Time For NFL to End “Fatigue Games”

In 1991, the newly-hired hockey beat writer for the San Jose Mercury-News coined the term "fatigue game" to denote a situation in which a team playing on a particular night had also played the night before, when their opponents had been idle.

He then went on to bemoan the fact that the local team, the San Jose Sharks, a first-year expansion team in 1991-92, played too many more fatigue games than what he dubbed "holiday games," which arise when a team did not play the night before, but the other team did (cynics would call this an example of "they buy my bread, their song I sing" — but whatever).

The year before, the NFL had begun its practice of giving each team a bye week during the regular season (two of them in 1993 due to a scheduling conflict with the college football bowl games that no longer exists). But to make it as fair as possible, for the first nine years, the top four teams from a five-team division (as per the previous season's standings), or all four teams from a four-team division (the AFC Central and NFC West until 1995), had their byes in the same week. The four fifth-place teams from the previous year also had their byes on the same week, often late in the season.

This allowed the league to schedule teams from the same division to play each other coming off their common bye week — something that was not always done, but still.

But when "Cleveland 2.0" was admitted to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999, this near-ideal arrangement was no longer possible because of the ensuing odd number of teams (31). Yet when the Houston Texans became the league's 32nd franchise in 2002, the format of 1990-1998 was not reinstated, leading to a significant increase of occasions in which one team in a matchup was coming off a bye week while the other team did play the week before.

How much of a disadvantage is playing a fatigue game, you ask?

In the iconic words of Warner Wolf (who, by the way, is still alive at age 84), let's go to the videotape — 32 years of it.

Since the "bye era" began in 1990, all NFL teams are a combined 367-420-2 in fatigue games. That's a winning percentage of .466.

And that's lower than the winning percentage for road teams in the NFL since 2018 (including the first six weeks of this season), which is .487 (426-448-4).

The first batch of teams had their bye week in Week 6: Detroit, Houston, Las Vegas, and Tennessee (with the possible exception of the Titans, none of these teams were particularly missed by the vast majority of fans last week) — and rather atypically, the Raiders will actually be hosting the Texans on Sunday.

Pittsburgh is the NFL's best team when it comes to overcoming fatigue games: the Steelers are 13-5-1 — but their prowess therein will be sternly tested on October 30 when they travel to Philadelphia, a city where they have not won since 1965, to take on the undefeated Eagles, who have a bye this coming week (and as such will remain undefeated going into the Pittsburgh game no matter what).

At the bottom of the fatigue-game totem pole, Cincinnati is 4-17 in fatigue games (and to add a kind of symmetry to that, the Bengals are 9-23-1 coming off a bye week, including 6-19-1 when they were coming off a bye but their opponents were not. Both of those records are also the worst in the NFL).

One would think that a league that is so obsessed with "fairness" that it gives all the AFC teams the odd home game in the new 17-game schedule one year (2021) and then gives all the NFC teams the odd home game the following year (2022), so that all teams battling for division titles, wild card berths, and playoff seeds will have played the same number of games at home and the same number of games on the road, would revert to the practice of giving all four teams from the same division their byes in the same week and then have them play within the division the following week — especially when, in recent seasons at least, having to play a "fatigue game" has been an even bigger disadvantage than having to play on the road.

Sometimes, in order to go forward, one needs to go back — and this is one of those instances.

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