CHARLOTTE -- Motivated by their desire to play field-position football again this year, the Carolina Panthers kept an extra kicker.
Problem is, that guy's not worth as much yardage in December as he was earlier in the year.
If you think Panthers' kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd has lost a little something lately, you're on the right track. His length has been sapped in part by the natural fatigue that sets in over the course of the year, but also by the weather.
"Absolutely," Lloyd said when asked how much the cold affects him. "It's a huge difference."
In the Panthers' last three games, played in Green Bay and in Charlotte after dark (with an average kickoff temperature of 40.1 degrees), Lloyd has kicked off 19 times. Of those, seven reached the end zone, and three stayed there as touchbacks.
In the Panthers' first four games, contested in California, indoors and in the local swelter (average kickoff temperature of 78.5), Lloyd also had 19 kickoff opportunities, but belted 16 of those into the end zone and had nine touchbacks.
Lloyd still leads the league in touchbacks with 24, four ahead of second-place Olindo Mare of Seattle.
In a game in which inches matter, such yards become harder-won as the year progresses.
NFL kickers are forced to work with a harder-than-normal ball anyway, the K-ball, which doesn't get warmed up the same way past balls were. Kickers want a ball that's soft, so they get maximum compression when they hit the ball at a high velocity. They used to run them through dryers, beat on them, try to mash the ball down from one end against the ground, anything to get a more pliable surface.
Adding the cold temperatures to that mix only serves to make the ball that much harder. Sunday night's forecast in New York calls for a low around 23 degrees and a chance of a wintry mix of snow and rain.
"It makes the ball harder to kick, takes away the sweet spot," Lloyd said. "The leather doesn't have as much give in it. Basically, the ball is slightly deflated from the air, but the panels are harder. So there's no give in it at all."
Lloyd said such conditions make the ball far less forgiving. So he has to try to hit it perfectly, knowing that any just-off strike might land fluttering around the 10, giving opponents a much easier chance at a return.
"The miss-hits are larger, just because of the way the ball reacts to the cold weather," Lloyd said. "Especially the last couple weeks, I look up after I hit the ball, think I've hit it pretty good, whether it's a miss-hit, or only lands at the goal line. Normally that's a good kick for me when it's nice out, it's going to travel a lot easier than it does now."
Thanks to Lloyd and the strength of his leg, they're up to eighth in the league in opponent's kickoff return average. They were as low as 27th in that category midseason, which points to the advantage Lloyd gives them. While the weather affects all kickers equally, having a home run hitter handling kickoffs makes you better able to pin the other team deep as the season goes on, because weaker-legged kickers suffer doubly.
Punter Jason Baker said the conditions affect him as well.
Asked if the cold and wind was worse for him or Lloyd, he shook his head and replied: "Not good for any of us, I know that."
One of the more precise players in the locker room in terms of his habits and results, Baker estimated that cold weather can make a "4-to-7-yard difference," in a punted ball.
"It's one of the things you just learn to deal with it," Baker said. "You have to realize the finesse part of the game is a little bit less of an important factor when it's 25 degrees outside."
Of course, Giants Stadium complicates things further. There are legends about former coach Bill Parcells opening the loading dock doors to allow air in when opponents were kicking that way, but even under normal circumstances, the wind swirls there. Baker said it was most like Arrowhead Stadium, where he punted for Kansas City.
Former Giants punter Sean Landeta (whose famed miss in the 1985 playoffs was actually in Chicago), has acknowledged the unique weather patterns in his old home stadium made his job more difficult, to the point that studying the forecasts don't help.
"What matters most is what's going on the 10 seconds you are out there," he said in a 2001 Associated Press story. "The winds can pick up, change direction, slow down."
And because he's punted there before with success (limiting the Giants to 5 return yards in the 2005 playoff game there, while landing two of his four attempts inside the 20), Baker's not cowed by the prospect.
He just walks in knowing it's going to be bad.
"I don't think it's a place you can expect a nice day this time of year," he said. "It's manageable. There are days up there it's not manageable and you just try to survive."