Why the New England Patriots gave up on natural grass


For the Monitor

Published: 11-26-2016 11:23 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In the fall of 2002, the New England Patriots embarked on a conquest against nature. Opening a brand new stadium that many thought would never exist, and raising a championship banner that seemed even more improbable, the Patriots now sought to battle the very earth they stood on. They tried to make grass grow where it didn’t want to. They failed.

As of Saturday, their experiment has been dormant for 10 years. In the wake of an ugly, muddy loss to the Jets in 2006, the Patriots ripped every blade of grass from the field. Within two weeks, they had achieved the unprecedented and extraordinary feat of replacing their playing surface in the middle of the season, making the switch to FieldTurf (AstroTurf’s more-forgiving cousin). On Nov. 26, 2006, they introduced the new surface in a 17-13 victory over the Bears and have played on some version of FieldTurf ever since.

The Patriots spent a lot of money to make grass work at Gillette Stadium. The grass at Gillette’s predecessor, Foxboro Stadium (installed in 1991), suffered from drainage issues, often resulting in water-logged games. To combat this problem, the team invested in a then-modern drainage system and an underground heating system. Unfortunately, no amount of technology could overcome the difficulty of trying to grow a playable surface in a multipurpose stadium in the Northeast. When the Patriots made the quick change from grass to FieldTurf, Jonathan Kraft told the Boston Globe that they had overlooked one key element in the production of grass: the sun.

“The amount of sunlight the field gets after August isn’t enough, because the stadium is tall,” Kraft said at the time. “So the grass doesn’t have a chance to recover after being used aggressively in April straight through January. No matter how good the system is underneath it, no one perfected a way to replace Mother Nature unless you go to an artificial surface.”

Mother Nature finally claimed victory in 2006. The Patriots had to re-sod the field multiple times during that season, and did so again right before a 27-20 loss to the Colts on Nov. 5. The field did not respond well to that game, with stabilizing sand overtaking the new grass. When the Jets came to Foxborough a week later, some rain mixed in, creating an absolute mess.

“That was a tough, tough loss,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Friday, recalling that game against the Jets. “Yeah, it was a real nasty game. The weather was bad. The field was pretty messed up from the start of the year at that point and then we had a pretty big rain that day.”

Brady completed 24 of 36 passes that day for 253 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His feet slid out from under him throughout the game, a 17-14 loss. For the first time in a run of 57 games, the Pats had suffered two losses in a row. After the game, Bill Belichick and his former assistant, then-Jets head coach Eric Mangini, exchanged a cold handshake that would be scrutinized until the teams met again in the playoffs.

Belichick then asked owner Robert Kraft to swap out the troubled surface.

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“If you have a competitive team, you want to give them a chance to play,” Belichick said this week, recalling the decision to change to FieldTurf. “You don’t want to go out there and slop around every week and play in a mud bowl. ... Those are hard conditions for players to play on because it’s not consistent within the play, or it’s frozen on part of the field and it’s not frozen on the other part of the field. It’s tough to put the players in those situations. At that time, that’s what we thought. I talked to Robert about it. At that time, we felt like it was the best thing to do and we did it.”

Looking at stats alone, it would appear the change to turf has been good for Brady in particular. His career passer rating on turf (101.07) is significantly better than his rating on grass (92.7). The conversion to turf, while perhaps coincidental, also marked a noted change in the franchise’s commitment to the passing game. In 2007, New England acquired Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donté Stallworth, and Brady threw a then-NFL-record 50 touchdown passes. The offense has centered on Brady ever since.

After installing the turf before the game against the Bears, the Pats won each of Brady’s home starts in the regular season until November of 2011, a span of 23 games. They are 57-5 in home games that Brady has started on FieldTurf. And yet, Brady on Friday expressed a desire to play home games on grass again.

“I think most players prefer grass,” Brady said. “If you could play on a good grass surface, that’s always, I think a little more fun for the players. But I don’t know, maybe one day you guys can ask Mr. Kraft to put grass back in here for us players.”

One of the reasons Brady prefers grass is the same reason the Patriots tried so hard to make it work in the first place. Grass is more comfortable to land on, cushioning the blows of hard hits from NFL players.

“We practice on grass every day,” Brady said. “I think we as players go out there on grass practice fields every day, so you get used to the grass. Growing up, I played on all grass. I think it’s easier to land on the grass than landing on the (turf).”

Brady also pointed out that Gillette installed grass last June to accommodate the Copa America Centenario soccer tournament, an event featuring top international teams.

“All of those (international) soccer teams get all the grass when they come to this stadium,” Brady said, and then paused to make sure everyone had recognized the weight of his argument. “That’s a good point, right?”

Making it clear that he’s not the Mona Lisa Vito of grass, Belichick said that over the last decade, teams have gotten better at growing natural surfaces. He cited Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as having good grass fields and noted that the Ravens recently made the change to grass. Acknowledging that Mother Nature remains a difficult opponent, Belichick said the Pats could nonetheless challenge her again.

“Look, the reality of it is it’s just hard to grow grass,” Belichick said. “The technology’s changed in the last 10 years relative to grass growing. Not that I’m a big expert on that but that’s what’s been represented to me and I think that’s true. … I think there are more of those in this northern area and they all seem to be doing pretty well from our experience in the past two to three years on them. ... Maybe there will be another point where we’ll make a different decision.”

(Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.)