In the rain, sleet or snow, the game must go on.
National Football League games are notorious for being played in some of the most brutal weather conditions. In fact, only a handful of games in the NFL’s 100-year history have been postponed due to inclement weather.
Such a high threshold for cancelations has led to football teams having to adapt their gameplay. They look at the general climates of the cities where they’ll play, along with the weather forecasts for game days.
So even if a team has the luxury of playing in a climate-controlled dome, they still travel around the country for away games and play in many open stadiums — and there, they are subjected to whatever Mother Nature throws at them.
Big football, big country
The NFL’s 32 football teams are scattered throughout the United States. Because of their broad geographical reach, the many climates of a country as large as the U.S. can influence the way football games are played and whether those games are played at all.
The U.S. is the third-largest country in the world by square miles, bordering two oceans and spanning the width of an entire continent. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the continental U.S. is so large that it contains about five climate zones — and NFL teams can be found in four of them.
Given the country’s climatic diversity, football teams can face a diverse set of weather conditions throughout a season.
“Depending on what games are scheduled, you can have two completely different types of weather events happening at the same time and the same day,” said Heather Brinkmann, FOX Weather meteorologist.
“For instance, the Los Angeles Chargers could be at home, sweating to a nice 70-degree temperature, while on the other side of the country, the Buffalo Bills could be playing in lake-effect snow,” Brinkmann added.
The biggest weather factor during football games is the wind, according to Rotogrinders.com sports meteorologist Kevin Roth.
“If you get these winds over 15 mph sustained or over 20 mph sustained, especially, it has a massive correlation – a negative correlation – to scoring to yards to passing yards to all of these important stats,” Roth said.
He noted that for the offense, strong winds can lead to shorter, more conservative passes. Knowing this, the defense will adjust their gameplay to take away the short routes, thereby bringing the game to a halt.
The kicking game is also affected.
“I’ve seen some games where those winds are really high, 30+ (mph), and they go to punt the ball, and it comes back at them like a boomerang,” Roth said.
According to Roth, high-wind games are often seen in the Buffalo Bills’ stadium. Winds from nearby Lake Erie enter the open end of the stadium, creating a “perfect swirling wind that just causes havoc.”
External temperatures can play a significant role in any game, such as the effect they can have on players’ health.
“Players get more dehydrated because of the heat and humidity,” says Mark Maxwell, the President and CEO of SportsWeather.com.
“Teams from the North generally, when they come to like, Miami or Tampa Bay to play, especially in late September or early October, tend to show more exhaustion earlier in the game and have to have more fluids.”
Because northern teams — teams from climates that tend to be cooler — are not as acclimated to the heat of the South, southern teams can have a bit of an edge when playing at home. However, the opposite also rings true, when southern teams play winter games in the North.
Temperatures can also affect the way the players handle the football.
“The air’s thicker when it’s colder,” said Maxwell. “It does affect the performance of how far a quarterback can throw a ball.”
Lower temperatures can also lead to more fumbles both in and outside of the pocket, as handling the football is more difficult to do with cold hands.
On the flip side, playing in the heat can lead to better performance, as hot temperatures typically mean thinner air.
“Field goal kickers are much more accurate in warmer weather,” said Maxwell. “You have a better, higher-level completion, generally on the longer passes.”
“You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘Hot air rises.’ The reason for this is because cold air is denser than warm air, and it comes down to the molecules!” said Brinkmann.
“When it is hotter, molecules within the air move and expand. Just the opposite is true for cold air. With colder air, molecules are closer together and don’t move as much,” Brinkmann added.
Rain can add another layer of complexity to any game, as wet conditions make holding and throwing the ball more difficult.
“You see an increase in fumbles and turnovers when it’s raining,” said Roth. “In general, teams will shift their game plan when it’s raining a lot and hand the ball off more and throw the ball less – that means generally lower-scoring, and it kind of eats the clock a little bit more, as well.”
The rain also makes football fields quite slick. Some teams may replicate these rainy conditions during practice, if a weather forecast predicts that an upcoming game will be played in the rain.
“The really, really good coaches in the NFL will make sure that the quarterback and the receivers throw wet footballs every day during practice,” said Maxwell. He also notes how some teams will run sprinklers to make their fields as soggy as they can.
“They will wet their fields, making sure they’re saturated with lots of water, just to be able to handle the ball and catch the ball and not fumble the ball,” Maxwell added.
Snow can make some aspects of a gameplay difficult, but according to Roth, snow can sometimes be beneficial.
“It’s actually a benefit for the offense when it’s really snowy because your footing is so difficult that the defense can’t keep up,” he said. “It makes it hard to rush the passer, it slows the entire game down when the footing is that bad in the snow, and it means the quarterback has more time to sit back in the pocket, see his reads, make his choices.”
Unlike rain, snow is more of a challenge to replicate during practices, unless a team travels to a different climate to practice.
One of the teams that doesn’t need to travel to practice in the snow is the Buffalo Bills. According to the NFL Films documentary “A Snowy Wonderland: Football’s Perfect Condition,” Buffalo, New York, is the snowiest city in the NFL.
“Buffalo averages 93.1 inches of snow each winter,” said Brian Donegan, FOX Weather meteorologist. “During the NFL regular season and playoffs (October through January), it averages 60.3 inches of snow.”
In the century of NFL games, the vast majority of games have gone on as planned. However, here are a few examples of games where weather conditions made a significant impact.
One of those conditions is lightning. Should lightning or other “emergency situations” in the game occur, the NFL Rulebook outlines several procedures to serve as guidelines for the NFL Commissioner and/or the duly appointed representatives to follow.
A lightning-related delay occurred in September 2020 during a game between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills at Miami’s stadium. Both teams left the field and remained in their respective locker rooms for half an hour.
A delay was also caused by severe weather and a tornado watch. In November 2013, a tornado watch, along with severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings, interrupted a game between the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears in Chicago’s Soldier Field.
With just under five minutes left in the last quarter, the game was delayed for nearly two hours, during which fans were asked to seek shelter.
Another example of inclement weather that can sway the play of a game is hurricanes. If a football stadium is within the cone, or “probable track,” of a hurricane or is in an area experiencing a hurricane evacuation, then a game has a much greater chance of being canceled.
For example, in September 2017, Hurricane Irma moving toward Florida led to the NFL postponing a game between the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In August 2021, Hurricane Ida barreling toward New Orleans led to the cancellation of game between the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints.
The NFL Rulebook has protocols for how to handle situations like “severely inclement weather” and guidelines on whether games should be interrupted or canceled.
But if the past century of football games is any indication, the vast majority of weather conditions will not stop or delay kickoff, giving fans the chance to root for their teams.
“There are some times when that weather becomes kind of the focus of the game, and it becomes a major part of the story and the lore of a game,” Roth said. “That’s fun for me. I think it’s fun for everybody else, too.”