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Thursday night games cause headaches for NFL players, coaches

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On Saturday night, long after the dishes were cleared off the dinner table and team meetings were adjourned, some members of the Washington Redskins' coaching staff returned to their hotel rooms and continued crafting their game plans.

They weren't preparing for the San Diego Chargers game, which loomed the next day. It was the plan for the following game, against the Minnesota Vikings, with which coaches were more concerned.

That game, a nationally televised "Thursday Night Football" showdown, will be only the 14th time in franchise history the Redskins have played on a Thursday, and it will be the first time in over five years that they'll play on a Thursday night.

The league expanded its Thursday night package, which is televised on NFL Network, to a season-long slate prior to last season. This year, all 32 teams have been scheduled to make one appearance on Thursday night.

According to the network, television ratings have been setting records all season, with an average of 7.78 million viewers tuning in through nine weeks — an increase of 12 percent from a year ago. The league has been so pleased with the growing audience, according to some reports, that the idea has even been tossed around of adding a second Thursday night game each week.

But at what cost? The games haven't been as crisp as their Sunday counterparts — including the one last week, in which the Miami Dolphins defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 22-20 in overtime on a safety.

That's partly a product of the modified game plan, which has forced coaches to reallocate their time and effort around existing schedules, and the health of the players, who are asked to play two games in five days.

When asked Tuesday if he considers the NFL's insistence upon playing games on a Thursday to be counterintuitive to its push for player safety, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was frank.

"Yes," Shanahan said, "but I don't want to get into it, obviously."

He should know. Entering his fifth Thursday game in eight years, Shanahan was one of the first coaches to recognize its challenges when, in 2006, his Denver Broncos were scheduled to face the Kansas City Chiefs on Thanksgiving.

Longtime Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt had repeatedly asked the league for the opportunity to host a Thanksgiving game, and it finally obliged that year by putting the game in primetime on its own television network.

Thus began a slate of games that, for six years, began in mid-November and finished out the rest of the season. The Redskins last played in a "Thursday Night Football" game on Dec. 6, 2007, a 24-16 home victory over the Chicago Bears that happened two days after the funeral for murdered free safety Sean Taylor.

They've played two other Thursday games since, but neither were part of the NFL Network package — a road loss to the New York Giants in the season opener in 2008, and a road victory over the Dallas Cowboys last year in a mid-afternoon Thanksgiving game.

To even have a chance at adequately preparing for the games, coaches have had to begin crafting their game plans well in advance. The Redskins' coaches would normally do so early Monday afternoon for a Sunday game, but for Thursday, preparation began late last week — after all other obligations for the game against the Chargers were met.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said his coaching staff began preparation on Friday, and some assistant coaches even returned to the team's facility Sunday night, after a road loss to the Cowboys, to continue work.

"We're condensing everything you would ordinarily do in a week's time to two days, so it has a lot of challenges — both on the physical part of it for the players, as well as the mental part of grasping a game plan and a turnaround from a Sunday game to a Thursday game," said Frazier, entering his third Thursday night game as a head coach. "It's a challenge."

That scouting then has to be passed on to the players, who have their own obligations to be healthy three days sooner than normal. The Redskins, for example, had their players practice without helmets or pads on Tuesday and went through a light walkthrough on Wednesday before boarding a charter flight to Minneapolis.

"If you're trying to keep people healthy and injury-free and you turn around and you have a game on Sunday, you know, guys are still healing up from running into cars all day on Sunday and then trying to play again on Thursday," said inside linebacker Nick Barnett, a veteran of five Thursday games. "It would be nice like, Monday games, you don't play on Sunday. Have that many days off. But hey, it's kind of like baseball. This is our doubleheader."

One respite is that after playing Thursday, neither the Redskins nor the Vikings will play their next game for another 10 days. The Redskins won't hold practice Saturday or Sunday to allow players a chance to rest.

Beforehand, though, is very tough.

"A lot of it right now is mental preparation — watching a lot of film," Shanahan said Tuesday. "It's not really physical [preparation] coming out of that game we just had, especially going into overtime, but you take all those factors into consideration in a short week."

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