It was late in the first half of the Chargers’ Oct. 23 game against the Seattle Seahawks at SoFi Stadium when cornerback J.C. Jackson lined up to defend wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin sprinted forward at the snap of the ball, with Jackson matching him stride for stride.
Seattle quarterback Geno Smith lofted a high pass near the goal line and Goodwin and Jackson readied themselves to leap for the ball while still running at full speed. Goodwin came down with it for a touchdown as Jackson crumpled to the turf, clutching his right knee in obvious pain.
Jackson was later diagnosed with a ruptured patellar tendon, an injury that would require surgery and sideline him for the remainder of the season. Layoffs typically range from six to 12 months after such an injury, meaning Jackson could be out for the start of next season, too.
“Normal routine play,” Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. said. “It sucks, man.”
It wasn’t the first time a player injured himself on a non-contact play on the SoFi Stadium turf.
Earlier in the game, Seattle wide receiver DK Metcalf injured his left patellar tendon while running an innocent-looking pattern. Like the injury to Jackson, there was no contact from an opponent that caused an injury so troubling that he, too, had to be carted off the field to the locker room.
Fortunately for Seattle, Metcalf’s injury turned out to be not as serious as originally feared and he was able to play in the Seahawks’ 27-13 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday. In fact, Metcalf caught a team-leading six passes from Smith for 55 yards and one touchdown.
What happened? How could such routine plays cause such potentially devastating, career-threatening injuries to such valuable members of their teams? Could it really be as simple as a player catching his cleats on the $5 billion SoFi Stadium’s artificial turf and damaging ligaments or tendons?
The debate about grass fields versus artificial turf has raged in the past and questions were raised again in the wake of the Oct. 23 game at SoFi. Is it time for the NFL to mandate a change to grass fields from artificial turf for the 14 teams in the 30-team league that play on turf?
In 2020, JC Tretter, the president of the NFL players association, called for a switch to grass in order to reduce the risk of injuries to players. Tretter pointed to a study of NFL injuries between 2012 and ’18 that revealed a 28% higher rate of non-contact injuries to lower extremities on turf compared to grass.
“I think we definitely need to look at this really seriously in the offseason again,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told reporters in Seattle. “It’s been a discussion before. We’ve got to do what’s right, and we’ve got to do what’s safest for the players and we’ve got to make those choices. I would pound on the drum for that.”
The Seahawks play their home games on artificial turf at Lumen Field.
James was only yards away from Jackson when Jackson was hurt. James on Monday drew a distinction between playing pick-up basketball in a gym with a well-maintained wooden floor that offers some relief on knee, ankle and hip joints versus playing outdoors on an asphalt court with no give.
James asked, “Which would you prefer?”
“We definitely got to get rid of that turf,” he said. “I’m not big on excuses, but the turf is bad. Everyone knows it. Everyone knows it’s bad for your knees, your joints, everything. We want to play on grass as much as we can. (On an artificial turf field,) it’s concrete under a rubber pad. You fall on it, you get scraped up. You have to wear sleeves or you’re going to get scraped up.
“You can feel it. You’re sticking to it.”
Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill agreed, especially about cleats sticking to the artificial turf.
“I think every player would prefer to play on grass,” Tranquill said. “It’s just scientifically based. More force is transmitted through artificial turf into our joints than it is on natural grass, specifically on the painted areas, where your foot can get stuck and where the turf is a little more sticky.”
The black rubber pellets on modern turf fields were added to ensure there is a degree of flexibility for players’ joints to move naturally, as they would on a grass field. However, Tranquill said the pellets aren’t distributed equally, with more in the middle of a field and less along the yard lines or on a midfield logo.
“In the painted areas, your cleats get stuck because it’s a lot stickier,” he said. “Every field is different. Every time of the year is different. Grass fields, at the beginning of the year, they’re nice and then you get some weather and they’re slipperier. But, just in general, we’ve seen more soft-tissue (injuries), more injuries to ligaments, knees and ankles on artificial turf compared to grass.”
The Rams, the Chargers’ co-tenants at SoFi Stadium, would like to see a change to a grass field, too. They remember how wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. injured his knee on a non-contact play during the Rams’ victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at the Super Bowl back in February.
It led some NFL players to tweet, “I support #FlipTheTurf.” It was later revealed that Beckham tore his ACL and underwent surgery. He isn’t expected to play again until later this season, and he has not signed a free-agent contract with any team because of his uncertain status.
“Grass,” Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey said. “I feel like it’s better for you. It’s better on your joints, it’s better on your body. This might sound a little funky or a little weird, but if you’re out there playing, all the players would understand what I’m about to say, it feels different. You can feel the grass differently than you can feel the turf. The grass might have a little give to it. The way you plant, the way you break, the feel of it is better.”
Staff writer Gilbert Manzano contributed to this story.