"Seahawks Overcome Laughable Mistakes," read the headline for a game in which Seattle fumbled five times. One of those miscues occurred when the holder bobbled a field goal snap at the end of the half and feebly tried to throw the ball to nobody, which was then returned for a touchdown by the opposing team. The game was tied 10-10 entering the fourth quarter -- hardly the dominant home performance we've come to expect from Seattle -- before they pulled away for the sloppy victory.
By now, you've probably surmised that I'm talking about the Titans-Seahawks game from Sunday, Oct. 13, not Seattle's subsequent Thursday Night Football appearance against Arizona. If this game had occurred on Thursday Night Football, it would have instantly triggered the chorus of resistance to the primetime slot. But it was just another messy Sunday game, the likes of which occur every week and get buried amid the noise of last-second comebacks we so ravenously crave.
The NFL is apparently unhappy with the newest addition to its primetime slate, and according to The Wall Street Journal, is looking to expand its Thursday offerings. It's unclear what format this would take, but it would include a doubleheader at least some of the time. That is, there might be more Thursday Night Football.
This has prompted many debates and opinions on the matter, pretty much oscillating between "it's about money" and "shut the whole thing down", the latter of which consistently returns to the poor quality of Thursday Night Football games. Most reports about the perceived lack of quality of TNF generally surround the fact that the games shorten the typical team preparation by three days. This fact is undeniably true, but any claims that it negatively affects the competency of Thursday night games are largely unproven. I haven't come across any studies or data to suggest that more injuries, penalties, dropped passes or general sloppiness (however one wants to measure such things) occur on Thursday nights as opposed to Sundays or Mondays. (If I've simply missed them, please post in the comments.)
But if you still believe there's something inherently wrong with Thursday Night Football, then, in a way, you're right. NFL Network games are fundamentally different than other primetime matchups: They're not hand-picked by the league to be great games. They're just your average, run-of-the-mill NFL games.
When I did my own investigation into the Thursday Night Football question for Sports on Earth, I found that TNF games were essentially league-average. As I wrote at the time, this conclusion could seem counterintuitive if you had watched a recent Thursday Night Football offering -- the example in that piece was the dreadful Jets-Patriots game -- but, considering how NFL scheduling works, it actually makes perfect sense, and couldn't be any other way.
NFL schedules are partly determined by a computer program developed by FICO (which takes into account "some 20,000 variables and 50,000 constraints," including "the needs of network partners") and then a small war room refines the algorithm's possibilities beyond those restrictions. Basically, the schedules are optimized to be logistically possible, fit within the confines of the NFL's opponent rubric, and then beyond that, the human element kicks in to figure out what arrangement will yield the most interest and eyeballs.
As Clark Judge of CBSSports.com described in his article detailing the process, the networks have significant sway over key slots as well:
"The second half of Sunday doubleheaders are the highest-rated, with CBS and Fox in the national rotation. Both want significant contests, which is understandable, but what about the 1 p.m. slots and Sunday and Monday nights? The problem is that all want the same list of games, and the NFL tries to play fair with its choices. ESPN, for instance, wanted Washington to open its Monday Night telecasts this season, so it was accommodated. Fox, which has this year's Super Bowl, wanted to open the season in New York City, where the league ends the year. The schedule makers couldn't give them New York-Dallas but compromised by delivering Tampa Bay and the Jets -- sometimes known as the Darrelle Revis Bowl."
(Wait, giving Fox the Buccaneers-Jets game was a compromise?)
On top of all this, when Thursday Night Football was expanded to Weeks 2 through 15 last year, Goodell decreed that all teams would be on primetime at some point during the year.
So let's take a step back and look at this process. You have all your NFL games of each week. Take the best three off the table, because those go to the late afternoon, Sunday night and Monday night games. We can safely assume that the three worst games probably won't be put on national television, so take those off the table too. You've now removed the top three and bottom three games from the potential Thursday Night Football pool. When things are neither exceptionally good nor bad, they are more or less average.
Also, if every team has to play in primetime at least once -- and NBC and ESPN essentially get veto power over their lineups due to the billions with which they line the NFL's pockets -- you're going to see more bad teams on Thursday nights than on Sunday or Monday nights. But since good teams can play in primetime more than once (up to five times by league rules) they might put a few on Thursday night to make those games more attractive. So you end up with the Jaguars and Browns appearing on Thursday Night Football so frequently and Monday Night Football so rarely.
Its not a coincidence or happenstance that NFL Network games are league-average, but rather they are necessarily average. They have to be league-average. It would be a logical inconsistency for them to be anything but average.
The NFL has been remarkably effective at hiding its average product. When fans watch football every Sunday, they almost always have access to the best showcase for the NFL product. Whether they're watching their favorite team, Sunday Ticket, the RedZone Channel or a primetime, hand-selected matchup, they're being exposed to something far superior to the average game, or at the very least a game in which they are emotionally invested. In contrast, Thursday Night Football is the average product laid bare for all to glare upon. It sure seems that America doesn't like the average NFL game.
So the NFL's solution, it seems, is to add another game. This won't accomplish anything, other than to give us more average contests to watch, and make the NFL more money, which I guess is accomplishing lots of things by the NFL's standards. But whether the NFL ends up putting more games on Thursday or not isn't the relevant question anymore.
The NFL has already made the ghastly mistake of pulling its average product from behind the Sunday blinds from which bad games have so effectively been hidden. It's a bit surprising that, for a league which controls every aspect of its product to the point at which players are fined for the color shoes they wear and because they're supporting the wrong type of illness or disease, it wouldn't think a bit more carefully about making sure that only prime games make it into primetime.