The Washington Redskins will join the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night in taking their turns on the NFL’s newest national television stage, amid assertions that the league’s now weekly Thursday night games are sloppily played, little-watched affairs that some say are at odds with the sport’s stated emphasis on player safety.
The league has pushed back at those notions since announcing early last year the expansion of its NFL Network package from eight to 13 games per season. But with the 3-5 Redskins taking on the 1-7 Vikings, Thursday night’s matchup is not exactly the sort to help the sport cement its new offering as must-see television viewing.
The additional Thursday games, plus the three Thanksgiving games, mean each team now plays once per season on a Thursday following a Sunday game, an arrangement that leaves little time to heal or game plan.
“Of course you’re not gonna get the same show that you’re gonna get on a Sunday when you’ve got guys that had a lot of time to recover and rehabilitate from the little nicks and bruises from the [previous] game,” Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said this week. “But, I mean, all in all, it’s a game and you’ve got to go out and give it your all, and we plan on doing that.”
For the past three days, the Redskins and Vikings have been in fast-forward mode, compressing six days of recovery and preparation into half the time.
“You play 16 games and the majority of those games are Sunday-to-Sunday games,” Vikings Coach Leslie Frazier said in a conference call this week with D.C.-area reporters. “So that’s what you get accustomed to and that’s how you kind of orchestrate your schedule, based on having that full week to prepare for a game. So to do it in a shortened week, it has to affect play to a degree. When you look at the amount of time you spend during a normal week in scouting your opponent and becoming familiar with your opponent, then to condense that to a Monday [and] Tuesday — because Wednesday’s the day before the game, where everything is shortened, even shorter — you can’t say it’s the same as playing Sunday to Sunday, or Monday to Sunday. It’s far different, far different.”
Last season, in the first year of the expanded Thursday schedule, games were not crisply played. Compared to non-Thursday games, last season’s Thursday games were lower-scoring and featured more turnovers and penalties per game. But so far this season, those trends have been reversed. Thursday games have been higher-scoring than non-Thursday games. Turnovers per game are only slightly higher for Thursday games, and penalties per game are lower than in non-Thursday games.
Yet the perception persists, even among players, that the Thursday games are not particularly well played. Asked about the Thursday night games being sloppy, Redskins defensive end Stephen Bowen said: “I can’t say that for every game. [But] some of the games, you see a lot of mistakes.”
Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said there’s little opportunity to make significant strategic changes for a Thursday game.
“You’d better not add too much because if you do, you don’t have time to prepare for it,” Shanahan said. “I think that goes for both teams. You can always put in a little wrinkle here or there. But mainly on a very short week, teams do what they do best.”
Shanahan said his coaching staff began preparing for the Vikings late last week, when the bulk of the preparations for the Chargers game were done. Likewise, Frazier said some of the members of his staff began preparing for the Redskins last Friday, then more work was done Saturday and even more late Sunday night after the team returned home from its loss at Dallas.
Redskins players said their practices were relatively light this week, with the players’ bodies still in the process of recovering from Sunday’s game.
“Every time you wake up on Monday, it feels like you’ve been in a car wreck after a Sunday game just because your body’s sore everywhere,” Williams said. “And it usually takes a few days for that to calm down. So obviously with the game being Thursday you lose a couple of those recovery days. That’ll make it a little tough. But . . . we’re all professionals. Everybody has to do it. The Vikings feel the same way. That won’t be an excuse.”
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin said it makes no sense to him that the league has scheduled such a full slate of Thursday games at a time when it calls player health and safety a top priority. Shanahan acknowledged this week he wonders about the same thing. But league officials say the injury data does not suggest an increased rate of injuries in Thursday games.
“We have monitored the injuries and we are not seeing any elevation of injuries during the Thursday night games,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last month at an owners’ meeting in Washington. “There is just no evidence of that. As far as the quality of the game, from time to time we have games that are not as good as others. That happens sometimes. Since you only have one a week, it is pretty hard to draw conclusions after [a limited number of] games.”
The NFL has left open the possibility of selling at least part of its Thursday night TV package to another network in the future. For now, the games remain on its own television channel with ratings that, while up from last season, are nowhere near those generated by games on ESPN, NBC, CBS and Fox. The average viewership for an NFL Network game this season has been slightly less than 8 million, compared to more than 13 million for Monday night games on ESPN and more than 20 million for games on Fox and NBC.
“It is rating up there with the top programs in cable television,” Goodell said last month. “People want to watch it and people are excited about Thursday night football. It’s our job to build Thursday night football and make it, ‘This is where you want to be on Thursday.’ ”
The commissioner does have a devoted viewer in Williams, who said: “Thursdays, there’s really nothing to do. So yeah, I tune in every chance I get.”
There are some perks to playing on Thursday night. Bowen mentioned the “mini-bye week” that comes for a player afterward, with the weekend off. Wide receiver Santana Moss said he likes playing before other NFL teams, adding: “It’s like whatever happened Sunday is out the door because you’ve got to focus on just being the best you can on Thursday. I pretty much dig them. I don’t have nothing bad to say about it.”
Said Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo: “You’re the only game on. It’s fun from that perspective. . . . It’s not too fun for your body. But it’s okay. Obviously we have to endure what the schedule is. I think we’ll be fine.”