Trouble with Thursday night football

Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.

The league’s new slate of a full season of Thursday night games — mostly poorly played and full of signs of the competing teams’ fatigue — is here to stay. That’s a problem that hasn’t received enough comment. Going around the league this season, it’s one of those things that everyone on teams, coaches and players alike, agrees upon.

Fans understand that football is a violent game, but I don’t think most of them fully appreciate the tremendous physical toll that it can take, not just over the long term but on a weekly basis. The day after a game, many players are so sore and bruised that they can’t even get out of bed without a supreme effort. Other than those who need to spend time in the trainer’s room, Monday and Tuesdays are generally off days. The rest of the week is spent doing mostly light work, with limited contact, as players heal from the beating they took the previous Sunday. But this year, every team will play at least one Thursday game, right at the point in the week when many players are just finding themselves able to move again.

In addition, it is an incredible disadvantage to have to be the visiting team, particularly if you’re playing a divisional game (nine of the 13 games in this year’s Thursday night series are between divisional opponents). Home-field advantage is an accepted part of the game. However, every team has the same opportunity to be the home team in the double round-robin of divisional play. But to have to play a divisional game on the road on a short week is to operate at a significant competitive disadvantage. (Home teams are 5-1 in divisional Thursday night games thus far, with the only result going against the grain being Indianapolis’ win at Jacksonville last week.)

The package makes a lot of sense, financially. It allows each of the NFL’s teams to get at least one national television appearance when they normally wouldn’t (I’m looking at you, Jacksonville and Cleveland), and if it stays on the NFL Network, it will continue to help that outlet gain more viability and a spot on more basic cable systems. If the package is eventually sold to an outside bidder, it will likely bring another huge contract, in the billions, to NFL owners.

But the series makes almost no sense in practical terms, especially in the physical battering players absorb. Injured players still play, if they possibly can (that will never change), but there are more of them on a Thursday night, just four days after a game. And the injured players who suck it up only increase their chance of aggravating those injuries. The quality of play often suffers, not only because of the physical aspect, but also because you can’t really install a completely full new game plan in the one day of practice and prep you’re afforded.

(Although it has led to a number of interesting conversations with Kim, my wife of 33 years. She has asked on more than one occasion why it is, if we can craft a game plan on two days preparation and implement it on a short week, we don’t do this every week, then take Friday and Saturday off before playing on Sunday. I am not absolutely sure I have a valid argument against it. But, as we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, so coaches will take every minute available — no matter how much or little it may be — and fill it with additional meetings and film review.)

So what’s the solution? It’s one that has been on the table for some time, parts of it have been bouncing around the competition committee for years, others were mentioned by league insiders last year and ESPN’s Bill Simmons in a column earlier this season [].

• Keep the NFL schedule at 16 games, but play those games over 18 weeks rather than 17 weeks. The league’s official position toward wanting an 18-game regular season (one of the bargaining chips in the 2011 negotiation) is thankfully dead in the water, a casualty to common sense and the mountain of evidence about the long-term physical damage suffered by players. But this would still let the league expand its television footprint, by adding another week of games.

• With teams playing their 16 games over 18 weeks, give each team two bye weeks, one in the first half of the season, and another in the second.

• Each team would still play once a season on Thursdays — thus preserving the league’s lucrative Thursday night TV package — but each of those games would match teams coming off of a bye week, giving them 10 days of rest before the game and nine days after. Teams would never have to play two games in four days. You could still have divisional games then, but because they wouldn’t come on a short week, they wouldn’t offer such a prohibitive advantage to the home teams.

• Lastly, with the extra week of the regular season, the Super Bowl would be pushed back one week, from the first Sunday in February to the second, putting it right where the league eventually wants it, on the weekend of the Presidents Day Holiday, meaning no one (well, almost no one) would have to go to work the day after the Super Bowl.

But this last part is merely a fortuitous detail. The main point is that if you care about the health of the league’s players and you’re at all sensitive to the league’s reputation, you have to fix this situation in which every team in the league is forced, at some point in the season, to play two games in four days.

The present situation is bad for the players, bad for the fans and bad for the league. And unlike some of the league’s more intractable problems, this one has a simple, easy solution at hand.