NFL games are the equivalent of human demolition derby. Football isn’t a contact sport. It’s a collision sport. Asking NFL players to endure two body-bruising, bone-rattling, ligament-testing games in a span of four days is cruel and unusual punishment. It wouldn’t pass the Geneva Conventions.
Neither would the sleep-deprivation that coaches go through to prepare a game plan. Houston Texans coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has been sleeping in his office this week to prepare to face Bill Belichick and the Patriots on Thursday night.
Thursday night games started back in 2006 to put NFL games on the NFL Network. There were eight then. There are 16 now, with every team conscripted for Thursday game duty and players asked to sacrifice necessary recovery time.
The only way the NFL should have Thursday night games is if each team playing in them is coming off a bye, which would mean going back to a schedule with two byes per team, which the league had in 1993.
Timing is everything. The timing of the Patriots having to play one of the NFL’s odious and gluttonous Thursday Night Football contests couldn’t be worse with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo nursing a sprained AC joint in his right (throwing) shoulder.
The NFL is always harping on its commitment to player safety. That commitment is real in the 42 rules changes since 2002 and the dollars committed to aiding player preservation. But Thursday Night Football is the fingers-crossed infidelity in the NFL’s player safety vows. When push comes to shove, NFL owners choose a revenue stream over player recovery time every time.
That brings us back to Jimmy G. The reports are that Garoppolo, who sustained the shoulder injury during the second quarter of the Patriots’ 31-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, can suit up if he can tolerate the excruciating pain.
That puts the onus on the player to adhere to whatever cliche for toughness you prefer and play. That tough-guy mentality is ingrained in the game.
Whether overt or tacit, the pressure on NFL players to suck it up and play hurt is omnipresent.
That pressure gets ratcheted up significantly when a player loses three days of normal healing time because the NFL has to fill its coffers.
If Garoppolo can’t go, the Patriots will start rookie Jacoby Brissett, the lone remaining quarterback on their roster with Tom Brady serving his Deflategate sentence. Bringing in another quarterback on such a short week and getting them up to speed is impossible, even for Belichick.
The Patriots would be better off with Garoppolo, unable to feel his throwing shoulder and unable to throw the ball more than 15 yards downfield, playing compromised than any quarterback off the street.
Garoppolo was limited in practice on Tuesday. Belichick was not in a revealing mood when pressed on Jimmy G’s status at his news conference. Belichick would have rather chewed off his right arm than provided any indication about the status of Jimmy G’s right shoulder.
Belichick also didn’t bite on a question about the burden of Thursday night games. He did offer a politically-correct answer about any decision to play Garoppolo.
“A player’s personal situation, his health, always comes first, all right? That always comes first,” said Belichick. “That’s not a football decision. That’s a medical decision. Football decisions are based on what’s best for the football team.”
And the NFL’s decision to play Thursday night games is based on what’s best for the bottom line, not players like Garoppolo.
The NFL is being paid $225 million each by NBC and CBS to broadcast 10 Thursday Night Football games in 2016 and 2017. Last year, CBS paid $300 million for eight games. In addition, the 10 games broadcast by the two networks and simulcast on NFL Network are also being streamed on Twitter, which coughed up $10 million for streaming rights. (The other games will be exclusively on the NFL Network.)
On Sept. 14, the NFL announced its “Play Smart. Play Safe.” initiative, which features an additional $100 million pledge for medical research and engineering advancements that can make the game safer.
That new player safety pledge is still $50 million less than the league gained in Thursday night football rights fees.
The 2015 NFL Health and Safety Report states that injury rates for Thursday night games have been below those for Sunday and Monday games for each of the last four years. According to additional injury data provivided by the NFL, in 2015 there were 5.7 injuries per Thursday game compared to 6.6 for Sunday and Monday games.
Common sense tells you that absorbing more hits in a shorter period of time can’t be better for the body. This is also the same league that for a long time denied concussions were a threat to player safety.
So, excuse me if it feels like the league’s player safety motivation might be more protecting itself against future lawsuits — like the one that resulted in a $1 billion settlement with former players — and preserving the popularity of its product than protecting its players from injury.
It’s paradoxical to preach player safety and play Thursday night football games.
In the news release announcing the “Play Smart. Play Safe.” program, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said: “Everyone looks at these great players who perform on that field and do extraordinary things. But they’re human beings with families, with people that rely on them. And they rely on us to take the right steps and the appropriate steps to be able to protect them. Just like the fans want us to protect the game and to grow the game, they want us to protect those players.”
That’s right. We do want you to protect the players. One obvious step is not to force players to try to recover from an injury in three days to play.
Whether Garoppolo can go or not, playing a Thursday night game following a Sunday game has to go.
Either institute a bye before all of them or wave goodbye to them.
Note: This story was updated to include additional injury data provided by the NFL.