Friday, January 21, 2022

Phil Dawson’s field goal as time expired gave the 49ers a 23-20 wild-card victory


Ric Flair, burnt gloves and dead grass: How the 49ers beat the Packers in the 2013 playoffs at a frozen Lambeau Field

Matt Barrows, David Lombardi, Dan Brown 
January 21, 2022

“Where’s the grass?”

Kicker Phil Dawson asked himself that the last time the 49ers played a January game at Lambeau Field, their wild-card round encounter against the Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at the end of the 2013 season.

It wasn’t just cold that day. It was positively polar with the thermometer hovering around 5 degrees at kickoff, then plunging to minus-6 that night. The 49ers served chicken broth behind their bench. Beers froze in the stands. Frank Gore ran to the huddle still wearing the heavy, lined capes players donned on the sideline.

Dawson, meanwhile, had arrived five hours prior to kickoff, well before the team buses pulled in and fans filled the bleachers, to get a feel for the turf.

He found it lacking.

“There literally wasn’t any grass,” he said. “It was painted dirt and you could tell they had rolled it and got it presentable. But I knew as soon as the big boys with size 16 cleats were out there for pregame, that thing was going to be pretty torn up. So with the footing, with the cold, with the wind, I knew it was going to be a tough day for me.”

Now that the participants have had time to defrost, many of those 49ers have vivid memories of one of the most unlikely victories in 49ers postseason history. With a forecast of 12 degrees at kickoff and a 50 percent chance of snow expected for Saturday’s latest chapter in Green Bay, The Athletic tracked down key figures from that Jan. 5, 2014 victory to offer a cautionary tale about what’s in store.

The story of that previous playoff foray into glacial conditions began with a night-before-game meeting at the Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton, Wis.

Coach Jim Harbaugh had a surprise warm-up act ready for his players.

A ‘Flair’ for the dramatic

Special teams coordinator Brad Seely: Jim was always great about having a story or something. He would tell kind of wild stories about his childhood, about him and his brother getting in a fight with the local bullies. It just loosened everybody up.

Left tackle Joe Staley: Harbaugh’s teams — we always had a theme song. The first year was the Tony Montana Squad. Future came out for the playoff game. But that year (2013), our song was “Bout That Life” by Meek Mill, and it starts off with a Ric Flair intro, where he’s doing the “wheelin’ dealin’ son of a gun, you can’t keep these alligators down, WOOO!” The whole season, we’d listen to that in the locker room before the games. We’d all die laughing when we heard the Ric Flair thing.

Defensive tackle Justin Smith: There was a rap song out where Ric Flair was part of the intro or something. And I thought, “Man, it would be awesome to get someone like that in the room to add a little something even extra.” Not that you needed anything extra for that game. But, fuck, anything else you could put on it just to get the guys ready.

Staley: So pregame the night before, Harbaugh flew out Ric Flair. We get a pregame speech and then (Harbaugh) opens up the door and it’s Ric Flair. And everybody loses their mind.

Senior manager of football communications Dan Beckler: Harbaugh set it up with, “We’ve got a special guest here.” And then Ric Flair comes in with his strut and just does a WOOO! And then he says something like, “I hear there’s a Cowboy (Justin Smith) in here.” Then I remember him doing a WOOO! and then Cowboy doing the WOOO! and then everyone started doing it.

Smith: The room went nuts. And everyone was jumping up and down and shit.

Dawson: None of us had any idea. We’re sitting in this team meeting room and the back doors swing open and here comes Ric Flair.

Returner LaMichael James: It’s Ric Flair. He wouldn’t even have to say anything and it would get everybody riled up. He’s just that type of guy.

Cornerback Tarell Brown: I think it got our mind off of it being cold.

Linebacker Patrick Willis: We’ve got some guys on the team that to this day still do the Ric Flair: “I’m having a hard time!”

Staley: He gets up there in front of the team and we’re expecting him to do his spiel, his schtick. And he starts giving us a real, heartfelt speech. Like, “I love the way you guys play the game of football. Huge fans of you.” And we’re like, “No! Do your stuff! We don’t want to hear about this. Just do the WOOO! Give us your hype speech!”

Seely: It was one of those things where the guys were all into it. It really lightened the mood. It was obviously a big game and an important game. But what Jim did was make sure we were going to have fun, too.

Smith: And that was the whole atmosphere. You’re already shitting tacks anyway (in) getting ready for that game. And that kind of loosened the mood. And it was like, “Well, shit, we know what to do: Just go out there and whoop their ass.”

Did we mention it was cold?

The 49ers had a walk-through on an outdoor field near Lambeau the day before the game. The high temperature that day, however, was 30 degrees and Dawson, closely monitoring the conditions, knew it would get worse the next day.

“I can remember everybody complaining about how cold it was then,” he said. “And being the weather fanatic that I was I knew the cold front was on the way. It was going to be significantly colder the next day.”

His teammates discovered that during warmups. Some coated their bodies with something called Warm Skin, which mountain climbers use. Others rubbed on Vaseline — anything to create an extra layer of protection against the chill. The offensive linemen debated whether they’d wear sleeves. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was born in Wisconsin, famously went sleeveless. Then they stepped through the ancient, narrow tunnel and saw the field for the first time.

Staley: The grass looked like it was dead.

James: It was like walking in hard mud. I want to say it’s heated or semi-heated? So it was melted but frozen, too. It was a whole weird deal.

Beckler: I remember looking down and seeing the full imprint of a cleat in the dirt.

Offensive lineman Adam Snyder: When you got into a three-point stance, you couldn’t put your hand on the ground because your fingertips started to freeze.

Brown: It was so cold, we didn’t even have water (on the sideline). We had chicken broth.

Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews: There were a lot of guys with their arms exposed. And I was just shocked by that. And then seeing Kap — he was wearing nothing.

Equipment manager Steve Urbaniak: I’d hit up Kap when he came off and throw the cape onto him. We had mittens for him to throw on. And then as soon as he left for the huddle — boom! Throws the mittens down, jacket comes off.

Snyder: The whole sleeves thing with linemen — it was, “Do we wear ’em, do we not wear ’em?” It was kind of like a rite of passage to not wear sleeves.

Willis: I just remember saying to myself, “Man, I don’t have any sleeves on.” Normally, I tough right through it, but I was like, “Man, I think this was a mistake.”

Linebacker NaVorro Bowman: I was out there with no sleeves trying to psyche myself up.

James: I just remember we all went out to warm up and coach Harbaugh was like, “Nah, let’s bring it back in.” We couldn’t even warm up it was so cold.

Brown: So we went back in. Everybody listened to music and got hyped.

Snyder: Then the referee came in just before kickoff and told us any exposed skin had a chance for frostbite. And we were like, “What?”

When the game began, the only sanctuary was the heated benches along the visitors’ sideline. Players, coaches, team doctors and sideline reporters began inching in that direction as the game wore on, the sun set and the mercury dropped.

Urbaniak: Those heaters kick off a lot of heat. I mean, it was 5 degrees outside, but we created a 32-degree bubble. So you can imagine how much heat those things are cranking out. It gets really hot.

Snyder: It’s like a jet engine.

Dawson: I would sit on that heated bench and then the parkas, all those hooded parkas that you see everyone wearing, I would put it on top of me like a blanket. And all that hot air coming up from the heated benches would actually get caught in there and I almost got hot.

Staley: When you’re on the sidelines, you’re actually well taken care of. You have those big, huge jet-engine turbine heaters on each side spewing out flames.

Andrews: It’s funny. I’ve done a ton of games in cold weather. But when the weather is really, really bad, everybody feels like we’re all in it together. And there have been two circumstances where I remember players feeling bad for me and being like, “Just come here. Just come over by the heater.”

Snyder: I think Erin Andrews was next to us. She was freezing her ass off, too.

Willis: I was one of the guys that said, “Hey, be careful. You better not get too close to that hot machine over there or you’re going to catch on fire!”

Andrews: I just put my hand way too close to the heater. And I didn’t think anything of it. I was like, “Wow, this is warm. This feels so good.” Then I remember NaVorro looked at me and said, “Your hand is on fire.”

Bowman: (laughing) I was like, “Hey, you might want to take your glove off before your fingers catch on fire.”

Snyder: You could smell the smoke.

James: A jacket caught on fire, too.

Staley: I’ve seen guys with those big trench coats — they don’t realize how close they are to those heaters and they’ll burn a little hole.

Urbaniak: That happens a lot. You’d be surprised. Lots of people have their gloves burnt. You could have your pants — some of the doctors — their pants were melting because they’re standing too close. The worst part is players would put their helmet by that thing. It would pump out so much heat the air bladders on the inside, they would melt. You know, they lose all the air. So then we have to pull everything out, redo everything in the helmet. And it’s hard enough to do in normal temperatures.

Andrews: There was smoke. I can’t remember if there was a flame or anything. But it melted the entire glove. You could see my finger and my thumb through it.

Bowman: I think she was more focused on getting her story or her message together and was watching the game, and she forgot her glove was so close.

The 49ers equipment team had extra staffers for that game. Their main job was throwing a cape over the players as soon as they came off the field. They paid extra attention to two players: the sleeveless Kaepernick and South Florida native Frank Gore.

Urbaniak: We had to make sure someone was with Frank the whole time. I think there are videos from TV with the referees blowing the whistle and playing. Frank’s just throwing the jacket off and one of my guys is running off the field, doing those little things like that. Frank was always the last guy to get his jacket off.

Stopping Aaron Rodgers

Going into the game, Rodgers was a three-time Pro Bowler and had already won the first of his three MVPs. But he’d been merely ordinary against the 49ers defense. That unit was 3-0 against him, including a 45-31 thumping of the Packers in the division round the previous year. Coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit felt it had figured out the formula for stopping Rodgers, who had only 177 passing yards — his lowest complete-game total of the season — against the 49ers on that frigid January day.

Willis: I think Aaron Rodgers — I know he doesn’t have the accolades of Tom Brady, but every time I played against him, you could have a guy completely covered and he somehow back-shoulder fades, throws it perfect, that’s how good he is and how much I respect him. Get in the throwing lanes. Don’t let him get a chance to see. Cowboy (Smith) and Ray McDonald — we got those guys to get to the quarterback, and they did a great job.

Smith: The key then is the key now. We went in thinking we could play a light box, take care of the run and then force him to throw with two guys deep. You can’t go single-high on that guy. He’ll pick you apart.

Snyder: I think those years that we had coach Harbaugh and his staff, we knew that our coaches were going to out-scheme everybody.

Smith: Every time we played them, we tried to slow the game down. We played nickel against them even when they were in base offense. Not having to drop the safety. That was our game plan against them every time. And it worked.

Willis: It was just understanding that we had to get a great pass rush on him and that he loved to get the ball out real quick. That was one thing that’s always made Aaron Rodgers really dangerous.

Smith: Bow and Pat could cover. We were never in a mismatch by being in nickel.

Brown: That doesn’t happen often. Usually, you have one of those guys who’s the cover (linebacker) and the other guy’s more of the thumper. We had the best of both worlds. And that allowed the defense to be really, really flexible.

Willis: Those guys that we had on the front, in Justin, Ray, Aldon (Smith) — we could rush four guys and play coverage against Aaron Rodgers, which helped a lot because (safety Donte Whitner) didn’t have to show a lot of disguise. It was really a great team defensive effort against him. Even so, he was able to make some plays.

Bowman: The weather helped. Defenses have an advantage in these types of games. … If you stop the run, the pass is a little slower than in hotter weather.

Smith: You’re watching that and you’re always cognizant of the fact that if they get the ball back, you’ve got to be ready to play D again. Because he could score from anywhere. I mean, Rodgers doesn’t get frustrated at all, or down. He’s ready to play in any situation.

Final drive

Of course, the 49ers couldn’t stop Rodgers altogether. Late in the fourth quarter, he led his team field downfield for a field goal that tied it 20-20. That’s when Kaepernick had his finest moment of the day. The 49ers took over at their 25-yard line with a little over 5 minutes to go and went to work on a 14-play drive, their longest of the game.

Kaepernick hit his favorite target that day, Michael Crabtree, for 11 yards, then went back to Crabtree on the ensuing third down for 17 yards. He connected with Gore for 11 yards, then picked up a key first down with his legs. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called it, “Colin Kaepernick at his best.” When the 49ers offense finally jogged to the sideline, Kaepernick and crew had driven to Green Bay’s 15. There were 3 seconds left.

Dawson: We marched down the field very methodically … it would have been an entirely different attempt had that been a 40-yarder rather than a 33-yarder. I mean, every yard was critical. So, I was very thankful for the drive our offense put together, for our coaching staff staying aggressive even once you, quote, “got in field goal range.”

Urbaniak: For Phil, we had kicking pants for him so that his legs could stay warm. We had a boot for his foot, so his foot stays warm. Yeah, there’s a couple of other secret sauce things that Phil and I have to keep secret.

Dawson: My whole existence was one kick at a time. But obviously having 14 years of playing in Cleveland and facing all the crazy conditions I faced there, did, you know, give me a better level of experience going into this game.

Kevin McDermott, long snapper: As a rookie, I can’t speak to the confident-vibe aspect of things. I was happy to be there and trying to keep my head above water.

Dawson: Kevin actually had one of his best days snapping.

McDermott: Well, he is kind to say that, but I remember it a little differently. Andy (Lee) saved my behind on both of the first two field goal attempts.

Dawson: Andy Lee, one of the best holders I’ve ever had in my life, told me before the game: “Bro, I’m just trying to catch it and put it down. I can’t spin it today because I can’t even feel my fingers.” So I was really hoping to rely on Kevin to give good snaps. And think how hard that is to have motor skills in those conditions.

Urbaniak: You made sure Andy had everything he needed to make sure his hands were nice and soft. But he caught that ball, put the ball down, all that. So, his hand-warmers are always fresh, hot and ready to roll, that Andy was as warm as could be. The small things like that.

Dawson: Andy never had to spin the ball because the laces were good. So, I figured while those two were doing their job, I might as well finish it off and do mine.

Snyder: Everybody wants to be a kicker Monday through Saturday. But when the game’s on the line, that’s a lot of pressure.

Seely: Those are just nerve-wracking times.

Willis: Man, my heart was beating so hard, I’m thinking to myself, “Let’s. Get. The. Hell. Outta. Here.” In my mind, I’m always thinking Phil Dawson is automatic, but I also know what it’s like for it to be cold. The ball doesn’t elevate as high. I was thinking to myself: “Elevation! Y’all better not let this ball get blocked!”

Snyder: That was our thing: Don’t be the guy that gets this thing blocked.

McDermott: I remember that snap. It came out good. Andy put it down perfectly. And I just remember seeing it go through the uprights and being very excited.

Phil Dawson’s field goal as time expired gave the 49ers a 23-20 wild-card victory. (Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)


Snyder: I remember being able to come from my four-point stance to standing straight up as the ball cleared.

Seely: The Packers jumped offsides. And he made the kick anyway. And it was one of those, what exactly is going to happen here at the end? At first, I didn’t see the flag. And I thought, “Come on, fellas! The guy’s offsides, you’ve gotta call that!”

Willis: I saw, too, on the replay, it was still too close. But it went through the uprights and we were able to advance. When people ask me what I miss most about the game, it’s the memories, going through those battles, and remembering what it was like going with the guys that you miss.

Dawson: It was overwhelming. As someone who loves the game of football and envisioned myself being something other than a kicker, to have an opportunity to contribute to a team win meant a great deal to me. This was my 16th year in the NFL at this point, and it was my first playoff win. I had only been in one playoff game prior to that.

James: We were excited we won the game. But I think a lot of people were happier that we were off that field.

Snyder: I think we showered for much longer than we needed to.

Warm memories

The on-field mob scene was brief. “Everybody got out of there,” James said. The 49ers went on to beat the Carolina Panthers in a forgettable divisional-round game before losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. That thrilling win over the Packers, though, remains frozen in time.

Staley: I see my family and friends after the game. I’m just wearing my normal clothes. I’ve been inside. It’s not bone-jarring to me at that point. And my family — bless them — they’re like shaking. My parents are like, “Good to see! Good job, Joe. We’re gonna go home! Good game! I can’t feel my face!” Because they’d just been sitting outside in this cold forever not moving at all. “We tried to drink a lot to stay warm, but it didn’t work.”

Dawson: There was literally a decade and a half of toiling away grinding away just wondering, “Am I ever going to get my shot?” I’d seen these other guys through the years, like Adam Vinatieri, make the big kicks in the critical moments of a playoff game. And I quietly wondered if I was ever given that chance, can I do it? I’d made a lot of game-winners in the regular season, but you kind of had to sit there and speculate. So to have that happen, to have it come down to a field goal to come through in that moment was incredibly overwhelming to me.

(Top photo: Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)


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