After playing their home games on an artificial surface for the past 13 seasons, the Ravens will be going back to natural grass at M&T Bank Stadium.
Ravens president Dick Cass said Friday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that the organization has decided to make the change before the start of the 2016 season. The Ravens haven't played their home games on natural grass since 2002, when issues with maintaining a quality field prompted a switch to turf.
"We want to try and see if we can have a good grass field at M&T Bank Stadium," Cass said.
The decision was reached after consultation with Ravens players and coaches, along with other East Coast-based organizations around the league that have successfully managed a grass playing surface. The Ravens' new surface, which will be installed not long after the 2015 season ends, will be Bermuda grass with some rye grass planted later in the season.
It will be the same surface that the Ravens practice on at the Under Armour Performance Center.
"To me, it's Baltimore," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh who acknowledged that he was one of the people who lobbied for the change. "It kind of epitomizes what Baltimore is all about, the history of football in Baltimore. To me, a Baltimore football team should be playing on a grass field in Baltimore."
The Ravens had long planned to replace their six-year-old Shaw Industries Momentum 51-style turf following this season. The initial assumption was that the Ravens would stay with an artificial surface similar to their current one, which Cass called "the best artificial surface on the market today."
However, Cass said that the players and coaches made it clear in a meeting about three months ago that it was their preference to play on grass. Cass acknowledged that several studies the organization consulted showed there are fewer lower-body injuries on grass than on turf.
The Ravens have had a series of injuries this season at M&T Bank Stadium with quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), running back Justin Forsett (arm) and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. (Achilles) all among those going down with season-ending injuries. However, Cass said the injuries weren't the impetus for the change, and the plan was in motion long before Flacco, Forsett and Smith went down.
"I don't think the injuries we've experienced this year or in prior years are related to the type of [surface]," Cass said. "… The primary factor was our players really wanted to play on grass and we think that playing on grass is just more consistent with the way football should be played in Baltimore."
The decision was well received in the Ravens locker room.
"Especially with me [having] two knee surgeries, I just walked off practice and I can tell the difference from practicing on the turf field and outside [on grass]," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We're looking at the numbers. They say injuries happen more on turf than on grass — simple as that."
Veteran outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil credited the Ravens with "trying to help take care of the players, which this organization is about."
"We appreciate it that they care enough to hear the players' input," Dumervil said. "It's not like that everywhere."
Cass didn't disclose financial details, but confirmed that switching to a grass field will be a bigger monetary commitment for the organization. There will be more maintenance required and the field will need to be resodded every season and possibly a couple of times each year.
The Ravens will be under contract with a sod farm in North Carolina, which will grow the field.
When the Ravens' stadium opened in 1998, the grass surface wore down during seasons and the layout of the stadium made maintaining the grass difficult. Starting in November, the sun didn't reach certain parts of the field. That prompted the team's move to an artificial surface.
However, Cass said that the Ravens are exploring bringing in artificial lighting to make sure the full field is exposed. Team officials also think regularly resodding the field will help maintain the quality.
"If it doesn't work out because of the climate, because of the way the sun hits, if it turns out not to be a good grass field, we will have to go back to artificial," Cass said. "But we're going to make a good try at this. … We're expecting to have a good grass field for the full season."
Eighteen of the NFL's 32 teams currently play their home games on grass, including the Green Bay Packers who have a hybrid surface at Lambeau Field. The San Francisco 49ers' new grass field at Levi's Stadium has come under scrutiny and Ravens kicker Justin Tucker sunk in a divot while kicking there earlier this season.
However, plenty of teams have made grass field work, too.
"If you look around our division right now, Pittsburgh has a grass field, Cleveland has a grass field. [FedEx Field in Landover] has grass and the Philadelphia Eagles have grass," said Cass who added that the grass surface wouldn't prevent the Ravens from hosting college and high school games, and international soccer contests. "We think the grass we're going to have at our stadium this time will be better than what we had in 2002."