Tennessee Titans turf project explained: Why now, what for and will it lower injury rate?

Tennessee Titans turf project explained: Why now, what for and will it lower injury rate?

The Tennessee Titans announced last week they’ll be installing a synthetic turf playing surface at Nissan Stadium for 2023, replacing the natural grass the Titans have played on since they moved to Nashville in 1999.

The choice to switch to an artificial playing surface comes at a curious time, both for the Titans and the NFL. The playing surface at Nissan Stadium has ranked in the top 10 in lower body injury rates and non-contact lower body injury rates in recent years, and the Titans have been the NFL’s most injured team two years running. But, generally speaking, players prefer to play on natural surfaces over turf. And with the Titans moving into a new stadium for 2026, the choice to renovate raises more questions.

With these questions in mind, let’s examine the Titans’ decision.

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What do we know about Titans’ turf?

The turf at Nissan Stadium will be a monofilament surface with organic infill. Infill is to turf as dirt is to grass. So instead of layering turf atop rubber pellets, Nissan Stadium will be the first NFL stadium to build turf atop natural substances. The turf will be built in a corkscrew shape that purportedly reduces movement during play and limits “splash,” or infill being kicked up by feet or falling bodies.

The “Matrix Helix” turf will be installed and produced by Hellas Construction Inc., a Texas-based company run by Reed Seaton that also installed the surfaces for AT&T Stadium (Dallas), NRG Stadium (Houston) and SoFi Stadium (Los Angeles).

“A properly built synthetic turf field with organic infill and a pad is a superior system to a mediocre grass field,” Seaton said in a statement from the Titans. “The technology of synthetic turf is now able to emulate a well-maintained grass field.”

When reached for further comment, Seaton told The Tennessean that Hellas “serves at the pleasure of its clients” and as such does not speak to media.

Why is there a turf vs. grass debate?

According to data released by the NFL in November, non-contact injury rates were essentially the same regardless of playing surface in 2021. On turf fields, injuries occurred 0.42 times per 1,000 plays and 0.41 times per 1,000 plays on natural surfaces. That gap narrowed in recent years; as recently as 2019, players were injured 0.48 times per 1,000 plays on turf and 0.36 times per 1,000 plays on grass.

Data for injury rates in 2022 has not yet been made public.

“We need to analyze contact vs. non-contact injuries on different surfaces,” NFL vice president for communications, public affairs and policy Jeff Miller told media last week. “Obviously there’s a lot more that goes into that analysis. There’s the injury history of the player, the weather conditions, the intensity of the practices or games and certainly the different types of surfaces they play on. That’s something we’re going to work on between now and the combine.”

Representatives from the NFL Players Association have a harsher view. NFLPA president J.C. Tretter has urged the league to switch all playing surfaces to natural grass, citing league data that players sustained non-contact lower body injuries 28% more frequently on turf between 2012-18. Tretter told media Wednesday the NFL is “in the events business not the health-and-safety business,” and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith pointed out the hypocrisy of NFL stadiums replacing turf with grass when Premier League soccer clubs visit.

So what’s with the timing?

Regardless of what happens to Nissan Stadium, the Titans were always going to switch to a turf surface in 2026 when they move into their planned new stadium. So why now?

“There is nothing more important than the health and safety of our players,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said in a statement last week. “We’ve had a lot of issues (with the grass at Nissan Stadium) after a certain part of the season. It’s hard to grow grass. It gets slick. We put new turf down, we try and put new sod down and it’s slick, you see guys slipping. Those are real things that I’ve witnessed over my time here.”

The Titans haven’t released how much money they’ll save on field maintenance, but turf fields generally have cheaper upkeep costs than natural fields. If Nissan Stadium continues to host the Music City Bowl and Tennessee State home games and expands to also host high school championships, lower upkeep could end up saving the Titans.

But limiting injuries is the outward-facing reason the Titans are making this change. In 2022, Titans players missed 339 games because of injuries, most in the NFL. Among the four teams that play on Hellas fields, only the Los Angeles Rams lost more than 250 games to injuries, and the Houston Texans were the NFL’s sixth-healthiest team.

If that sort of decrease in injury rate can translate to a couple more wins, the Titans would be more than willing to make the trade from grass to turf.

Nick Suss is the Titans beat writer for The Tennessean. Contact Nick at nsuss@gannett.com. Follow Nick on Twitter @nicksuss.