CLEVELAND — Here’s a peek into the mundane opening stages of Doug Marrone’s press conference on Tuesday:
“Limited in practice: Mario Williams with an ankle. Goodwin with a hand. Johnson, hamstring. McKelvin, hamstring. Urbik, knee. Hopkins, groin – right groin. Aaron Williams, lower back. Jackson, knee. Kyle Williams, Achilles.”
The Bills’ head coach looked up from his injury report and uttered something between a scoff and a laugh. “So that,” Marrone said, “was our business of the day in this short week.”
Two days after a big win over the Ravens and two days before taking on the Browns, that was Marrone’s big challenge: Getting a collection of battered and weary athletes ready to leap back out onto the field and take part in the most physically brutal sport on the planet.
On three days’ rest.
It doesn’t seem fair, because it isn’t. No one would come right out and say it. You don’t want to bite the hand that pays you. Thursday Night Football is the NFL’s newest revenue bonanza, a way to feed the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for football by offering fans a midweek version of the product on the NFL Network.
Last season, the NFL expanded its nationally televised Thursday schedule over the entire season, mandating that every one of the 32 teams gets to appear once when you include the annual Thanksgiving games.
This is great for the bottom line. Last year’s Thursday games averaged 7.3 million viewers nationwide; ratings are up this year. It’s not so good for the players’ bodies, which take a fearful pounding on Sunday and then hobble back to play another game just four days later.
Coaches hate it, trust me. But they must be careful not to insult the great NFL monolith. Marrone was in a delicate position. He watched several of his players, including his top two running backs, fight through pain in a win over the Ravens, then struggle to get “healthy” for the next game in three days, instead of the usual six.
“Does my word mean anything in this league?” Marrone said. “What are you trying to get me to say? I think it’s very difficult. I think it’s a challenge and I do have concerns about it. If I want to voice those concerns, I would do it the right way and I would call the league or write them a letter and tell them how I feel, I wouldn’t do it openly in public.”
The NFL says it has done a study and there’s no evidence that Thursday games increase the risk of injury. Of course, this is the same league that paid a $765 million settlement to injured former players last month after years of failure to address the consequences of head injuries in the sport.
It’s utter hypocrisy. Why would a league that pretends to care about its players’ health, one that made a strong stand against the New Orleans bounty scandal, put its players on the field with three days’ rest?
“Um, money?” said Stevie Johnson. “But the fans want to see this. We want to be part of it, too. So we’re not complaining, even though we’ve got guys who are injured. You’re not going to turn down a chance to play on Thursday night, with family, friends and high school coaches watching.”
“It is what it is,” said linebacker Manny Lawson. “We all signed up for this league. We all take healthy precautions within the rules.”
That’s the platitude most of the players used at the Super Bowl when confronted with the issue of head injuries. They know what they signed up for. It’s part of the deal, part of the business.
But not every player supports the Thursday venture. Veteran safety Ed Reed deplores the idea. Scott Fujita, who fought the NFL’s efforts to expand to 18 regular-season games as a member of the Players Association, has called Thursday football “one of the worst things you can do for a player’s body.”
“The series makes almost no sense in practical terms, especially in the physical battering players absorb,” said Brian Billick of Foxsports.com. “Injured players still play, if they possibly can, but there are more of them on a Thursday night, just four days after a game. The quality of play often suffers, not only because of the physical aspect, but also because you can’t really install a completely full new game plan in the one day of practice and prep you’re afforded.”
Is it any surprise the games are so bad? Twelve of the last 17 Thursday night games have been decided by 10 points or more – 10 by at least 13 points or more. That doesn’t include the Patriots’ 13-10 win over the Jets in Week Two this season, which many considered the worst game they’d seen in years.
So there’s a good chance this will be one of those nights when the national spotlight shines on a dog game. We’re due, for one thing. The Bills’ first four games were gripping and went down to the wire. Both teams scored in the 20s in all four games.
It wouldn’t surprise me if neither team reached 20 tonight. The Bills expended a lot of energy against the Ravens. A Thursday game couldn’t have come at a worse time. Fred Jackson vows to play on a sprained knee. C.J. Spiller isn’t likely to go on his sprained ankle.
The Browns won a physical struggle against one of the AFC North favorites, the Bengals. They’re relying on Brian Hoyer, a career backup, at quarterback. Our old pal Willis McGahee is their current answer at running back.
Cleveland has a splendid defense, one that leads the league with a 2.9-yard average against the rush. The Bills lead the NFL in rushing attempts, but it’s hard to see their battered running game hammering at the Browns’ front the way it did against the Ravens.
The Browns like to bring their safeties down into the box. They’ll probably challenge the Bills to beat them with the pass, as the Jets did two weeks ago. EJ Manuel, who had a rough time in his first NFL road start, will be pressured again in his first game on the national stage.
Manuel will have to make some big plays down the field and play a mistake-free game for the Bills to win. Every week is a new experience for the rookie. The Bills would be wise to have him throwing more on first down to back off the aggressive Cleveland ‘D.’
The Buffalo defense has to be the best unit on the field. They were great at home last week. But the memory of that game at the Jets hangs in the air. Geno Smith looked like a star that day. A week later, critics are calling for a change after his four-turnover debacle against the Titans.
The Bills have injuries on both sides of the ball. But the defense has to find a way to carry them through in a crisis. They need to take Hoyer down a peg, remind him that he’s a career backup.
It’s Thursday night, so chances are it’ll be an ugly game. But if the Bills come out of here 3-2, they’ll be one of the surprise teams of the league. Winning with so many hobbled guys could really lift a young team.
Marrone, I imagine, is mainly concerned that they get back to Buffalo in one piece.