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Grass or fake grass? Steelers haven't decided yet

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' anticipated switch of Heinz Field to artificial turf might not be the done deal it appeared to be six weeks ago.

The Steelers' players are arguing against it, and the NFL is pleased at how the field's beaten-up grass held up for a playoff game last weekend.

After nearly 1 1/2 inches of rain in several hours and a newly sodded field combined to make Heinz Field's surface almost unplayable for Pittsburgh's 3-0 victory over Miami on Nov. 26, the club was expected to install artificial turf when the season ended.

Criticized for playing six high school, college and NFL games in a four-day span on grass turf in bad weather, the Steelers found themselves being ridiculed inside and out of the league. Jaguars running back Fred Taylor called the bad grass "a lawsuit waiting to happen."

Now, the pro-grass faction might be winning out.

Despite light rain during the game, the field was in the best shape it's been in for weeks during Jacksonville's 31-29 AFC wild-card victory Saturday. Punts didn't plug in ankle-deep mud the way they did in the Miami game, and wide receivers didn't slide or lose traction on pass routes.

"We're going to have a big discussion about what to do and things like this ... but we haven't even discussed it yet," Steelers owner Dan Rooney told The Associated Press. "I think the grass held up really good."

Concerned about the mushy turf, the NFL kept an operations executive in Pittsburgh after the Miami game, then did so again last week. Rooney said the league was pleased Saturday with the field conditions for a game attended by commissioner Roger Goodell.

"They had their guy here looking at it, to see how it was, and he said it was great for this game," Rooney said. "But they don't tell you, `You've got to do this, you've got to do that.' At least they haven't told us that."

Numerous players, including Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, are pleading to keep the grass because they are convinced it reduces knee and ankle injuries.

Their case became stronger when Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker, leading the league in rushing at the time with 1,316 yards, broke his right leg while cutting on St. Louis' artificial turf Dec. 20.

With Parker out of the lineup, the Steelers rushed for only 89 yards combined while losing their final two games without him.

"We're going to listen to them (the players)," Rooney said. "We're not going to make the decision entirely on that, but they will have an influence."

The Steelers' field problems aren't new. In 2002, the grass was replaced three times from spring until the end of the season. Another year, the grass between the hash marks was torn out and replaced.

While more colder-weather NFL teams with outdoor stadiums have grass fields than artificial turf, the Steelers must weigh whether they can continue playing up to 25 NFL, University of Pittsburgh and high school games per season on grass.

Putting down artificial turf would allow them to increase the number of high school games and other events, such as concerts, staged at Heinz Field each year.

"A lot of people say, `Ahh, get rid of those high schools,"' Rooney said. "We don't want to do that. We want them to be part of it. It's a great thing for them. When I was playing for North (Catholic, during the 1940s), we played at Forbes Field. Even though I was around it all the time, I really got a thrill out of it."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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