It started with the Army-Navy game on December 9, when a snowstorm came out of nowhere as the game played, covering Lincoln Financial Field with nearly a half a foot of snow. It continued through Christmas and New Year's with bitterly cold temperatures, and then peaked late last week with a deluge that dumped two inches of rain on South Philadelphia.
The weather, it's safe to say, hasn't been kind to Tony Leonard, the Eagles' director of grounds. But, no worries. Leonard and his staff have done an incredible job of making sure that the natural grass at Lincoln Financial Field is safe and playable for the athletes and, as a side benefit, looks great for the fans and the cameras watching every move.
"There's a lot of pride," Leonard said on Monday afternoon from his Lincoln Financial Field office. "Considering the weather the Northeast has had this winter, it's probably one of the worst winters I've experienced in the last 20 years. It's been cold, with snow, both during games. We've had problems with the nozzles freezing on our paint machines. There has been rain, also during games.
"But the field is playing great and it looks great and the credit goes to the staff that works so hard, and the team and understanding what Coach (Doug Pederson) wants. We're just like everyone else: Anything we can do to help the team win is great with us."
Leonard is part of a staff of seven that arrived at 8 a.m. on Saturday to prep the field for the NFC Divisional Round game against the Falcons, and as soon as the players and coaches cleared it following the Eagles' 15-10 victory, the work began for this week's NFC Championship Game. The field crew vacuumed the debris from the field – using eight vacuums – filled divots, "scuffs, really," said Leonard with sand and got the field ready for a number-to-number, goal line-to-goal line sod job that was completed on Monday.
Lincoln Financial Field looks incredible.
There is strong, green grass in Philadelphia in late January. The playability will be strong for Sunday's game against the Vikings. An intricate heating system featuring 28 miles of heating pipes dug 11 inches deep, divided into six zones, will actually promote grass growth, if only a little bit. The Eagles use 24 soil thermometers that send a reading to the boilers which tell the boilers how hot the grass temperature – usually around 60 degrees – needs to be.
But there are challenges ahead, of course. A predicted snowfall of a couple of inches could hit Philadelphia on Tuesday night and, as Leonard knows, the unpredictability of the wind and the precipitation systems could mean a whole lot more snow.
"We will have the tarp down and we'll be ready for anything," Leonard said.
The Eagles could practice later in the week on the field. There is a large paint job ahead (more on that below). The NFL has a trophy presentation after the game for the winning team, and there will be a stage put in place as a dress rehearsal is conducted.
It isn't just the game. The stress on the field happens all week.
And as much as we look at a field and measure it by the eye test, Leonard's first interest is making sure the players' performances aren't hampered by a field that is loose and chunky and slick. Player safety is the top priority.
"Player safety is the ultimate for us. That's the main goal," Leonard said. "Aesthetics will take a back seat to player safety every time. We hope to get a couple of days of dry weather and hopefully get the field painted and then by Saturday night, take a step back and take a look and say, 'Hey, here is it, January 20 and we have a green field.'"
The paint job encompasses both end zones, the sidelines, the numbers, the hash marks, the four-color Eagles logo in the middle of the field, two NFL shield logos along with two NFC Championship Game logos. Leonard estimates that this paint job will use about 160 gallons of paint and take as long as two full days to complete.
This week's sod job is the third the team has applied this season. Leonard said the Eagles sodded the center of the field in October and then re-sodded the entire field in December and now is preparing for the NFC Championship Game with a long-of-the-field, between-the-numbers sod job. Even getting the sod has been a challenge, as the freezing-cold weather has made it difficult for the sod farms to cut the sod this winter. Fortunately, the Eagles and a sod farm in Tuckahoe, New Jersey had a two-day window to cut the required amount.
Leonard checks the weather forecast multiple times each day – five to six times, actually – and he's got his plan in place for the week. Once the winter weather passes through on Wednesday and if the temperatures continue to be on the upswing, he'll likely turn off the field heaters and allow the turf to firm up.
By Sunday, the field will be in pristine condition, a full week of work put in by a grounds crew that continues to amaze.