In a sports world and news cycle that move at breakneck speed, thanks to social media and the 24-hour news cycle, maintaining relevance is a pretty competitive endeavor. It takes a concerted effort to rent space in our brains these days.
That makes it all the more amazing that one of the most prominent ongoing storyline arcs of this Texans season isn't even an actual person (who presumably could make the necessary extra effort to stay front of mind). It's an inanimate object, albeit one that continues to wreak mental and possibly physical havoc upon those who ply their trade on its surface.
Indeed, in the most recent Houston Texans game, at NRG Stadium last weekend, the turf was once again a huge topic after the game, both its condition and the latest non-contact injury to be sustained on the surface.
As I mentioned in "4 Winners, 4 Losers" after the Eagles game, I actually received a text from local attorney Gene Egdorf a couple of hours before the game that Sunday in which he was lamenting the condition of the turf, which was torn up, shredded and bafflingly unchanged from the day before, when the stadium hosted a college football game between Stephen F. Austin State and Sam Houston State. It was a surface, Egdorf contended, that was unsuitable and dangerous for an NFL game to be played on less than 24 hours later.
The gist of Egdorf's text? "When are the people who run NRG Stadium going to learn?"
Egdorf's opinion is relevant in the matter because he is the attorney for former Texans punter Brett Hartmann, who is suing the entities that run NRG Stadium (SMG and Harris County) for negligence after he suffered a career-ending knee injury in the Atlanta game in 2011 when his left knee buckled on the NRG Stadium turf. The injury, Hartmann claims, occurred because his foot got caught in one of the dozens of seams caused by the "pallet system" that NRG utilizes to deliver its grass surface on game day.
The system is essentially a puzzle of square pallets that are pieced together to form the field on which the Texans play their home games. The end result is, according to many players, a surface that is rife with treacherous seams, creases and soft spots. Hartmann is one of a handful of players who have suffered odd non-contact injuries on the NRG playing surface over the past few years. Back in 2009, then-Patriot Wes Welker tore his knee in the season finale. In the season opener this year, No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney tore the meniscus in his right knee when he landed wrong on the turf.
And sure enough, almost as if Egdorf had called his shot with his text message, popular former Texan and current Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans tore an Achilles when he landed wrong after an interception last Sunday, ending his season. It's Ryans's second Achilles rupture in his career, both occurring at the same end of the field on NRG's playing surface. The first was back in 2010 in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
As a result of the field conditions in that Eagles game and the resulting injury to Ryans, Egdorf has now amended Hartmann's lawsuit against SMG and the county to include the scathing comments of several Eagles players after the game on November 2, along with comments from Texans head coach Bill O'Brien regarding evaluation of the playing surface after the season.
The amended petition is embedded in its entirety at the bottom of this post. The changes include the addition of the following clauses, citing the disdain and disgust of several Eagles players with the turf following the game:
26. To this day, however, Defendants continue to knowingly put NFL players in jeopardy by refusing to replace its flawed Grass Tray system, and by failing to reserve the grass surface it does have for NFL play only. Despite having a new, synthetic surface at their disposal, Defendants persist in scheduling high school and college games to be played on the same grass surface that NFL athletes are scheduled compete on, sometimes just hours later. Consequently, the field at Reliant Stadium (now known as NRG Stadium) has become a pariah among players and commentators alike. Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger has been a vocal critic of the Grass Tray system, telling ESPN radio, "I definitely think they need to do something about it. We like the grass, but I think there definitely could be a better way to put the grass down. When we go out there for a walk-through, some days we may see a hole and we ask coach 'What'sgoing on today? Can they fix this?'"20 Other players have been more blunt. Philadelphia Eagles center, Jason Kelce, stated, "I think it's actually a pretty dangerous playing surface[.]" "I don't understand, like, what the deal with it is," Kelce continued, "But it definitely is uneven and it definitely doesn't feel very good."
27. Likewise, Philadelphia's star running back LeSean McCoy recently came out strongly against the Grass Tray field. "Yeah, that field is terrible, bad, bad," McCoy said. "There's so many holes, potholes in it, rocky," McCoy elaborated. "It's like they measured the squares out and put them in piece by piece. There's so many holes, it's like this can't be a real NFL field." Tellingly, McCoy called the playing surface "probably the worst field I ever played on."
28. "It's always been like that," Eagles cornerback--and former Texan--Cary Williams told the media. "I don't like it, I've never liked it." Eagles linebacker, Mychal Kendricks demanded action: "Something needs to be done about it. Absolutely."
29. Unfortunately, NFL athletes continue to pay the price for Defendants' decision to place higher profits above player safety. During the 2014 season opener, first-overall draft pick, Jadeveon Clowney, suffered a torn meniscus after stepping into one of the many holes in Defendants' field. Clowney's teammate, D.J. Swearinger, recounted what happened: "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 in the field.'" Similarly, starting Philadelphia linebacker DeMeco Ryans suffered a serious non-contact injury on November 2, 2014 while playing on the Grass Tray system managed by Defendants. As was the case when Hartmann was injured, Defendants had allowed a non-professional football game (this time collegiate) to take place on the same grass field where Ryans was injured less than a day later.
30. The abysmal condition of Defendants' field on November 2, was obvious to players and spectators alike. As one Houston sports writer noted, "the NRG field on Sunday had been used less than 24 hours prior by Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin in the 'Battle of the Piney Woods,' and quite honestly, that usage was highly visible on Sunday morning." "So visible[,]" the journalist continued, "that I actually got a text from Egdorf [the undersigned attorney for Hartmann] (who was at the game Sunday) before the game, who almost presciently said 'Same field as yesterday[.']" "Four hours later," the journalist summarized, "former Texan and current Eagles defensive leader DeMeco Ryans was being carted off the field with a non contact Achilles injury that visually looked a lot like Hartmann's injury and Wes Welker's injury back in 2009, with Ryans crumbling to the ground with nobody touching him."
The lawsuit also, as mentioned earlier, includes Bill O'Brien's statement that the turf would be evaluated after the season:
31. When questioned about the poor condition of the field after the November 2, 2014 game, Texans Head Coach Bill O'Brien declined to comment, saying that conversations about the playing surface were "more of a postseason discussion." While O'Brien admitted that he did have "some input on that," he said he would wait to "review that after the postseason." Meanwhile, non-contact injuries on NRG's playing surface continue to mount.
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O'Brien's comments, while brief, are significant because it's the first time that someone in a position of seeming influence with the Texans has left open the possibility that the turf could be evaluated and, one would assume, possibly improved or even changed after the season. Up until O'Brien's comments, the party line had always been "the turf is fine," and nobody influential made an issue of it.
So now pressure may be mounting on two fronts for SMG, Harris County and, in part, the Houston Texans. The first is that, with each additional injury, Hartmann's case becomes stronger and the need to arrive at a resolution with him becomes more and more acute. The second and far more wide-reaching effect is that maybe, just maybe, those in charge over on Kirby realize that a first-class venue needs a playing surface worthy of its price tag, a playing surface that doesn't make an already dangerous game even more dangerous.