Practices are also relatively light leading up to Thursday games. Ray Lewis described the Ravens' preparation last week as "more film room than physical." When players weren't watching tape or jumping between hot tubs and ice baths, they were, in the words of safety Bernard Pollard, practicing a play called "massage, massage, massage."
But no matter how teams balance healing and game-planning—because of their short week in September, the Giants started studying Carolina's offense before the season even began—a drumbeat is emerging from locker rooms. "The NFL doesn't care about anything like [safety]," says Giants defensive end Justin Tuck. "All they care about is the money and the TV ratings. I think they've been contradictory for a long time."
Addressing the matter last week in an e-mail to SI, league spokesman Dan Masonson wrote that, "We have been playing Thursday games for decades and it hasn't been an issue"; and in an e-mail to Cleveland's Plain Dealer, another spokesman, Greg Aiello, emphasized that "there has never been any evidence that playing on Thursday puts players at greater risk for injury." And while the players' union is gathering data to determine whether there's an uptick in soft-tissue injuries linked to fatigue, it didn't object to Goodell's expansion of Thursday games. (The schedule format was not covered in the CBA signed last summer, but the NFLPA was consulted on the move.)
And so a potential labor issue simmers on the back burner. More pressing to the public—especially after the damage caused by replacement officials—is this question, Is the NFL in danger of putting an inferior product on the field once again?
In theory last Thursday's game should have been the country's first chance to watch rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden link up with promising young wideout Mohamed Massaquoi. But after tweaking his hamstring the previous Sunday, Massaquoi couldn't recover on short rest and didn't suit up. As for the level of play, it's no surprise that the Ravens botched a point-after attempt, or that Joe Flacco threw his first red-zone interception since December 2009—into obvious double coverage, no less—in a game for which they had so little time to prepare. Cleveland-Baltimore might have been the most watched show on cable television that night (thanks largely to the recently negotiated deal that allows Time Warner and Bright House to carry the NFL Network), but for how long will sloppy football rule the airwaves?
In the locker room after that game, Lewis was asked if he was surprised that a winless Browns team went on the road and nearly stole one from the Ravens. "If you've been around as long as I have," he said, "you know every Sunday is going to be like that."
In the new NFL, it's especially true: On any given Thursday.