2-3-04, 4:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
In an effort to smooth over a choppy history with Hamilton County and their players over Paul Brown Stadium's lingering grass problems, the Bengals have decided to replace their natural field with a synthetic surface at Paul Brown Stadium in time for the 2004 season.
The club sent a letter to Hamilton County Administrator David Krings Tuesday afternoon informing him the Bengals will pay for the surface, but cited the Level 1 Enhancement portion of the stadium lease that stipulates the county pays for any improvement implemented by 14 teams.
A quick survey of players embraced the move after a season they played games on the synthetic surfaces in New Jersey, Buffalo, and Baltimore, and following four seasons at PBS in which they and their opponents complained about the looseness of the grass. Nine teams currently use what is generally known as "field turf," with the Ravens the only other team that play on it in the Bengals' AFC North Division.
"About time," said linebacker Brian Simmons. "It never really got better. It's going to be nice knowing what the conditions are always going to be like and not having to worry any more about what you're going to get. And it doesn't chew up your body with burns and bruises."
Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna has been extolling the virtues of synthetics since he played on it when the Seahawks played at the University of Washington.
"You can't beat the stuff," Kitna said. "It wasn't just us. Every team in the north has trouble growing grass. It's the best thing a team can do You can play on it in any weather and you don't have to replace it."
Player reaction won't surprise head coach Marvin Lewis after his own research on the subject.
"They've been very pleased with the consistency of the surface," Lewis said. "The development of these new surfaces has given teams some new options as opposed to grass, and this is a great example of our organization's commitment to provide our players with the best environment to win."
In its letter to Krings, the Bengals said one of their six major reasons for the move is that it will reduce the county's annual field maintenance by more than $100,000.
Along with solving, "the playing field challenge," and eliminating "the need for regular re-sodding of the field," the Bengals hope the new field removes, "a source of friction between the county and the team."
The players don't think it should cause an uproar.
"There's nothing to complain about," Kitna said. "Nobody is going to be complaining in a few short years when we go to the Super Bowl, if not next year."
Defensive tackle John Thornton, one of the Bengals' biggest free-agent pickups last season, thinks the new field is going to help bolster the club's image in time for the next round of free agency. It also helps in their own locker room, where running back Corey Dillon blamed the field for his slip that caused the most serious injury of his career last season when he tore his groin in the third game of the season.
"With the history of the grass here, it's a great move for the organization, I played on it when it was really bad," said Thornton, who played one game on it in each of the first three seasons for Tennessee "Every time you took a step, it came up. It will keep players happy. Keep Corey happy. The big thing is not slipping and giving up a big play. Pete (Warrick) slipped on a few punts. This is a great thing."
Kitna said his plant foot slipped at times, maybe making him half-a-second late on some throws, but he thinks injuries are the biggest factor.
"How much better of a team are we if we have a healthy Corey Dillon for the whole season?" Kitna asked.
The Bengals haven't decided what kind of surface they plan to install. They are currently looking at vendors or an item that has cost other teams in the $500,000-$1 million range. At the Meadowlands in the pre-season opener against the Jets, they played on FieldTurf in an August monsoon. At misty Ralph Wilson Stadium in October, they played on AstroPlay. At Baltimore's frozen M&T Bank Stadium in December, they played on Sportexe Momentum.
"It poured and poured in New York and the footing didn't really give you a problem," Simmons said. "That's the nice thing about it is the consistency."
Thornton said, "We had a little trouble slipping in Buffalo, but it was cold in Baltimore and there was no problem."
Another plus for the team is it gives them another practice field option. In rain or bad weather, they don't have to use the old version AstroTurf field and can work in the stadium.
Along with the Jets, Giants, Buffalo and Baltimore, other teams that have gone synthetic are Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, and Seattle., as well as the University of Cincinnati and Miami University locally. Other NFL teams believed to be discussing the issue are the dome clubs in Minnesota, Indianapolis, and St. Louis.
"While there have been many successes, there have also been some areas we wish had gone better," said Bengals director of business development Troy Blackburn of PBS. "Probably the most visible struggle – despite everyone's best efforts – has been the ongoing issue involved with maintaining the stadium field. This struggle has impacted perceptions of the stadium, the County, and the team, and have caused unnecessary misunderstandings and conflict. It's time we put all that behind us as we move forward."
Since PBS opened in August of 2000, the Bengals have hosted Ohio's largest high school sports event in a state tournament double-header, an Ohio State-UC game, the Billy Graham Mission, and the Riverfront Classic. The club believes a move away from the upkeep of grass will reduce the expenses for such events.