Is Thursday Night Football Hurting the NFL Brand?

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterSeptember 26, 2013

Can there be such a thing as too much football?

Even writing that line seems ridiculous. The NFL is the most popular sport in America by leaps and bounds, with college football firmly in place as the second-most popular sport, based on television ratings, via Sports Media Watch.

Simply put, we love our football.

But we really love good football, and there is a growing sentiment amongst fans, media and those inside the game that Thursday Night Football is not, frankly, good.

I posed the question on Twitter last week after noticing a series of rolling complaints from those I follow—both media personnel who cover the sport as well as fans. Does anyone like Thursday night games, or do we tolerate them because it's football and we love football?

Everyone seems to be complaining, but the NFL Network is breaking viewership records week after week. A record 9.4 million fans tuned in to the NFL Network to watch the Eagles and the Chiefs last Thursday night, which featured one of the worst first halves of football in recent memory.

The game felt disjointed and sloppy, and despite amazing storylines, it was not all that entertaining. Action picked up in the second half when the circumstances of the game—close and late—created more contextual interest, but the quality of play overall felt substandard.

Not only has the football been sloppy this year on each of the two installments of Thursday Night Football—the weather surely didn't help with the general sloppiness in the Patriots' 13-10 mistake-laden victory over the Jets in Week 2— but there is a growing concern for player safety stemming from a short week with little rest.

Much noise was made in Philadelphia last week about having to play the first three games of the NFL season in 11 days—their season began on Monday Night Football in Week 1, followed by a Sunday game before hosting last week's Thursday Night Football contest—but the Chiefs had to play three games in 12 days, with two on the road.

OK, let's be clear about something: There are millions of fans who love the midweek football games, and they are happy that the Thursday night games have given us the ability to watch more of the season's schedule in prime time. For fans, the short week creates a weekly schedule where there are never more than two consecutive days without a competitive football game.

It's just that in creating that schedule, the league also ensured there were never more than three days' rest for teams playing on Thursday night. That's a problem, especially for a league that shows so much concern for health and safety.

"[It's] brutal," former NFL head coach and current Fox analyst Brian Billick told SportsRadio WIP's Morning Show last Thursday. "In a league that is so myopic on the health of the players, to even play Thursday night games is contrary to that, in my opinion. To ask a team to come back on a short week I think is a competitive disadvantage. ...

"I'm not a big fan," Billick continued. "I know it's great and it's not going anywhere and I'm going to be watching, but I'm not a big fan in terms of the players and the competitive balance for the league of Thursday Night Football."

Billick also pointed out that teams that have to travel for Thursday Night Football are at a greater disadvantage, shortening the week ever further when tacking on time for travel. The division games, per Billick, are even more unfair for the road teams. Of the 16 in-season Thursday games, including three on Thanksgiving, the NFL has scheduled 10 division games.

I reached out to the NFL to ask about these issues, most notably the sloppy play on short rest and the concerns for health and safety of the players. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy had this to say, via email, about the issue of player safety:

You mention player safety for Thursday games as an issue. We reviewed the injury data from last season and will continue to monitor. But your premise isn't factually true. The Competition Committee requested and received an update from the League's medical advisors during the March 2013 NFL Annual Meeting regarding whether there was an increase in the number of injuries and concussions during Thursday night games. 

In 2012, the injury rate for Thursday games was 5.2 per game versus 5.3 in games played on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Concussion rates for games played on Thursday were also similar to games played on other days. A comparison of injury information between Thursday games and games played on other days dating back to 2009 provided similar results. The information showed that there is no greater injury risk playing on Thursday than on Saturday, Sunday or Monday.

This may be an unfair connection to make on my part, but the concern over player safety seems to have more to do with general wear and tear on the body when not given enough time to rest and heal, as opposed to an increase in recordable in-game injuries.

The Kansas City Chiefs, for example, had a number of cramps during last Thursday's game that may not end up on an injury report, but they certainly contribute to the overall quality and entertainment value of a contest. (Note: I admit there is no factual basis to correlate cramping to a short week's rest, and the cramping in Kansas City's case could have had more to do with keeping up with Chip Kelly's pace of offense over any number of days between games. It feels, however, like the dots are there to be connected.)

It isn't unfair, however, to question the short week with regard to players who get injured—or merely "banged up" in sports parlance—having enough time to recuperate before the next game. From NinersNation.com:

The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams released their final injury reports Wednesday evening, as both teams prepare for Thursday Night Football. It's a short week, which means plenty of injured players either will not play, or will at the very least be potentially limited during the game. And the NFL wonders why TNF games often end up as sloppy football contests?

McCarthy offered a counterpoint to that sentiment as well:

We've heard from players who take a different view, reacting positively to the lack of contact during the abbreviated practice week in preparation for a Thursday game, followed by the extended "mini bye week" after. Also, keep in mind that a team only plays once on a Thursday in a season.

The league has set up a system where every team gets one Thursday game following a Sunday game. (Note: The Ravens and Broncos play twice on Thursday this year, both in the season opener and one more time each toward the end of the season.) Unlike the college games on Thursday nights, where most teams schedule a bye before a midweek game, the NFL does not schedule bye weeks before its Thursday night games, allowing the post-Thursday "mini bye week" to suffice.

While the NFL claims that some players prefer the extra time off after a short week, others feel that it creates competitive imbalance. Peyton Manning said in advance of Denver's Sunday afternoon game with Philadelphia, “We’re coming off of a short week—it’s nice of the NFL to give Philly 12 days and give us six,” via John Gonzalez of CSNPhilly.com.

Sep 23, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) walks off the field after the game against the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 37-21.  Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA T
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Denver played on Monday and is now getting ready for a Sunday game, which is nearly twice as much rest as Chip Kelly's Eagles had in advance of their Thursday night game. Kelly replied to Manning's statements, also via Gonzalez, "We played three games in 11 days. I don’t care. We only worry about what we can control, and we don’t control the schedule."

Kelly did tell reporters earlier in the week he had never faced a short week in college like the one he was given heading into Week 3's Thursday Night Football contest, but he stopped short of using it as an excuse for the way his team played. Others surely did, however, and fans and the media will continue to look at the short week for players as a problem, no matter how popular the games become.

Leaving aside the week-to-week concerns of Thursday night games, another issue with the expansion of the TNF franchise is that it leads people to wonder if this is all part of a greater plan to expand the season altogether.

If the league can play games on three days' rest, what's stopping it from eliminating the mini bye, or any bye weeks, to accommodate the much-discussed 18-game schedule?

I asked McCarthy about the recent rumors of the 18-game schedule proposal gaining steam, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, wondering if more prime-time football can be seen as a precursor to more overall football. Those rumors, thankfully, were shot down:

Regarding recent rumors of a push for an 18-game schedule.... we're not sure who is "quietly" pushing again for the 18-game season. It's so quiet that no one here knew about it.  And as we've said a number of times, we could only increase the number of games in conjunction with the NFLPA. We are focused on making the preseason better, yes. Could that mean fewer preseason games someday? That's always a possibility.

McCarthy noted that the current CBA relies upon approval from the NFLPA to expand the season to 18 games and that in the past—prior to 1982—the league had the authority to expand the season on 90 days' notice.

Could you imagine that now? Could you imagine the NFL coming out this week and announcing they'll be adding two games to the end of this season?

Some fans would love it. After all, more football is better football—even, it seems, if it's on Thursday nights.