Less than 14 hours after the Ravens came from behind to beat the Patriots by one point in NBC's late game on Sept. 23, Baltimore players were already back at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md., preparing for a Thursday-night tilt with the Browns. Resting his aching 349-pound frame on a locker room stool, Terrence Cody mindlessly lotioned his hands over and over, wearing a vacant stare familiar to fans of AMC's The Walking Dead.
"We feel like zombies right now," said the nosetackle. Getting restful sleep had been impossible. The previous day's game started with a moment of silence for the younger brother of Torrey Smith, who died hours earlier in a motorcycle accident. The emotional buzz saw was just beginning: The Ravens would fall behind by as many as 13 points, and they faced a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit before coming back on a Smith touchdown catch and a game-winning Justin Tucker field goal just over the right upright that sent Patriots coach Bill Belichick sprinting to grab a replacement official.
Beyond the adrenaline rush, Cody was coming down from the OxyElite pill, 5-Hour Energy shot and Jacked Up drink that he took on an empty stomach before the game. (End result: he stayed up until 7 a.m. playing cards with a few teammates at the home of wideout Jacoby Jones.)
"It sucks not to have at least 24 hours off," said Cody, still feeling jittery from all that OTC stimulation when he reported back to work at 1:30 on Monday afternoon. "The league isn't doing anything about our safety. They're just trying to get their money's worth out of us."
Ah, yes. The league. The NFL solved its referee problem in time for the Ravens' 23--16 victory over the Browns last Thursday night, but, this being the Ravens' fourth game in 18 days (a scheduling quirk that will befall the Eagles too, in November and December), players continued to question commissioner Roger Goodell's willingness to take issues of health and safety seriously. "After you play on a Sunday, you don't start to feel normal again until Friday, Saturday morning," said Browns linebacker Scott Fujita in the visitors' locker room. "Thursday games are probably good for the bottom line, but they're not good for the body."
Teams have long played games on Thanksgiving, and over the past six years the NFL Network has televised a handful of Thursday-nighters toward the end of each season. But the issue of recovery time has come into high-def focus in 2012, the first year that every team will play a game on three days' rest—the NFL Network has 13 Thursday-night games scheduled, and Thanksgiving games will air, one each, on CBS, Fox and NBC.
In a nod of recognition to the game's grueling demands, NFL schedule czar Howard Katz consulted the league's competition committee and established guidelines when building this year's slate: A Thursday home team can host a game the previous Sunday or play on the road with a 1 p.m. kickoff, as long as it allows them to return home by roughly 8 p.m. A Thursday road team is limited to travel over one time zone, with the exception of AFC West and NFC West division games involving Kansas City or St. Louis. No team can have a bye week immediately preceding or following its short week.
"A perfect schedule doesn't exist," says Katz, "but this is equitable for all 32 teams."
On top of the increased television revenue being shared with players, there are additional incentives to broadcasting Thursday-night games on the league's own network. Every team is guaranteed at least one game in prime-time this season, granting players on less attractive teams a rare national audience and allowing fans a glimpse of stars from other markets. In the past, it was unlikely that a struggling team like Cleveland would get a night slot on either NBC or ESPN, especially with the flex scheduling that favors marquee teams in the second half of the season.
The same players who gripe about the quick turnaround also understand the trade-off. "To play under the lights, that's a plus," Fujita acknowledges. "And you get the weekend off afterward."
Practices are also relatively light leading up to Thursday games. Ray Lewis described the Ravens' preparation last week as "more film room than physical." When players weren't watching tape or jumping between hot tubs and ice baths, they were, in the words of safety Bernard Pollard, practicing a play called "massage, massage, massage."
But no matter how teams balance healing and game-planning—because of their short week in September, the Giants started studying Carolina's offense before the season even began—a drumbeat is emerging from locker rooms. "The NFL doesn't care about anything like [safety]," says Giants defensive end Justin Tuck. "All they care about is the money and the TV ratings. I think they've been contradictory for a long time."
Addressing the matter last week in an e-mail to SI, league spokesman Dan Masonson wrote that, "We have been playing Thursday games for decades and it hasn't been an issue"; and in an e-mail to Cleveland's Plain Dealer, another spokesman, Greg Aiello, emphasized that "there has never been any evidence that playing on Thursday puts players at greater risk for injury." And while the players' union is gathering data to determine whether there's an uptick in soft-tissue injuries linked to fatigue, it didn't object to Goodell's expansion of Thursday games. (The schedule format was not covered in the CBA signed last summer, but the NFLPA was consulted on the move.)
And so a potential labor issue simmers on the back burner. More pressing to the public—especially after the damage caused by replacement officials—is this question, Is the NFL in danger of putting an inferior product on the field once again?
In theory last Thursday's game should have been the country's first chance to watch rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden link up with promising young wideout Mohamed Massaquoi. But after tweaking his hamstring the previous Sunday, Massaquoi couldn't recover on short rest and didn't suit up. As for the level of play, it's no surprise that the Ravens botched a point-after attempt, or that Joe Flacco threw his first red-zone interception since December 2009—into obvious double coverage, no less—in a game for which they had so little time to prepare. Cleveland-Baltimore might have been the most watched show on cable television that night (thanks largely to the recently negotiated deal that allows Time Warner and Bright House to carry the NFL Network), but for how long will sloppy football rule the airwaves?
In the locker room after that game, Lewis was asked if he was surprised that a winless Browns team went on the road and nearly stole one from the Ravens. "If you've been around as long as I have," he said, "you know every Sunday is going to be like that."
In the new NFL, it's especially true: On any given Thursday.
Are You Ready for a Hangover?
The performance hit a team takes in a Thursday game following a Sunday game is reflected in decreased point averages on only three days' rest
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
+12 +6 0 -6 -12
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
-5.36 +4.00 +5.17 -5.19 -3.94 -9.06 -11.5
CHART BY RUFUS PEABODY
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
NO PREP IN THEIR STEP After an abbreviated run-up to their Week 4 meeting with the Browns, the Ravens required a late-game stand to preserve their nail-biting victory.
ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES