If you’re ever invited to watch Andy Lee’s video from Saturday’s soccer game at Levi’s Stadium, prepare to be disappointed.
It doesn’t involve any on-field action between the Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders. Instead the 49ers’ punter focused on how the flags that ring the stadium behaved at the first game played in his team’s new digs.
At least one person found the flag footage riveting.
“You’re looking for whatever keys you can use,” kicker Phil Dawson said of gauging the wind at Levi’s. “And right now, we’re trying to figure out which keys are the important ones. Some flags may point this way; some may point the other way. Which flags mean what? We’re sort of at the elementary stage right now, and it’s exciting.”
While Lee, Dawson and the team’s kicking crew have had several practice sessions at Levi’s Stadium this summer, Monday was the first time their teammates joined them. The biggest concern for the linemen, linebackers, wide receivers and running backs wasn’t the wind but the new grass.
Coach Jim Harbaugh huddled the players at midfield before practice and cautioned that they would be playing on a surface that just a few months earlier was growing in a field outside Turlock.
“I tried to slow them down a little bit, especially at the beginning of practice,” Harbaugh said. “Be in control. We have a new grass surface, and I wanted the guys to get their feet under them, get used to it. (I was being) overly cautious. I think that was the right thing to do.”
At the end of practice, the reviews were unanimously positive.
The playing surface emerged from the soccer game without any issues, and players said it was decidedly faster and more compact than Candlestick Park’s grass, which tended to be brittle in the summer and a little mushy in the fall and winter.
Cornerback Perrish Cox said he was prepared to constantly change his cleats to find the the right fit at Levi’s but ended up sticking with the molded cleats he was wearing.
“It was better than Candlestick, that’s for sure,” he said.
Said fullback Bruce Miller: “I saw one spot come up along the edge of the field, but I’m never going to be over there in that corner of the end zone anyway. But I thought it was great. I thought it played well, played fast. The groundskeepers – they do an awesome job.”
Dawson, who spent 14 years in Cleveland before joining the 49ers last year, said he’s mostly worn long cleats on his plant leg throughout his career. Now he’s using a run-of-the-mill molded cleat, which he said is the best footwear for a kicker.
“It’s very playable right now,” Dawson said. “I’m anxious to see how it holds up when the big boys get out there. But from everything I’ve read about it, it’s the type of grass that re-grows very quickly.”
Reading the wind has proven a bit more difficult, something Dawson said he hopes to master by the end of the preseason.
Last year, he learned how to kick in an odd-shaped stadium that was between a steep hill and windy San Francisco Bay. The breezes in Santa Clara are warmer and more uniform, almost always coming from the northwest.
But that also happens to be the site of a huge notch in Levi’s. It allows the wind to enter the facility where it bounces around.
“What I learned so far is, depending on the velocity of the wind, that affects how hard it starts bouncing and swirling,” Dawson said. “And that’s not all that uncommon for stadiums that have open corners.”
NFL kickers are certifiable nuts about weather, and Lee and Dawson have plenty of tricks at their disposal.
They’ll watch their kicks and their opponents’ in warmups. They’ll pay close attention to any pregame pyrotechnics to see which way the smoke drifts. And they have plenty of weather apps on their phones that they’ll consult. Dawson said he’s found one that is particularly accurate, but he wouldn’t divulge the identity.
Dawson also has heard the 49ers plan to install a weather device on the stadium that fans can use to better plan for the game.
Said Dawson, “Hopefully by that point, if I hear ‘southwest wind,’ I’ll know what that means inside the stadium.”