by Julia Blank, Ella Papanek, Joey Liu, and Danny Blumenthal
“An absolute poopfest.” That’s what Richard Sherman called Thursday Night Football (TNF) in his 2016 article for The Players’ Tribune titled “Why I Hate Thursday Night Football.” Plenty of other NFL stars, such as Todd Gurley, Vince Wilfork, Larry Fitzgerald, and Drew Brees, have supported Sherman on this, arguing that Thursday night games jeopardize player safety. Fans have also criticized TNF, asserting that the matchups aren’t exciting and that the games are sloppy. But do the data back up these claims?
To determine whether TNF games are worse than average, we utilized a variety of definitions for how a game might be “worse”, including lower scoring, weaker teams, and increased turnovers or injuries. For each of these metrics, we examined trends between TNF games and games on all other days of the week dating back to 2012, the first year TNF was played during a majority of NFL weeks.
Amidst claims that Thursday Night Football is less entertaining, we elected to examine scoring in Thursday Night games relative to Sunday and Monday games. From a viewing perspective, high scoring is often considered more entertaining, because fans are typically interested in seeing explosive plays on offense. In conducting a t-test to compare average scores on Thursdays to all other days, we did not observe a statistically significant difference in scoring though (p-value = 0.77). Thursday’s games (45.7 PPG) notch almost identical average scores to all other gamedays (46.0 PPG).
We also consider the closeness of games as a potential explanatory factor for why fans dislike TNF games, since blowouts are naturally less exciting than competitive games. We use score differential as a proxy for competitiveness and observe that Thursday night score differentials, while slightly higher on average (margin of victory of 12.3 points vs. 11.4 points), are statistically indistinguishable from Sunday and Monday score differentials (p = 0.26). This fits in with Sports Illustrated’s cursory analysis of margin of victory on TNF, which saw no major difference between TNF games and all others.
In addition to the level of scoring, the quality of a football game is directly linked to the quality of the two teams in the contest. Tackling claims that TNF is less entertaining than other games, we examined the quality of teams playing on Thursdays compared to other gamedays. Typically, when better teams play each other, it is a more entertaining and sought-after game. To measure team quality, we used FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, in which the average NFL team sits around 1500. Then, we calculated the Elo sum of teams playing on Thursdays and other gamedays (to measure total team quality), the average difference in Elo ratings of teams in a game (to measure the spread in team quality) and the harmonic mean of these teams’ Elo ratings. The harmonic mean is an average which is influenced by low values, allowing us to identify whether TNF games tend to have lopsided matchups or whether both teams are talented.
Comparing the values we found, we do not observe data supporting the claim that TNF games are less entertaining than other games. If anything, the data showed that the quality of teams that played on Thursday nights was actually slightly higher than in non-Thursday games. The Thursday Elo sum, 3012.3, was just higher than the non-Thursday Elo sum of 3009.9, with harmonic means of 1503.4 and 1501.7 respectively. While we cannot claim that the quality of teams on Thursdays is significantly higher than on other days, it does not appear that teams scheduled for TNF are weaker than average. Furthermore, TNF seems to have slightly more even matchups, as indicated both by the average difference in team Elo ratings, and by the fact that they have lower pre-game spreads (4.9 points vs. 5.3 points).
One common refrain from players and fans alike is that Thursday games are sloppy. With little time to recover and prepare for the opponent, players may be caught off-guard and commit penalties they wouldn’t normally commit. Therefore, we chose to evaluate whether penalties were more common on TNF or not. To compare the penalty rates on TNF to other gamedays, we used NFLFastR’s play-by-play database to explore every penalty since 2012 – the first year games were played on the majority of Thursday nights. And as with scoring and team strength, the common consensus was wrong once again. Penalties were no more common on Thursdays (7.48 per 100 plays) than on other days of the week (7.48 per 100 plays).
Nevertheless, penalties come in all varieties. Some, such as false starts and delays of game, tend to be due to sloppy play. On the other hand, roughing the passer penalties might be unrelated to being unprepared, and instead could mean that teams are overly aggressive. Penalties of the first type are generally what people think of when considering a “bad” game, so we split penalties by type and re-ran the analysis. We chose to define sloppy penalties as pre-snap penalties, as well as offensive holding. Breaking down the penalties by “sloppy” or “not sloppy”, neither was much more common on Thursdays, as demonstrated in the following table.
Regardless of whether penalties are examined as a whole or whether they are restricted to only penalties associated with a lack of preparation, they are no more common on Thursdays than any other day.
Another definition of sloppy play derives from turnovers and fumbles. While these can be exciting for those who love defense, fans generally value offense. In addition, turnovers can pose a heightened risk of injury for players. Fumble piles are notoriously vicious, and on returns, offensive players attempt to make tackles and defenders try to block them – actions that are not practiced often and can lead to injury.
Back in 2013, Bill Barnwell investigated whether turnovers and dropped passes were more common on Thursdays, and found no significant difference. With seven more seasons of data to work with, we can explore whether his initial findings still hold up. Just as with penalties and scoring, there are no significant differences in fumble rates on Thursdays (1.43 per 100 plays) and other days (1.46). And in terms of interceptions, quarterbacks actually perform slightly betteron Thursdays. Compared to the 0.99 interceptions per 100 passes they threw on other days of the week, quarterbacks threw only 0.88 interceptions per 100 passes on Thursdays.
Finally, the prime concern with TNF has been the potential for injury. Numerous stars have been hurt on TNF, including Richard Sherman tearing his Achilles the year after his “poopfest” quote and J.J. Watt getting knocked out for the 2016 season with a back injury. However, the empirical evidence for higher injury rates on TNF has been mixed. First, former HSAC president Andrew Mooney found a small (but statistically insignificant) increase in injury rates on Thursdays. A study sponsored by the NFL found a slight rise in injuries on Thursday nights (6.9) compared to other games (6.3) in 2017, but found null results in other seasons. More recently, researchers from the University of Illinois and Northwestern actually found a significant decrease in injury rates on Thursday nights versus other games.
Using NFLFastR’s play-by-play database, we can compare the in-game injury rates on TNF to other gamedays to see which outcome might be correct overall. Rather than using injury reports, which can be subjective between teams, in-game injuries indicate that a player was hurt in this specific game, rather than in practice. The results of our analysis of all in-game injuries are displayed below.
In-game injuries are slightly less common on Thursdays (1.55 injuries per 100 plays) than on other days (1.58), though the difference is statistically insignificant. As HSAC uncovered with Sportico, the NFL injury rate has skyrocketed since 2012. Nevertheless, the advent of Thursday Night Football does not appear to have caused this.
While Thursday Night Football has been portrayed as “the ultimate sacrifice”, it is actually better than fans and players think. For example, this season is set to feature some outstanding Thursday night games, including potential playoff previews in Weeks 5 (Rams at Seahawks), 10 (Ravens at Dolphins), and 13 (Cowboys at Saints). No matter how “entertainment” is defined, whether in terms of scoring, team quality, penalties, turnovers, or injuries, NFL football is just as good on Thursday night as on any other day of the week.