That last Thursday night game was awful. AWFUL! It was a field goal festival that was 12-9 at the end of the third quarter, but the audience did not even get the satisfaction of a close game when Miami scored the next ten points to win 22-9. Sure Buffalo and Miami may not exactly be the sexiest teams, but they’re playoff contenders in the AFC, and they left a lot to be desired with flashy weapons like Sammy Watkins and Mike Wallace being ineffective. There is the overarching narrative of Thursday Night Football inherently having bad games. No one can deny that having to play football on four days rest does not produce the best performances. However, is the reality as bad as the myth? Surely not all Thursday night games can be that bad right? We are about to find out.
The data that has been collected came from the 2012, 2013 and the 2014 season thus far. These seasons have been chosen because they are the years where Thursday Night Football has been played all season as opposed to only half of it. Thanksgiving games have been excluded, since they have long been a part of the NFL far before TNF became part of the football lexicon. Generally, when people think exciting games, they look for close games with a lot of scoring. Therefore, we will look at the point differential and margin of victory of Thursday night games. When averaging out the stats, we see that margin of victory is 13.89 points per game and total points scored is 43.67 per game. There are some outliers that may skew these results (I’m looking at you Tampa Bay vs Atlanta), but these are the hard numbers. Meanwhile, for the season as a whole, the numbers come out to an 11.76 point average margin of victory and a total points scored of 46.33 points per game. In both categories, it is clear that there is a disconnect and drop off of quality between the average NFL game and the Thursday Night games. The score for Thursday night games is 6% lower and the margin of victory is 18% higher. The lower score, while noticeable, isn’t extremely significant, but the larger margins of victory are very problematic. Below is a graph of the 2014 season, comparing the average margin of victory for the week with the margin of victory for the Thursday Night Football game.
As we can see, with the exception of close games in Weeks 6 and 7, there has been a trend of noncompetitive games on Thursday nights. While the margins of victory haven’t been as spectacularly great as they were in the first four matches, games like Browns vs Bengals in Week 10 and now Dolphins Bills this week hardly lived up to their billing. There has been a trend this season of declining quality of prime time games. However, Sunday Night Football is the highest rated weekly program in the fall, while Thursday Night Football is trying to establish a footing on a broadcast network. CBS had a trial period where it simulcasted TNF alongside the NFL Network, and while ratings were far higher than last year due to the increased exposure, there are causes for concern. The low quality of play could mean bad news for the prospects of expansion for Thursday Night Football.
With all these concerns, I still disagree with getting rid of Thursday Night Football. Whenever a matchup is moved from a regional to a national stage, it is good for the already growing sport. For all the concerns about the short week, the disadvantage is at least split evenly, with each team playing a game. To further improve quality of play and player safety, the schedule makers should prioritize teams coming off their bye weeks when drawing up TNF matchups and should avoid pairings when one team has to travel a very long distance. They should also come up with more even matchups. For example, next week’s Chiefs vs Raiders game is probably not going to buck the trend of boring blowouts anytime soon. If the NFL wants Thursday Night Football to hit a bigger audience, they will need to consider these issues so that the best possible matchup makes it to the viewers.