GREEN BAY – The "Frozen Tundra," at least as most think of it, is an incorrect axiom in 2014.
The turf within Lambeau Field is rarely, if ever, frozen anymore. Subterranean coils lie underneath it to keep it from doing just that, not to mention the anterior protections such as tarps, and a lighting system that aims hundreds of 1,000-watt bulbs at the grass.
Of course, once warmups begin and the field is exposed, it can get snowed over, chopped up by cleats, and it invariably gets harder. And, while the newly renovated South end zone has cut down on some of the wind gusts through the venue, the orange flags atop the goal posts still whip about.
The air, of course, is still cold.
And by the time the Green Bay Packers host the New England Patriots Sunday afternoon, the temperature will fall by about seven degrees from kickoff to conclusion, down to about 24 degrees.
In a game that features the top two scoring offenses in the league directed by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, there is an expectation of an offensive explosion, despite the conditions.
While many feel the offenses may not be adversely affected by the weather, one part of the game may well be – kickoffs.
If there is an abundance of scoring Sunday, Packers kicker Mason Crosby will be sending balls deep as often as he has all year (the Packers are currently second in the league in total kickoffs with 38). Or, if the game turns the other way, a limited number of kickoffs means the results of each is that much more important.
But for Green Bay, the goal will remain the same when it comes to their approach on kickoffs.
"You’ll see some things messed with here and elsewhere just because of the weather," Crosby said. "The goal, if they do return it, whether you’re trying to hit it deep or not, is to tackle them inside the 20. You want to kick a touchback because then they don’t even have a chance. If not, the goal is to always tackle them inside the 20 and minimize the return and help the defense out."
Crosby said the Packers have experimented with different kicks over the last two years, but believes that maximum hang time with maximum distance is still the preferred kick, no matter what, because his coverage team is given an advantage with the amount of field left to cover.
"I think for us, with how dominant our offense can be, and then just to give our defense (room), we’ll take the ball at the 20 on kickoff returns," Crosby admitted. "There’s no point in trying to do something to try and make something happen."
The Packers kick coverage team has been fairly solid, not spectacular, not awful, and they’ve needed to be considering how often they are on the field.
On those 38 kickoffs – only San Diego has kicked off more often – opponents have averaged 25.6 yards per return, which is 24th in the league. Naturally, with these many opportunities for returns, opponents have piled up the most total return yards in the league against Green Bay.
"I would say it creates a little bit more opportunity," said Packers safety Sean Richardson, who is part of the Packers kick coverage team. "In the warm weather, the ball is not as hard, and everybody is a lot looser, so the kicker can kick long touchbacks or field goals and stuff like that. Now, you have to rely on your fundamentals and your coaching. Whereas when you’re used to getting seven, eight touch backs
Part of the reason for the return volume is that Green Bay is just 24th in the league in touchback percentage (43.8 percent), a percentage that drops down to 41.5 percent at home.
It is likely that that percentage will continue to fall, and perhaps more creativity will follow.
Crosby said that comes about pre-game, when they determine how the field has been set up, what the conditions are, and of course it changes as those variables change.
"I know we’ve done that in the past here when the weather gets bad, when the field gets bad," Crosby said. "Teams have done it to us as well. I remember a couple years ago (an opponent) had a really good done. They hit this little driven ball that kind of like skipped, almost checked and came back. It’s tough to make someone pick the ball up off the ground when the ground’s hard and the ball’s slick, and things like that."
Such kicks happen occasionally of course, but by and large, coaches still believe that making an opponent march 80 yards for a touchdown outweighs the potential benefits of creating chaos and a fumble on a unique kickoff.
That said, the weather the Packers will be playing in will make even a traditional kickoff a little bit different.
"Now, we feel like this is going to play into our hands," Richardson said of the changing weather. "We’ve been in the middle of the pack or at the end on special teams on returns because we haven’t been getting a lot of opportunities, but now we’re starting to get more and more opportunities. We’ve been practicing for this situation since day one."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.