New sod creates problems during rain-soaked MNF game
Running and passing plays appeared to be going in slow motion. Punting was difficult, kicking was nearly impossible. Players sunk ankle deep at times into the swamp-like field, and one punt nearly disappeared as it struck nose-first into the brand new turf, burrowing itself like a golf ball.
Welcome to Muddy Night Football.
Only this wasn't Lucy pulling the ball away from a slip-sliding Charlie Brown on Peanuts' imaginary playground, but a for-real NFL game with the potential to affect playoff races and the winless Dolphins' place in league history.
For one dreadful night, a perfect storm of weather-related events conspired to turn the Heinz Field grass into a surface that resembled a poorly maintained high school field. Neither team scored until Jeff Reed's 24-yard field goal with 17 seconds remaining won it for Pittsburgh 3-0.
The sod had been in place less than a day, put down hurriedly after five high school and college games last weekend chewed up the old turf. While the grass was new and plush, installing it atop the old field meant it didn't drain as well.
Add in a drenching rainstorm, the kind seldom seen in Pittsburgh so close to winter, and lightning, and it made for one of the weirdest NFL games of recent vintage.
During breaks, grounds crew members gouged the new sod with pitchforks to accelerate the drainage and emptied bags and bags of the water-drying substance more commonly seen at Major League Baseball games.
"On TV, maybe it didn't look so bad," Steelers punter Dan Sepulveda said. "But when you're out there, it's unbelievable."
No, it looked bad on TV, too.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin often talks about splash plays -- big plays that make a major difference in a game -- but every play on this rainy night in Pittsburgh was a splash play.
Perhaps the Steelers should have followed the advice given on the Web site for the company that provided the new sod: "During the first three weeks, avoid heavily or concentrated use of your new yard. This gives the roots an opportunity to firmly knit with the soil and insures that the turf will remain smooth."
A three-hour pounding by 22 athletes, who weigh an average of 250 pounds or so, likely constitutes heavy usage.
The Steelers have had ongoing turf problems since Heinz Field opened in 2001, replacing the grass three times during the 2002 season. None of those were quite this bad.
Now, the question is whether this game -- a national embarrassment to one of the NFL's most successful and well-run franchises -- will push them to install artificial turf.
"We have to look at those options and we will," Tomlin said Tuesday. "I'm not concerned about it right now. The field we have here is the field we have."
With the Steelers (8-3) staying at home Sunday to play the Bengals (4-7), an NFL official will remain in Pittsburgh this week to monitor the field.
On Tuesday afternoon, it was still chewed up, with several long sideline-to-sideline strips of brown turf caused when rain water gushed through the seams of the protective tarps laid atop the field.
However, the Steelers apparently do not plan to replace this sod with more new sod.
"The field conditions were less than satisfactory for playing the Monday Night Football game," team president Art Rooney II said Tuesday in a statement. "We consulted with the NFL prior to laying down new sod and our grounds crew did the best it could under the circumstances.
"Unfortunately, we were faced with the worst possible weather conditions and we acknowledge that it did have an impact on the playing surface. We will continue to work with the NFL game operations people this week as our grounds crew works to improve the conditions of the field in time for Sunday night's game."
Perhaps the surprise is some Steelers players still do not want artificial turf, even though it would allow more events to be staged at Heinz Field.
"No, you can't simulate grass," Ward said. "That FieldTurf [used in the Steelers' indoor practice building] is still turf. Guys fall on it and it can get hard. You can still get a concussion. Players around here, if you ask them, even if it was pretty bad [Monday], we will stick with grass."
Tomlin didn't think the bad field was a big deal, even though the turf was clearly the culprit in one of the lowest-scoring games in NFL history. It was the first time since a Lions-Giants scoreless tie in 1943 that an NFL game went to the final minute without any scoring.
"It's football, man, it's an outdoor game," Tomlin said. "It is played as you move into December. Everybody loved to play dirty football when you were a kid. What else is new? Guys had a great time, it created some adversity and we overcame it and found a way to win the game."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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