The existential horror of Thursday Night Football
By Mike Tanier
Watching Amazon’s “Thursday Night Football” is not merely as boring as watching paint dry. It’s also as unpleasant as smelling paint dry.
The games, dealt from the middle of the NFL’s deck of weekly matchups and typically played by a pair of exhausted teams forced to rest starters dealing with minor injuries, have always felt more like soundchecks than actual concerts. Recently, however, “Thursday Night Football” has been trudging through a particularly miserable quagmire of low-scoring, poorly played affairs.
This week’s contest pits the Arizona Cardinals, who have scored 26 combined points in their last two games, against the New Orleans Saints, who are expected to be without their injured starting quarterback, Jameis Winston, and top receiver, Michael Thomas, for the fourth consecutive week. Both teams have 2-4 records.
The loser of today’s game (8:15 p.m. ET, PRIME) will be all but eliminated from playoff consideration. The victor will be lucky to survive until Halloween.
As bad as Cardinals-Saints looks on paper, it’s likely to be an improvement over the Washington Commanders’ 12-7 victory last Thursday over the Chicago Bears, which featured 10 punts, eight sacks and just 240 net passing yards.
That game, in turn, was an upgrade over the Indianapolis Colts’ 12-9 overtime victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 5, which was highlighted by 12 punts, 10 sacks, four interceptions, six fumbles, 15 penalties and zero touchdowns.
From Week 3 through the upcoming Cardinals-Saints matchup, “Thursday Night Football” participants have a combined record of 23-36-1. A Week 8 meeting of Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens offers a possible respite from the misery, although both teams endured upset losses Sunday, as if each knew what was on the horizon.
Amazon paid about $1 billion per season for the rights to broadcast “Thursday Night Football” on its streaming service for the next 11 years. The broadcasts themselves have been impressive, and Amazon’s on-air personalities are more amusingly derisive of the caliber of play than typical network announcers. Commiserating with Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit about an awful game can be as grimly convivial as watching from a corner bar in a town where all the factories were just torn down.
Even hard-core football fans tend to treat “Thursday Night Football” like the guest who shows up two hours early for a party: While never totally unwelcome, the games are more tolerated than appreciated. There’s no denying that recent matchups have been nearly unwatchable. The typical quality of play, however, may not be as poor as it is made out to be.
Thursday night games are lower-scoring than the average NFL game, an inevitable result of short weeks of rest and preparation. The scoring differential is minor, however.
Since the 2020 season, teams are averaging a combined 45.0 points per game on Thursday nights. Overall, teams combined for an average of 47.0 points per game in that span. One 2-point conversion’s worth of offense hardly explains the game’s notorious reputation.
Surprisingly, the problem with “Thursday Night Football” may not be the “Thursday night” part of the formula, but the “football” part.
The NFL’s Sunday schedule is curated to maximize the fan experience: an array of early-afternoon games, followed by a late-afternoon game of the week and a marquee prime-time matchup. East Coast fans usually get to watch their hometown favorites at 1 p.m., followed by a pair of duels between Super Bowl contenders or superstar quarterbacks, or both.
If one afternoon game is dull, there’s another on a different network, or a bunch of them on a satellite package, or round-the-league highlights and fantasy statistics streaming across the internet and the NFL RedZone channel.
Thursday night games, on the other hand, are generally selected from the leftovers after the other broadcast rights holders call dibs on the most appealing games. So the NFL starts each week with its fourth- or fifth-best matchup, which is like starting a presentation to the board of directors with your fourth- or fifth-most persuasive argument.
Amazon and the NFL tried to spice up this year’s Thursday night lineup by spotlighting “story line” quarterbacks: Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan leading their new teams in Week 5, the multitalented youngster Justin Fields versus the downright Shakespearean Carson Wentz in Week 6, and so forth. That programming tactic backfired, however, as none of those quarterbacks have lived up to their billing.
The league’s Friday news cycle has therefore become a weekly referendum on unfulfilled expectations, which would not happen if Wilson and the others were merely disappointing local fans during regional Sunday telecasts.
Ultimately, spotlighting one ordinary matchup from the weekly NFL schedule is like isolating a sickly wildebeest from the herd: Skeptical fans approach the game poised to attack, and spend the day after picking over its carcass. One football game, presented in isolation and without Brady or Patrick Mahomes in the opening credits, just isn’t as interesting as the league wants it to be.
Yet no matter how unentertaining the games, fans still tune in: “Thursday Night Football” averaged 11.26 million viewers per game through Week 5. For contrast, the top-rated Thursday network program “Young Sheldon” drew 6.9 million viewers on Oct. 13, while Game 1 of an American League division series between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Guardians on Oct. 11, a Tuesday, drew 5.35 million viewers. A society that would rather watch Wentz than Aaron Judge by a 2-to-1 margin ends up getting precisely what it deserves.
In one sense, “Thursday Night Football” serves as the NFL’s version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” — a chance to ironically celebrate the absurd while throwing toast at the league’s bombastic image. In another sense, however, the horror is more genuine and existential.
Millions of fans have conditioned ourselves to gorge upon dissatisfying sports entertainment, grouse bitterly about the experience, then voluntarily pry our eyeballs open with toothpicks the next week for more. Perhaps if the games finally reach a tipping point of putrescence, we’ll break the soul-crushing cycle and escape the waking nightmare of inveterate NFL obsession.
Programming note: Saints backup quarterback Andy Dalton was also listed on the early-week injury report, meaning that a third-string gadget specialist, Taysom Hill, may get the start. That sounds rather fun. So let’s do the Time Warp again.