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Examining the problems with Thursday Night Football

@BreakTheHuddle

Naturally, the week I plan on writing about how lousy the Thursday Night games are, the Thursday Night game is a good one (Falcons – Saints).

On November 30th, 2006, Cincinnati hosted Baltimore in the rebooted version of ‘Thursday Night Football.’ It was a rather ignominious start – the Bengals emerged victorious from the 13-7 clunker, a rather dull affair that featured 29 total first downs and a 6-0 halftime score. But the new reality was born. The NFL’s quest to dominate every free evening of the week had begun.

Contrary to popular belief, the NFL did not concoct the new scheduling wrinkle out of nowhere; the league has a long history of non-Thanksgiving Thursday games. From 1978-86, at least one game was played on Thursday, and in many seasons upwards of three took place. It was retired from 1987-89 but returned in 1991, with one game in Week 7 and a second one the week after Thanksgiving (most seasons).

In 2002, the NFL did away with the Thursday games save for the season opener (and Thanksgiving contests in Dallas and Detroit, of course). A year later, NFL Network was born, a cable channel owned, operated and managed by the 32 NFL ownership groups. It was a matter of time before it began broadcasting regular season games, the crème de la crème of sports programming.  In 2006, that’s precisely what happened.

Since then, games on Thursday night have increased from four (’06 and ’07) to six (’08 through ’11) to where it stands in 2012, with thirteen Thursday night games (weeks two through fifteen, with only the Thanksgiving games exempted). The league was obviously hoping to expand its brand into a new, dynamic, prime-time slot. Instead, what it’s gotten are gripes from fantasy owners, troubled with making lineup changes mid-week, pick-em league operators, forgetful of the new “early” deadline, and those without NFL Network on their cable or satellite package.

In other words, it’s been a difficult first season for the expanded lineup of Thursday Night Football. The previous trial runs (2006 through 2011) were neither lauded nor lamented; this year, however, dissonant voices are speaking up. Radio host Dan Patrick, who’s been the Lombardi Trophy presenter at the Super Bowl in recent years, spoke out in favor of getting rid of the Thursday night games altogether. Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, heavily involved with the issue of player safety for the Players’ Union, was also sharply critical of the expanded Thursday Night Football schedule, saying this:

Fujita

“I think the Thursday night game is one of the worst things you can do for a player’s body. For people who have never played football, I don’t know if they realize how tough it is to come back with three days in between games.”

Anecdotal evidence doesn’t make a solid argument, but here’s some more, just for the heck of it: the past few Thursday night games (Dolphins/Bills, Colts/Jaguars, Chargers/Chiefs) have been duds. Do the statistics bear out the premise that Thursday Night Football has been of a lower quality than the rest of the games? If so, what does this mean for the possibility of NFL scheduling creeping further and further into the work week?

The Numbers

Since the new Thursday Night scheduling system was put into place in 2006, there have been 42 true ‘Thursday Night Football’ games played. This, of course, discounts the season-opening game and the Thanksgiving contests. I made it my goal to find out if the Thursday games were of “lower quality” than the average NFL game.

When I think of a “low quality” game, I think of three things: penalties, turnovers, and garbage time – that is, sloppy play, mistakes, and blowouts. As far as high scoring games, it’s a give-and-take proposition. Some shootouts feel dull, some low-scoring games are exciting – but generally speaking, offense attracts viewers and excites fans. Given the rule changes in the NFL in recent seasons, somebody in the league office agrees with that premise.

First, let’s examine the following chart, which explores penalties and turnovers in Thursday Night games, compared with the league averages in those categories.

 

Penalties / Gm   Turnovers/ Gm  
Year

TNF

All Games

TNF

All Games
2009

11

11.8

2.5

3.4

2010

10.5

12.1

2.3

3.4

2011

12.2

12.8

3.7

3.2

2012

12.2

12.7

3.7

3.2

 

Oddly enough, participants in Thursday night contests have been flagged less often than they are on Sundays – and some years, it’s by a pretty significant margin. In 2010, for instance, there were one and a half fewer yellow flags per game on Thursdays. Without devoting time, energy and intelligence that I don’t possess to figuring out why, I can’t even begin to explain the reasons for fewer flags.

Studying the turnover differential is equally perplexing. In 2009 and 2010, there was an average of one fewer turnover per game. Now, there is half a turnover more. I hate chalking things up to pure coincidence- especially when this much research is involved – but in terms of turnovers and penalties, the Thursday night games are no more or less sloppy than Sunday or Monday night contests.

The scoring figures tell a different story, though.

 

Year NFL AVG PPG TNF PPG Difference
2009

43

38.8

-4.2

2010

44

41.7

-2.3

2011

44.4

37.2

-7.2

2012

46

37

-9

While the margins of victory don’t change much between regular weekend games and Thursday night games (fact: the average margin of victory in the NFL is approximately 12 points) the total points themselves drop significantly. This is probably because coaches barely have time to concoct new schemes or game plans, much less implement them, during a three day work week. Teams with young quarterbacks are really at a disadvantage – and as of now, more than a third of the league is starting rookies or second-year players under center. Veterans can add new wrinkles on the fly, while young guys have to stick with what they know; they are predictable, easier to stop, and thus, offense suffers.

 

What does it mean?

One prevailing theory is that the NFL would like to sell the rights to Thursday night games to a TV partner – if that’s the case, they certainly aren’t doing a very good job of showcasing themselves. The league currently draws more than $3 Billion annually from the TV networks (NBC, CBS, Fox) for the privilege of broadcasting games. Even if the Thursday night games are inferior to the rest, demand is so high that the Thursday night slate would certainly fetch upwards of $700 – $800 million on the open market.

If the NFL does not want to sell off the broadcasting rights, and instead wishes to keep the telecasts in-house on its own network, then why not get itself a better product? One idea is to have an 18 week season, with 16 games, and two bye weeks interspersed throughout. Currently, every team in the NFL is required to get at least one game in “prime-time” per season, an unusually egalitarian move for a league as profit-driven as the NFL obviously is (see: player lockout, 2011; see also: referee lockout, 2012). The Thursday night games could then be effectively managed so they come after a bye week – ten days off before a Thursday night performance, nine days off after.

Would there be a bit of a lag between games? Sure. But if the NFL is actually serious about player safety – and the jury is still out as to whether or not they are – this would go a long way towards helping matters. Perhaps the end game for the NFL is to have football on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday every week. That setup would be great for single guys, terrible for marriages, and make a lot of television money for the league.

The only problem is, under the current conditions, it’d be very difficult to make it work. Four years of evidence suggests offense is down in the Thursday games, and offense is what makes the league popular… and to be honest, Thursday Night Football just doesn’t pass the ‘eye test.’ Everyone looks tired, underprepared, and the road team is at a great disadvantage. A subjective argument such as that one is tepidly employed by yours truly, as I generally like to back my claims with research, but I believe it’s completely valid.

That said, while the games aren’t quite as good, it’s still the NFL, and the NFL is king. Expansion, heightened television exposure, game on more nights during the week – all of it’s on the table, and the reality is, all of it will be in demand. The popularity of the NFL knows no bounds.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

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