CLEVELAND — When the NFL started playing a regular schedule of Thursday night games eight years ago, they were reserved for the league’s elite teams.
But last season, all 32 were scheduled for a game on that day, ensuring every franchise a prime-time television appearance.
It also gave a break to the National Football League’s top teams.
Football coaches are notoriously routine-oriented.
Marv Levy, who led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls and playoff berths eight times in a span of nine seasons, had his team play its share of prime-time and 4 o’clock games.
But, while he understood his squad’s success created that circumstance, Marv was quick to admit, “Given my choice, I’d prefer to play every game on Sunday at 1 o’clock.” Then, for humorous effect, he’d add, “ ... preferably at home.”
Oddly, Levy never had to prepare his team for a Thursday night game — though there was one on Thanksgiving afternoon at Detroit — but if he did, Marv would have seen it as an enormous inconvenience.
STARTING in 2012, Thursday night games became a reality for every NFL team, but the view of them is always hindsight.
There’s the undeniable argument that it’s too short of a turnaround — in such a violent game — after playing Sunday.
But that perception is mitigated by victory.
Teams that win love the extra time off ... losers lament the short preparation time.
Tonight it’s the Bills’ and Browns’ turn and they’re exactly the type of teams the NFL was looking to placate when it mandated every team be scheduled on a Thursday evening.
Buffalo, as Bills’ fans know all too well, has no playoff appearances in the past 13 seasons, only one winning campaign, and are averaging barely six victories a year over that span.
Cleveland, since 2003, hasn’t made the post-season, owns a single plus-.500 finish and averages just over five wins in those 10 years.
FOR THE BILLS’ Doug Marrone, in his first season as an NFL head coach, Thursday night is a test.
“It’s a tough situation, but for both teams,” he admitted. “When both teams go through it, it’s fair (but) I get concerned on short weeks.
“As long as the other team has the same amount of time and preparation I don’t have a problem. I think when other teams have a little bit more time or a little bit more rest, that creates an advantage in a league where we’re trying not to create any advantages.”
And it’s because of prep time.
“Sunday after the game (23-20 win over Baltimore), the coaches got to see their families a little bit and then we immediately started working,” Marrone said. “We looked at the previous game, tried to get that put to bed and then start working on our game plan that night.
“I think most people have the same schedule. Monday, you want to push the players (practice) back as far as possible to give yourself more time to game plan so you can have it prepared. We pushed them back; we kind of handled all the stuff from the Baltimore game quickly. Then we immediately try to turn their attention on Monday night towards Cleveland.”
He added, “When Tuesday comes, obviously you’re putting in a lot. The meetings are a little bit longer, extended. Your practice time and your practice reps are a little bit shorter. We extend the walkthrough time (Tuesday) for the players and basically we’re getting our Wednesday and Thursday in. Then, on Wednesday, we get our Friday and Saturday in.
“We’ll probably meet a little bit longer at the hotel because it’s a night game, but that’s pretty much it. The No. 1 goal is obviously making sure the players are rested.”
AND WHILE the Bills have drawn a road game on a short week, it’s against the closest possible foe ... barely a three-hour drive away.
“Travel comes in to it,” Marrone conceded. “Whether you’re traveling from the West Coast, coming back home, then getting ready to travel again for a Thursday night game or even if you have one at home. (But) the short distance (to Cleveland) is definitely something that’s more of a benefit (for the Bills).”
And, while coaches rarely admit to it on their part, players clearly love the prime-time atmosphere.
“For us as coaches we’re going in there playing a game and we’re worried about and our focus is on what’s going on on the field,” Marrone said. “At the same time I’d be lying if I said I don’t think there’s awareness from a player’s standpoint to know that all the other players not playing on Thursday are probably watching that game.”
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)