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It’s Thursday, so let’s talk about Thursday Night Football …
NFL owners had themselves a hell of a week at the spring league meeting in Minneapolis, passing two items on a one-year trial-basis despite extreme opposition. One of those items now allows the flexing of some Thursday night games. The other rule change now allows teams to fair catch kickoffs inside the 25-yard-line and automatically get the ball at the 25. You literally can’t find an NFL coach that supports the new kickoff rule, but whatever, that’s a topic we’ll attack on another day.
As for the flexing of Thursday night games, I’ll admit the league found a decent compromise. It only impacts five weeks of the season (Weeks 13-17), and other scheduling policies/complications severely limit the inventory of games that can actually be flexed. For example, the Bears won’t be flexed to an additional Thursday game in 2023 because they already have Thursday games in Week 5 and Week 10 and are not permitted to play three Thursday games in the same season.
The NFL has a lot of money at stake with its Thursday night contract with Amazon Prime and there is always pressure from rights holders for better matchups that lead to better ratings. The quality of TNF games hasn’t always been great, but I’m a firm believer that the quality of the matchups is a bigger problem than the lack of rest. No one was complaining about the Chiefs-Chargers (a.k.a Patrick Mahomes-Justin Herbert) matchup in Week 2 last year.
The constraints on the new flexing rule make it somewhat unlikely a game will actually be flexed to Thursday night in 2023 — and if it does happen, it will happen with 28 days notice.
The other thing to consider here is that players and coaches don’t hate Thursday games as much as you think they do. I’m not arguing that they love them, but they definitely enjoy the long weekend off after playing on Thursday. The same goes for coaches. It’s not easy to game plan in just three days, but both teams are on equal rest and have plenty of advanced scouting resources available to make it happen. They then get a “mini-bye” on the back-end to make more significant big-picture adjustments that can’t always be accomplished during a normal game week.
As it turns out, the Bears are actually a great example to make this point. They are one of the teams that has to play two Thursday games on short rest this season, but head coach Matt Eberflus seemed genuinely happy when I asked him for his reaction.
“You look at two Thursday games that are Game 5 and Game 10, so you really have two mini-byes, and I think that’s a real big positive for us. Gives us a little break after five games and after 10 games,” Eberflus said. “We got our real bye at Week 13. Then you finish with five games at the end … I think it’s good and I think we have some good rest in there so we can rest and recover and get refreshed to play our best football.”
Indeed, the Bears will have a total of nearly two weeks more rest than their opponents in 2023, according to ESPN’s Brian Burke. That’s the most in the league.
Taking advantage of the mini-byes is relevant to the conversation too, especially considering the Bears completely revamped their offensive approach during a mini-bye last season. After a Week 6 loss to the Washington Commanders on Thursday night, the Bears surprised the Patriots with a convincing 33-14 win in Foxboro after shifting to an approach that utilized Justin Fields’ legs more. It resulted in a month-long run in which the Bears — yes, the Chicago Bears — actually led the league in scoring.
So you can understand why Eberflus isn’t too bummed about having to play two Thursday night games in 2023.
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