CHICAGO — As powerful as fans and even rival sports leagues believe it to be, even the NFL can’t do anything about the weather.
Yet some 24 hours after the Chicago Bears closed out a dangerous afternoon at Soldier Field in light rain with a 23-20 overtime win against visiting Baltimore, more than a few people in the Windy City were still shaking their heads. And not just because of dropping temperatures and still-gusting winds that lingered across the Chicago area Monday — remnants of a late-season storm that spawned tornadoes and slammed the Midwest a day earlier, leaving six dead and dozens injured downstate.
Instead, many wondered why Sunday’s NFL game kicked off at its scheduled noon start time, with the threat of lightning, high winds and a torrential downpour bearing down on the city’s lakefront stadium.
“Hindsight being 20-20, it’s easy to say they should have waited,” said Steve Woltmann, a freelance photographer who has covered games at Soldier Field for nearly three decades. “And honestly, I got a few texts from home long before kickoff warning some crazy stuff was headed right at us.
“But as many times as I’ve been there, you never know how the lake will affect a front rolling in,” he added. “It’s why people here say if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes and it will change.”
This time, the change came so suddenly that Gene Steratore, head of the officiating crew, barely had enough time to put down a cellphone he was using to communicate with NFL officials before informing the crowd of 60,000-plus: “Due to the inclement weather, the game will be temporarily suspended.”
Seconds later, players scrambled for the locker rooms and announcements over the public-address system and on the scoreboard instructed fans to take cover in the nearest concourse area. Then came the deluge.
“Because there’s so many moving pieces, we always try to play games as scheduled. Between our broadcasters and all the other logistics involved, we’re trying to put them on for the widest possible audience,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “But we’d never endanger our fans or our players, officials or stadium. That’s always concern No. 1.
“And as soon as the potential for severe lightning became apparent, we took steps to get everybody out of harm’s way.”
The delay began with 4:51 remaining in the opening quarter, following a 52-yard field goal by Justin Tucker that put the Ravens ahead 10-0, and lasted nearly two hours. Players napped, snacked and walked through formations. Fans eventually returned to find sunshine and calm, but the storm returned again after halftime, turning the stands into a patchwork quilt of ponchos, and the playing field into a quagmire. The game took nearly five hours to complete.
“The footing was terrible, but it was definitely some ‘old-school football’ out there,” Bears defensive end Julius Peppers said afterward. “It was fun.”
Not everyone was quite so charmed. Both the Bears and the NFL came in for questioning over the decision, especially in light of how organizers have handled weather threats at other big events.
The league reviews game operations after each week and this one will be no exception. It could prove especially useful, since the 2014 Super Bowl is scheduled to be played at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium in February — the first time the season’s biggest game will be played outdoors in a northern city, let alone during a week when some forecasters are predicting blizzard-like storms. The NFL has already said it could shift the Feb. 2 kickoff a day ahead or behind if weather dictates.
“We’ve got contingency plans for our contingency plans on that one,” McCarthy said.
Ultimate authority to suspend or cancel games rests with Commissioner Roger Goodell, although the review process begins much farther down the chain. An NFL official at each site every week is in contact with the teams, stadium operations and officiating crews before kickoff — and if conditions warrant, with local law enforcement agencies.
The NFL is not alone, of course, in dealing with the weather. Tragically, seven people were killed and dozens injured when storm-driven wind gusts knocked down heavy stage rigging during a Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011. Two investigations found the rigging wasn’t strong enough to meet state building codes and that the fair lacked a fully developed emergency plan.
A month ago, the final day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival was canceled after a storm dumped nearly a foot of rain on that city in a 12-hour period. In July, a severe line of thunderstorms forced officials at Wrigley Field on Chicago’s north side to clear the stage and field during a Pearl Jam concert before resuming more than two hours later. The same night at a different concert venue along the lake, a Phish show came to an abrupt end as fans were told to leave an open-air amphitheater.
Sunday’s delay marked the fourth time this season NFL officials have been forced to suspend play, including a 34-minute halt in Baltimore’s opening-week game at Denver because of lightning. Oddly enough, it was the third time this year the Ravens have been involved, dating back to the Super Bowl, when an electrical failure knocked out most of the lights inside the Superdome.
“We knew storms were on the way,” McCarthy said. “We have meteorological firms that monitor conditions, both nationally and locally, heading into the weekend, and then we keep monitoring them in real time all the way up to kickoff.”
On Sunday, NFL official Gary Slaughter was charged with making the decision to go ahead as planned in Chicago.
“We believed we’d be able to play the game in its duration in the window we had,” McCarthy said. “Look, it’s one thing if the USTA plans their U.S. Open during a week when there’s supposed to be a monster storm, because that’s tennis.
“But football is played in tough weather all the time. Our championship games could wind up in Chicago, New York or New England in mid-January. So what happened there is something we’re always cognizant of, preparing for and,” he concluded, “always willing to learn from.”