NFL Analysis


5 min read

Do NFL Players Suffer More Injuries in Thursday Night Games?

Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews
Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) fights a tackle from Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (55) in the first quarter of the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

With Thanksgiving on the calendar this week, fans get treated to a holiday tradition of NFL football. Including the game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets on Friday, eight teams will be playing on short rest for Week 12.

Usually, only two teams in the NFL draw the Thursday game on any given week and must deal with a quick turnaround. We often hear discussions surrounding injuries and playing these midweek games. Players admit that playing two games in five days is challenging and that finding ways for the body to recover quickly is of top priority leading up to the game.

The Players' Perspective

In 2021, Christian McCaffrey, then with the Carolina Panthers, said he thought playing in a Thursday night game in 2020 was a catalyst for an injury that forced him to miss 13 games that season. “I don’t prefer Thursday night games. You go through a lot in a football game. And you really get two days to recover, and one of those days is a travel day. So you get two days to recover, you hop on a plane, you get in a hotel, and then you go out and play in a football game. It’s really tough. But it is what it is. It’s part of the game and, obviously, frustrating.”

When the NFL expanded its season to 17 games, McCaffrey’s current teammate, George Kittle, entertained the idea of adding a second bye week for teams during the season. If every team could have a bye week before its Thursday game, it would increase the quality of play because coaches wouldn’t have to scramble to get a game plan together and players would have plenty of time to rest and recover.

This season, players on the Washington Commanders have expressed how their bodies feel after games and how long it takes them to bounce back to game-ready form. CB Kendall Fuller said, “Sunday morning, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to play a game.’ And then I probably won’t feel that way until the next Sunday morning.”

Terry McLaurin said Mondays generally feel like his body has been in a car wreck. His legs are “super heavy,” and the soreness lasts for days. Some Commanders players said they don’t feel whole again until five days after a game.

Analyzing the Data

Going back to 2018, we wanted to see if there was any difference in injury totals and severity when playing games on Thursday compared with Sunday. Using a per-172-plays (the median total plays in an NFL game) basis, we found a slight increase in injuries during Thursday games.

Any Injury EventInjury Severity 3 or MoreMissed Following Game
Thursday Games6.05 per game4.53 per game1.77 per game
Sunday Games5.67 per game4.46 per game1.62 per game

At SIS, we break down initial injury severity on a scale of 1-5 based on the player's reaction on the field. Any injury event tagged with a severity three or higher means a player immediately left the game for at least one play.

The other factor we wanted to consider was how likely a player is to come back from an injury to play on a Thursday or Friday game compared with one on Sunday. There are countless examples of players and teams who will wait until after a Thursday game, when there are extra days between games, to have a player return from a previous injury instead of rushing the player back on a short week.

We looked at the data in two ways to get a clearer picture of how often this was the case. 

One way was by taking the return date for each injury and comparing how often players return on Thursday/Friday with how many games there are on Thursday/Friday. The other way was by taking each injury, looking at each game after it and computing how often that player had Thursday/Friday games and how often he returned for those games.

What This Means in the Real World

Both methods came to the same conclusion: Six percent of games happen on those days, but players return at a five percent rate for those games. 

That's about one player per week across the league returning on Sunday instead of on Thursday/Friday. There might be some counterbalancing in terms of the number of injuries on Thursday because if teams are slightly less likely to play a guy who's hobbled, they might be reducing the risk of re-injury in that short-week game.

Seattle Seahawks QB Geno Smith (elbow), Commanders rookie CB Emmanuel Forbes (elbow) and Green Bay Packers LB De’Vondre Campbell (neck) are all players who suffered injuries this past weekend. It will be intriguing to see if they can suit up and return to play on Thanksgiving and how effective they will be.

Overall, neither the injury data nor return-to-play outlook are severe enough to set off alarms for the NFL to consider getting rid of Thursday games. Still, the increase in injuries on Thursday poses a challenge for every team in the league to navigate throughout the season.

Alex Vigderman and Brett Barnes co-wrote this article.