As Sunday night progressed, the State Farm Stadium lawn became a character in the drama. Ball carrier slipped while trying to cut. Discarded studs piled up on the Philadelphia Eagles touchline. Inverted divots littered the field. Eagles kicker Jake Elliott slipped while starting a kickoff. The pass rushers’ feet spun in place as if they were Fred Flintstone. Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick called it “the worst field I’ve ever played on.”
Wu never worried that his weed, a Bermuda grass strain called Tahoma 31, might be the culprit. Lawn experts reaffirmed Wu’s confidence on Monday. Still, the NFL had provided a Super Bowl field that the Eagles will face off against Jordan Mailata versus a water park. With the time, effort, intelligence and resources invested in every last detail of America’s greatest sporting spectacle, how could such a fundamental part of the game falter so thoroughly?
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The slipperiness led turf management experts to theorize that the NFL prioritized the field’s aesthetics over its playability, that the league manipulated the grass to appear lush and green, potentially affecting traction. Wu said he doesn’t want to speculate on the state of the field because he’s not on site and his expertise is growing weed, not managing it. When asked why the NFL would use the technique they use to prepare the field, Wu replied, “It’s for beauty.”
The NFL did not make field director Ed Mangan or other ground maintenance staff available for an interview.
“The field surface at State Farm Stadium met the required standards for natural surface preservation under NFL guidelines,” the NFL wrote in a statement. “The natural grass surface was tested throughout Super Bowl week and conformed to all mandatory NFL practices.”
Tahoma 31 is newer than most grasses, but not new. Wu started breeding in 2006. Testing began in 2008 and lasted a decade. In 2017, it was cleared for commercial production and several major stadiums and baseball parks use Tahoma 31 — including Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles, according to the state of Oklahoma. Dodger Stadium and Churchill Downs have installed Tahoma 31. Arkansas uses it at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, which was named College Football Field of the Year by the Sports Field Management Association last year.
“There’s nothing wrong with this grass,” said Grady Miller, a professor of turf management at North Carolina State University. “A lot of people focus on Tahoma 31 Bermudagrass, which is actually the least likely culprit of the scenario, to be perfectly honest. Many fields with Tahoma 31 were created. It was good weed. It’s good weed.”
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But it wasn’t the only weed the NFL used. The field was housed at West Coast Turf this fall, where the NFL oversaw the process of overseeding the field with ryegrass — by planting a second grass on the Tahoma 31. While Bermuda grass goes dormant in cold weather and turns brownish-yellow, ryegrass grows lush green. But ryegrass is naturally waxy to the touch and slippery.
“From a Super Bowl perspective, it’s 100 percent aesthetic,” Miller said.
Overseeding with ryegrass, Miller said, can make sense from an agronomic perspective. A southern golf course that sees heavy winter play would use ryegrass to provide a “supporting surface” and to protect the underlying, dormant grass. At the Super Bowl, staging a few weeks of rehearsals and a game would not require such measures.
“They made it so you have very smooth, pristine, green, glossy surfaces that you can paint logos on and it looks great on TV,” Miller said. “If you have any blemishes, the ryegrass will hide blemishes. Saying this is a Bermudagrass field they played on, yes, there is Bermudagrass in there. But they mostly play on the surface, that’s a ryegrass.”
The NFL took control of the Super Bowl field from the Arizona Cardinals, who play in the host stadium. In October, the NFL oversaw the seeding process at West Coast Turf, a sod farm that housed the field.
Brian Whitlark, an agronomist for the US Golf Association region, which includes Phoenix, is familiar with the NFL’s process. USGA funded agronomic research in the state of Oklahoma and he knows many local contacts in the industry. The field was seeded at 650 pounds per acre of ryegrass in ideal weather.
“They had a very successful reseeding, which sounds good,” Whitlark said. “But that resulted in a very dense ryegrass stand and a fairly high cutting height. The ryegrass was probably an inch tall when they played in the Super Bowl. The players were basically playing on a slippery ryegrass surface.”
A West Coast Turf representative did not respond to a request for comment.
At State Farm Stadium, workers moved the field out of the stadium on a massive, rolling tray so it received sunlight, then rolled it in at night to protect it from low temperatures. The field was rolled inward for the last time on Wednesday, four days before the game.
Moving inside to cool from hot temperatures could have caused condensation — and ryegrass gets extremely slippery when wet, Miller said. But Whitlark said turf managers have a plan for that. Huge fans dried out the field to “avoid excessive leaf wetness,” he said. Handheld soil moisture sensors, Whitlark said, last week measured 21 percent, a mark that indicated there was no excess water. The field’s problem, Whitlark said, is the inherent slipperiness of dense ryegrass.
“I can assure you the floor wasn’t wet,” Whitlark said. “That wasn’t the reason for the slippery conditions. It wasn’t improper moisture management that led to slippery conditions.”
“I hate to draw analogies and point fingers, but it’s a bit of a beauty pageant,” Miller said. “These ladies wore extra makeup for this pageant than they did every day, right? Everything goes to extremes at this event, and that’s not always a good thing. A lot of it is for aesthetics.”
Watching from home, Miller noticed that many of the most ripped and torn spots on the field were on painted logos. Research shows that color affects grass. The turf could also have been weakened by multiple rehearsals for pregame, halftime, and postgame shows.
Miller is a proponent of natural grass and believes that it reduces injuries compared to artificial grass. He hated seeing players slip because they could hurt themselves and how it could affect the game. He also winced, knowing how some viewers would react.
“I winced at the constant mention of slippage because it obviously doesn’t represent a positive light,” Miller said. “I’ve seen a number of people say, ‘Why don’t they just use synthetics?’ ”