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Labriola on natural grass, draft, analytics


Ready or not, here it comes:

  • On Tuesday, Nov. 17, a news conference was held to announce a 15-year partnership extension between the Steelers and UPMC Sports Medicine, with the current practice facility renamed the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. As Steelers President Art Rooney II said that day, "I want to say thanks to (UPMC President and CEO) Jeffrey Romoff and all of our friends at UPMC. Obviously, we're thrilled with the name change and proud that the complex will now be known as the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. I just wanted to make sure we understand which Rooney we're talking about when you heard that, so we got that straightened out."
  • The Rooney being honored with his name on the building is Dan, currently the Steelers Chairman, not long ago the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, the architect of what fans all over the world have come understand when the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field. Even before the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex was even an idea in his head, before Heinz Field was a done deal, Dan Rooney was an NFL owner who cared about his players. At some point over the course of twenty-plus years of playing in a multi-purpose facility on a few different kinds of artificial turf that at times wasn't much more than fuzzy concrete, Dan Rooney made up his mind. When he was in charge of the playing surface, it would be grass. Real grass. Even though his team's home was in a part of the country that experienced real winter.
  • And so it was. The Steelers practice fields at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex are grass. Both of them. Pitt chose to have one of its practice fields turned into artificial turf, the better to withstand the wear and tear created by a roster that can hold as many as 105 players. NFL teams have rosters of 90 players through most of every offseason, but the Steelers conduct their offseason program, OTAs, minicamp, the whole lot, on grass.
  • For Heinz Field, Dan Rooney initially was sold on the idea of a product called DD GrassMaster, a natural grass surface reinforced with man-made fibers developed by Desso DLW Sports Systems. It was installed on top of a drainage and heating system. But soon after Heinz Field opened, problems manifested themselves. Because the natural grass was reinforced with man-made fibers, the grass had to grow on its own. The field could not be re-sodded during a lull in the season, and grass does not grow during Western Pennsylvania winters, no matter how efficient the heating system might be.
  • Dan Rooney was told that what was the basis for the problem with the Heinz Field surface was over-use. DD GrassMaster worked great in Lambeau Field in Green Bay, and the winters in Wisconsin are worse, but the Packers use it only 10 times a season, unless there were home playoff games tacked on at the end of a season.

Pittsburgh Steeler Arthur Moats and his family baked cookies with children and their families at the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

  • That wasn't going to work in Pittsburgh, because Dan Rooney's vision for Heinz Field was that it would be part of the community, and to him that meant it was to be available to more than just his NFL team. The Rooney family, at its core, is in the football business, and the sport is played on more levels than just professional. In Dan Rooney's stadium, high school football would be played there, college football would be played there. And it was going to be played on grass.
  • Later tonight, the WPIAL will stage the semifinals of its football playoffs in all four enrollment classifications. Sixteen teams will be whittled to eight, and those eight get to play for the big trophy in A, AA, AAA, and AAAA on Saturday, Nov. 28. All four championship games will be played, as usual, at Heinz Field.
  • Tomorrow, Pitt hosts Louisville in an Atlantic Coast Conference game, in which the Panthers have a chance to clinch their first eight-win season since 2010. That Pitt home game will be played, as usual, at Heinz Field.
  • Over the years, there were suggestions to Dan Rooney to install artificial turf at Heinz Field. More durable. Less maintenance. Cheaper in the long run. Dan Rooney wasn't interested, because he believed football played on grass was better for the players. At some point, the Steelers replaced the DD GrassMaster, simply because it wouldn't allow for the re-sodding of the field. What some might call stubbornness was to him simply a commitment to doing the right thing.
  • Over the years, the right thing evolved into a system where the Heinz Field playing surface is re-sodded two different times over the course of a football season in Pittsburgh. The first re-sodding encompasses the area between the college hashmarks and is done some time in October that's conducive to Pitt's and the Steelers' home schedules. (See photo above) The second re-sodding is done after the high school championship games are played.
  • This isn't cheap, and the Steelers pick up the tab. But Dan Rooney believes football on grass is better for the players, and that's why it's done this way.
  • According to Adam Schefter, the NFL is planning to allow teams to trade compensatory draft picks starting in 2016. Maybe more trades equate to more drama and higher ratings for what's evolving more and more into a made-for-TV event. I first suggested the following as a joke, and it ended up drawing more groans than laughs, but I still don't believe it's impossible:
  • Starting on April 1, the NFL could start to stage the first round of the draft, with one team making one pick each day. It could be turned into a daily, 32-part one-hour show, with the bulk of the time being filled by features, predictions, discussion, and analysis. Imagine the television revenue.
  • Start on April 1, and the first round ends on May 2. Finish the other rounds before the end of the first week in May so that rookie minicamps still can be held that first weekend of May. The first picks of the first round – in early April – would come at the same time as the NCAA Final Four, but since the NFL show only would be one hour, it could be used as a lead-in to those basketball games. There's nothing else on the sports calendar through April that could touch the NFL – and the first round of its draft – in terms of ratings.
  • NumberFire is a privately held company that offers statistical analysis of data and has partnerships with ESPN and the NFL. Its recent analysis of the Steelers indicates a team on the upswing. After defeating the Browns to get to 6-4, the Steelers' chances to make the playoffs were set at 66.7 percent, up 3.8 percent over the previous week, with a projected final record of 9.71-6.29.
  • Hey, what do I know, maybe beating the Browns a second time is only worth .71 in the win-loss column.
  • According to a story in The New York Times, the New York State attorney general sought an injunction in state court on Nov. 17 to prohibit the two most prominent daily fantasy sports websites – FanDuel and DraftKings – from operating in the state, "saying they were 'plainly illegal' and 'nothing more than a rebranding of sports betting.'" Later in the story, the Times listed six items that were among the findings and claims in the court filing.
  • This was No. 3: "A vast majority of players are net losers, losing far more money playing on the sites than they win. DraftKings data show that 89.3 percent of DFS players had an overall negative return on investment across 2013 and 2014."
  • Reminds me of the first time my wife and I traveled to Las Vegas on vacation. As we stood at the top of an escalator that would take us down into the Caesar's Palace casino, I stopped and told her, "Look around. You see all that marble and the expensive carpeting and the leather chairs. They can afford all that because there aren't a lot of people walking out of here as winners."
  • By the way, NumberFire lists the Steelers as having a better chance to win the AFC Championship and earn a trip to Super Bowl 50 than they have at winning the AFC North Division title, 8.46 percent to 5.16 percent.
  • I don't believe that's supposed to mean the Bengals are better than the Patriots, but with analytics who knows? Numbers don't lie, but they also don't always make perfect sense, either.
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