The NFL game was set. The temperature was dropping. Forecasters were predicting that a nasty snowstorm was bearing down on Philadelphia.
NBC’s Fred Gaudelli was beyond excited.
Gaudelli, in 21 years as a television sports producer, had never worked a game in a blizzard…
And he still hasn’t.
In a historic and controversial decision, the NFL postponed Sunday night’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles for 48 hours, reasoning it would be a logistical nightmare for 70,000 people to get to and from the event.
Although he understood and agreed with the rationale, Gaudelli couldn’t hide his disappointment. Snow games are woven into the fabric of NFL lore.
“I live for a game like that, just let me put it that way,” Gaudelli said by phone Monday. “I live for a game in a driving blizzard. There were things we were going to throw out there last night that haven’t been seen on TV, and now we’re going to have to wait for the next blizzard.
“For me, it was Santa coming back and taking a present.”
No less an influential figure than Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell acted as if Santa came back and stole the whole tree. An unabashed Eagles fan who even does color commentary for games, Rendell called the NFL’s decision “a joke” and said " Vince Lombardi would be spinning in his grave” at the thought of postponing a game for snow.
It all made for lively debate in Philadelphia, which is preparing to host the 23rd NFL game played on a Tuesday and the first since the New York Giants beat the Boston Yanks on Oct. 1, 1946.
As it happened, the predictions in Philadelphia were far more severe than the reality of the storm. The Sunday afternoon forecast called for as much as 20 inches of snow and winds reaching 40 mph. By Monday morning, it had stopped snowing and there were reports that just 12 inches had fallen at the airport and less in other parts of the city.
At first blush, a lot of people assumed the NFL’s decision to postpone the game for safety reasons had to do with what takes place on the field — a natural conclusion considering how vigilant the league has been lately about policing concussions, helmet-to-helmet hits and the like.
But the safety issue in this case had to do with the spectators, and taking heed of the increasingly strident warnings from the city about keeping people off the roadways.
If the NFL were worried about staging cold-weather games, it wouldn’t have allowed the Vikings to play in near-zero-degree conditions after the roof of their stadium deflated in a snowstorm.
Although some people might argue the latest postponement is a sign the NFL has gone soft as a fresh snow bank, NBC’s Al Michaels thinks the league recognizes the appeal of foul-weather games and constructs the schedule accordingly.
“The league looks to play games in these conditions,” said Michaels, who will provide play-by-play for the Vikings-Eagles game. “Think about the ‘Tuck Rule’ game between the Raiders and Patriots. That was one of the most memorable games in history, not only for the tuck rule, and for [ Adam] Vinatieri’s field goal and all the rest, but the fact it was played in a mini-blizzard.”
Michaels thinks the league has undergone a philosophical shift in the last 15 years or so about scheduling what could be bad-weather games. He bases that on “Monday Night Football” games.
“If you look at those games from 1970 until the late 1990s, you can find maybe a handful of games that were played north of the Mason-Dixon Line in late November or December or early January,” he said. “They would take the last five, six, seven weeks of the season and make sure we were either in Florida, California, or in a dome.”
Around the mid-1990s, Michaels said, the league began mixing some cold-weather games into the Monday rotation. A few years later, the epic feel of that Raiders-Patriots game only validated that strategy.
Michaels can point to several examples of the NFL tempting fate with the weather, as it did in the 2005 playoffs, when the Saturday wild-card games were Washington at Tampa Bay and Jacksonville at New England.
“And here we go,” Michaels said, “they play the Florida game in the afternoon and the New England game at night. That’s all you need to know.”
When it comes to confronting the cold, Michaels said, the NFL “has gone from avoiding it, to ‘Let’s take a small chance from time to time,’ to ‘Let’s do everything we can to put games in Chicago, Green Bay, Foxborough… Let’s go find all the bad-weather possibilities we can find, and throw games in there.’”
Asked whether and/or how the league takes weather into account when drawing up the schedule, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said it is one factor among many and that the league “will play prime-time games in cold-weather cities with no dome if it’s the best matchup.”
As for Gaudelli, who also will produce the Sunday night finale in Seattle between the St. Louis Rams and Seahawks, he got some welcome news Monday. It came in a phone call from Dave Pearson, media relations director for the Seahawks.
“He said, ‘Fred, I’m looking at the weather right now, and it says 20 degrees and snow for Sunday,’ ” Gaudelli said. “That would be awesome.
“Maybe I’ll get my blizzard after all.”
Christmas falls on a Sunday next year, so you can expect the NFL will have a full Christmas Eve slate of games on Saturday.
According to NFL spokesman Dan Masonson, the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was 2005, when the league played 13 games on Dec. 24 and two on Christmas.
The Christmas Sunday before that came in 1994, when all games but one were played on Saturday.