By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Did the Dallas Cowboys just singlehandedly save the NFL’s ratings problem?
They defeated the Minnesota Vikings 17-15 on Thursday Night Football, improving their league-best record to 11-1. But besides the NFL’s most valuable franchise having its best season in years, the league has to be excited about the stabilization, even improvement, of their once-lagging TV ratings. The game posted a 14.1 overnight rating, making it the second-highest-rated broadcast in the history of TNF, according to NFL PR exec Greg Aiello. It was ever-so-slightly behind the 14.3 that the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs posted in Week 2 of the 2015 season.
The game even posted a better overnight rating than last Sunday night’s game between the Broncos and Chiefs, which posted an 11.8. This proves two unfortunate realities if you’re not a fan of Thursday Night Football: the NFL’s ratings are just fine, and the broadcasts are here to stay.
That wasn’t the initial feeling to come out within the past week. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk said that a source close to the situation told him the NFL was “considering the possibility of ending, or at least limiting” Thursday Night Football games altogether. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy swiftly shot down the report, telling The Wrap that the league is “fully committed” to keeping TNF around and wants to improve the existing product rather than get rid of any or all Thursday night games. He couldn’t help himself as he added, “Someone is working overtime at the rumor mill.”
The league’s plan to improve Thursday Night Football, if you are to believe vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, is merely to modify the scheduling so teams don’t have such a quick turnaround between games. The Washington Redskins had the unfortunate, ultra-rare task of playing the Cowboys in a mid-afternoon Thursday game on Thanksgiving after playing on Sunday Night Football in the previous week, giving them less than 72 hours to prepare.
Any changes would be much welcomed by Redskins head coach Jay Gruden, who told the Associated Press, “The recovery time for these players after a physical football game needs to be more than what we got. And then you throw a plane ride in on top of it, it makes it pretty difficult.”
Vincent added that the league would prefer for both teams who play on Thursday night to have played an early-afternoon game on the previous Sunday, rather than mid-afternoon or night. But that misses the point entirely: the problem isn’t when teams are playing on Sunday, it’s that they have about three days to prepare rather than six, no matter what time they kick off on Sundays.
Vincent also said that there’s no data to support the idea that injuries have increased due to the lack of preparation for Thursday night games. But that again misses the point … it’s not even that players are at an increased risk of getting injured, it’s that they’re at an increased risk of playing ugly, unentertaining football. They lack the time necessary to both recover from the previous game’s aches and pains and prepare to execute Thursday night’s gameplan at a level that’s worth watching on TV.
The Cowboys, of course, just proved that NFL fans are still willing to watch Thursday night games if they are good matchups with two popular franchises. Dallas right now has the luxury of being both the league’s most valuable franchise and best team in terms of win-loss record. There won’t be record ratings every Thursday night, but Dallas’ success won’t do anything but justify the league’s apparent plans to keep TNF around.
Ideally, teams would never have to make the three-day turnaround from Sunday to Thursday. The league could look into having Thursday Night Football teams come off a bye week; that is likely impossible if the NFL still wants to have Thursday night games every single week, but it would certainly improve the on-field product – and, by extension, the ratings.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys are too big of a franchise for even Thursday Night Football to falter. TV viewers still love their football, even it’s on three nights a week, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Even if no other TNF game has nearly the ratings that Cowboys-Vikings got, the league just got a fresh reason to justify keeping the games around.
Just don’t expect them to get much more entertaining.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.