How to watch Thursday Night Football: Embrace the mess

Flock & Tingle is John Teti’s interim column about pro football, published here at The Avocado on the gracious invitation of the moderators while John works on a new website to publish his things and have fun and such. In fact, John is the one typing this introductory paragraph. Thank you for having him, John says. Enjoy the football this weekend, John says.

Are you 80 percent ready for some football?!

Since the advent of Thursday Night Football in 2006, it has been accepted wisdom among fans that the quality of the games on Thursday is inferior, on account of the shorter rest afforded to the players (and a shorter preparation window for coaches). Thursday Night Football is so widely disdained that it can seem that a majority of the NFL-watching public opposes it, which of course means that it will continue and will probably be appointed to the United States Supreme Court.

I don’t think Thursday Night Football needs to exist, and yes, a three-day rest period between games adds a soupçon of cruelty to an already brutal sport. But I’ve always had my doubts that the games are truly worse from the viewer’s point of view. Could it just be a cognitive bias? Does the isolation of the Thursday-night spot just make the normal variance of NFL games more prominent? After all, plenty of boring blowouts are broadcast on Sundays, too. But because there’s so much other football happening at once, they fade into the background.

To bring some objectivity to the question of TNF’s supposed awfulness, I plugged every regular season game since the beginning of the 2017 season into a spreadsheet, because I don’t have a job. First, I looked at the margin of victory—if TNF games are indeed more boring, you would expect this to show up in more lopsided final scores. But since September 2017, the average margin of victory in NFL games is 11.44 points, while the average for Thursday games (including Thanksgiving) is 11.08 points. So TNF games have been a tiny bit closer on the whole, but essentially the same.

Margin of victory is a crude measure of excitement, though. Maybe the point spreads are typical, but the execution on the field is poor. In other words, Thursday games are unusually sloppy, another popular perception. If this is true, you would expect the turnover rate to be higher on Thursdays. As any color commentator will tell you, turnovers are the mark of a “sloppy” team. Here again, however, the numbers betray our conventional view. In the 2017-18 dataset, the average number of turnovers for all games is 2.78—for Thursdays only, the average is 2.55.

The numbers confirmed my suspicions. Our view of TNF is colored more by our annoyance with the very existence of a Thursday night game than it is by any concrete measure of the action on the field. On a rational level, I already understood this, and now I have the numbers to prove it.

But we are not wholly rational beings, so I will admit: Thursday Night Football seems messy to me, too. I can’t shake that impression, no matter what the spreadsheet says, and I see no reason to impose logic on my football viewing. Why fight subjectivity? So my TNF mantra is to embrace the mess. When I tune in to a Thursday game, I watch it through the lens of this confirmation bias, looking for the miscues, the crossed wires, the shaggy moments that confirm my mental canon of TNF as a sort of Keystone Kops for the gridiron.

tangled chainsImagine my delight, then, when the start of this Thursday’s game was delayed by a peculiar equipment mishap. After the Indianapolis Colts’ opening kickoff to the New England Patriots resulted in a touchback, handsome hero quarterback Tom Brady took the field with the Patriots offense and… waited. Even Fox announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman eventually paused their nattering as it dawned on them that the football game scheduled to commence in this time slot was not, in fact, commencing.

Buck and Aikman soon ascertained the pleasingly dumb reason for the delay, as the director cut to a shot of sideline officials untangling the bright orange chain they use to measure out first-down distances. (I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often.) “Mike?” chirped Aikman, sarcastically summoning Fox rules analyst Mike Pereira to weigh in on the situation.

It wouldn’t be the first snarky joke Aikman made Thursday night, as he was loose and feisty throughout the evening—even punchy, at least in comparison to his usual soporific demeanor. Aikman’s usual role is limited to the recitation of stupefyingly predictable cliches between downs. On Thursday, he was different. He let his hair down and even poked fun at his partner, Buck. When Indianapolis tight end Eric Ebron made an awkward catch near the end of the second half, Buck said, “Nice catch by Ebron—one-handed.” Observing the slow-motion replay, a bemused Aikman corrected Buck on a technicality: “Well, he caught it with two hands, but he just used two at different times.” Buck stammered for a moment and then conceded Aikman was right. It was like an exchange out of Fletch.

In the third quarter, Buck recapped the injury history of bearded Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, noting that Luck was “taking it one play at a time.” Aikman thought this over, and a little while later circled back to the quote. “I like that ‘one play at a time,’ though. I think that’s usually how it goes,” Aikman deadpanned. What on earth! Instead of spouting cliches, now Aikman was puncturing them with dry wit? I got the impression, surely mistaken but persuasive to me nonetheless, that Fox’s lead analyst takes these Thursday tilts less seriously than the traditional Sunday assignments. So, this week at least, we got Class Clown Troy instead of the usual Serious Troy.

It made me wonder if perhaps Thursday Night Football seems worse to viewers not because the players are less capable, but because the TV presentation is less polished. At a panel discussion in 2016, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus indicated that the Thursday-plus-Sunday schedule can be tough on a broadcast team:

It’s really difficult to do two games in one week. You’ve got to memorize four No. 66s as a baseline starting point. You have to memorize four rosters and all the background and all the stories, so it’s very taxing.

McManus was talking about his top on-air talent at the time (Jim Nantz and Phil Simms), but you can imagine that the same sort of pressure also affects the researchers, the graphic artists, and anyone else who lays the groundwork for a live telecast. Indeed, on Thursday it sometimes felt like the wheels were about to come off the Fox production truck. A few minutes into the second quarter, for instance, the computer that generates Fox’s graphics went on the fritz, and while the on-screen readouts gradually returned, they never quite got back to normal. Glitches like phantom timeouts and incorrect down-and-distance updates popping up throughout the evening.

I suppose there’s no single factor that makes Thursday Night Football feel like a sideshow. It could be that everyone involved—the players, the broadcasters, the viewers—is only about 80 percent ready for football. The result is a little bit of mess all around. Like I said, embrace it. Enjoy punchy Troy Aikman. Marvel at weird graphical glitches flitting across the screen. There are merits to a mess. You just can’t find them in a spreadsheet.

Multi-sport performance of the week

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In a game against the Chicago Bears last season, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery celebrated a touchdown reception by lining up his teammates like bowling pins and knocking them down in a “strike.” This festive exercise in cross-sport pollination charmed viewers across the country, as America loves the art of mime, when it is practiced by hormone-enhanced berserkers in body armor. SB Nation’s Harry Lyles Jr.  characterized Jeffery’s performance as “perfect.”

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In Week 4, however, Tennessee Titans receiver Tajae Sharpe managed to improve on perfection, and in a contest against the Eagles, no less. Late in the fourth quarter, Sharpe caught a touchdown pass that gave Tennessee the lead over Philadelphia. His fellow members of the offense quickly assembled in the end zone and arranged themselves in that familiar 10-pin formation. But this was no mere copycat stunt. Unlike the Eagles’ Jeffery, who had clutched the ball to his side while he made his bowling motion, Sharpe actually went ahead and bowled the football. What’s more, he didn’t just haphazardly toss the ball in the direction of his teammates—no, he rolled a plausible strike!

As explained in this instructional video from the United States Bowling Congress (“America’s Least Infuriating Congress”), the way for a right-handed bowler to get a strike is to roll the ball so it hits in the “pocket” between the head pin and the three pin. In the GIF above, observe how Sharpe’s ball does in fact curve between “head pin” Quinton Spain and “3 pin” Dion Lewis. Square in the pocket! Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, eat your heart out. There’s a new two-sport phenom in town.

Your Week 5 FuturePicks™

Flock & Tingle is the only interim football column with FuturePicks™, an NFL prediction system that employs temporal quantum-tunneling technology to compress all of human existence, indeed all of time itself, to a single point. The result is a weekly slate of football game picks that are guaranteed to be correct because, from the perspective of FuturePicks™, they have already happened.

NOTE: Foreknowledge of the future necessarily alters the future. Flock & Tingle is not responsible for any disruption to causality that emerges as a result of sentient persons viewing the FuturePicks™ in advance of Sunday’s pro football contests. To preserve the integrity of the quantum predictions, please do not read the picks.

Despite ample warnings, many sentient beings observed the picks last week. As a result, reality diverged from the pure truth described by FuturePicks™. Come on, people! You are collapsing wave functions with reckless abandon. These wave functions do not grow on trees!

Week 4 games within acceptable parameters: 6

Week 4 divergences from FuturePicks™: 8

Overall FuturePicks™ integrity in 2018: 44.8 percent (13-16)

I will remind you again: DO NOT READ THE PICKS.

Here are the picks!

Tennessee Titans vs. Buffalo Bills (Sunday, 7:00 a.m. Hawaii time, CBS): Tennessee 31, Buffalo 13.

Miami Dolphins vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 7:00 a.m., CBS): Cincinnati 35, Miami 24.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns (Sunday, 7:00 a.m., CBS): Cleveland 21, Baltimore 17. The Instagram account samepictureofhuejackson posts the same picture of Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson every day, and the proprietor of the account says they will continue doing so until the Browns win three games. This raises the question: Do they mean three games in a single season, or three games ever? The fact that this is a valid question says everything you need to know about the 21st-century Browns.

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 7:00 a.m., CBS): Kansas City 30, Jacksonville 20.

Denver Broncos vs. New York Jets (Sunday, 7:00 a.m., CBS): New York 22, Denver 16. This doesn’t have anything to do with the Broncos or the Jets, but I have to confess something. I love that insurance commercial that makes fun of the “focus group” car commercials. It must be the most pointed satire I’ve ever seen in an insurance advertisement. I laugh every time the eager-to-please guy says, “Whaaaaat? A bigger room?!”

When this commercial comes on, I’ll stop whatever I was doing to watch it, although in fairness, “whatever I was doing” is usually “watching TV already,” so it doesn’t take that much effort. Enjoying an insurance commercial makes me feel old. Am I old now? This can’t be happening! Save me, Avocado friends!

One more thing: I also enjoy the part where he says, “It’s a computer!” All right, I’m done.

New York Giants vs. Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 7:00 a.m., Fox): Carolina 23, New York 20.

Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions (Sunday, 7:00 a.m., Fox): Green Bay 28, Detroit 26. Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater knows that he looks a lot like comedian Nick Swardson, and he is owning it.

Atlanta Falcons vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 7:00 a.m., Fox): Pittsburgh 23, Atlanta 20.

Oakland Raiders vs. Los Angeles Chargers (Sunday, 10:05 a.m., CBS): Los Angeles 27, Oakland 17.

Minnesota Vikings vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 10:25 a.m., Fox): Philadelphia 22, Minnesota 21.

Arizona Cardinals vs. San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 10:25 a.m., Fox): Arizona 5, San Francisco 2. I dream of someday seeing a player surge from deep in the defensive backfield to tackle a running back in the end zone, after which he will break out in a display of terpsichorean exuberance inspired by ’80s Canadian synth-pop band Men Without Hats. That’s right, I want to see a safety celebrate a safety by doing the Safety Dance. I have humble dreams.

Los Angeles Rams vs. Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, 10:25 a.m., Fox): Los Angeles 34, Seattle 23.

Dallas Cowboys vs. Houston Texans (Sunday, 2:20 p.m., NBC): Houston 14, Dallas 12.

Washington vs. New Orleans Saints (Monday, 2:15 p.m., ESPN): New Orleans 20, Washington 27.

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