Players adjusting to good, bad of full-season Thursday slate
If this were a typical season in the era of the NFL Network's Thursday night football package, the addition of the extra prime time game to the league's national TV schedule only would have started last night, with the arrival of Week 10. In its earliest incarnations, beginning in 2006, the Thursday-night schedule didn't open until Thanksgiving night.
But this year, with the first-time expansion of the Thursday-night slate to nearly the full season (Weeks 2 through 15), we've had a weekly dose of mid-week NFL action since Sept. 13. It's one of the few innovations the league introduced in 2012, and midseason seems like a suitable time to conduct some reviews of the experiment.
For football fans, more NFL in prime time seems like a no-brainer, at least according to the ever-climbing TV ratings. But what about the players who are asked to make the quick turnaround, playing just four days after taking the field the previous Sunday? In this time of increased awareness and initiative geared toward player safety, has a full season of Thursday night games been viewed as a boon or bane by the men who put their bodies on the line to provide the next dose of NFL entertainment? Has there been a physical toll or price to pay for more prime-time football?
In a limited and informal survey of some of the players who have participated in the season's first-half Thursday night games, the reviews have been mixed. By and large, players enjoy the carrot at the end of the stick that comes with playing on Thursday nights: competing on the national stage in prime time and getting what amounts to a "mini-bye weekend'' off after the game. But they acknowledge that the challenge of a short work week can be demanding physically and mentally, and they want, in time, to learn if there is any increased injury risks to the league essentially doubling the Thursday-night schedule.
"From a health and safety issue, after a full season of Thursday nights, you probably have to look and see the data, with the injuries and stuff,'' Baltimore center Matt Birk, a 15-year NFL veteran, said last week. "If there's any increased risks to playing Thursday nights, you want to know that. But that's where the league is right now: As many prime time games as possible, and Thursday night, that's prime time. Everybody's concerned about player safety, but everybody's also concerned about making money. That's just kind of the way it is.''
That is the primary reason Birk feels the full-season Thursday night schedule is likely here to stay, because it will come to be seen as part of the league's revenue portfolio, to have a third night of games added to the NFL's wildly successful Sunday and Monday night packages. That would continue even if Thursday nights are developed and eventually sold to another network other than the league-owned NFL Network, as is widely presumed.
"I would say unless the numbers at the end of the year -- the injury numbers -- tell us those Thursday night games are extra dangerous, then yeah, I would think [it's here to stay],'' Birk said. "I don't think it's going anywhere, especially being on the NFL Network, the owners' network. I don't know if it's good or bad, but as a player it's just something you've got to do.
"There's downside and upside to it. It does break up our routine a little bit as players, and over the course of 16 weeks, that's kind of nice. I'd say just as long as at the end of the year they look and make sure we're not putting ourselves at any increased risk, then I think it's a good thing.''
Birk's Ravens opened the season on a Monday night at home against Cincinnati, and then played a Week 4 Thursday night home game against Cleveland. It meant the first four games of Baltimore's season fell in the span of 18 days (from Sept. 10-27), a grueling stretch, but as Birk points out, the Browns played their first four games in only a slightly more manageable 19 days. Players seemingly have taken an "it is what it is'' approach to the expansion of the Thursday night schedule.
"You take the good with the bad,'' Birk said. "As an older guy (Birk is 36), it's probably harder to get ready for a Thursday game, but you just do it. It's professional football, and you're getting paid to do it. That's what they expect.''
The Ravens were fortunate in that they played at home in Week 3, on Sunday night against New England, and then stayed home to face the Browns four nights later. The same goes for Green Bay, which opened the season at home against San Francisco in Week 1, and then, like the Ravens, at least had the benefit of staying home to face a division opponent (the Bears) on Thursday night of Week 2. The league seems to have been very cognizant of the short week of preparation, making 10 of its 14 Thursday night games this season division matchups, which gives teams the advantage of game-planning for a familiar opponent.
In addition, no team will have to play more than once this season on Thursday, and that includes the triple-header slate of games on Thanksgiving, meaning all 32 teams will have one Thursday game day (or night).
"I think players have embraced it,'' said Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, whose St. Louis club played and won at home against Arizona on Thursday night in Week 5, after beating Seattle at home four days earlier (a pair of key division wins). "I don't think it bothered us at all. There's a bright side, a light at the end of the tunnel in that you get your weekend off afterwards. So that always works out well and your body needs that.
"Coach [Jeff] Fisher did a really good job that week of limiting our physical activity and not beating us up, and just made it more of a mental game. As long as guys are doing the necessary things to rest their bodies and prepare mentally more than physically for that upcoming short week, I think you're going to be perfectly fine.''
Not everybody is quite as enthusiastic about the full-season Thursday night package, however. One NFL club general manager who did not wish to be identified said the burden of being the road team in a Thursday night game is sizable.
"It's absolutely ridiculous that, on the first day you'd normally be preparing for your next game (Wednesday), you're traveling to play that game. No veteran player can be as ready to play Thursday as he would be on Sunday. It's not in the best interests of the game.''
Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said his team's challenge in playing on Thursday night in Week 2 against the Bears was substantial turnaround-wise, because Green Bay lost in Week 1 to another physical team in San Francisco. The Packers rebounded to defeat Chicago.
"It was definitely a different experience, but I think it has a lot to do with your opponents before and after the Thursday night game,'' Raji said. "If you played a physical team like San Francisco, then obviously you're going to be a little affected by that, as opposed to playing a team that likes to pass a lot, like New Orleans.
"It's definitely a strain on you, but there are some obvious benefits in that it's national TV game and you get that extra time off that weekend. Only speaking for myself, I'm not really the biggest fan of it. I'm not really crazy about playing on Thursday night after playing Sunday. I don't see the benefit, but who's to say? My body didn't make a full recovery, but if you ask any football player if he'd rather play a game for three hours or practice for three hours, he'll say play a game. In the long run, that game substituted for a practice.''
Seattle fourth-year center Max Unger and the rest of the Seahawks played and upset visiting New England in Week 6, and then had to get ready quickly for one of their biggest games of the season: at San Francisco, the defending NFC West champion, on the Thursday night of Week 7. Seattle narrowly lost that game to the 49ers">49ers. Still, Unger viewed the Thursday night experience as a positive for his team, due to a late-season bye this year, in Week 11.
"It's difficult, there's no doubt about that,'' Unger said. "It is tough, because you're body is not fully recovered by Thursday. But by the time the game rolls around and the adrenaline starts going, you're ready to go.
"It was a good thing for us. We had no problem doing it, considering it gave us a mini-bye (in Week 7). I've never had a bye as late as Week 11, so it'll help us, I think, to have had that little break in October.''
Teams that have injured players are that much more up against the wall entering a Thursday night game. The lack of full recovery time can make decisions regarding game availability a moot point. If Sunday was going to be a push to get an injured or banged-up player healthy, Thursday night is out of the question.
"It's tough for guys who are injured, no question about that,'' Unger said. "If you're relatively healthy, I don't think it's a problem. It's just a challenge to cram the game plan in there. We had to get our film work and anything extra we did into that window. We just stayed in the building longer, that's pretty much what it was. But it was worth it. If your body is OK, you can always put the time in for your mind.''
Younger teams, or ones with a recent history of losing, covet the chance to play in the prime time spotlight, said Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway. Minnesota started the season a surprising 5-2, but then looked lethargic and sloppy in losing at home to Tampa Bay on Thursday night in Week 8, after beating Arizona the Sunday before at home. Greenway still has a bad taste in his mouth from the experience, but not because of how the team's schedule broke.
"I'm a bad person to ask after just taking the loss in that game, but it was probably more positive than bad for our football team,'' Greenway said. "You want to play in prime time, especially for teams and organizations that don't get put on that pedestal a lot. So it gives everyone that opportunity. I just wish we could have come out and showed off like we wanted to.
"It's really not enough, those couple of days between games, to give you a full recovery. But for us, being a young team and having no prime time games other than that one, we looked forward to it. But, unfortunately, we didn't play as well as we'd like to in that game.''
That the Thursday night package lasts all season long has its pros and cons for players, but it's too early in the experiment to determine if the benefits or disadvantages out-weigh one another. Even football fans, Unger said, have to be ready to adjust their schedules to the NFL's new reality.
"Even the fantasy players, maybe they're forgetting to turn in their lineups on Thursday mornings this year,'' Unger said, with a laugh. "You've got to adjust.''