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Sunday football notes

NFL’s grass-growing abilities have become a major controversy for Super Bowl LVIII

Workers prepared the field outside Allegiant Stadium ahead of Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.Matt York/Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — The NFL has another controversy on its hands at Super Bowl LVIII that threatens the integrity of Sunday’s game.

No, it’s not about gambling, or concussions, or how the league is rigged in favor of Taylor Swift. It’s about grass.

The battle between natural grass and artificial turf has been a major point of contention between the NFL and NFL Players Association for several years. Now the quality and maintenance of natural grass has become a major story line for Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Chiefs and 49ers.

The 49ers were furious with the condition of their practice fields all week at UNLV, where a natural grass surface that was installed on top of artificial turf was deemed too soft by team officials. And a close microscope will be placed on the NFL on Sunday over the condition of the natural grass at Allegiant Stadium following the fiasco of last year’s Super Bowl in Arizona, which was marred by players constantly slipping and comparing the field to an ice rink.

Arizona and Las Vegas have the only NFL stadiums in which a natural grass field is placed on a tray that slides into the sun during the day and back into the stadium at night.

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Per ESPN, the NFL’s groundskeepers made the mistake last year of watering the grass right before it was permanently wheeled into State Farm Stadium, creating slick conditions that marred the game. The NFL quietly parted ways with its field director, Ed Mangan, last March after 35 years, though the league said it wasn’t related to the Super Bowl.

Last year’s Super Bowl in Arizona was marred by players constantly slipping and comparing the field to an ice rink.Rob Carr/Getty

The NFL has been growing a similar Bermuda grass field for Sunday’s Super Bowl at Allegiant Stadium, a field that is brand new and isn’t used by the Raiders during the regular season. The NFL better get it right this time.

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“From what I gather, it’s in great condition. I think last year’s was a fluke,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “But our equipment guy’s ready for everything. He brings the whole house with him. So we’ve got every shoe you can imagine for whatever presents itself there.”

The Chiefs are on high alert for another slippery game, and say most players are going to wear seven-stud cleats, which allow for longer spikes than the usual 12-stud cleats.

“It was emphasized to us the entire week to make sure that we had the proper footwear,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. “Because mistakes are magnified, especially in this game. And you don’t want to give up a play because you slip on the ball.”

Sunday’s game isn’t the only grass-related controversy of Super Bowl week. The NFL did the 49ers a favor by installing natural grass at UNLV’s practice facility, but the hardness score of the turf rated far lower than every other NFL field, per ESPN.

NFLPA president JC Tretter said it’s his understanding that the NFL skipped the step of using a hard plastic cover over the turf before putting the sod down.

“When the experts say that, I don’t know how that falls through the cracks,” Tretter said. “Everybody’s in agreement that’s how it’s supposed to work, and we don’t do it, and now we have this issue leading up to the Super Bowl. That’s a problem.”

The 49ers reportedly asked the NFL to let them practice at the Raiders’ pristine practice facility, but were met with strong resistance from the Chiefs and also would have had to deviate significantly from their weekly schedule. So they sucked it up and practiced at UNLV.

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“We’d have to go too early in the morning, mess everything up, so this is the best choice we got,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Everyone has their preferences and wish things were better, but we’ll deal with the field how it is.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell practically rolled his eyes at the 49ers complaining about the grass quality.

“You mean the natural grass surface that we put down?” he said sarcastically. “We’ve had 23 experts out there. We’ve had the union out there. All of them think that’s a very playable surface. It’s softer than what they have practiced on, but that happens. It’s well within all of our testing standards.”

Tretter took exception to Goodell’s remark, noting that a league that generates $25 billion in revenue a year should have higher standards.

“‘Playable is not the same standard as high quality,” Tretter said. “That’s not what we should be doing. We want high-quality surfaces for our players to play on and practice on, and I don’t think we have done that.”

Which goes back to the broader fight between the NFL and NFLPA about grass surfaces vs. artificial turf. The NFL has 13 stadiums with natural grass and 17 with artificial turf, and in 2023 the injury rate on both surfaces was about the same. However, the NFLPA contends that over the last 10 years, natural grass is clearly the safer surface. An NFLPA survey of approximately 1,700 players found that 92 percent prefer grass fields, 6 percent are indifferent, and the small percentage that do prefer turf are almost all kickers.

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“Grass this year has its highest injury rate in the last decade. And it was still lower than the injury rate on turf,” Tretter said. “So the worst performing year on grass is still better than turf this year.”

NFL owners also proved last week that they’ll happily switch to grass fields if it’s in their financial interest. To get games for the 2026 World Cup, NFL stadiums promised to FIFA they would install a hybrid grass surface, in which synthetic fibers reinforce natural grass. Lambeau Field is the only NFL stadium that currently uses a hybrid field, but they are common in international soccer.

“There is a bit of hypocrisy in the fact that our guys don’t, I don’t know, deserve to play on grass, as maybe another sport,” said NFLPA executive director Lloyd Howell. “In stadiums that today are turf, they will put down a synthetic grass field, and then FIFA will roll it up and take it with them. So there’s a model out there that says, for another sport, it’s possible. The science alone says that this is possible.”

A few other notes on Sunday’s game, the first Super Bowl between No. 1 and No. 3 seeds since 2006 (Colts-Bears):

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▪ The NFL’s regular rotation has the AFC’s Chiefs as the home team, allowing them to choose their uniforms and to practice all week at the training facility of the archrival Raiders. I jokingly asked one Chiefs staffer if he was in charge of bugging the Raiders’ facility, and he joked back that the Chiefs were wary of the Raiders doing the same to them.

Vivid Seats projects the crowd to be 60-40 in favor of the 49ers, however. The 49ers certainly seemed to have a larger fan presence in Las Vegas all week.

▪ The only significant lineup change will be on the Chiefs’ offensive line, where left guard Joe Thuney is unlikely to play because of a strained pectoral that kept him out of the AFC Championship game. It’s an unfortunate and unlikely injury for Thuney, who has been remarkably durable in his eight-year career with the Patriots and Chiefs. Thuney has started 147 of a possible 150 games, including playoffs, and three times played 100 percent of the snaps in a season. Nick Allegretti will likely start in his place.

▪ A key factor could be either team’s ability to stop the run. The Chiefs ranked 18th this season in rush defense, 24th in average yards allowed (4.5 per carry), and in the Divisional Round allowed 182 yards and two touchdowns to the Bills. The 49ers were 14th in the NFL in average yards allowed (4.1 per carry), and have allowed 318 rushing yards and three touchdowns in two playoff games. The Chiefs’ Isiah Pacheco and the 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey could be the difference-makers. McCaffrey led the NFL in rushing yards before contact (510) and after (949).

▪ Shanahan has the highest postseason winning percentage (8-3, .727) of a coach in any of the four major sports not to have won a championship.

Patrick Mahomes has not thrown an interception in six straight playoff starts, an NFL record.

▪ The 49ers are 2-point favorites, making them the favorite in all 20 of their games this season. The 2021 Chiefs are the only other team to accomplish the feat.

▪ Will Andy Reid, who turns 66 in March, retire after the game?

“Yeah, I haven’t gone there. I don’t think about that,” he said Thursday. “I’m tied up in the game and trying to take care of that. I’m sure somewhere I’ll know when that time is. It’s not today or it won’t be Sunday.”

That’s not a “no,” though I have a hard time seeing him retire if the Chiefs win, since why not run it back and try to win another? Perhaps if the Chiefs lose, Reid will think hard about his future.

▪ Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub on the public turning on the Chiefs: “It seems that the more success we have, the more haters seem to come up. We talk about how we’re like the new Patriots, [fans] want to see a different team in there sometimes. But that’s OK, we like where we’re at right now.”

Ben Volin: Patrick Mahomes chases Tom Brady's Super Bowl legacy
WATCH: How do Mahomes and Reid stack up against Brady and Belichick? The NFL writer answers.
DROPPING HIP-DROP?

NFL taking look at dangerous tackle

The NFL seems intent on banning the hip-drop tackle this offseason, with the league citing an injury rate on the play that is 25 times higher than a regular tackle. The hip-drop is when a player grabs a ball carrier from behind and twists him backward to the ground. The defender often comes down on the ball carrier’s legs, resulting in significant ankle sprains and broken bones.

Yet the NFLPA is aligned squarely against banning the hip-drop.

“I don’t understand how you can police it the right way and allow us to do our job,” said Falcons defensive tackle Calais Campbell, an NFLPA vice president. “I know that the whole point is to keep the game safe for the guys on the field, and we as players want to keep the rest of the field more than anybody. We want to be on the field, feed our families, and play the game we love. But at the same time, there’s only so much you can restrict the game and still call it football. And so, I think we can try to figure out different ways to keep the game safe, but I don’t think taking that and trying to take it out of the game is going to work.”

Even Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, someone at risk of being injured by a hip-drop tackle, doesn’t want to see it banned.

“I think it really compromises the quality of the game on multiple levels,” said Ekeler, another NFLPA VP. “Now you’re putting another gray area call for the officials. Now it’s a 15-yard penalty, and maybe it was [a hip-drop tackle], and maybe it wasn’t.

“And then also, even just going through scenarios, like you’re on the goal line and you’re trying to pull someone back out of the goal line. Now if you land on their legs, or if they have an ankle injury, you’re not allowed to do that action anymore, so you’ll have to just let it run over you, I guess.”

The hip-drop is when a player grabs a ball carrier from behind and twists him backward to the ground. The defender often comes down on the ball carrier’s legs.Patrick Smith/Getty
ETC.

Hafley bolts Boston College for NFL

Jeff Hafley had a simple reason for leaving Boston College last week — he just wants to focus on coaching ball again.

Hafley left after four years as Eagles head coach to become the Packers’ defensive coordinator, and he told CBS Sports that it was the result of frustration with the new college sports landscape. Hafley considered himself BC’s “general manager,” trying to manage NIL money and the transfer portal on top of traditional recruiting.

“You’re trying to manage the ‘cap’ and you don’t really know what the cap is, and now you’re fund-raising,” Hafley said. “I mean, I want to coach football. I want to coach more defense than I did last year, and now it’s just prioritizing again. I got to coach again.”

Hafley coached defensive backs for seven years in the NFL (2012-18) before becoming Ohio State’s defensive coordinator in 2019 and BC’s head coach in 2020. Don’t be surprised if more college coaches start following Hafley and Jim Harbaugh to the NFL because of the chaos enveloping college football.

Brady the broadcaster

CBS’s Jay Feely was Tom Brady’s college teammate at Michigan, and believes his good friend is going to love being a game announcer next season when Brady takes over as Fox Sports’s lead analyst. Feely believes Brady will especially like traveling to the different team facilities and having production meetings with coaching staffs.

“He was so ingrained in one system and one way,” Feely said. “Once he starts seeing different ways to build a team, different philosophies on offense and defense, I think he’ll find that so fascinating.”

Extra points

The NFL is venturing into Sao Paolo, Brazil this fall for its first regular-season game in South America, and announced Friday that it will hold its first game in Madrid in 2025. The Eagles have been tabbed as the home team in the Brazil game, to be held the Friday of Week 1 to minimize the travel distraction before and after the game. The Dolphins appear likely to be the home team in Madrid, as 2025 will be the AFC’s turn to have an extra home game, and the Dolphins are the only AFC team with marketing rights in Spain … The Packers announced this past week the beginning of a search process to find their next CEO. The team’s bylaws require the CEO to retire at 70, an age that current CEO Mark Murphy will hit in July 2025. The Packers’ board, along with search firm Korn Ferry, will choose a new CEO in 6-9 months, and he or she will have a year to shadow Murphy before he steps down … It has gone from bad to worse for Ravens rookie receiver Zay Flowers, the former Boston College star. His meltdown in the AFC Championship game was bad enough, with a taunting penalty, fumble at the goal line, and self-inflicted injury to his hand out of frustration. Now Flowers is under investigation by police in Baltimore for alleged domestic assault Jan. 21, per The Baltimore Banner. No charges have been filed … The vote for Associated Press Coach of the Year could not have been closer. The Browns’ Kevin Stefanski and Texans’ DeMeco Ryans tied with 165 points, but Stefanski won the award with 21 first-place votes to 20 for Ryans. I voted for Ryans, whose Texans improved from 3-13-1 to 10-7 and AFC South champions.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.