Even in Pittsburgh, playoffs are mind-over-sloppy-turf-matter games

A level playing field is the goal in the playoffs, of course. But a playing surface that isn't affected by rain and snow and mud takes some of the fun of football away, writes John Helyar.

Originally Published: January 3, 2008
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

The Jacksonville Jaguars' Fred Taylor thinks the turf at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field is "terrible" and "ridiculous" and "a lawsuit pending."

The Pittsburgh Steelers' president, Art Rooney II, thinks that's just swell. The more the Jags stew about the field on which they'll meet the Steelers in Saturday night's AFC wild-card playoff game, the more home-field advantage Rooney's team enjoys.

"If people come in thinking these aren't ideal conditions and that's always in the back of their minds, who knows how it affects their performance?" he asks. "We tell our kickers, 'Make sure you tell the opposing kickers this is the worst field you've ever kicked off.'"

Such are the mind games that figure into the NFL playoffs. It's that time of the football year when frozen tundra, slick surfaces and winter's other ravages traditionally become big factors -- even legends. Three sneakers-clad teams have won NFL championships on icy fields.

[+] EnlargeHines Ward
Paul Spinelli/Getty ImagesHines Ward and the Steelers didn't know enough to come in out of the rain on a late-November Monday night in Heinz Field.
Funny thing about 2008, though. Heinz Field appears to be the exception, not the rule, when it comes to weather-related turf conditions bolstering home-field advantages. In Tampa, San Diego and Seattle -- the sites of the other three wild-card games this weekend -- screaming fans will buoy host teams but the playing surfaces should be as neutral as Switzerland.

Do the quirks of the respective fields have any impact on point spreads? Don't bet on it, says Tony Sinisi, who helps set the NFL line for Las Vegas Sports Consultants.

"You can look at that stuff, but it doesn't have any definitive value," he says.

NFL playing fields have become so widely improved over the past decade, with the building of new stadiums and advances in turf technology, that home-field differences and edges for the most part have been squeezed out of the game.

To league officials, this is all part of the NFL's competitive-parity mantra.

"You don't want the field to play a role in the outcome of any game," says Tim Davey, the league's director of game operations. "That's what you strive for."

On the other hand, this is also about the homogenization of the league. In the NFL Films archive of the 1960s, Jim Brown and Gale Sayers slop through mud. Future generations will see this decade's running backs romp on FieldTurf surfaces, today's most popular artificial turf. It now covers nine NFL playing surfaces, including the Seattle Seahawks' Qwest Field.

"We're a real neutral site," says John Wright, the Seahawks' director of fields and facilities. "It's a surface that guys around the league are used to playing on."

[+] EnlargeShaun Alexander
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonWhen the Seahawks play host to the Redskins on Saturday, Shaun Alexander likely will be running in rain rather than snow.
This standardized, neutralized NFL field isn't just a function of new player-friendly artificial turf. (Unlike the original rock-hard AstroTurf, the FieldTurf "grass" has a shredded rubber infill below the surface which cushions players' falls and makes their cuts safer.) The installation and care of natural turf has also greatly improved.

"The groundskeepers are much more qualified and educated than they were years ago," Davey says. "Most of them have degrees."

The grounds crew at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium can lay in turf like Philip Rivers lays in passes -- frequently and accurately. The groundskeepers resodded the whole field in early December, after four high school games had pretty much finished off the original Bermuda grass.

That enabled Qualcomm to withstand four football games between Dec. 16 and Dec. 27 -- two Chargers contests, plus the Holiday and Poinsettia bowls. Following the last of those events, the Holiday Bowl, the crew had to remove seven bowl logos from the field and plant fresh sod in those spots. Asserts stadium general manager Eric Stover: "The field is in great shape" for Sunday's wild-card game between the Chargers and the Titans. That's good, because the San Diego forecast is for rain on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The crew at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa also has been run ragged. It had to prep the field for the Buccaneers' final regular-season game against Carolina last Sunday, restore it for the Outback Bowl on Tuesday, then patch it up again for the Bucs-Giants game this Sunday.

One of the biggest challenges, according to stadium operations director Mickey Farrell, is coping with the ravages of the Outback Bowl's three marching bands.

"It's the up-and-down beating on the same spot with their feet," he says.

In a 2006 survey by the NFL Players Association, Raymond James ranked as the players' favorite field. It has wind-at-its-back advantages over many other surfaces: player-friendly natural turf and a grass-nurturing balmy environment.

But the root reason for Raymond James' excellence, according to legendary groundskeeper George Toma, is this: "They've got a helluva good grounds crew."

Bad-weather playoff games

If the turf gets troublesome in Pittsburgh -- or anywhere else -- this postseason, it won't be the first time the playoffs have been affected by the weather. Some of the NFL's most memorable games have been played in the elements.

1934 NFL Championship: Chicago Bears wear sneakers on frozen Polo Grounds field and defeat the New York Giants, 30-13.

1947 NFL Championship: Chicago Cardinals affix cork cleats to sneakers and defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 on frozen ground at Comiskey Field.

1956 NFL Championship: Giants wear sneakers on frozen Yankee Stadium field and defeat the Bears, 47-7.

1961 NFL Championship: Packers defeat the Giants 37-0 on frozen Yankee Stadium field.

1967 NFL Championship: Packers defeat the Cowboys 21-17 in the "Ice Bowl," where temperature at kickoff was minus-13 degrees.

1975 AFC Championship: Steelers defeat the Raiders 16-10 on a frozen Three Rivers Stadium field

1978 AFC Championship: Steelers defeat the Oilers 34-5 on a slushy field in Pittsburgh.

1981 AFC Championship: Bengals defeat the Chargers 27-7 in a game that was played in temperatures of minus-9 degrees and a wind chill of minus 59.

1982 AFC Championship: Dolphins defeat the Jets 14-0, played in severe rain and mud in Miami.

1988 NFC Divisional Playoffs: Bears defeat the Eagles 20-12 at a very foggy Soldier Field.

1996 AFC Divisional Playoffs: Call it "Fog Bowl II" as the Patriots defeat the Steelers 28-3.

1996 NFC Divisional Playoffs: Packers defeat the 49ers 35-14 on a very muddy Lambeau Field.

2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs: Patriots defeat the Raiders 16-13 (OT) on a snowy night at Foxboro Stadium (the game featured the infamous "Tuck Rule" play).

Super Bowl XLI: Colts defeat the Bears 29-17 in the rain in Miami, the first rainy Super Bowl ever.

Toma, who has handled field prep for all 42 Super Bowls, acknowledges the NFL has come a long since Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, when Tulane Stadium was basically denuded of grass and "we had to fool the public" with a lot of sawdust painted green. But, he says, "Sometimes I wonder if we've become too sophisticated for our own good."

Toma believes teams get overly infatuated with new turf technology, for example, or overrate their ability to correct problems instantly. He points to Pittsburgh as a possible case in point.

The Steelers are one of four NFL teams to install DD GrassMaster, a hybrid which is supposed to combine the best of both worlds. It's a natural grass woven into synthetic fibers, which enhance durability.

Now the jag that the Jags' Fred Taylor went on against Pittsburgh's turf could be chalked up to gamesmanship. After all, he gained 147 yards on it in a 29-22 win against the Steelers on Dec. 16. But the fact is that he has plenty of company in disliking it. Heinz Field ranked No. 29 of the 31 NFL stadia in the NFLPA survey of preferences. Another DD GrassMaster surface, in the Philadelphia Eagles' Lincoln Financial Field, ranked No. 23. A third facility, the Denver Broncos' Invesco Field, ranked no. 12. The Green Bay Packers, who will play host to an NFC divisional playoff game next Saturday, Jan. 12, just installed their GrassMaster turf this season.

The problem seems to be the durability of the turf. Heinz and Lincoln Financial fields both are used for college games in addition to NFL contests. Heinz adds to its wear and tear by hosting a western Pennsylvania high school tournament in November. This season, by the end of November, both fields were shot and both teams installed new sod over the original GrassMaster surface.

The Steelers had less than two days to lay it in between a Pitt game on Nov. 24 and a Monday night Dolphins game on Nov. 26. In that time, torrential rains assaulted Pittsburgh and the sod failed to take hold.

That Monday night, Heinz Field had the consistency of Heinz ketchup. One of the many lowlights of the slipfest fiasco was a punt which stuck in the turf, instead of taking the customary bounce.

The Steelers won the game, 3-0, but a worried Tim Davey spent the week in Pittsburgh trying to see if the field could be brought around for the next game. It was. Though the Steelers played through either rain or snow in their next two home games, the field was more manageable.

Team president Rooney blames a bad confluence of circumstances, not GrassMaster, for the Monday night fiasco. He asserts his players still strongly prefer natural grass. But he acknowledges the Steelers have been inspecting some FieldTurf facilities.

There's a 40 percent chance of rain in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but Rooney says the franchise will be plenty ready for showers -- and the Jaguars. He's assured the league office of that, too.

"They say the field looks like brand-new," Davey says. "I'll know that when I get there."

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."