Lackluster Thursday Night Football?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

Last night, Thursday Night Football featured a 22-20 overtime win for the Miami Dolphins over the Cincinnati Bengals. But overall, how does Thursday Night Football compare to Monday Night Football?

Thursday Night Football is the greatest. Why wait for Sunday’s games when we have Thursday? With a short week of preparation, the competition is intense and the players’ raw athletic ability really shines through. And watching football on the NFL’s flagship station is always phenomenal. Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock are the best game announcers in the business, not to mention Mayock’s lisp is so damn intoxicating. I also love the player drama associated with Thursday games. Thanks to Thursday Night Football, Mike Glennon, Carson Palmer, and Brandon Weeden all have the chance to play with the entire world watching their every move. Thank you NFL! I get so stoked about Thursday Night Football that on Friday morning I pray to the gods of time that minutes pass as seconds and days pass as hours so the next Thursday night can get here faster. And you know what? It works! Monday Shmonday, I say.

… SAID NO ONE EVER.

Truth is, I don’t really like Thursday Night Football much. Call me a traditionalist, but (Monday nights aside) football is meant to be played on the weekend. In contrast, baseball, basketball, and hockey games are so numerous, so often played during the week that it’s normal to sit down in your favorite chair after work, crack open a cold one, turn on a game, and maybe fall asleep only to read about what you missed in the morning. Football though, is different. Football games are events. Football games are spectacles. Football games bring friends and families together with buffalo wings, pizza, chili, chips, and beer. Thursday Night Football, the overly eager little brother of Sunday Night and annoying cousin to Monday Night, seeks to destroy this American institution by too often robbing me of a weekend Eagles’ game. Isn’t it enough that we have bye weeks?

Contributing to my disdain for Thursday games is the perceived quality of the competition. Generally speaking, the games haven’t passed the "eye test". Doesn’t it just "feel" like the quality is terrible? Do the Tampa Bay Buccaneers really deserve a national audience? Or maybe the short week of preparation has a significant impact on player recovery and coaching strategy. Maybe Thursday games disrupt player routine. It’s hard to say. But a few weeks ago there was a report that the NFL was considering expanding the already expanded Thursday Night Football offering. Nooo! Thankfully, NFL PR guy Brian McCarthy denied it. But for me the question remains… does Thursday Night Football produce a lackluster product?

It’s a question others have tried to answer recently. Grantland’s Bill Barnwell compared the relative "sloppiness" of Sunday, Monday, and Thursday games by looking at turnovers and dropped passes. He found that since 1990, Thursday games actually produce slightly less turnovers than Monday and Sunday games (too slight actually; the rates are virtually identical). Even when controlling for the time of the game by looking at night games only, there are less turnovers produced on Thursday. There also seem to be negligible differences in turnover rates when looking at more recent games since 2006.

Turnovers

Avg Plays

Avg TO

TO%

Thu 125.5 3.4 2.70%
Sun 125.7 3.6 2.90%
Mon 125.4 3.5 2.80%

In addition to turnovers, Barnwell looked at dropped passes since 2008 and found that drop rates are almost identical across the three days, with (again counter-intuitively) a slight advantage for Thursdays. His ultimate conclusion: there is virtually no difference in quality from Thursday to Sunday to Monday, and that it’s more likely that we have just run into a bad set of Thursday games that is skewing our perception.

Drops

Avg PA

Avg Drops

Drop%

Thu 65.6 3.2 4.80%
Sun 64.5 3.2 4.90%
Mon 64.6 3.4 5.20%

Aaron Gordon from Sports on Earth also examined the quality of Thursday Night Football using two measures from Advanced NFL Stats: Excitement Index (EI) and Comeback Factor (CBF), both derived from their Win Probability graphs. Looking at EI first, Gordon found no real, significant difference between Thursday, Sunday, and Monday games. If anything, NFL Network games are only 4% less exciting than the average NFL game. He did find, however, that NFL Network’s Thursday games have generally lacked comebacks. Once teams get a lead, they tend to keep it, which leads to a little less excitement and could contribute to our (or my) perceived sense of poor play.

However, this research isn’t really telling us the whole story. Barnwell admits that there may be other ways to measure or define "sloppiness", and Gordon acknowledges that EI and CBF can’t account for poor execution, style of play, or game pace. So I attempted my own analysis. Since it’s the most recent games that stick in our minds, I focused my attention on Monday and Thursday games from 2011 through last week by examining game stats, drive stats and, in a way, combining Barnwell’s and Gordon’s methodologies. I created my own Excitement Index (EI), a Sloppiness Index (SI), which together form an overall Quality Index (QI). For all calculations I used game boxscore (n=76) and drive data (n=1373) gleaned from Pro-Football-Reference. All values were normalized by game and drive, respectively (all except for 2013 drives. 2013 Drive charts are incomplete on PFR).

For simplicity’s sake, I used the score to define EI. The more points scored and the less the margin of victory, the higher the level of excitement. From a final score perspective then, EI = Total Points / Margin of Victory. But all high scoring, close games are not entirely equal, right? I mean, I would tend to think that a high scoring close game between Green Bay and Denver would have a higher level of excitement then, say, a high scoring close game between Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. So I modified the EI formula to be (Total Points x Combined Win %) / Margin of Victory. This ensures that excitement is also a function of the quality of teams playing. Using this formula, the most exciting Monday/Thursday game in the last three years was a Thanksgiving Day game last season between Houston (10-1) and Detroit (4-7), a game which Houston won 34-31 in overtime. The least exciting game was a Monday night New York Giants 23 -7 win over the Minnesota Vikings this season.

But measuring sloppiness is much trickier, and we need to apply it to the Excitement Index in order to better gauge quality. Like Barnwell, I used turnovers, but unlike Barnwell, I also used punts. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a game that featured a high number of punts and thought to myself, "wow, that was a great game". Granted, if it were a true defensive battle, I may have. But generally speaking a high number of punts could be indicative of sloppy offensive play. In this regard, the formula for my Sloppiness Index (SI) is SI = Turnovers x Punts. After applying this formula, the sloppiest Monday/Thursday game in the last three years was a Monday Night game last season between the Tennessee Titans and the New York Jets, a game that featured 16 total punts and 5 turnovers (the Titans won, 14-10). There is a tie for least sloppy game: a 22-14 San Diego win over Oakland on Monday night last season and the 30-28 New York Jets Monday night win over Atlanta during Week 5 this season. Both games featured five punts and one turnover.

So let’s combine these indexes in order to calculate a broader definition of quality. I’m going to assume that quality is a function of excitement and sloppiness, so as the Excitement Index (EI) increases and the Sloppiness Index decreases, the quality, or Quality Index (QI), increases (QI = EI/SI). Normalized by game, the highest quality games were that Atlanta/New York Jets game and the Week 1 Thursday night game in 2011 between the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers, a game that featured one turnover, six total punts, and a Packers 42-34 victory. The lowest quality game was that Monday night matchup between the Vikings and Giants. Already the least exciting game, it also featured sixteen punts and two turnovers. When the data is normalized by drive, however, we get slightly different results. The highest quality game becomes the Houston/Detroit Thanksgiving Day thriller (ranked 8th in the game-normalized data) and the lowest quality game is Miami/New York Jets, a 24-6 Jets win on Monday night (15 punts, 3 turnovers).

So how do Monday Night games compare overall to Thursday games? Well, it depends on how you want to look at the results. According to the more global game data, the quality of Monday games seem to be 49% better than Thursday games, but when looking at the more granular drive data, Monday games are only 3% better.

Day

Games

EI

SI

QI (Game)

QI (Drive)

Monday 41 0.73 0.19 3.80 3.64
Thursday 35 0.67 0.26 2.55 3.53

In 2011, Monday games seemed to be of higher quality, but in 2012, Thursday games were of higher quality according to normalized drive data when Monday games were of higher quality according to normalized game data (so, a wash). This season though, results are really interesting. According to normalized game data, Monday night games have been by far higher quality than Thursday games, which seems to jive with our (or my) perception that Thursday games have been terrible.

2011

QI (Game)

QI (Drive)

Monday 3.638808 3.65
Thursday 2.753344 3.04

2012

QI (Game)

QI (Drive)

Monday 2.921223 3.02
Thursday 2.707255 3.26

2013

QI (Game)

QI (Drive)

Monday 6.83819 N/A
Thursday 2.002311 N/A

What does all this mean? I think it means that, unless Thursday Night Football continues to produce a poor product over several seasons, it’s here to stay. In my opinion, the recent spate of lackluster games illustrates the challenge the NFL faces every year in scheduling primetime games. Gordon from Sports on Earth explained this really well. He concluded that most NFL games are, on average, necessarily average, and the NFL has done a really good job of masking those games on Sundays. But as more games are added to primetime, that veil is slowly lifted and we become more exposed to games that are slightly less exciting, slightly more sloppy than what we’d like to see, or would expect to see. So for now, I’ll get home from work on Thursday, sit down in my favorite chair, crack open a cold one, turn on the NFL Network, get drunk on Mayock’s lisp, fall asleep, and read about the game in the morning.

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