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Don’t just blame turf for injuries, blame the NFL’s rushed preseason

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It’s easy to blame the turf. When you lose five starting players and two for the season, the unfamiliar surface becomes a natural scapegoat, and it’s likely it isn’t totally innocent. The 49ers players were not making up their discomfort with playing on the newly-installed turf at MetLife Stadium, but they’re also the only team that’s come out loudly against it.

The root cause of these injuries is much simpler: a preseason the NFL rushed in order to start the season on time. Without allowing players to re-acclimate to football properly, through periodization, which gradually increases workloads and the intensity of workouts so the body can handle it, NFL players are less well-prepared this year than they have been since the 2011 lockout year.

When you combine a rushed preseason with a surface that, generally speaking, has been proven to cause an increase in injuries, and which players are uncomfortable with prior to the game, you have the perfect storm which the 49ers endured on Sunday.

The reality of turf

According to the New York Daily News, the material used at MetLife Stadium was changed from UBU Speed Series S5-M turf to FieldTurf Classic HD, installed in early June. It is the same exact turf used by the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, per FieldTurf’s website.

In addition to the Jets, Giants and Lions, three other NFL teams utilize FieldTurf artificial turf, but different compounds. The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots use FieldTurf CORE and the Seattle Seahawks use FieldTurf Revolution 360. The Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Football Team and Carolina Panthers all use FieldTurf practice fields.

The difference between the turf system is in the fiber. Pictures of the difference are on the company’s website, with the Classic HD turf used at MetLife looking mesh-like.

San Francisco’s opponent this week, the Giants, held much of their training camp on the field and had not openly expressed complaints after their season opener there against the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the Steelers reportedly had very few complaintsoffensive lineman Zach Banner said he felt that MetLife’s turf contributed to his torn MCL.

Giants head coach Joe Judge said Wednesday: “We’ve been fine with it.”

The NFL has defended the field, saying it was certified and inspected multiple times.

The most recent study of NFL players, from 2012-16, published in the American Journal of Medicine found that “play on synthetic turf resulted in a 16% increase in lower extremity injuries per play than that on natural turf.”

In a phone conversation with KNBR, Dr. Mohammed Emam, a sports medicine specialist at John’s Hopkins Hospital, said that broadly speaking, turf is associated with higher incidence of injury, though the quality of the material has improved significantly in recent years.

“Generally speaking, more injuries occur on turf,” Emam said. “However, with new advancements, with new companies making this turf, they’ve made significant strides to simulate more natural surfaces, so it sort of gives these athletes a grass-like feel.”

The trepidation

49ers players are understandably anxious.

Both Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas lost their seasons to torn ACLs, and Bosa looked like he got his left foot stuck in the ground. Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman both sustained MCL sprains and Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a high ankle sprain. That’s an astounding number of injuries for one game.

After the game, Arik Armstead called for the “trash” turf to be removed and D.J. Jones did the same, sans “trash” description.

The NFLPA is standing behind players and reportedly intends to address concerns about the reliability and safety of turf with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

For context, the 49ers only practice on grass. They have a turf side field for rehab which is very, very rarely used. Most players conduct their rehab work near on the grass sidelines next to or inside the indoor training facility beside the fields.

That mental aspect should not be ignored. The 49ers not using turf, and generally being averse to it, without having experienced play on a turf field prior to last Sunday, is a legitimate factor.

“The psychological impact of conditioning and strengthening and going through that offseason workout and preseason, because you need to acclimatize to whatever conditions you’re going to go to,” Emam said. “That includes the environment, whether it’s the turf or climate, and also the competition itself. We cannot ignore the psychological factors when it comes to acclimatization whether it’s the environment, the competition, the training; these are all important factors.”

Turf doesn’t help, but the NFL ignored recommendations from doctors

To blame all the 49ers’ injuries on the turf (the Jets had four as well, including two soft tissue injuries with an ankle sprain to Breshad Perriman and a hamstring injury for center Connor McGovern) would be to ignore what happened before this season and around the league on Sunday.

There was such an astonishing number of injuries last week that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. sent out prayers for the NFL.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell put together a list ranking the most impactful injuries of the week, with Nick Bosa at the top. That list included mostly soft tissue injuries:

DE Nick Bosa, torn ACL (IR) – Turf

DT Solomon Thomas, torn ACL (IR) – Turf

RB Raheem Mostert, sprained MCL – Turf

RB Tevin Coleman, sprained MCL, may go on IR – Turf

QB Jimmy Garoppolo, high ankle sprain – Turf

RB Saquon Barkley, torn ACL (IR) – Grass

RB Christian McCaffrey, sprained ankle (IR) – Grass

QB Drew Lock, sprained AC joint – Grass

WR Courtland Sutton, torn ACL (IR) – Grass

WR Davante Adams, hamstring – Grass reinforced with turf

CB Tavon Young, torn ACL (IR) – Turf

S Malik Hooker, torn Achilles (IR) – Turf

C Brandon Scherff, knee (IR) – Grass

CB Byron Jones, groin/Achilles – Grass

LB Anthony Barr, torn pectoral (IR) – Turf

C Brandon Linder, knee – Grass

C Isaac Seumalo, knee (IR) – Grass reinforced with turf

WR Parris Campbell, knee (IR) – Turf

OT Kaleb McGary, sprained MCL – Turf

DE Bruce Irvin, torn ACL (IR) – Turf

G Joe Noteboom, calf (IR) – Grass

Those are just 21 of the injuries (11 on turf, 10 on grass or grass/turf hybrids) sustained last week. The problem with the 49ers’ complaints is not that turf is a negligible factor. It might well have contributed to those injuries. But the injuries above took place on both turf and grass fields.

There is one glaringly obvious source of all this: the NFL, in order to get the season underway on-time, ignored the suggestions made by the NFL and NFLPA’s Joint Committee of Doctors, which, according to NFLPA President J.C. Tretter, suggested the following ramp-up timelines:

  • 21 days of strength and conditioning
  • 10 days of non-contact ramp up
  • 14 days of padded practice

The only one of those suggestions which was adhered to was the padded practice. But it was reached on a shockingly abbreviated timeline. There were no rookie minicamps and no organized team activities. Instead, the NFL provided the following:

  • 6/7 days of strength and conditioning
  • 5 days of non-contact ramp up

Players reported to training camp after an entire offseason of training by themselves and then had 5-6 days of COVID testing, during which they were quarantining at home. Many players were limited to their apartments and without proper equipment to adhere to strength and conditioning expectations.

For the 49ers, padded practices this season began August 17.

In 2019, they began padded practice on July 26. Their first preseason game in 2019 was on August 10 and their second, following joint practices with the Denver Broncos—held in higher esteem by Shanahan than most preseason games—was held on August 19.

For professional athletes, that’s a significant amount of workout time lost. Instead of the three-week suggested period to re-acclimate their bodies, they had a week. Instead of the 10 days to acclimate physically, and following that shortened timeline, they were given five days.

Then, when practice actually began, the roster was limited. Rather than the 90-player roster available to teams in prior years, teams were only allowed 80, unless they opted to split the roster in half, which the 49ers did not. This left teams down 10 players, and down even more considering the players on the physically unable to perform list. In reality, it was a training camp featuring a range of 65-75 players, all of whom were ramped up on a shorter-than-sensible timeline.

As players got injured, that left increased reps elsewhere. As you would expect, those increased reps meant increased injuries. Kyle Shanahan pointed to this on September 27, saying the team had to give up on the idea of live tackling.

“You start out with 80 and you’re used to 90, but you have five people on PUP, so it goes to 75,” Shanahan said. “You have the normal wear and tear of training camp, which usually has about 10 to 12 guys out. So, now all of a sudden, you’re trying to run a training camp with about 62 players. When you do a training camp practice with 62 players, ones, twos and threes, that’s not going to last. Our guys came out yesterday and I thought they were real sore, real tight.

Shanahan said that after that practice, he needed to give players a day off, or he feared the team would have “lost six more people” in what he termed a “chain reaction” of injury-causing-attrition.

Normally, there would be a preseason in which, yes, starters would typically only play a few snaps, but they’d still be receiving crucial live reps and experiencing the ramp-up to a gameday situation after a full camp and after OTAs and rookie minicamp. This is crucial in the periodization process.

“In the offseason, preseason, they use what’s called periodization,” Emam said. “Basically what happens is that there’s a lot of variances in terms of the intensity of workout, of volume and intensity of the workout itself. So you’re not playing, or you’re not competing at a high level that an entire time.”

Players didn’t get those variances. That recommended conditioning phase of 21 days, which would have been invaluable after those 5-6 days of players quarantining, was shortened to roughly the same length as the quarantine. It’s a massively important part of the preseason process and was eschewed quietly by the league so that the season could start on time, whereas, if the suggestions were followed, delays would have been necessary.

“Acclimatization is very important,” Emam said. “Side-specific flexibility, strength, balance, muscle force production, these are all factors that are very important to pay attention to during that conditioning phase, so you cannot just decide to cut down on conditioning without really planning for these factors. Generally speaking, an ineffective conditioning program will mean poor muscle activation, poor neuromuscular control, poor stabilization, poor dynamic stability, which is important for these high-level athletes, and typically can lead to injuries in the lower extremities.”

But we don’t need to look far to find a similar scenario in which players were called up to begin the season on short notice. Remember the 2011 lockout?

Tretter cited data from that 2011 season, when the league was shut down from March 12 to July 25 of that year which showed injuries increased by 25 percent in 2011. As it pertains to those soft-tissue injuries, well, “Achilles injuries more than doubled and hamstring strains went up 44 percent.” In that season, a full preseason was played.

During this year’s training camp, Dee Ford suffered an Achilles strain. Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Juszczyk and Jason Verrett all suffered hamstring strains. George Kittle dealt with hamstring tightness. Nick Bosa suffered a leg muscle strain. Ben Garland suffered an ankle sprain.

MetLife’s turf clearly did not help the 49ers, but it’s not what failed them and the rest of the league. That was the NFL’s doing.


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