Patriots look not to level, but to harden the playing field

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Last week the Patriots organization made changes to the turf at Gillette Stadium. This is not the first time that the team has changed it’s playing surface during the season. In 2006, after a particularly wet and sloppy home loss to the Jets, they ripped up the natural grass field and installed synthetic turf mid-season.  In his Sunday notes this week, Mike Reiss from ESPN reported, “several players have commented in recent weeks that the field has been particularly soft.” This week’s changes to the turf were aimed at making it a harder surface. The question is – why now?

On it’s official Twitter account in late June, Gillette Stadium announced that they were getting new turf. Athletes played on the new turf for four months without any changes being made. Reiss suggested that it might be to help Patriot’s kicker Stephen Gostkowki, who has missed three field-goal attempts and two extra points this season. To put this into perspective, last year he missed 3 field goals all season. These numbers are certainly concerning, but would the Patriots organization really change the entire playing surface just for him and, if so, what would be the impact on other players?

To even begin to answer these questions we have to take a short course in Turfgrass science. Stay with me people — I promise not to use the term “PSI.” Synthetic turf made it’s debut in professional sports in 1966 in Houston’s Astrodome, the world’s first stadium with a roof. Initially the roof allowed sunlight in which nourished the field’s natural grass. However, the direct sunlight became a problem for player visibility due to glare so in 1966 the roof was painted and a turf playing field was installed. Synthetic turf has gone through multiple upgrades since then. The initial Astroturf was very similar to the fake grass that now carpets pools and miniature golf courses across America. Second generation turf was a bit thicker and more padded. Third generation turf is the most advanced and current type of synthetic grass surface. This modern turf is even thicker and is infilled with sand and rubber crumb to mimic a more natural grass surface(if you have kids who play sports, this is the black stuff that’s all over your house…no seriously, it’s everywhere).  Below is a depiction of FieldTurf Revolution 360 (2.5″) turf , the 3rd generation turf that was installed at Gillette in June.


You can see in the image above that synthetic grass surface producers are trying very hard to mimic a soft natural grass surface. Why is this so important?

There are two answers. One response considers the question in terms of athlete safety and the other focuses on athlete performance. These two entities are often at odds with each other in the NFL and the issue of playing surface is no exception.

The two main criticisms of synthetic turf which continue to drive the industry to improve are that turf fields are too hard and too “grippy.” Last night On CSN’s Quickslants Tom E. Curran dipped very deep in the Twitter mailbag to ask former Patriot Jerod Mayo a question I submitted – how do players feel that the turf surface affects them? His answer? “Softer is always better.” Players often feel that it is more difficult to recover from a game played on turf than it is from a game on natural grass. A softer surface allows for less impact to the joints and therefore less pain. Perhaps more importantly, a softer surface may also result in fewer and less severe concussions. 1 in 5 concussions in the game of football occur as a result of player-to-surface contact. If the player is contacting a softer playing surface then it is thought that the risk and severity of concussion would be decreased. The NFL, in it’s quest to improve it’s declining ratings…err…I mean in it’s quest to decrease the risk of devastating brain and joint injury in it’s players, formed the Field Surface & Performance Committee. The purpose of this committee is to monitor safety and performance of playing surfaces around the league. This includes testing of every NFL field inside of 72 hours prior to gametime every week during the season. In keeping with the idea that a softer playing field is safer for athletes, there are now rules in place for how “hard” a field can be. Which begs the question, can a field be too soft?

This is reportedly what Patriots players have been commenting on for a few weeks. I haven’t seen any direct quotes reported, but we can guess how a turf that is “too” soft might impact player performance. A softer artificial surface generally means a thicker padding underneath the artificial grass fibers and a thicker layer of sand and loose rubber infill. If you have ever gone for a walk on soft sand you probably have experienced first-hand how a softer surface can fatigue leg muscles more quickly than walking on hard-packed sand. Furthermore, if you have ever tried to play frisbee or touch football in soft sand you have seen how much more difficult it can be to quickly change direction and how easy it is to slip when trying to do so. A softer turf is likely similar, albeit to a slighter degree. A softer turf may not allow cleats to grip enough and, as a result, may lead to more muscle strain and tear injuries.

The level of “grip” of the field is an important point to consider. A harder field that allows players to plant and pivot more effectively can also generate too much torque on the players’ legs. Studies looking at lower extremity injuries in NFL athletes playing on artificial turf compared to those playing on grass, suggest that artificial turf surfaces increase the incidence of ACL and ankle injury, where the foot plants and “sticks” to the field while the rest of the player keeps moving. What players gain from a harder playing surface in performance and ability to firmly grip the turf surface they may lose in knee, ankle and head protection.

Stephen Gostkowski and all kickers depend on the grip of their planted foot for stability as they attempt to get the ball through the uprights. In Reiss‘ Sunday notes he reported that “quietly behind the scenes, some within the Patriots’ organization are hoping changes made to the Gillette Stadium playing field in recent days could help the 11-year veteran find his groove more consistently.” I find it difficult to believe that the Patriots would alter their turf just for him, but perhaps improved conditions for that planting foot will help the struggling kicker overcome his case of the yips. I hope that the changes to the turf were not too drastic and that the Patriots organization is cautiously navigating the tightrope between player performance and player safety.

Follow me on Twitter @jessdeede

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