Why things are looking better for ‘Thursday Night Football’ this year

And other notes about the NFL's broadcast schedule.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady, wearing the Patriots' color rush jersey, scrambles for some yardage. –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

First, the truly important news about “Thursday Night Football’’:

Those hideous melted-Crayola “color rush’’ uniforms will still be worn from time to time, though thank goodness not during the majority of games.

The NFL has given teams more flexibility to wear “color rush’’ and throwback jerseys this year, allowing a maximum of three games over the course of the season in which they are permitted.

The throwbacks should always be the choice; they’re much more appealing, and nostalgia has to sell better than those monochromatic affronts to style and taste. I bet they were Roger Goodell’s idea. Here’s to more Pat Patriot, especially in prime time.


Rant over.

All right, maybe that wasn’t that important. But this might be, at least for football diehards: It’s not just the uniforms that should be more appealing this year on Thursdays. The schedule will be, too.

Since “Thursday Night Football’’ launched in 2006, the quality of play has been notoriously lousy, often because the teams playing weren’t exactly the league’s elite. (The 5-11 Bears and 4-12 Colts were each on twice last year.)

But this year, with the package moving to Fox, which reached a five-year, $2.75 billion deal in January, the quality of the competition should make for better television.

Among the compelling games that will air during the 13-game Thursday night schedule (which includes 11 simulcasts on the NFL Network and two Fox exclusive games) are: Vikings-Rams (Sept. 27), Colts-Patriots (The Josh McDaniels Bowl, Oct. 4), and Saints-Cowboys (Nov. 29).

The NFL Network is also carrying the Jaguars-Eagles Sunday game from London on Oct. 28.

Fox’s No. 1 broadcast team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will call the Thursday games, while Michael Strahan will host the studio program along with “Fox NFL Sunday’’ cohorts Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw.

“Thursday Night Football’’ may still be a crude NFL money grab, but at least the quality of the product is no longer an afterthought.


A few other notes and notables regarding this year’s NFL broadcast schedule:

■  The season opener is a Thursday night football game, but not a “Thursday Night Football’’ game. That game, between the Eagles and Falcons — the reigning Super Bowl champion versus, as you may recall, the team that blew a 25-point third-quarter lead in the previous Super Bowl – airs on NBC, which has hosted what the league has branded the “Kickoff Game’’ since 2006.

■  The major change on NBC’s coverage is in the studio, where host-of-pretty-much-everything Mike Tirico replaces Dan Patrick as the anchor of “Football Night in America.’’ Liam McHugh, who does excellent work on NBC’s NHL coverage, fills Tirico’s previous role as the on-site host.

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The network’s Sunday night schedule begins this week when the Bears visit the Packers. “Sunday Night Football’’ was the most-watched regularly scheduled program on television in 2017, even with ratings dropping by 10 percent. That’s a reasonable clue for what to expect from NFL ratings this year — massive viewership, but less massive (primarily because of cord-cutters) than it was just a couple of years ago.

■  In a hypothetical draft of football play-by-play voices — or voices for any sport, for that matter — Sean McDonough would be one of my first picks, and I don’t think I’m alone there. I still hear from people regularly who wish he would someday return to call Red Sox games, which he hasn’t done since 2004.

But it is fair to note that the most interesting aspects of “Monday Night Football’’ on ESPN during McDonough’s two-season tenure as the lead voice were the unspoken tension that seemed to exist between him and analyst Jon Gruden, and Gruden’s utter determination to serve at least one platitude to every last quarterback on an NFL roster.


It was time for a shakeup, and Gruden spurred it when he returned to coach the Raiders in January. McDonough was shifted back to calling prominent college football games, at which he excels.

What remains to be seen is whether ESPN has replaced them with a team that is even their equal, let alone an upgrade. Boston College grad Joe Tessitore is a fine play-by-play voice, but former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who earned rave reviews in his audition, was understated if not underwhelming during the preseason, and field-level reporter Booger McFarland’s role could be a challenge to define.

A small by-design twist in their favor: Their first broadcast involves Gruden’s Raiders this Monday.

■  Witten is trying to follow in the footsteps of his friend and former Cowboys teammate Tony Romo, whose casual candor made him an immediate hit on CBS’s No. 1 broadcast team alongside Jim Nantz last fall.

That’s a lot to ask of Witten — especially since Romo, as good as he was, still has room for improvement. He fell into boom-bam-pow Madden-speak too often later in the season, and while he was practically clairvoyant at telling viewers when something would happen, he wasn’t always adept at concisely explaining why it happened.

Nantz and Romo called nine Patriots games last year, including five in a row through the AFC Championship. They will call the first two Patriots games this year, this Sunday vs. the Texans (1 p.m.) and next Sunday vs. the Jaguars (4:25 p.m. national window), so New England fans will get an early sense of whether Romo will have an even better sophomore season.

■  Finally, a local NFL note. NBC Sports Boston has added what could be called a pre-pregame show. Titled “Opening Drive,’’ it is hosted by Jade McCarthy, formerly of NESN and ESPN, and will feature Tom E. Curran, Phil Perry, and Albert Breer. “Opening Drive’’ will air at 10 a.m. on days when the Patriots play in the conventional 1 p.m. window and will serve as the lead-in to NBC Sports Boston’s regular pregame show.