The dean of NFL groundskeepers Wednesday dismissed complaints about the grass at Levi’s Stadium, saying the playing surface Sunday was better than all but one of the 50 Super Bowls he has worked.
“This is some of the best sod I’ve seen,” said George Toma, 87, who worked as a field consultant at Super Bowl 50. “It was perfect. There wasn’t one divot on that field.”
Toma said the repair work that some reporters and viewers noticed involved sweeping up what he described as “scraps” of young rye grass that had been added a couple of weeks earlier. The sod used for the Super Bowl was a hybrid Bermuda, which was overseeded with rye for color.
“All we did was pick it up here and there,” Toma said. “If we had had a hair blower we could have hair-blowed it off the field; that’s how small they were.”
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Toma, who has been part of every Super Bowl grounds crew since the first in 1967, said only one Super Bowl playing surface surpassed Levi’s in his estimation – the one that was used in rain-soaked Miami when the Peyton Manning-led Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Manning quarterbacked the Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 50, as well.
How does Toma explain the complaints from players and the prominent slipping that occurred early in the game?
A clip that has been scrutinized this week shows 315-pound Panthers left tackle Michael Oher sliding backward for five yards as he braces against a Broncos pass rusher in the first quarter. On the same play, right guard Trai Turner also seems to be playing on ice as he first slides backward then falls to the ground.
Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib called the conditions “terrible.”
“San Fran has to play eight games on that field, so they better do something to get it fixed,” he said.
Toma said two factors were at play with the sliding: the halftime-show rehearsals that led up to the game and a poor choice of cleats worn by some players.
Toma said the field was covered for parts of the week during rehearsal, which involved hundreds of performers and stage equipment weighing several tons. The result is that the grass became matted down, especially at midfield where the play involving Oher occurred.
“You saw all those teenagers jumping on it,” Toma said in reference to the simulated crowd that swarmed the stage where Coldplay, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars performed.
The grounds crew, which was led by NFL field director Ed Mangan, “brushed up” the grass before the game, Toma said, but it was noticeably better in the areas that weren’t used in the rehearsals.
Toma also said players should have heeded the advice of their equipment staff and worn longer cleats. Some opted for the molded shoes – which are considered faster – before changing into shoes with longer cleats.
“All they had to do was put longer cleats on,” he said. “That’s all they had to do.”
Both the game’s MVP, Denver linebacker Von Miller, and pass-rushing teammate DeMarcus Ware, switched to longer cleats before halftime.
“Yeah, I had to change my cleats,” said Miller, who finished with 2 1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles. “It was a great field. We came out here (Saturday for a walk-through practice), and it was fast. As the game went on, I just needed a little more support.”
The NFL did not receive a complaint from either Super Bowl team about the field.
The 49ers were plagued by grass-related issues after the stadium opened in 2014 and eventually replaced the sand-and-soil composition beneath the sod. The early problems involved divots and even bigger swaths of grass coming up, and a training-camp session in 2014 had to be halted after several players went down.
The issues at the Super Bowl were different, and Toma said the sheer strength of the grass – its structural integrity – was excellent.
The 49ers contemplated going with an artificial surface after Levi’s inaugural season but decided to stick with grass. There has been no indication they will switch surfaces for the 2016 season.