Thursday games create stress, both physical and mental, for Ravens

"Both teams are in the same boat that way," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "You try to make good decisions based on the fact that the learning curve is going to be a little bit shorter." (Baltimore Sun video)

Four years ago, when the NFL announced plans to expand its slate of Thursday night games, many players greeted the announcement with concern and consternation.

They understood the league's desire to grow its television footprint but wondered if the proliferation of four-day turnarounds would place undue strain on already-aching bodies.


As the Ravens prepared to host the Cleveland Browns this Thursday, however, they spoke of the short week as a mildly stressful fact of life, one of many in a sport built on the trade-off of pain for glory.

For 34-year-old linebacker Terrell Suggs, it meant three fewer days to nurse his torn left biceps.

For safety Eric Weddle, it meant added time in the cold tub, trying in vain to work out the soreness built up over 10 years in the league.

For coach John Harbaugh and his staff, it meant starting work on a game plan for the Browns before the Ravens even took the field Sunday to play the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Obviously, you do not feel good," Weddle said of playing on four days' rest. "But that is life. You don't make excuses for yourself."

Asked if the short week was ill-timed given the pain in his biceps, Suggs said: "Definitely. I am definitely playing through an injury, but whenever you're playing with an injury, it's going to hurt. It's going to be a process. But if you signed on to do it, you have to do it."

Despite his particular dilemma, the outspoken veteran counts himself a fan of Thursday Night Football.

"I like when we get [more] football," Suggs said. "You get it on Thursday. You get it Monday. You get it Sunday night. I think later in the year, you get some Saturday football games. I like it, but I just don't like playing in it too much, especially when you played on Sunday."

The league initially used Thursday games to steer viewers to its own NFL Network, but over the last three years, CBS and NBC have reportedly paid more than $1 billion combined to broadcast portions of the Thursday schedule. Ratings for the games have dropped significantly this year as they also have for prime-time games on Sunday and Monday.

Regardless, the Ravens are old hands at dealing with the short week. They've done it six times since 2010, going 5-1 in those games.

This week sets up about as well as it can, given that they didn't have to travel and have already played the winless Browns once this season.

"It's a routine that we've developed over the years for the Thursday night games," Harbaugh said Monday. "A lot of work was done last week. A lot of work was done last night and this morning."

Coaches eschewed reviewing and grading tape of the Ravens' 21-14 win over the Steelers, instead turning their sights immediately to the Browns on Sunday night.

They then consolidated a week's worth of practices into walkthrough sessions — light on physical duress — on Monday and Tuesday.


"Everything just gets in quicker," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "On Monday, you have to come in and you have the game plan in. On Tuesday, you have your third down, red zone in. … It's Tuesday, and we're basically ending our week. On a normal week, we're just getting a little brush-up on the next opponent."

Across the NFL, Thursday games have been consistently sloppy and rarely competitive. Not counting the season opener, which presented no rest issues, only one of eight Thursday games this fall has been decided by seven points or fewer.

Players and coaches agree there are two primary concerns — the rush of planning and the management of injuries that are inevitable and pervasive halfway through an NFL season.

"Those are definitely the two challenges," Harbaugh said. "The game-planning is certainly a challenge, but you just do it. Both teams are in the same boat that way. You try to make good decisions based on the fact that the learning curve is going to be a little bit shorter. The same thing probably goes for the physical part of it. The recovery curve is shorter, so guys have to get to it and get right to the recovery. Then you adjust what you do. We don't practice the same way as we would if we were playing on Sunday."

Players on both sides said the task is easier with a highly familiar opponent.

"I think it would be tough if you were playing a team that was out of conference or you only play once every four years," said Cleveland's All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. "Because the preparation will be from scratch, and that is a lot to do in one week."

Players and coaches often say they welcome the short week after a difficult loss. "You get a chance to get that taste out of your mouth," said Browns coach Hue Jackson, whose team fell to the Dallas Cowboys 35-10 on Sunday.

The Ravens welcomed the palate cleanser in 2014, when they'd lost to the Cincinnati Bengals four days earlier and had then watched the franchise release running back Ray Rice. A 26-6 win over the Steelers helped the players shut out the firestorm surrounding Rice's downfall.

That game came in Week 2. The physical challenges of a short week tend to deepen as the season progresses

The Ravens' process for dealing with injuries doesn't change significantly in a short week, said Dr. Andrew Tucker, director of sports medicine at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital and the team's head physician.

But he said the timing can be bad for individual players.

"It's just dumb luck," Tucker said. "In some cases, there's no way to get a player ready in four days."

The Ravens are relatively healthy compared to a few weeks ago, but many players, including Suggs and fellow linebacker C.J. Mosley, just returned on Sunday.

For them, the four-day week did not come at an ideal time, though almost all expect to play against the Browns.

Mosley, for example, said he performed extra kicks in a warm-up pool and scheduled extra massage time to help soothe his sore hamstring.

"You just want to make sure you take care of it, especially with the quick turnaround after playing a full game," he said. "It hasn't really been a stress, but it's something that's in the back of your head."

Tucker was among those concerned about the health implications when the league first announced its expanded Thursday schedules. He wondered if the short weeks would lead to higher injury rates for Thursday games. But he said that hasn't been the case, according to annual reports issued by the league.

"Yes, I think I was concerned and yes, the data, which is very good now, is reassuring," Tucker said.

There is a carrot at the end of the Thursday stick. If the players make it through healthy and especially if they win, they enjoy a rare weekend off before preparing for the next game, 10 days out.

It might not sound like much, but in the second half of an NFL season, any respite is gold.

"It's nice once a year, because at the end of the day, if you go out there and do your job, you get another little bye week to give your body a rest," Flacco said. "If you were to do it week-in and week-out, it would just be a bad cycle for your body."



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