New England

Pats' McCourty on Thursday NFL Games: ‘Get Rid of It'

If TNF is truly here to stay, all matchups on Thursday night should be between teams in the same time zone

Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown has a potential fix to Thursday Night Football.

“Play the game on Sunday,” said Brown earlier this week during his spot on NBC10 Boston’s Facebook Live page, citing the difficulty of recovering to play a game on three day’s rest.

Current New England defensive back Jason McCourty is on board with that as his team prepares for the Indianapolis Colts to arrive at Gillette Stadium this Thursday.

“You just get rid of it,” McCourty said as he played hypothetical commissioner for a day. “The schedule is just fine with what it would be without it.”

Unfortunately for McCourty and countless other current players, the reality of playing a game on three day’s rest is here to stay. But just because Thursday Night Football isn’t going anywhere doesn’t mean it has to maintain the status quo.

It’s here to stay, for one reason and one reason only that you already know: straight cash.

The FOX network is dishing out roughly $660 million to the NFL over the next five seasons for TNF, giving it exclusive broadcast rights to Thursday night games between Weeks 4 and 15 (excluding Thanksgiving night). That’s an average of more than $60 million per game headed to 345 Park Ave. in New York, where the league offices are located – a sizeable increase from the roughly $45 million CBS and NBC shelled out over the last two seasons under a joint agreement.

Now that that’s out of the way, there really aren’t many other reasons TNF should continue in its current format.

While last week’s game between the Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings wound up being one of the better TNF games in recent memory – the Rams won, 38-31 – the game never should have been played on a Thursday night.

The Vikings had been embarrassed by the Buffalo Bills at home on Sunday, three days earlier, at noon Central time. Minnesota flew out to Los Angeles on Tuesday, a four-hour flight spanning some 2,000 miles; the Rams, meanwhile, got to wait patiently for the game at 4:20 p.m. Pacific time on Thursday after handling the Chargers in the much-ballyhooed “Battle for Los Angeles” on Sunday at 1 p.m. Pacific.

“Yes, it’s a problem,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told the Pioneer Press last week.

Of course, ratings for the game were up 8 percent from the Week 4 TNF game in 2017 between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. It came a week after the Cleveland Browns defeated the New York Jets – 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield debuted in the second half – in the most-watched TNF game on any platform since 2015.

The NFL Network began airing games on Thursday nights after Thanksgiving in 2006, in order to give the channel some live game programming.

It expanded to an eight-week package in 2008 and to a full-season slate in 2012, with Thursday broadcasts beginning in Week 2 and continuing through Week 15 (the season-opening Thursday night game, annually hosted by the defending Super Bowl champion since 2004, is not included as part of any TNF package).

For players in today’s NFL, who face the reality of playing on a short week once annually, it doesn’t seem to be the most ideal of situations.

“The whole idea of Thursday Night Football is terrible,” Richard Sherman, then of the Seattle Seahawks, wrote in 2016. “It’s ludicrous. It’s hypocritical.

“It’s a poopfest.”

And that was before Sherman ruptured his Achilles’ playing on Thursday night last season.

Patriots safety Patrick Chung said that he didn’t mind the short turnaround from Sunday to Thursday, adding that he couldn’t speak for everyone. But he wasn’t sure how Thursday Night Football could be improved in the first place.

“I don’t think it can,” Chung said. “It’s pretty good right now. It’s exciting. A lot of players get to watch it.”

Two notable players who could be watching this week are players who would perhaps get to play in the game if it were to be held on Sunday instead: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Gronk didn’t participate in today’s practice for New England, putting his status for Thursday night in jeopardy – despite the fact that numerous outlets have reported his ankle injury as nothing serious.

It would be the second year in a row Gronkowski missed a Thursday night game for the Patriots. Last year, it was the only game he missed due to injury. Shouldn’t the NFL want its star players – really, all players – available to play in every game?

Nothing can help players recover faster between games, but there is one step it can make to create a more even playing field: if TNF is truly here to stay, all matchups on Thursday night should be between teams in the same time zone. Taken a step further, making every matchup a trip that would be no more than a one-hour flight or even a simple bus trip.

Foxboro to East Rutherford, New Jersey. East Rutherford to Philadelphia. Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and so on and so on.

Already there’s a set of problems that arise, given that 17 of the NFL’s 32 teams reside in the Eastern time zone. Only two play in the Mountain time zone – Arizona and Denver, teams that play each other only once every four seasons. Seattle isn’t exactly a bus trip away from anywhere. I wonder how the long-rumored NFL team in London would cope…

It’s a lot of scheduling hoops to jump through when truly marquee matchups should continue to be reserved for Sunday or Monday night.

The Colts played a full 10-minute overtime on Sunday and now have to take a two-hour flight east. It’s not as bad as the Vikings’ trip to LA last week, but it’s still a tough ask.

“For as much as we talk about health and safety in our game, obviously Thursday night games are not the example of that,” McCourty said.

In order to level the playing field further, the league could insist that each team playing on a Thursday night is on the road the previous week. But that would be putting added stress on two teams, another group of 53 players already testing the limits of their bodies.

“I don’t know,” Jonathan Jones said when asked what he’d do to improve the Thursday night product. “I’d do some research on that before I can make a statement.”

Those who are actually in charge of making such decisions could stand to do the same.

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