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In Defense of Thursday Night Football

“Do they really know what they are talking about? Do they have all the facts?”

Those are the thoughts that have gone through my head the past couple of weeks as a few NFL players have spoken out publicly against Thursday Night Football.

First, it was Bills guard Richie Incognito railing against having to play on a short week, terming it “completely unfair” after his team got surprisingly handled by the Jets that night. The problem with that sentiment is that the Jets were operating with the exact same amount of rest and preparation time, so it is completely fair in that respect. Plus, the Bills had extra time to rest and prepare for the Saints this past Sunday because of playing on Thursday night the week before, and that didn’t really help all that much, as they got manhandled 47-10 at home.

Then you had the Cardinals vs. the Seahawks game last Thursday night, which was a significant one in terms of injuries. Both teams lost several players, most notably Seattle losing star cornerback Richard Sherman for the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. As you might imagine, some Seahawks were not pleased, like Doug Baldwin saying Thursday Night Football should be “illegal” because players’ bodies can’t recover in four days.

Even this week, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger already has complained about the short week his teammates will have leading into their game with the Titans on Thursday.

While those players are all certainly entitled to their opinion, they don’t speak for everyone and likely don’t have all the facts when it comes to Thursday Night Football. In my mind, there are four major areas that need to be addressed:

Not all players dislike playing on Thursday. My only experience with playing on a Thursday came in 2002 when I started for the Cowboys against the Redskins on Thanksgiving, four days after a physical game against the Jaguars the previous Sunday. I liked the fact that the work week was short and easy as opposed to longer days and more physical practices on Wednesdays and Thursdays during a typical NFL week. Instead, it consisted of a couple of walkthroughs, and then the next thing you knew it was game time.

Like a lot of people in life, players are creatures of comfort, and thus a revamped schedule during a shortened week throws them out of their routine and they don’t like it. It’s understandable, as most people are averse to change.

Still, I’ve never heard a player complain about the three days off they get after a Thursday game. It’s like an extra bye weekend, which is amazing and perhaps the best part of playing on Thursday. And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way because when I tweeted about that recently, other players like former lineman Trey Teague and current 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk both liked that tweet. I’d say a decent percentage of players feel that way, but they just aren’t as vocal about it because they like it and thus have no reason to speak out against it in any way.

There’s no evidence playing on Thursday causes more injuries. The increased risk of injury is the biggest reason cited by players, media members and fans as it relates to playing these Thursday night games. They feel like it puts the player at a greater risk and flies directly in the face of all the league’s player safety initiatives. There’s only one problem with it: It’s not true. The NFL and others have done exhaustive studies and have not found a shred of evidence yet that playing in a shortened week causes more injuries no matter what happened last Thursday in Arizona.

The players are paid handsomely for their Thursday appearance. Even if a player doesn’t like playing on Thursday, I think many of them would change their tune if they truly understood the economics at play. CBS and NBC pay a combined $450 million per season for the Thursday Night Football package. Amazon pays an additional $50 million to stream the games. That’s $500 million of broadcast revenue, of which the NFL players get 55 percent toward the total salary cap number, per the latest CBA. That’s $275 million, which comes out to over $162,000 per player on the 53-man roster.

To be fair, teams don’t have to spend every dollar of the salary cap, and with guys on injured reserve and practice squad, the number is probably closer to $150,000 per player. Still, that’s a lot of money in exchange for playing on a short week one time each season.

To put it another way, if you went into the locker rooms of every NFL team and said, “Hey guys, a month from now we can play on Sunday if you want or we can play on Thursday and you all get an extra $150,000, what do you think?” the vast majority of guys would be all for playing on Thursday, even the ones that don’t care for it. That’s the trade that’s being made here.

That doesn’t even take all the value of the promotion that goes into those games during the week, the value of being the standalone game that night to the players, etc.

The decreased quality of play argument is just wrong. This is the other one that you hear a lot, especially from fans. That, like the narrative regarding the increased injuries, is simply false. A strong argument that two of the three best games this season (Rams 41, 49ers 39 in Week 3 and Raiders 31, Chiefs 30 in Week 7) were Thursday night games. And even other contests like the Eagles beating the Panthers 28-23 in Week 6 were entertaining.

There have been suggestions of ways to make it better, like having a team play on Thursday night only the week after their bye, which could certainly be looked at, but even if the NFL kept things exactly the way they are, I’d have no problem with that. I’m guessing most active players wouldn’t either if they truly understood all the facts regarding those games.