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Original Issue

It's The Grass Guys Who Win Games

Here are some interesting stats about artificial turf and the NFL: From 1978 through '84, teams playing their home games on grass have had a better collective record, every year, than artificial-turf teams. The grass teams haven't had a sub-.500 season in those seven years. The turf teams have never been over .500. The last five Super Bowls have been won by grass teams, and of the last dozen clubs to make the Super Bowl, only three were turf teams.

What does this mean? Well, to me it means that despite the obvious performance benefits of synthetic turf—the quick people will get quicker, the kickers will be more accurate—you're better off playing on grass.

Turf teams have a tougher time switching to playing on grass than vice versa. They're less able to handle variable weather and field conditions. The precise moves they execute on synthetic surfaces, the intricate timing between quarterback and receiver or running back and trap-blocking linemen, often misfire on a muddy field.

"It's incredible to me that players will take their turf shoes, with the short, rubberized cleats, when they're traveling to a game on natural grass, even when they know they might run into bad weather," says Mike Hickey, the Jets' director of player personnel. "Then they're slipping all over the place. It's speed, the quest for speed. Everyone wants to have lighter equipment and be faster."

Everyone runs faster on artificial turf, so it's basically a wash. But the players it helps most are the ones with quick feet. They can pick their feet up more swiftly; the traction is better. Consequently, scouts put emphasis on drafting quick-footed players, and you see more little guys, 180-pound running backs, 165-pound receivers, who were too small in the old grass days. You'll see more runs that look hopeless turned into gainers on synthetic turf because the difference in quickness between players has been magnified.

It's difficult to get a handle on strategic changes in the game because of the turf. The new pass rules that were introduced in 1978 have had much more to do with the development of today's wide-open brand of football than turf has. But the quicker artificial surfaces reinforced that kind of game.

Artificial turf, though, has brought a big change in kicking. Uniform surfaces spell accuracy. Last year 71.7% of all field goal attempts were successful, an alltime high that most observers attribute to turf. Twenty years ago a team was pretty good if it made half its field goals. In 1984 only one NFL team was under .500.



In the '85 AFC final, the Steelers, who play on turf at home, lost to Miami on the Orange Bowl grass, reflecting an oft-repeated result in grass-turf showdowns.