The second week of the NFL season began with NFL Network’s first Thursday Night Football broadcast last night, and if you’re like me, you stayed up to watch an absolute thriller abomination of a football game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots, which the boys from Boston won 13–10 after Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith threw his third interception of the fourth quarter on the game’s final meaningful play.
The game was widely panned, and it should have been, because it was mostly horrible to watch (in fairness to the NFL, ESPN’s Thursday night college game between Texas Tech and TCU wasn’t any better). At least in my Twitter feed, most of the second half discussion centered around how to improve Thursday Night Football, a conversation that took place during seemingly every Thursday Night Football broadcast in 2012 too. With that in mind, here are three ideas — two that won’t ever happen and one that clearly should — that were being tossed around last night that could go a long way toward improving the NFL Network’s Thursday night games in the future:
For God’s sake, speed up the games: Last night’s game kicked off at 8:25 Eastern time. It was nearly 10:30 by the time it reached halftime, and that was in a game that featured more punts than first downs and only one touchdown in the first half. It’s one thing to take three and a half hours to play a 60-minute football game on a Sunday afternoon, but the length of games on weeknights has reached brutal levels. There’s no reason to spend that much time trudging through a disaster like last night’s, when the biggest battle wasn’t between Geno Smith and the Patriots defense but between America’s heads and their pillows. It’s always been ridiculous that the NFL forces us to sit through the dreaded PAT-commercial break-kick off-commercial break combo. It’s even worse when the game isn’t entertaining and when it’s on a week night. Starting the game earlier isn’t an option, since the NFL wants the West Coast involved too. But the game needs to move more quickly — and that might even help alleviate some of the attendance problems that have plagued Thursday night games too.
Stop playing them every week: Playing football on Thursday has been a staple of the NFL since its inception, but it’s always been an exception, not the rule. From 1920 to now, the NFL has held games on Thanksgiving Day, and it has sprinkled Thursday night games in elsewhere since the 1980s. And maybe that’s all that needs to be done. There’s already college football on Thursday nights, and there’s already NFL football on Sundays and Mondays. That might help keep the novelty of Thursday night games, which have been ratings winners broadly but have also worn off in popularity at times. Colts-Jaguars in Week 10 last year drew just 5.2 million viewers, a solid number but a far cry from a typical national NFL broadcast and even Monday Night’s sagging ratings. It would also help keep the NFL from pushing shoddy match-ups into an otherwise marquee time slot. Still, the ratings are growing for the NFL Network, so even if fans could survive without Bills-Browns, Panthers-Buccaneers, and Texans-Jaguars on national TV, they almost surely aren’t going anywhere.
Give teams a bye before they play on Thursdays: Coaches have complained about the Thursday night games because of the short turn-around time it offers them to prepare after playing on Sunday, and because it gives players a short time to recover from injuries and every day wear-and-tear that occurs during football games. The quick turn-around also presents a competitive balance problem, as road teams have struggled in Thursday night games — they went 4–8 (.333 winning percentage) in 2012, 10 percentage points worse than road teams performed overall last season — and the short time between games no doubt leads to sloppier games like the one we witnessed last night. There’s an easy way to fix this: by giving teams that play in Thursday night games a bye the weekend before. College football’s PAC-12 did this for its Thursday night games, and former NFL VP Jim Steeg pushed the idea last year. Former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick is also a fan of the idea, since it would add a week to the season and get the NFL one week closer to President’s Day weekend, where it wants to be anyway. Giving teams more rest would also mitigate the need for the second point: better quality of games makes them all more intriguing, even when they’re played every Thursday.
Of course, the first two options won’t ever happen for one simple reason: money. The NFL can’t speed up games more than a few minutes if it wants to maintain the same number of commercial breaks, it can’t choose the best games each week without stiffing CBS, Fox, ESPN, and NBC, the networks that pay the real money to broadcast its games, and it can’t get rid of or downsize Thursday Night Football without dealing a substantial blow to the NFL Network. The Network struggled for viability in its early years when it didn’t have live broadcasts, but it’s grown rapidly since then: it began the season with 71.9 million subscribers, making it the biggest single-sport network on cable. Live broadcasts are a huge part of that business model, and without Thursday Night Football, it can’t have those until after Thanksgiving, when college football season ends and it can take over the Saturday slot. That simply isn’t viable, and besides, people are watching, even if the quality of games isn’t very good.
The last option, though, is one the NFL should implement for the 2014 season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to go to an 18-week (or longer) regular season, but players have stifled his attempts to create an 18-game schedule with good reason. According to Billick, giving teams a bye before Thursday night games would add just a week to the season, giving it an 18-week TV schedule and potentially even more broadcast money. It would also make the game easier on players and coaches and improve everything for fans: they’ll get better quality of play, more competitive balance from road teams, and another week of their favorite sport. That will all be good for the NFL’s business, which is hardly struggling but could still stand to improve when it comes to delivering its Thursday night product.