The Texans' Toughest Opponent May Be Under Their Feet
With about three minutes to go in the first half of the season opener between the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins, the Redskins faced a daunting third down and 16 yards to go.
The sellout crowd in NRG Stadium was already abuzz from DeAndre Hopkins's 76-yard touchdown just minutes before, which gave the Texans a 7-6 lead, but now it was time to feast, with third and long for the opposition being the proverbial dinner bell for all-everything defensive end J.J. Watt and rookie beast Jadeveon Clowney to inflict pain and unleash hell on Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Watt and Clowney, Clowney and Watt. For Texans fans, on this and every Sunday going forward, third and 16 would be the main event. Third and 16 was why they had endured a 2-14 season that yielded the right to take Clowney as the top pick in the NFL Draft.
Third and 16 was the Texans fans' raison d'être.
Griffin dropped back to pass and was promptly tattooed by Watt just as he got rid of the ball, an innocuous nine-yard completion to running back Roy Helu that would bring up fourth down.
In what should have been an equally innocuous attempt to jump up and knock the pass down, though, Clowney landed awkwardly and immediately grabbed the outside of his right knee. All of a sudden, third and 16 wasn't nearly as much fun.
Team trainers worked on Clowney's knee on the sidelines, and he would try to go back into the game the following series, but it was clear that something was wrong. Clowney tried one play, limped back to the sidelines, handed his helmet to the trainer (the NFL's version of tapping out for the day) and angrily retreated to the locker room for further examination.
As it turned out, Clowney would be done for at least another month or more with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee.
So what happened exactly?
"He told me on the field when it happened, he was just like, 'Bro, I just jumped, came down and hit one of the holes on the field,'" safety D.J. Swearinger told the NFL Network. "There are a few holes in the grass, so he said he thought he stepped on one of those holes and got hurt."
The "holes in the grass" to which Swearinger was referring are the random, harrowing grooves in the natural grass field at NRG Stadium, the dangerous byproduct of a unique and, according to many, flawed pallet system that's composed the playing surface for Texans games since the team's inception in 2002.
Each game, the grounds crew at NRG Stadium assembles the playing surface by piecing together 1,400 eight-foot-square trays of grass. As a result, there are seams everywhere on the field, many of them invisible and safe, but some potentially dangerous and career-threatening.
The condition of the NRG Stadium field each week has been a source of great concern to some players, a conundrum to most fans and the center of a 2012 lawsuit filed against venue-management company SMG and the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation (but not the Texans, it's important to note) by former Texans punter Brett Hartmann.
In December 2011, in the waning minutes of a 17-10 win over Atlanta, Hartmann punted the ball away and began to run down the field, as he had on 57 previous punts that season, to help out his coverage unit. As he reached midfield, with no other player within several yards of him, Hartmann crumpled in a heap -- as if a sniper had just pegged him from the club level -- and grabbed his left leg.
As it turns out, Hartmann suffered not only a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but also a fracture of the proximal fibula. In plain English, a torn knee and a broken leg, which on a non-contact injury is indicative of something more than just a mere misstep. In Hartmann's case, according to his attorney, Gene Egdorf of the Lanier Law Firm, his injury was a direct result of his foot locking into one of the creases between grass pallets in the NRG Stadium (back then, Reliant Stadium) turf.
"Brett stepped in what he described as a 'hole,'" said Egdorf. "Inside that hole, his foot completely turned, which explains the fracture in addition to the ligament tear. That's not a normal non-contact tear of the knee."
Coincidentally, Hartmann was traversing the Texans' team logo at midfield when the injury occurred, and according to Egdorf, you can tell from the depth of the steel-blue paint scraped along the side of Hartmann's shoe that the punter clearly placed his foot into a groove of some sort in the playing surface.
Hartmann had surgery on his left leg shortly after suffering the injuries. He also incurred a four-game suspension shortly thereafter, testing positive for Adderall, which Egdorf says Hartmann took for a sleep disorder. Hartmann made it back to training camp in 2012, but wasn't the same player he had been prior to the injury, and the Texans opted for Donnie Jones as their punter moving forward. Hartmann has not played in the league since.
The stadium played host to a slew of high school championship games in the days leading up to that 2011 Falcons-Texans game, including multiple games the day before, and the condition of the grass (not to mention the method in which it was assembled) was, according to Egdorf, a major topic the morning of that game.
The logo paint on the side of Brett Hartmann's shoe is one indicator his foot landed inside a groove in the turf, according to his attorney.
"The field was a debacle that day," offered Egdorf. "Brian Cushing and Andre Johnson also left that game with non-contact injuries. The expert we hired to assess the field condition for Brett's lawsuit said there's no way that game should've been played that day."
But it's the NFL, and the show most assuredly must go on. Unfortunately, according to Egdorf, the checks and balances when it comes to field conditions are flimsy at best.
"Under the current system, the league checks the field once per season. That's it. Other than that, it's examined on game day by the groundskeeper and the referee, and honestly, what are the groundskeeper and the ref going to do? Tell the NFL, 'Sorry, we can't play.'?" said Egdorf.
For the NFL's part, it says the field had been checked and cleared by one of its experts the day before Clowney sustained his injured knee.
"We send independent field experts to each stadium on a regular basis to ensure the playing surface meets NFL standards. NRG Stadium's field was cleared for play after being evaluated on Saturday as part of these normal procedures," said Jon Zimmer, director of AFC Football Communications.
Egdorf also contends that it's not just the unevenness of the NRG playing surface but also the inconsistency that is cause for danger.
"The pallets are assembled in a different order each time, so that affects the root structure and the grass quality pallet to pallet. Also, sometimes they will only swap out pallets in certain parts of the field between games," Egdorf said. "You just don't have a uniform field in any way, shape or form.
"The maintenance of that field, the design of that field is an abomination."
Perhaps the most high-profile non-contact injury to occur on the NRG Stadium turf took place back in early January 2010 in the final game of the 2009 season, a 34-27 Texans victory over the New England Patriots.
In that game, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker caught a crossing route over the middle from Tom Brady, turned upfield, planted his left leg and immediately tumbled to the ground. Welker suffered an ACL tear and would be lost to the Patriots for the entire postseason.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is one of several NFL luminaries to concur with Egdorf's assessment of the NRG Stadium surface.
"The turf down there is terrible," Belichick told Boston's WEEI-FM the day after Welker's injury. "It's terrible. It's just inconsistent. It's all the little trays of grass, and some of them are soft and some of them are firm, and they don't all fit well together, those seams...Some of it feels like a sponge; some of it feels real firm and hard like the Miami surface. One step you're on one; the other step you're on another. I really think it's one of the worst fields I've seen."
Dr. Kenneth R. First, a local sports doctor who appears weekly on Sports Radio 610, contends that the methodology used to assemble the turf at NRG Stadium is absolutely a player-safety issue.
"Field conditions make a huge difference. Fourteen hundred pallets of grass, that creates a huge number of seams. It's chaos, like the football version of driving down Fannin with the light rail. The differences in pallets, soft grass and hard grass, those things make a difference," First said.
Since those high school games in 2011, NRG Stadium has employed synthetic field turf for high school games and for college games like the Advocare Texas Kickoff back in August between LSU and Wisconsin, so the venue's capability of housing the seemingly safer field turf is a moot point. If SMG, the Texans and owner Bob McNair wanted field turf full time, they could have it.
However, whether it's a cost issue or the traditionalist sentiment that "football was meant to be played on grass," SMG and the Texans choose to go forward with the current surface, a true game of guts poker when you consider that the team is mere weeks removed from giving Watt the richest contract in league history for a defensive player, more than $100 million over the next eight years.
SMG, the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation and the Texans stand behind the grass playing surface at NRG Stadium, with SMG issuing a general denial to Hartmann's lawsuit.
Privately, people close to the team will point out that we are talking about a total of three knee injuries over the course of roughly a decade of football, not an epidemic quantitatively by any means. But if the injuries are a result of a bad turf system, then is three too many? Is one too many?
When asked at his weekly press conference the Monday after the Redskins game about Clowney's injury possibly being the result of his coming down on a seam in the turf, Texans head coach Bill O'Brien chalked it up to bad luck.
"He didn't say anything to me about that. From looking at all the angles on film, he just came down awkwardly," said O'Brien. "Most of those types of injuries are non-contact when you look back at those injuries; they seem to be non-contact. He just jumped in the air and came down a little awkwardly on it."
When asked if he has a problem with the NRG Stadium turf, O'Brien bluntly expressed the sentiments of Texans management.
"No," he tersely stated, and moved on to the next question.
In the meantime, Clowney rehabs his knee injury, targeting a return for sometime in -October and hoping to make up for lost time. According to First, Clowney underwent a procedure called a "partial lateral meniscectomy," in which the torn part of the meniscus was removed.
The removal procedure will get Clowney back on the field quicker than a full repair of the meniscus would have but will likely result in knee problems later in his career and almost certainly once his career is over.
That's the trade-off for landing wrong: Your knees now for your comfort later in life. Unfortunately, Jadeveon Clowney may have found out the hard way that in a league where opposing players will chop block, head hunt and generally seek to physically destroy him by any means necessary, the dirtiest player in the game might be right underneath his own two feet.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at email@example.com.