John McGrath: Want NFL on Thursday? Use common sense with it

Staff writerOctober 17, 2013 

Despite the inferior quality of the competition and the vanilla schemes of the games, despite clear and present dangers posed by the insufficient recovery time of its participants, Thursday Night Football isn’t the stupidest idea in the history of the NFL.

Playing a full slate of games on Nov. 24, 1963, about 48 hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, set a standard for stupidity that can never be surpassed.

Arranging for MTV to produce the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII, which concluded with Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” that was pretty stupid, too. So was presuming comedian Dennis Miller had anything to offer as a broadcast analyst beyond esoteric references to 18th-century economists.

At least those blunders were addressed. The late Pete Rozelle, who was the commissioner in 1963, called his decision to conduct business after the Kennedy assassination his greatest regret. The league’s Super Bowl dalliance with MTV was a one-and-done thing. Miller’s gig was over after two seasons.

But rather than admit drastic changes are necessary to make Thursday Night Football a better product that’s safer for the players, the NFL clings to the notion that fans want more games on Thursday. According to the Wall Street Journal, the league is exploring the feasibility of Thursday night doubleheaders. Seems the television ratings from the NFL Network package are only OK, nowhere near the blockbuster numbers envisioned when the series debuted in 2006.

When it comes to television ratings, the NFL doesn’t tolerate “OK.” Instead of considering the very real possibility Thursday doesn’t have the same allure for pro football fans that Sunday and Monday do, the league’s response is to hit ’em again, and hit ’em again harder.

Fans to NFL: We’re crazy about your sport, we love to talk about it and bet on it and talk about betting on it. But we’re used to watching on Sundays and Mondays. Thursdays? Not so much.

NFL to fans: You’re not yet in the habit of watching NFL games on Thursday night? No worries. We’ll get you into the habit by airing two games, played back to back. We will win, understand?

The Wall Street Journal report was shot down by an NFL spokesman, but consider the source: This is the league that, until 2009, denied concussions had long-term health consequences. This is the league whose former commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, suggested in 1994 that football-related head trauma was an issue concocted by journalists.

So forgive me for not assuming the Wall Street Journal story was worthless fluff. And forgive me for not assuming the NFL ever would be anything less than righteous.

While the NFL denies its considering a double-down strategy to enhance interest in Thursday night games, commissioner Roger Goodell sounds like somebody desperate to make this thing work.

“People want to watch it and are all exited about Thursday Night Football,” Goodell said last week at meetings of the NFL owners. “It is our job to build Thursday Night Football and make it, ‘This is where you want to be on Thursday.’ ”

It hasn’t occurred to Goodell, who might be the most tone-deaf commissioner in the history of American pro-sports commissioners, that his push for Thursday football as a this-is-where-you-want-to-be event doesn’t apply to a rather important commodity for the league: the players, the guys who block and tackle and endure three hours of human demolition-derby collisions on Sunday, then wake up bruised and sore on Monday.

Requiring players to suit up on Thursday for a midweek game, with little time to recover from their last opponent, or prepare for the next one, is an absurd abuse of a precious resource.

Pro football on Thursday, I know, wasn’t the brainchild of Roger Goodell. The Detroit Lions began the tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day in 1934, and a generation later, the Dallas Cowboys joined them.

But those Thanksgiving games are different. It’s a holiday ritual with a broad, national-network stage. Bodies denied proper recovery time might be bruised, but emotions are at a peak.

The difference between Thanksgiving games on Thursday and the NFL Network’s version of Thursday is the difference between a family feast with candles on a tablecloth and a fast-food meal grabbed in the drive-through lane.

If the NFL is as intent on turning Thursday into a must-see-TV destination night as the Wall Street Journal reports, scheduling alterations should be made.

Here’s a thought: Extend the regular season by a week, so that every team gets two bye dates. With the flexibility of an extra bye, Thursday games could be scheduled only for teams that have enjoyed 10 days of rest.

I don’t know why the NFL is fixated on its challenge to change the habits of American television viewers – maybe because it can, is my guess – but if Thursday football is here to stay, use some common sense. Give the players time to recover and refuel.

And just think: After 10 days of rest on both sides, those high-speed, human demolition-derby collisions will be more entertaining than ever.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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