Thanksgiving prep: Challenges abound for teams on short week

Football players are creatures of habit. In many ways, they have the most conventional schedule among professional athletes in the major American sports. A five-day work week, a weekend of sorts (Monday and Tuesday, give or take injury rehab and/or film study) and only about 10 short business trips per year. It's a far different -- and far less itinerant -- existence than that of professional baseball, basketball and hockey players.

The flip side, though, is the routine that football players come to rely on easily can be discombobulated on short weeks like this one, during which six of the NFL's teams race to prepare for Thanksgiving Day games. This used to be something that only the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and their respective Turkey Day opponents had to prepare for. But now, in the age of "Thursday Night Football," this has become a league-wide challenge.

As I've noted before, coaches tend to live by Parkinson's Law, which states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." My wife, Kim, always used to ask about the preparation cycle when we had a Thursday night game. She'd sit down with me after one of those games and invariably ask, "Well, if you can get your work done between a Sunday and a Thursday, why does it take from Sunday to Sunday during a normal week?" I never was able to supply a satisfying answer, simply replying, "Because it does."

So, yes, you can prepare for a Thursday game once a season. It's just a miserable intrusion on the team's weekly cycle. We're not supposed to say this aloud while we're coaching, but I can say it now: Players and coaches mostly despise the Thursday games. It leads to a schedule that's even more maniacal than usual for coaches. And it's a physical ordeal for players to recover in time to strap on a helmet Thursday -- especially late in the season, when they've been beaten up and worn down by the relentless schedule, with only one bye week since early August.

Let me provide a daily comparison between a conventional week and a short week:


Monday: Team meetings, game recap/grading; coaches stay late to game plan.
Tuesday: Coaches game plan and script week's practices; players off, save for lifting (emphasis on lower body).
Wednesday: Scouting report, installation meetings and practice (base and nickel).
Thursday: Scouting report, installation meetings and practice (red-zone/goal-line/situational offense and defense); players lift (emphasis on upper body).
Friday: Meeting and practice; finalize game plan.
Saturday: Walkthrough (day) and final meetings by unit (night).
Sunday: GAME DAY.


Monday: Coaches game plan all day, with late-afternoon meeting about base game plan.
Tuesday: Meetings and walkthrough practices (all situations).
Wednesday: Meetings and walkthrough practices (all situations); travel for road team.
Thursday: GAME DAY.

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So in that short week, every aspect of the players' schedule is altered. There's no lifting, no contact and no practices as we typically understand them. Nothing but walkthroughs and a lot of time spent rehabbing injuries to try to prep players for the short turnaround, as well as cramming on the elements of the game plan that must be committed to memory.

Assistants usually spend the first half of Monday grading the previous day's game, but that's thrown overboard during a short week. Players can look at the film themselves, but the coaches have to immediately start game-planning for Thursday because the typical two-day process of devising and mapping out the game plan is condensed into a frantic Monday period. You have to give your team something by Monday afternoon, so the players can begin digesting what they'll be doing three days later.

The only thing worse than playing Thursday? Playing on the road Thursday. Because then, even the Wednesday workday is skewed by travel. There's been some sentiment lately that the Thursday games aren't a big deal anymore, because everybody faces the same challenge. That might be, but you better believe the Cowboys and Lions enjoy playing their Thursday game at home each and every season.

The thing that bothers coaches the most about the short week is it leaves no time to review any of the special situations you normally like to cover, particularly on special teams. You really have to rely on previous work done, hoping your players can execute things like onside kicks, hurry-up field goals, fake punts/field goals, etc.

On a week like this, you also must account for the fact that the rest of the country is celebrating a holiday. If your team plays on Thanksgiving Day, everyone's Thanksgiving celebration moves to Friday. (If you aren't playing on Thanksgiving Day, the head coach typically moves the normal Thursday practice and preparation to earlier in the day, letting everyone go home by 2 p.m. or so to be with family. You also have to make sure every team member has a place to go for Thanksgiving, ensuring your veteran players have all the younger players covered.)

Yes, there is an upside to Thursday games: Three extra days off for the players to rest and heal. For the coaching staff? Not so much. As true obsessives, coaches never take those days off but rather simply begin preparing for the next opponent. That might be another reason why so many of us look like zombies when the season's finally over.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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