SANTA CLARA — The 49ers can now discover if the grass indeed is greener away from Candlestick Park.
Levi’s Stadium hosts its first football game today, albeit a mere exhibition against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Forgive 49ers players if they don’t get caught up in the hoopla.
“We’ll still be between the lines. The stadium shouldn’t matter,” running back Frank Gore said.
“We’re on the field, so a field’s a field,” defensive tackle Justin Smith added.
“As players, we just get inside those white lines, wherever we play,” safety Antoine Bethea said.
Moving into a $1.3 billion stadium eventually will have its home-field perks. And surely there’ll be some quirks, aside from some traffic hassles.
Coach Jim Harbaugh wants his team to quickly “mark our territory” at the stadium located next to their longtime training facility.
“We’ve got to get used to the new stadium, new wind, new grass, everything,” Harbaugh said.
On the outside, the stadium resembles an iron skeleton, with only a few oversized posters covering its bones. On the inside, it’s like a red leather couch you’ve long sought for your living room and finally splurged to buy.
On the ground, the Bandera Bermuda grass was installed four months ago, so divots are sure to pop up until the roots get deeper. It’s tightly cropped like a country-club fairway and much firmer than Candlestick’s at-times spongy surface. Will it play faster? Harbaugh doesn’t think so. Gore doesn’t know quite what to expect, even though the 49ers have practiced on it twice.
“When something is new, everyone is excited, the fans and the players,” Gore said. “I hope as a team we come in and want to do great.”
The 49ers will host their second exhibition next Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, then they won’t be back until Sept. 14 for a “Sunday Night Football” matchup with the Chicago Bears. The regular-season opener is at Dallas on Sept. 7.
Those most familiar with Levi’s Stadium’s playing effect are the 49ers’ specialists: kicker Phil Dawson, punter Andy Lee and long snapper Kevin McDermott, who’ve been shuttled between that field and the practice facility throughout camp. “They’re trying to get keys,” Harbaugh said. “Is (the wind) exactly the same as what the flag is? Sometimes it’s opposite. Sometimes it swirls. So, that’s part of the process of getting used to it.”
While Dawson and Lee have conducted wind analysis, no one knows how footballs might float in the South Bay’s newest airstream, especially because of the stadium’s open ends in the northwest and southwest corners.
Sunday will mark the first time a sold-out crowd of 68,500 is expected, making the stadium’s acoustics a case study.
Will the cheers bounce off the eight-story suite tower as expected, affecting opponents’ eardrums in Seattle-like fashion? Will giant video screens behind the end zones allow players to spy on defenders who might be chasing them down? Is this stadium foray as big for the players as it is the fans and surrounding community?
“Probably for the fans,” linebacker Patrick Willis said. “I never had an opportunity to (play) in the stadium before Candlestick, but I heard it’s old. I’m sure the fans are going to love the new place because it’s amazing. But for us, we’ve got to win the football game, whether it’s at Candlestick or in the backyard at the new stadium.”