Seemingly lost amidst the Super Bowl hoopla over the last week was Roger Goodell's announcement of a scheduling shift that will significantly alter the NFL landscape beginning in the 2012 season. What began six years ago as a late-season treat will now be a routine occurrence -- Thursday games will be featured in all but the final two weeks of the regular season.
The big boost in NFL Network's Thursday Night Football offerings -- to 13 games, up from seven in 2011 -- was no surprise. But as the league eyes another TV ratings goldmine, it also needs to take important steps to level the Thursday playing field.
It's tough enough for teams to rest and prepare to compete again during a short week. But the NFL has shown a troubling willingness to make the visiting team travel across the country for a Thursday matchup, and that has created a competitive imbalance that threatens to become much more prevalent with the expansion of Thursday football.
Consider that the 49ers and Eagles each made a trek of at least 2,300 miles for a Thursday game in 2011, to Baltimore and Seattle, respectively. They lost by a combined 27 points. Perhaps even more unsettling, the Jets were tasked with playing in Denver (roughly 1,600 miles away) after playing on Sunday Night Football at home four days earlier. New York lost 17-13.
In the last four years, visiting teams logged at least a 1,300-mile journey to play on Thursday Night Football seven times. Those teams went a collective 0-7 and lost by an average of 13.3 points. The three teams in that span that endured a 2,000-plus mile trek lost by an average score of 32-13.
Even without extending Thursday games throughout the season, the lengthy travel in condensed weeks was something the NFL needed to promptly address. But now, with the need to schedule 16 Thursday games beginning in Week 2 (including three Thanksgiving games), travel has become a glaring equity issue. The league needn't look far for a viable solution. In 2006, NFL Network's debut season, the five Thursday Night Football games all were intradivision battles.
Simply put, the NFL needs to put a premium on scheduling regional matchups on Thursdays -- a decision that would lessen the competitive disadvantage for the visiting team. Divisional games would be a natural fit in many cases, although St. Louis, Dallas and Miami are among those geographically isolated from their divisional rivals.
Some pundits have suggested making a Thursday Night Football appearance follow a team's bye week to allow ample time for rest and preparation. But given that the bye weeks haven't started earlier than Week 4 or ended later than Week 11 in the last five years, that solution would require a drastic schedule overhaul.
The NFL has already created a tough enough scheduling challenge by guaranteeing that each team will make at least one prime-time appearance in 2012. But in order to avert a competitive inequity, the league needs to take care to eliminate strenuous travel so the Thursday visitor isn't fighting even more of an uphill battle.