Players adjusting to good, bad of full-season Thursday slate
After partial Thursday-night schedule, NFL expanded time slot from Weeks 2-15
Players enjoy exposure and time off Thursday games offer but worry about safety
Economic advantages of Thursday games make it likely NFL will keep schedule
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.