After the 49ers landed in Wisconsin last Friday, special-teams coaches watched with curiosity as one of their young players, Corey Lemonier, picked up some snow and began inspecting it like a prospector examining a handful of soil.
It struck them: The rookie outside linebacker, who is from South Florida, had not seen snow before. That’s what the 49ers were up against heading into the game against Green Bay. Many of the young players they were relying on against the Packers not only were out of their element but were facing potentially one of the coldest games in NFL history.
It turned out that even the most inexperienced players handled the chill just fine in the 23-20 NFC wild-card victory, including return man LaMichael James, who secured every punt and who returned three kickoffs for 78 yards. James’ 37-yard return in the fourth quarter helped steal momentum back from the Packers, who had just taken a 17-13 lead, and set up the 49ers’ drive that ended with Colin Kaepernick's 28-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis.
“The ball’s harder and it’s more slippery in the cold,” assistant special-teams coach Tracy Smith said Wednesday. “And (James) did a great job catching it and holding onto it. We were very pleased. In a game like that, your first job is to get the ball secured.”
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Smith spent two seasons coaching in Cleveland under 49ers special-teams coordinator Brad Seely, whose three-decades-long coaching career includes other cold-weather locales such as New England in the NFL and Colorado State and South Dakota State in college. They knew that kickoffs wouldn’t travel as far, punts wouldn’t lift as high and that when the ball descended, it would feel like a rock.
The problem is that they couldn’t practice it.
During the week, the 49ers’ coaches had the players put on the gloves and the more heavily insulated pants they would wear in Green Bay. But as a “polar vortex” began to descend on the upper Midwest, Santa Clara was unseasonably warm, and the players ended up practicing in their cold-weather gear amid temperatures in the mid-60s.
“When I coached in Cleveland, it was not a problem to simulate it – you just go outside,” Smith said. “So all the stuff is intuitive for the players. ‘Oh, the ball’s not going to go as far because it didn’t go as far yesterday or the day before or the day before.’ It’s different practicing in California.”
Smith and the coaches were eager to have at least one practice outside in Green Bay on Saturday, but even then the weather didn’t cooperate. When the team stepped off the buses, it was 31 degrees.
“It wasn’t very bad at all, so everybody was like, ‘Oh, this is OK,’ ” James said. “But when we went back out there Sunday, it was like a whole different ballgame. It was a lot colder, a lot windier and it was pretty tough.”
James said fielding punts was like cradling a falling brick.
“I look at it like the egg drop,” he said. “You know how you had to do the egg drop when you were a kid? Just hold it and embrace it, and that’s how I did the ball. You couldn’t prepare for it too much. It was kind of one of those things you just had to go out and do it.”
James handled the challenge well, adding to the confidence that has been building since he took over punt-return duties from Kyle Williams in Week 10 in a game against the Panthers. Since then, he’s averaged 10.9 yards per punt return – the 10th-best mark in the league among players with at least 20 returns.
That’s not as good as the man who held the job in San Francisco the previous three seasons. Ted Ginn now plays for Carolina. He averaged 12.2 yards a return this season, sixth best in the league.
But James’ aggressive style and his steady improvement indicate that the 49ers may have found someone to handle the role for the next three years.
“I feel totally different,” James said of his learning curve. “It's kind of like a night-and-day deal when I’m back there now. I have no worries. I’m just out there playing free.”