Edward Jones Dome: The House of Horrors

Editor’s note: This started as a comment of mine over at Turf Show Times, but I feel it’s a topic worthy of a full post.

In the third round of the 2009 draft, Billy Devaney and the Rams reached for a physical cornerback from the University of Iowa named Bradley Fletcher. Devaney and Spagnuolo touted his ability to play physical bump-and-run coverage as a key ingredient of the Rams’ secondary unit. Fletcher played well throughout the preseason, and his play motivated Billy Devaney to make a bold move — trading away starting CB Tye Hill as part of the Rams’ first five cuts. As the Rams got stronger and more coherent on the field this season, Fletcher got stronger and better in practice and in his limited playing time, until he had earned the starting job opposite Ron Bartell in Week 6 against Jacksonville.

Zimbio Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images North America

One week later his season ended with a sickening pop on the artificial turf of the Edward Jones Dome. His foot froze to the turf as he landed, trying to defend a deep ball from Peyton Manning, and his knee buckled inward, tearing his ACL and lateral meniscus. He now faces two surgeries and a long road to recovery.

His is not an isolated case — in fact, every Rams player listed on the IR sustained their season-ending injury at the dome, or on a turf-covered practice field, except for OJ Atogwe. Read on, if you dare, for the painful blow-by-blow.

Pre-preseason: Two rookies — WR Brooks Foster and Safety Eric Bassey — injure their knees on the brand-new Lindenwood turf during a very light-hitting exhibition game for fans. It’s the same type of turf that is used in the dome. Meanwhile, Adam Carriker badly sprains his ankle on the same field.

Preseason: Donnie Avery suffers a sprained foot in practice, while making a cut on the turf. Avery is able to return in time for the regular season opener. Carriker is not so lucky, though, sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury during the Governor’s Cup game against the Chiefs.

Home Game #1 (Week 3 vs Packers): Laurent Robinson’s season ends on the turf as his ankle gets rolled onto while setting a block. He fractures his fibula and sprains his ankle. Marc Bulger is also removed with a shoulder injury, though he would return to start three games later.

Home Game #2 (Week 5 vs Vikings): Gary Gibson, the promising DT who stepped in for Adam Carriker, breaks a bone in his ankle joint during a routine play on the home turf. His season is over.

Home Game #3 (Week 7 vs Colts): CB Bradley Fletcher and long snapper Chris Massey both tear up their knees during routine plays and are done for the year. Richie Incognito sprains his foot and misses several weeks, just as Donnie Avery did in preseason.

Home Game #4 (Week 10 vs Saints): WR Keenan Burton, the team’s most prolific pass catcher to this point, is lost to a gruesome knee injury in the first quarter, running a simple dig pattern.

Home Game #5 (Week 11 vs Cardinals): Before the Rams even get to the game, CJ Ah You is lost for the season to a knee injury sustained on the practice turf. Ah You is the third DT to go down. OJ Atogwe finally returns the favor by bouncing Kurt Warner’s helmet off the turf, sidelining the QB for a game and a half, and breaking his career-long streak of games started. However, karma would bit bite back hard, as Marc Bulger’s season unofficially ends with a tibia bone fracture at the knee joint. Jason Smith also suffers a major concussion that would knock him out for the rest of the season, though he is never placed on IR.)

Home Game #6 (Week 12 vs Seahawks): Jason Brown sprains his knee and misses the second half, leaving the offensive line in tatters. And Jason Smith, while merely sitting on the sidelines of this house of horrors, suffers a relapse and has to be hospitalized.

Week 13 (At Soldier Field vs Bears): Even though it’s not turf, Soldier Field has been called “the worst natural grass surface in the league.” Atogwe can attest to that, after severely injuring his shoulder while trying to tackle Matt Forte. The season-ending injury breaks his string of 60 consecutive starts for the Rams.

Week 14 (vs Tennessee): Jacob Bell’s season is done after suffering a hamstring injury. He and Atogwe are the lone members of the IR not injured on turf.

Home Game #7 (Week 15 vs Texans): The team’s most trusted TE, Daniel Fells, and its newest rookie commodity at cornerback, Quincy Butler, both wreck their knees on the turf and are placed on IR.

Home Game #8 (Week 17 vs 49ers): Not content until someone’s viscera is shredded, the turf grabs ahold of practice squadman Roger Allen III, who had been pressed into starting duty after a season-ending triceps injury to Mark Setterstrom. In his first career start, Allen’s left ACL is torn. And as a closing act, Keith Null and Donnie Avery are both removed with concussion symptoms.

This is a continuation of a 40-year-old theme of turf-related injuries, and even though the Dome uses next-generation turf that has simulated blades of grass and even “dirt” pellets embedded to provide more give and bounce, that turf never gets a chance to get worn in. Unlike any other NFL stadium I know of, the Dome tears out its turf every single year to accommodate its offseason second life as a convention center.

New turf has two characteristics that correspond to higher injuries: more friction, and less ability to absorb shock:

“It is these surfaces on which players say their foot gets “caught in the turf.” Studies have shown that there is a higher incidence of ACL injuries with surfaces that have a higher coefficient of friction….

Athletic fields with a high G-Max level [i.e. low ability to absorb shock] place more impact upon the athlete during a collision with the field. This translates to higher injury and concussion rates.”

— “Artificial Turf: Does it Increase the Risk of Sports Injuries?

You could argue that both the Rams and their opponents play on the same field, but opponents only play one game per year on the surface, whereas we spend a whole season on it. Similar surfaces in baseball shorten the careers of certain home field players, while not impacting visiting players at all.

And as Jim Thomas has noted in the past, this phenomenon is hardly unique to this year. (emphasis mine.)

“There also is a train of thought by some at Rams Park – coaches I’m speaking of – that the turf at the Edward Jones Dome is causing some problems. It currently is replaced every year because the technology isn’t there to remove Field Turf and store it after every season. Because of that the turf never really gets broken in before it’s replaced. (There simply aren’t that many football games played in the dome over a year’s time.) And becuase of that extra friction because the turf isn’t broken in, it could lead to more turf injuries. I believe the vast majority of ankle, foot, and leg injuries to the Rams occurred at the dome last year, not on the road.

P-D Live Chat, September 2008

So please, Jim, Tell us that there’s somebody watching! Tell us that the Rams are going to take notice and put a real playing surface in the Dome!

“There has been an ongoing discussion about the need to have a permanent turf in the dome. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be a place to store the turf in the convention complex, even if the Convention and Visitors Commission goes to a tray system – at least that’s what I’m told.”

P-D Live Chat, January 2010

Photo by St Louis Post-Dispatch