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NFLPA must decide if it can live with Thursday games

Team staff escort Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) off the field after Romo suffered a shoulder injury on a sack by Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Bruce Arians has strong opinions on Thursday night NFL games. He thinks they diminish the quality of the pro game. He thinks the three-day period between games is too short for players’ bodies and minds to rebound. And he’s pretty sure nobody at the league office cares what he thinks.

“I’m tired of b******* about them because they’re not going away,” said the Cardinals coach, whose team hosts Minnesota on Thursday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Like everything the NFL does, Thursday games are major revenue drivers for a league that already rakes in massive amounts of money. The only way Thursday night games will go away is if the NFL Players Association insists upon it. Even then, it will take some doing.

“We have annual meetings and we’ll have another one this offseason,” Cardinals safety and NFLPA player rep, Rashad Johnson said. “I’m sure it will be a topic of conversation.”

Whether it will rise to the PA’s short list of priorities remains to be seen. The Players Association has a variety of issues it is pondering including the personal conduct policy, expanded playoffs and the future of the Los Angeles market.

“I don’t ever rank the issues because everybody’s issue is important to them, but during the season, Thursday night games are something we talk about a lot,” said NFLPA president Eric Winston, who plays for the Bengals. “We are always interested in feedback from our players on Thursday Night Football games, as well as closely monitoring the medical reports from the games, but I won’t speculate on what might happen a few years from now as far as changes or priorities.”

According to NFL data, the incidence of injuries in Thursday night games actually decreases from Sunday and Monday games. In 2014, an average of 6.9 injuries occurred in Sunday and Monday games, compared to 4.8 in Thursday games; the lowest rate for those games in three years.

Winston said those numbers come directly from team reports and player reports so he has faith in their accuracy. One problem, he said, is that the league hasn’t been playing Thursday games for very long.

“We’re not talking about that many games and you obviously don’t want to have a small sample size for any kind of research,” Winston said.

Winston said there are other numbers the PA is examining aside from the straightforward stats the league provides. For example, Winston wants to know if there is a greater incidence of injuries in the games immediately following Thursday games because the body wasn’t granted its normal recovery time before subjecting it to the wear and tear of a second game, thereby weakening it for future games.

Arians has another problem with the NFL’s injury statistics for Thursday games.

“You can fudge numbers any way you want to,” he said. “How many players don’t play on Thursday that could play on Sunday?”

Arians, like all the players interviewed for this story, believes that with three more days of rest, more players could return to the field.

“Being able to get your body back and able to play at the best of your ability — everybody wants to be able to do that,” Johnson said. “To me, it feels like Thursday is too quick a turnaround to do what you need to do and for some guys, they just won’t be able to get back.”

Even those who do participate often do so at less than 100 percent. Arians almost felt guilty throwing a full game plan at the Cardinals the day after they defeated the Rams in St. Louis. What he didn’t do is throw full practices at them this week.

“It’s totally walk-through,” Arians said. “We may break a sweat on Wednesday.”

With so little preparation and so little time to heal, it’s easy to support critics’ view that Thursday night games are often poor quality games with simplified game plans. The biggest reason for eliminating Thursday games, of course, is the safety issue. Coaches and players still believe it puts too much strain on bodies, thereby putting players at greater risk of injury. Some believe the NFL should organize Thursday games around bye weeks to eliminate those issues.

“It’s a tough transition regardless of what point you are in your career — veteran or rookie,” Johnson said. “It’s tough to play a game on Sunday, giving your all and then you turn around on Monday having a full day ahead of you. Tuesday is the same. Wednesday is the same and then you’re playing on Thursday.

“I know what the stats say but I also know how my body feels.”

Winston reiterated that it is too early to say what stance the Players Association will take on Thursday games. He wants to gather more data and he wants to gather more feedback.

“There are a lot of complexities to this issue and we’re still sorting through all of that,” he said. “We can keep all the stats that we want — and we need to do that — but there are always going to be unquantifiable aspects to it so there’s never going to be a black and white to this.”

There hasn’t been a groundswell of support from players to eliminate Thursday games but Winston said that doesn’t necessarily mean the players would wait until the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2020 to take up the issue.

“The CBA is always evolving,” he said. “People misunderstand the situation, thinking that the CBA has to be up for policy to change, but our drug policy was overhauled last year.

“That said, I’m not going to speculate what could happen in five years.”

If the PA does want change, it may have to make concessions elsewhere in the give-and-take of negotiations.

“There are two main things we look at,” Winston said. “First and foremost is the health and safety of our players, but we also want to maximize profits for everybody because when revenue goes up, the salary cap goes up and players’ salaries go up.”

Johnson admits he is intrigued by the idea of no more Thursday games, but he is taking a realistic outlook.

“We’ll see what happens in the future,” he said. “I could see them being removed but I could also see them staying as well. People love more football and money is always going to drive the league. We know that and we understand that’s the world we live in.”

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