What Did We Learn from Thursday Night Football in 2013?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterDecember 19, 2013

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 11:  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers waits for a replay ruling against the Tennessee Titans in a Thursday Night Football game October 11, 2012 at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Ask an NFL fan what he thinks about Thursday Night Football, and he'll likely screw up his face like he just smelled something stinky. Unappetizing matchups, unentertaining games and an awkward time slot all combine to make the NFL's only in-house game product significantly less appealing than the usual Sunday slate.

So how come ratings were up 10 percent this season over last season, per Awful Announcing?

There is a popular outcry that the games are no good, the teams look unprepared, and the players, per Robert Klemko of The MMQB, say it feels horrible to prepare for a game on short rest.

Dec 6, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; General view of the NFL network television compound at the O.co Coliseum before the Thursday Night Football game between the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL, though, cares only about maximizing the revenue it can wring out of those players. The NFL is considering expanding the Thursday Night Football slate and selling off an eight-game package to the highest bidder, per The Wall Street Journal. With doubleheaders on many Thursday nights, the league could land a new broadcast-rights windfall and still have games left over to show on NFL Network.

All of that will be for naught, though, if the product is substandard and people stop tuning in.

Just how much worse is Thursday Night Football for players and fans?



The biggest complaint about Thursday Night Football, from players and fans alike, is the apparent increase in injuries.

Mark Sandritter of SB Nation compiled a great list of quotes from players and coaches about the extra strain Thursday games put on players' bodies—especially when contrasted with the NFL's supposed focus on player safety.

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 17:  Wide receiver Golden Tate #81 of the Seattle Seahawks is looked at by team trainers after an injury during the third quarter of the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 17, 2013
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“I'm trying not to get fined,” now-Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians told Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel in 2012, while serving as interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

"The recovery time from Sunday to Thursday is ridiculous, especially after playing a very physical game, and then to have to travel,” Arians said. “When you add the travel in, you may get some swelling out of your body, but on that airplane, you're going to swell right back up."

As unpleasant as the Thursday Night Football experience may be, does it actually lead to more injuries?

In 2012, it did not, according to NFL injury data (via Klemko). "The league found," Klemko wrote, "that roughly the same amount of injuries happened in 2012 Thursday games (5.2 per game) as in games played on Saturday, Sunday and Monday (5.3)."

It may be harder for players to get their bodies right on short rest, but there's no data to show that injuries actually occur more often on Thursday night games.



There have been some real stinkers in the Thursday Night Football lineup this season. It's no surprise that two teams who barely have time to work up a game plan will make a lot of mistakes.

I compared the 2013 rate of TNF interceptions, fumbles, fumbles lost, times sacked and sack yardage lost to the NFL season averages for all. Here's what I found:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Stunningly, there's almost no deviation from the season-long, league-wide averages, per Pro Football Reference.

Only a slight dip in times sacked per game (from 3.1 to 2.5) and an accompanying drop in sack yardage lost differentiate the two sets of numbers. Though the sample size is just 13 games, these per-game mistake rates are eerily similar to the league-wide, season-long averages.

What about a Thursday Night Football hangover? Do teams suffer after going through a short-rest/long-rest cycle?

As it turns out, the answer is no. So far this season, Thursday Night Football teams are 13-13 in the following week and outscore their opponents by the slimmest of margins: 23.6 average points per game against 22.2.

That's slightly off the league-wide pace of 23.7 average points per game, per Pro Football Reference, but I'd more quickly chalk that up to small sample size than any kind of Thursday Night Football hangover.



So if injuries and mistakes on Thursday Night Football aren't the issue, what's the real problem?

Well, it could be the matchups. After Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football get the league's best guesses as to what will be compelling games (with spotty success), Thursday Night Football often gets the dregs.

Even when a promising matchup was in the cards, the game was a major disappointment.

The very first Thursday Night Football game this season was a much-anticipated rematch of one of the wildest playoff games in recent memory: the Denver Broncos vs. the Baltimore Ravens. Instead of delivering another fantastic finish, though, Peyton Manning and the Broncos clinically blew the Ravens out, 49-27.

The second game, a promising rivalry game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots, was an ugly, low-scoring affair that finished 13-10, with only 550 total yards between the two teams. Geno Smith threw three interceptions, and Tom Brady had one of his least effective days as a pro: 19-of-39 for just 185 yards and one touchdown.

The Week 10 fixture, Minnesota vs. Washington, probably looked like a good game when the schedule was set up, with both teams coming off 10-6 seasons and playoff appearances. Instead, two teams that are now 7-20-1 faced off, and the 34-27 result didn't mean much to either team.

It's games like these—exciting matchups that fizzle, uninspiring matchups that meet expectations—that give Thursday Night Football a bad name.


Perception is Reality?

The reality is, there are boring and disappointing games in the regular Sunday slate, too. They don't stick in our mind as often because we can just flip the channel and watch another game.

In this way, expanding the Thursday Night Football slate can only help. A second game on the same night reduces the odds fans are stuck watching a stinker.

Then again, a big part of football's popularity is built on its easy fit into our hectic, modern lives. With NFL football taking up all of Sunday, plus Monday and Thursday evenings, plus college football's grip on the Saturday market, the crush of football overload may eventually impact ratings.

Ultimately, even if fans, players and coaches all can't stand Thursday Night Football, it brings in eyeballs like crazy, and broadcasters are more than willing to pay for eyeballs. According to John Ourand of Sports Business Daily, quoted via Klemko, the NFL could net $700 million or more for a slate of eight games.

As the players must get an average of 47 percent of all revenues back as salary over the life of the current CBA, per Pro Football Talk, that's a salary-cap spike of about $10.3 million per team.

That will make some of the players' aches and pains feel a little bit more worth it.


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