Roundtable: How would you fix subpar Thursday Night Football product?
Those who watched the Jaguars beat the Titans to open Week 11 on Thursday night were treated to a performance that fit the reputation of the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package has built over its 10 years of existence: choppy offense, game-changing mental errors and a wave of criticism from fans watching at home. The NFL has successfully staked out a third night of the week to dominate the attention of its followers and is reportedly exploring expanding its online streaming options to Thursday nights, but many argue that the league’s victory has come at the cost of sacrificing the quality of play as players and coaches struggle to turn around a game plan on a short week.
Thursday Night Football is growing, but is it getting worse in the process? In this week’s roundtable, SI’s writers and editors offer up their solutions for the package.
Call me old-school, but I loved it when the NFL primarily meant Sundays and Monday nights, and you actually had to wait out those five days between games. It made it special, and the anticipation was part of the appeal. But let’s be real: That ship has sailed, money rules all, and Thursday night games are never going to disappear completely.
So how do you make them better? The fix that makes the most sense is the one that addresses player safety and would get the league out of the business of asking players to put their bodies back on the line just four days after their most recent game. And it’s still a money-maker. I think any legitimate solution would include roughly the following:
Other than the NFL’s season-opening Thursday night showcase game, start the regular Thursday-night package in Week 5, skipping only Weeks 2–4. That’s a small price to pay for a big problem solved. With the bye weeks starting in Week 4, every team that faces a Thursday night game would have the previous Sunday as a bye. Combined with the mini-bye of about 10 days before a team’s next game after a Thursday night contest, it would make for teams playing one game in about a 20-day span. You’d have 10 days to get ready for a Thursday night game, and 10 days to recover from it. If there’s a rust factor, so be it. Player safety first, right, NFL?
Two teams that have a bye in Week 4 would thus play the Thursday night in Week 5, then have 10 days to get ready for Week 6. You’d have to space out the byes for longer than Week 11 — the cutoff point this season — but once December gets here and the college football season wanes, the logical move would be to take the Thursday night package and shift it to Saturday night, a viewing window the NFL has utilized in the past. There are no safety issues with playing on Saturday, and you still get a fairly exclusive time slot for hopefully some of the most meaningful games of the season. You also get about 14 weeks of a Thursday–Saturday night TV package and all the revenue that generates.
What’s not to like?
Stop the madness. Thursday Night Football was set up by the NFL for two reasons: as a general money-grab and as an easy pathway to Roger Goodell’s preferred 18-game season. But the product has never been up to NFL standards—players generally play sub-optimally, as they’re still recovering from games just a few days before. And the announcing crew tends to be even less prepared than usual with two games per week on its plate (Hello, Phil Simms). Extending the 16-game season and giving every TNF team a bye before or after is one needlessly complicated solution, but the best solution is to eliminate Thursday Night Football altogether.
And since the owners will never go for an answer that takes money out of their pockets, how about this for a compromise: The league went out of its way to schedule division games in the last month of the season, which was actually a fabulous idea. So, how about expanding the late-season Saturday games? Take these key division matchups and spread them throughout the weekend, and it’s pure football overkill in the best way possible. Do two full NFL slates through the weekend in the last month of the regular season. Start the playoff schedule early with games that are essentially divisional playoff games, and everybody's happy. Well, Roger Goodell won't be happy because it isn't a trap door to 18 games, but he can lobby for that when he’s looking to update the current CBA, which expires in 2020.
Ideally, I'd just get rid of it entirely. The product continues to be awful because teams have less time to prepare game plans and players have less time to physically recover from previous games. Giving it the ax seems rather unrealistic, even if the NFL replaced the Thursday nights with a permanent Monday night doubleheader.
Here’s my more feasible suggestion: Shorten the Thursday night schedule and make it so the teams playing are coming off a bye week. Even with the CBA-mandated four consecutive days off (including Saturday) players must receive on a bye, coaches would have plenty of time to implement schemes. Under the current scheduling structure, this approach would limit Thursday games to Week 1 and then Weeks 5–12 ... which is plenty.
Thursday Night Football has kind of grown on me. No, not as a competitive powerhouse showcasing meaningful matchups. Nor has it become any more comfortable watching NFL players have their bodies brutalized on a dangerously short turnaround.
But since Thursday Night Football is going nowhere (unless we stop watching—yeah, right), let’s appreciate it for what it is: the ultimate social mockfest. Truthfully, I look forward to hanging out on Twitter on Thursday nights and observing the humor prowess, or in some cases, humor limitations, of those I typically follow for hard NFL analysis. Sunday Night Football is for marquee games. Monday Night Football is for marquee games or Grudenisms and once in a while, both.
Thursday Night Football is its own unique behemoth. It’s a breeding ground for jokingly airing grievances on social about the NFL’s lack of parity or officiating or Phil Simms or why we’re watching a game on a freakin’ Thursday night or jerseys that look like they were plucked straight from the nastiest of sewers. Seeing who is up to the task is the real sport on Thursday night, but the game sets the backdrop, and that’s why it needs to stay as flawed as its current form.
I have watched nearly every Thursday Night Football game over the last two years and I cannot think of a single one that was memorable. I'm sure there are a few, maybe even many (okay, probably not many), and I’ve just blocked them all out of my mind because I’m scarred by games like, well, Titans–Jaguars (or at least last year's edition of it).
If I had any say in the matter, I'd suggest going back to the basic structure Thursday Night Football had in its early years. When the Thursday night game was first introduced in 2006, NFL Network aired just eight games, starting with the first-ever Thanksgiving primetime game and then continuing them throughout the rest of the season. The problem with going back to that is that the last stretch of the season doesn't align with any bye weeks and therefore doesn’t fix the problem of player exhaustion. So I’d keep the eight-game structure, but move it to the first week that has teams coming off of byes, which this year would have been Week 5. That’s early enough in the season that people are still craving as much football as possible, but it ends before any real football-fatigue kicks in for fans. And by lining it up with the byes, players will be rested, so perhaps the product will be better.
Not that it really matters, of course, because people will watch Thursday Night Football no matter what, and the league knows it.