So the Pittsburgh Steelers were at home today taking on the San Diego Chargers in a nationally televised match-up of two strong AFC teams. While good defense and loud fans are staples of a Steelers home game, for the past few years absolutely horrible field conditions have also become a constant at Heinz Field. This is a problem.
The NFL is built upon speed and athleticism. We love to see quarterbacks make pinpoint throws, running backs juke and linebackers deliver crushing blows. Nothing compromises the speed of the game like poor field conditions. Suddenly, instead of seeing Philip Rivers hitting Vincent Jackson on a precisely timed out-route, we have Jackson slipping and the ball sailing out of bounds, or even worse, the Chargers abandon the passing game and we have a bunch of guys tip-toeing all over a slippery field. Because quality field conditions are essential to quality football, the NFL should demand that all 32 franchised be able provide an acceptable playing field in all but the worst playing conditions (ie hurricane).
Like I said previously, Pittsburgh has had big time problems with field conditions in the last few years. The most notable occurrence was a 2007 Monday night match up with Miami which was a 3-0 snoozer that didn't come close to displaying the talents and abilities of either team. In that game, standing pools of water changed a fast paced, high impact game into a rugby scrum. Aside from affecting the quality of the game, poor field conditions also endanger players' health which is critical to the NFL game (and if you don't believe me ask a Patroits fan how he is enjoying the Matt Cassel era). Football on a chewed up field with ankle deep water is barely football and the NFL can do better.
So being a part time engineer (hey, Joe & Joe Sports is still growing so some of us are having to do some moonlighting), when I see a problem I try to break it down and propose solutions. So what's the problem here? Clearly (despite the title of this post), as seen in at the terrific PNC Park, they can grow grass in Pittsburgh. The problem is that they play way too many games at Heinz Field. In order to get the support to build Heinz Field, agreements were made that allowed the University of Pittsburgh to play there along with several Pennsylvania state championship games. This basically means that during the football season the field never gets a week off and, in the midst of the season, is hosting multiple games a week. It's just too much.
So we know the problem, now how to fix it. First off, play fewer games at Heinz Field. The high school games have to go. I'm sure it's a thrill for high school players to play on the same field as their NFL favorites, but 99.99% of the merchandise-buying, commercial-watching NFL fans don't care. There are plenty of other facilities in Pennsylvania that could accommodate high school football championships, so it seems ridiculous that they need to play in an NFL caliber stadium. Oh yeah, and if there are agreements that say they can hold the high school championships there, ummm, break them.
If the city of Pittsburgh won't budge on the high school championships, well, there is another alternative. If they insist on playing games every week, Heinz Field could come into the 21st century and install FieldTurf. Rumor has it (umm, Wiki) that the Steelers players don't want Field Turf, and to that I say "who cares". Over 1/3 of the fields in the NFL have FieldTurf, so it is clearly an acceptable playing surface and one that will insure that the game is played at the high level NFL fans expect.
Finally, if the Steelers won't take the lead on bringing their playing surface up to par it's time for the NFL to step in. It's in the league's best interest to have fast, precise, hard hitting games, especially during prime time games. If teams undermine the league with inferior playing surfaces, it hurts advertising (people turn off the games) and general league interest. So I'm suggesting the league come up with a playing field standard. Every field would receive a score for every game and the score would be based upon how the field held up for the weather conditions at the time (so teams wouldn't be penalized if it rained, they would only be penalized if their field fell apart in the rain). If a team's field scored below league standards on two or more occasions in a season they would be put on watch for the next season. If a team on "field watch" then had more than one game the next season in which their playing surface fell below league standards, the NFL would penalize the team a home game for every time they had a sub-par field. After all, why should you have a home game if you can't provide an acceptable field? Also, it will insure that fields are exceptional, since teams can't risk losing a home game and the associated revenue. Better fields will lead to better games and, after all, that's what we are all after.
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