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’s covered football 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.
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.
We knew storms were on the way, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
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. But we’d never endanger our fans or our players, officials or stadium. That’s always concern No. 1.
In Chicago on Sunday, NFL official Gary Slaughter was charged with making the decision to go ahead as planned.
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.