Commanders players discuss pros and cons of Thursday NFL games

In the two weeks since Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a serious head injury on Thursday Night Football — leading to an inquest, a fired doctor and altered concussion protocols — the NFL has gushed about player safety.

Remarkably, in several recent games, the umpires seemed to go out of their way to protect the quarterbacks by issuing controversial roughing-the-passer penalties.

“I think the league is trying to make a statement,” Washington Commanders defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said Tuesday. “You’re overreacting to what happened with Tua.”

Tagovailoa’s situation highlighted a duality of “Thursday Night Football”: the value of a star quarterback playing in prime time and the danger of overcoming a daunting injury in a short week. It was bad enough to prompt the NFL and NFL Players Association to quickly remove the exception that had allowed Tagovailoa to return to the field Thursday after suffering a hit last Sunday that violently shattered his head hit the lawn.

But the seriousness and significance of Tagovailoa’s injury did not seem to trouble any commander.

This week, as Washington prepared to face the Chicago Bears on Thursday night, several players said the situation was sad but just a reminder of the risks of football and the NFL’s potentially gargantuan business. Some added that they hate “Thursday Night Football” — “It sucks,” said linebacker Cole Holcomb — but Tagovailoa’s concussion only underscored the dangers they can’t help but accept.

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Although some studies suggest that Thursday games are indeed similar to games played other days of the week in terms of injury rates and game quality, players have complained that the league has beaten the win over safety since 2006, when the NFL first introduced “Thursday Night Football.” puts. ” Over the last decade and a half, although players regularly express their disdain, it has become a revenue driver and cultural mainstay. Even one of its most vocal critics — former NFL cornerback Richard Sherman, who once called “Thursday Night Football” a “poopfest” and a “middle finger” for players — cashed in to become a Thursday night commentator.

“I don’t like it, but… [the NFL] is business, so they will do what is best for their business. I understand that,” Allen said. “We can complain about it all day. Nothing will change.”

This week Commanders Coach Ron Rivera took extra precautions with his players. He urged them not to wear helmets while training to reduce the likelihood of accidental collisions. He took the approach because Carolina Panthers star linebacker Luke Kuechly suffered a concussion in both 2016 and 2017 in the team’s Thursday game. The team doctors suggested that the cumulative effect of subconcussive hits while wearing a helmet, even in training, may have caused the head injuries.

“[We’re] just really try to think about it and [to] get these guys to just chill,” Rivera said. “Hopefully they’ll be ready by Thursday.”

In 2018, two players were arguing in the Los Angeles Chargers locker room over whether they were benefiting from “Thursday Night Football.” Left tackle Russell Okung said no because the increased risk of injury was too great. Backup quarterback Geno Smith said yes because the extra revenue the NFL generated eventually trickled down to player salaries.

Four years later, upon learning of the exchange, Commanders left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said he understood both sides and couldn’t choose one — despite knowing the physical aftermath of “Thursday Night Football” as well as anyone.

In November 2018, the NFL moved a home game in Chicago from Sunday afternoon to Sunday evening in the week before the Bears had to play Detroit on Thanksgiving. Leno left the field around 10:30 p.m. on Sunday and only had around 84 hours until the next kick-off due to the timetable change.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in a football game,” Leno said, adding, “We were sleepwalking in the first half.”

Later, in meetings with the NFLPA, Leno said Bears players asked the league to ban such planning errors. One thing hasn’t happened since then.

Some players, like center Nick Martin, think Thursday’s games are worth the extra pain as they rest physically and mentally in the form of a “mini goodbye week”. Rivera acknowledged the benefits of the hiatus and plans to release his players Friday through Monday.

Others, such as security guard Bobby McCain, have always felt that complaints about Thursdays were exaggerated. He said he’s in the minority but likes to play out a short week.

“Honestly, you go into a Thursday night game fresher than you go into a Sunday night game,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy, but I’m just being honest.”

His explanation: In a normal week, the players get two two-day breaks (Monday and Tuesday, Friday and Saturday). But during a short week, they don’t strike Monday through Thursday evenings.

But Allen, the defense attorney, raised an eyebrow at the explanation.

“He is a [defensive back]’ Allen said. “He runs around and gets his legs back. Me? I just came along from a game [Tennessee Titans running back] Derrick Henry, and I’m exhausted.”

One of the main points of McCain’s argument for Thursday games was that there is no such thing as a low-risk football game. Players get concussions “all the time,” he said, and they accept that long before they get into the NFL.

“I hate what happened to Tua because that’s my type,” said McCain, who played with Tagovailoa in Miami in 2020. “But it also happens. It happens to people week after week.”

Therein lies one of the tricky aspects of promoting player safety in a sport with such a violent soul as football. While policies prior to Tagovailoa’s injury may have been inadequate and the quick turnaround may have worsened the problems, there is only so much the league, teams and NFLPA can do.

“The player also has to be honest and open,” Rivera said. “You can’t hide anything. … This is about health and safety and we have to see to it that these things are followed and done right ourselves. And if not, and something happens, there has to be accountability.”

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On Monday afternoon, rookie defenseman John Ridgeway lay on his stomach in front of his locker at the Commanders’ Facility, scrolling on his cell phone and chewing Copenhagen tobacco. He said he always found it strange that the NFL played games with such a short break, and now that he’s in the league it strikes him as even stranger. The team follow his every move on the pitch to help his body – and then schedule him for a Thursday?

In a few decades, Ridgeway joked, the NFL might put player safety ahead of business. He said he reflects on head injuries, how short the average NFL career is and how it seems obvious to him that teams shouldn’t be playing on Thursday nights. Then he shrugged.

“I’m just playing,” he said.

Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.