Another convincing victory on the east coast. Another bittersweet post-game in which the Niners are forced to tally up a long list of season-ending injuries. It’s become a sickening routine for a team all too familiar with a problem that’s shelved some of their best players for twelve months at a time.
This week, Emmanuel Moseley went down, clutching at his left knee, with mere minutes left in the fourth quarter. A brutal end to the Greensboro native’s day and season, which featured his first career pick-six in front of his cheering family, who made the short trip to be in attendance.
You can tell by his teammates' reaction, even those at-home nursing her own injuries, and coaches just how much love there is for Moseley. Arik Armstead immediately tweeted out his concern, Talanoa Hufanga referred to him as a man of “great character,” and HC Kyle Shanahan called it “a real sad, unfortunate thing that happened to him” before making clear that he hopes to have the pending free agent on the roster next season.
Even the team’s owner personally sent best wishes to his fallen player.
To a lesser extent, the feeling on Sunday echoed the absolutely gutting loss of Jason Verrett in last season’s opener against the Detroit Lions. After watching the team’s number one corner and beloved comeback story exit the field on a trainer’s cart, the Niners' sideline took on a dark and depressing atmosphere. Sixteen points in the final quarter followed, and the deflated team barely escaped with what had looked like an easy W.
Fittingly, that game began just as it ended when Raheem Mostert suffered a major knee injury on only his second snap. These losses dogged San Francisco for most of the season. Elijah Mitchell, who dealt with his own slew of missed time, tried his best to fill the role, but the run game didn’t reach peak efficiency until Deebo Samuel moved to the backfield.
As for the secondary, Verrett’s void created a weak spot exploited on a weekly basis. Think of who the coaching staff tried to make the full-time replacement. Josh Norman racked up nearly a century mark of penalty yards in his brief stint, and Ambry Thomas had the usual rookie ups and downs with some very low downs. Mostly, it looked a little bit like treating a bullet wound with a Band-Aid.
Of course, this all pales in comparison to a day that truly kneecapped a Niners season before it even began. When I type “Week 2, 2020,” everyone remembers and cringes over what happened. Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas tore their ACLs on back-to-back plays in the first quarter, and later Raheem Mostert sprained his MCL. The team never rebounded from losing the reigning defensive rookie of the year and limped into the offseason, disappointed.
As you can plainly see, injuries have and continue to add up in San Francisco, hampering the team’s ability to compete at their highest possible level. In 2020, when they finished 6-10, the Niners, far and away, led the league in Adjusted Games Lost, a metric created by Football Outsiders to measure a team’s health. The following season, they only managed to marginally improve to fourth worst overall.
Beyond their abnormal frequency, these injuries share something else in common. Perhaps, the Niners' greatest opponent isn’t the team lining up against them on the field, but actually the field. That’s right, every incident detailed above took place on artificial turf. Players are forced to face the reality that they’re 28% more likely to suffer a dreaded non-contact lower-body injury when playing on turf as opposed to natural grass.
It’s a risk that can alter a career in the blink of an eye, trap talent on the sidelines for weeks on end, and ultimately hurt the end product for millions of fans at home. Yet, many owners across the league refuse to make what they deem to be too costly a switch from turf to grass. The price for upkeep on real grass combined with turf’s ability to withstand other revenue-generating events like concerts simply outweighs player safety.
Post-game, George Kittle addressed the issue directly and even offered a specific shout-out. “I thought it was an OK turf. But turf’s turf. It is what it is. I’d much rather play on grass. That’s why I love Jed York. We have the nicest grass in the NFL.”
Later, when asked about Kittle’s comments, Kyle Shanahan elaborated further, even pointing out how Levi’s can still host outside events and keep the field in great shape.
“...I know how much everyone prefers grass and I think George said it best yesterday. We have concerts in our stadium all the time. I think Elton John played there this weekend. And I just love that we always get grass and then it’s always new and they always re-sod it and I know you have to do some extra stuff to get that done, but I can’t tell you how big of a difference it makes for us. I’m glad that we don’t have to deal with that stuff in our stadium.”
Those enthusiastic votes of confidence for natural grass have been matched, if not overwhelmed, by the general negativity surrounding artificial turf. In the wake of Odell Beckham Jr.’s torn ACL on his home field during the Super Bowl, players from seemingly every position and team made their voice heard on the matter.
Nick Bosa referred to the synthetic surface as a problem for the NFL, while Kittle compared it unfavorably to cement, and Deebo Samuel called for an outright ban. Countless others similarly made their frustrations known. This culminated with a change.org petition, signed and shared by both Bosa and Kittle, to flip all fields in the league to natural grass.
However, there’s yet to be a tangible change made in response to these outcries from those who actually make their living out on the controversial substance, even in the face of more and more losses, like Moseley’s this past Sunday. Injuries of this severity create ripple effects for the player, their families, teammates, coaches, and, again, those of us at home that just want to watch the best possible football.
Given the already mounting resistance, one has to wonder what the breaking point would be for the NFL to act, but hopefully, the continued pressure put on by some of the league’s biggest stars might hopefully be enough to sway a few stubborn owners.