When John Hall was a rookie kicker with the New York Jets, he would hop out of bed at the team hotel near the Meadowlands the morning of every home game, and race to the window to see what the New Jersey wind was doing to the trees below. By the end of that season, Hall, now a veteran with the Washington Redskins, had discontinued the morning ritual, realizing that there was no adequate way to anticipate weather conditions at Giants Stadium, particularly at 9 a.m.
Kicking field goals there would never be easy, and many games have been influenced by the swirling winds at that swampland. The forecast for the NFC East encounter between the Redskins (4-2) and Giants (4-2) seems innocuous enough -- sunny with a high of 62 and an 11-mph wind from the northwest -- but no one is taking that as gospel, especially over the course of three hours. Kicking and special teams could be significant factors in what is expected to be a close game, and Hall aims to return from a lengthy injury Sunday in a stadium he knows all too well.
"The truth of the matter is," Hall said, "it could be a gorgeous day with no wind, and you can show up there and it'll just be a nightmare. Average days aren't good there. You just don't know what you're going to get. It changes so quick; it never stays the same. Basically, you just go there expecting the worst and you spend the pregame just studying the winds. Even though it can change, you still want to get a grasp on it, and you just go out there and try to hit a good ball."
Hall, 31, was signed from the Jets as a free agent in 2003 and has not played since straining his right quadriceps in the Week 1 victory over Chicago. Rookie Nick Novak (Maryland) has filled in well, making 5 of 7 field goal attempts (the two misses were both blocked) but lacks length on kickoffs. The Redskins clearly want Hall's experience, keeping two kickers for seven weeks rather than place Hall, who missed half the 2004 season with injuries, on injured reserve. Coach Joe Gibbs prefers veterans as his specialists; he obsesses over botched kicks and punts just as he did decades ago.
The coaches will make a final decision on the kicker after today's practice, with Hall increasing his workload throughout this week. He worked on kickoffs extensively yesterday ("They went all right," Hall said), and believes he is ready to handle all duties Sunday. Punter Derrick Frost also continues to try some kickoffs at practice, while Novak, 24, realizes his time on the roster might be ending.
"I think I've shown well," said Novak, who grew up in Charlottesville. "I really haven't had any long field goals in games, but I've done everything I can in practice to earn the trust of the coaches, and I think I've shown well. I have no regrets, that's the biggest thing. I think I made the most of my opportunity and hopefully bigger and better things will stem from it. I would love to stay in this area, but you've just got to do what they tell you to do."
Hall wanted to return last weekend -- special teams coach Danny Smith decided otherwise -- and badly wants to play Sunday ("I'm absolutely ready to get out there."). Novak said that if he does play Sunday, he will not be overly concerned with the weather. He has heard the horror stories about the Meadowlands and even discussed kicking there with Bears punter Brad Maynard when he was in Chicago's training camp. Maynard spent four years with the Giants.
"He said it's not as bad as people made it out to be," Novak said. "So that's encouraging."
Others would disagree. Redskins long snapper Ethan Albright has spent his 11-year career playing at least twice a season at Giants Stadium (either in the NFC East or AFC East), and has learned to adapt to the Meadowlands.
"The bleachers there go over this big tunnel," Albright said, "and if you're kicking into it with the visiting team, they open those big doors and tell you it's the fire code or something. 'Oh, these doors have to stay open.' But if you look at it when the Giants are kicking at that end, those doors are closed. You ask them about it in pregame and there's always something different they tell you: 'Team regulations,' or whatever. It's definitely a home-field advantage."
While Albright believes Novak has the moxie to kick there -- "He's pretty poised for a young guy" -- he would give the edge to Hall. "John has been there and he's handled it year after year," Albright said. "So hopefully if he's healthy he'll be back to deal with it."
Hall is eager to put his Meadowlands expertise back to good use. For instance, putting your finger up to gauge wind direction and speed is useless ("You just get wind on every side," he said.). Instead, Hall said he concentrates on the rotation of the ball during warmups, and tries to adjust his target location based on the wind. In Week 2 at Giants Stadium last season, he said he struck a kick as well as he ever has, and ended up smacking the goal post ("You can't get down on yourself if you miss one there," he said.). Hall has spent the past few weeks building strength and stamina in his right leg, hoping to return to the form he had in the season opener, when he kicked three field goals in a 9-7 win.
"I'm getting there," Hall said. "I don't have that same pop I had in training camp. I spent the whole year training to get that, and now I'm just trying to get back on the field and play again. But I feel good mentally even though I haven't been playing. I don't feel like I've had a six-week vacation or anything like that. I'm pushing the limits, trying to see what I can do. I feel good. I'm excited."