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Researchers look at impact of Thursday games on NFL schedule

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Three days crossed off on wall calendar, close-up

Jeffrey Coolidge

For all the variables that go into the NFL schedule, and all the work the league has done to make as many people happy as possible, invariably there are many who won’t be.

But a team of researchers at the University of Buffalo believes it has found ways to make scheduling more equitable, and the league is listening.

According to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the researchers’ biggest takeaway is the problem created by Thursday night games.

“I noticed quirks in the schedule, saw imbalances, especially with the Thursday night games,” said Dr. Murat Kurt. “Owners, coaches and players all complain about having to play the Thursday night games, but they do it because of the millions of dollars it generates from television.”

The project began after Bills president Russ Brandon complained to the league about having to play five games against teams with more rest. The researchers looked for ways to minimize the impacts, and avoid other undesirable occurrences such as long travel on short weeks. They presented a paper at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in February, and the league contacted them to share information, as well as offer more factors such as stadium restrictions, requests from broadcast partners and wish lists from teams.

They’ve agreed to share research in the future, as everyone tries to come up with a better product.

The researchers found that for teams playing against teams with more rest, winning percentages were four percent lower than when on normal rest. And with a big disparity in who’s getting rest (the Bills had 29 such games, while the Bengals had just 12), that’s an issue.

One of their goals is to get the league to implement changes including scheduling Thursday night games after bye weeks, which they said could eliminate the problem at an 80 or 90 percent rate. Of course, that still means there will be teams that complain, just not as many.

Other than reducing griping, it could also help make for better football, since Thursday night games averaged a 16.3 point difference between the winning team and the losing team last year. There are safety concerns as well, so it’s good that the league’s willing to listen to outside experts, who might be able to help streamline the process.