that week by cold and snow, the game was played at a toasty 72 degrees inside the Pontiac Silverdome.

Less is more

It was snowing in Williamsville, N.Y., when the television crew arrived at Kelly's office earlier this month.

The night had seen 5 fresh inches of snow, and a similar number was projected for the rest of the day. And yet, schools were in session and traffic was close to normal. That's because Buffalo and its environs receive close to 100 inches of snow each year -- one of the top 10 averages in the nation.

"No big deal," said Kelly, who played 11 seasons in Buffalo (1986-96). "After a while, you don't really notice it that much."

This seems to be the key factor in overcoming the cold. Denial.

Asked what his coldest games were, Kelly immediately cited two games, against the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988 (the wind chill was minus-14) and at the New York Jets in 1989 (wind chill minus-11).

"You always looked at your schedule at the beginning of the season," Kelly explained. "Who's coming to Buffalo in December? We always hoped it was going to be a dome team or the Miami Dolphins."

Kelly could never bring himself to play with the cumbersome gloves of the 1990s -- he preferred those chemical hand-warmers, tucked away in a pouch wrapped around his waist -- but he always made a critical adjustment in the cold.

"I was one of those guys that loved to grip a football for tight spirals," he said. "But if you really think about it, as the ball gets slicker and slicker, it'll slip out of your hands more often. For me, I always loosened it up a little and tried to follow through a lot more."

A Zen, less-is-more philosophy. Same for clothing. Don't be a hero, Kelly said, by wearing short sleeves. On the other hand, don't dress with too many layers that might restrict the passing action through the shoulders.

Oh, and the most important advice of all:

"It helps to have a good running game," Kelly said. "I was always blessed to have No. 34 behind me, Thurman Thomas. It's crucial when you're playing in frigid temperatures."

Seahawks and Broncos, take note.

Cold = confidence

While Brady has 25 victories in games below freezing, the most of any active quarterback, Roethlisberger is second, with 17. He doesn't like playing in the cold, he said, he's just used to it.

"That's why I have this nice beard," Roethlisberger said, tugging on it, last week at the team's facility in Pittsburgh. "It keeps my face warm for most of the season."

He was dressed in a red T-shirt and gray sweatpants and had the relaxed look of a man just back from a fishing vacation. Let the record show, it was snowing outside.

"I always try and say, 'The other team has to play in the same weather I have to play in," Roethlisberger said. "And maybe they're not used to it, so maybe I have a little advantage."

On cold days, Roethlisberger will wear a glove on his throwing hand. On super-frosty days, he'll wear two.

"It helps you throw a little tighter spiral, spin a little better, cut it through the wind," he said. "I have to constantly remind myself, drive the ball, because you're not going to be able to put too much touch on it.

"If you're not throwing a perfect spiral, it looks real bad."

Playing in Canada in the 1990s, Flutie discovered glass-cutter gloves.

"I have small hands, but it gave me a good grip on the ball," he said. "I loved the cold weather and the wind because, with my athleticism, I felt like it gave me an advantage."

Confidence in the cold: It's a state of mind.

Sunday, after the Broncos touched down in New Jersey, they met the media on a yacht, Cornucopia Majesty, docked at the team's Jersey City hotel. Manning was asked if he feels confident playing in the cold.

"Well, I do," he said. "In my two years [with the Broncos], I think we have seen a lot as far as on-the-field situations -- weather, crowd noise, you name it. So, I do feel comfortable."

So did Kelly, who led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early '90s. He'll be in attendance Sunday with all of his snow-loving brothers.

"They should have done it 20 years ago," he said of the cold-weather venue. "We might have won one of them Super Bowls.

"The best part about this Super Bowl being outdoors? I'm sitting in a box. That's where I want to be."

Starr remains impervious to the cold.

When the television crew, all wearing winter jackets, pulled out of his office parking lot, Starr stood outside in a thin, green sweater. One hand tucked behind his back, he waved vigorously with the other. It was a day of record-breaking cold across the South, and the temperature was in the teens -- the kind of day when your breath hangs in the air. You could see the vapors coming out of his mouth.

He was smiling.

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