Cowboys used to multiple Thursday games; others rip NFL’s flex proposal
The NFL tried to spice up its Thursday Night Football slate several years ago by having teams wear their, um, eye-catching “Color Rush” uniforms, but players and coaches will most likely only be seeing red when it comes to Thursday nights this season.
While league owners tabled a proposal that would allow flex scheduling for Thursday night matchups in the latter part of the 2023 season, the topic could still come up for a vote in May and be instituted immediately.
There was pushback from several notable names, including Giants co-owner John Mara, Steelers president and CEO Art Rooney II, and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Other wrinkles meant to assure more meaningful games on Thursdays were approved at the owners meeting in Phoenix. One new rule will allow teams to play a maximum of two short-week games in a season.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones confirmed he was in favor of flex scheduling, but recent history shows that the team is already very used to Thursday football and the short turnarounds that come with it.
In 2022, Dallas played two Thursday games: one in its annual Thanksgiving late-afternoon slot, and then again in the Week 17 primetime meeting with the Titans. That away game came with a five-day turnaround from the team’s Week 16 contest.
In 2021, the Cowboys had three Thursday tilts: the Week 1 opener that obviously didn’t involve a game the week prior, Thanksgiving Day, and as the visitors on the Thursday night following Thanksgiving.
That kind of back-to-back scheduling would be allowed moving forward. But because only the first of the two games would be a “short-week game,” a team could still be scheduled for a third Thursday night appearance elsewhere in the season.
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has said those back-to-back Thursday stretches still cause trouble for teams, as there are two games to play after a short week before any sort of extended break is offered for player recovery.
In 2020, Dallas appeared just once on Thursday, on Thanksgiving. The original schedule actually had them slated to play the next Thursday, too, but Week 13’s visit to Baltimore was rescheduled due to COVID-19 postponements elsewhere in the league.
In 2019, the Cowboys once again had two Thursday games, back-to-back showings on Thanksgiving and a primetime road matchup seven days later.
America’s Team always draws a ratings surge under the lights, and McCarthy admitted when the 2022 regular-season schedule was released last May that a certain amount of craziness is expected when you wear the star.
“We know we’re always going to have the national games, and our travel is going to be a challenge,” he said at the time. “I’m sure we’re top-10 as far as the amount of travel and the night games.”
But knowing a short turnaround is coming with several months to methodically prepare for it is one thing.
“When the schedule comes out, we forecast the whole season of how we want to attack it and have options and different schedules and so forth,” McCarthy explained last September.
But it will be quite another challenge when teams learn their Sunday kickoff has been moved up by three full days with just 15 days warning.
“The biggest problem I had with the flex was that the proposal was that you only had 15 days’ notice,” said Rooney. “That’s just too short of a turnaround time for a flex from a Sunday to Thursday, as far as I’m concerned.”
Games can now be flexed from a Sunday slot to Monday night, too.
Mara added that these kinds of scheduling swaps make logistics much harder for fans traveling to see the games in person. He called the Thursday flex proposal “abusive” to fans and said he was “adamantly opposed to it.”
“At some point, can we please give some consideration to the people who are coming to our games?” Mara said Tuesday from Phoenix. “People make plans to go to these games weeks and months in advance. And 15 days ahead of time to say, ‘Sorry, folks, that game you were planning on taking your kids to Sunday at 1, now it’s on Thursday night?’ What are we thinking about?”
Jones explained his stance in favor of allowing games to be flexed in and out of Thursday nights.
“I’m all for it,” he said, per Jori Epstein of Yahoo Sports. “I think what we’re suggesting is very good for the NFL and will let us give the appropriate sensitivity to any fans that generally are being disadvantaged by a game moving out of their plans.”
One can argue whether the league should prioritize its TV audiences or its live supporters, but the flex proposal impacts the league’s players even more.
Mara claims the league is trying to push the flex proposal through. “This should have been vetted with the health and safety committee,” he added. “It should have been vetted with the competition committee, and it was not.”
McCarthy, at least based on comments he made in the days leading up to the Cowboys’ 2022 Thanksgiving Day game, is similarly concerned about player safety in short-week games.
“I think the biggest part of Thursday games is: the health is a higher challenge than the other weeks,” he said on Nov. 22, “being Captain Obvious here.”
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) March 28, 2023
Mahomes and many other players equate short prep weeks with a greater likelihood of injury and have accused the NFL of forcing Thursday Night Football games purely for the lucrative TV rights package they have created.
Amazon is paying a hefty $1 billion per year to broadcast the midweek contests and was stuck last season with some clunker matchups late in the season, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell maintains the flex proposal is not about capitulating to pressure from the media giant.
“I don’t think we are putting Amazon over players’ interest,” Goodell said. “We look at data with respect to injuries and impact on players. … I think we have data that’s very clear, it doesn’t show higher injury rate.”
“There isn’t anybody in any of our organization that doesn’t put our fans first. Providing the best matchups for our fans is what we do. That’s part of what our schedule has always focused on. Flex has been part of that. We are very judicious with it and careful with it. We look at all the impacts of that before a decision is made.”
But according to NFL insider Albert Breer, an unofficial vote was taken on the issue Tuesday. Twenty-two owners voted in favor of flexing Thursdays, with eight against and two abstaining.
Twenty-four votes would be needed in May to make it official; it appears the decision is all but a formality at this point.
The Cowboys have been doing multiple Thursday games for years, but the other 31 teams in the league should probably start warming up to the eventuality.
Because while Thursday nights used to mean strangely-colored uniforms, the color that appears to matter most to the NFL’s owners… is green.
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