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Thursday game doesn't do Sammy any favors

As I was driving to New Era Field on Thursday afternoon, it occurred to me that I had yet to issue my annual complaint about the NFL's greedy, ill-advised custom of playing games on Thursday nights.

Maybe it was because the game came upon us so quickly this year. Two days after the opening debacle in Tuesday, we were still examining that grisly defeat,  while looking ahead to the visit from Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets two days hence.

Who had time to whine about the execrable Thursday night ritual, and how the league sends players out on three days' rest, exposing their battered and beleaguered bodies to unnecessary punishment? Had I gone soft? I never brought up the issue to Rex Ryan or the players on Media Day. Of course, they're resigned to it by now.

The Thursday night games are a clear money grab by a league awash in profits, a way to provide more national TV product without adding games to the regular-season schedule. Evidently, the American audience can't get enough of the NFL, even when most of the Thursday
night games turn out to be poorly played snoozers between weary opponents.

If the NFL Players Association were a real union, they would take a stand against Thursday games, even if it meant a little less in their paychecks. A strong union would also fight the league's antiquated stance on marijuana, but that's a story for another day.

I can't understand why the NFL doesn't simply have teams on a bye before the Thursday game, giving them 10 days before the Thursday game and 10 days after it. There's a nice symmetry to it. It might be a challenge for the schedule-makers, but if it meant more money I'm sure they'd find a way.

Early in the season, when players are still relatively fresh, the Thursday game isn't as much of a factor -- although playing twice in five days is asking a lot at any point. Later in the season, which virtually every player is nursing some kind of injury, asking them to play on Thursdays borders on reckless endangerment.

Still, playing on Thursday after a bad loss could be a good thing for the Bills. Sometimes, a quick turnaround is a welcome antidote. "It'll be great to get that bad taste out of our mouths," said Jerry Hughes, who had two sacks against the Ravens in the opener.

But it's hardly the best thing for star wideout Sammy Watkins, whose surgically repaired left foot has been a persistent source of mystery in recent days.

Before Sunday's game, an ESPN report said Watkins' broken foot was still bothering him and he might need further surgery. A day later, a New York Daily News report said he would likely be shut down and miss the Jets game.

Watkins insisted later on Monday that he would "definitely be out there" for the home opener. He did not participate in practice on Monday and Tuesday and was limited on Wednesday, when he was listed as questionable for the Jets.

On Thursday, the Sammy saga continued. ESPN's Josina Anderson reported that Watkins was eager to play in the game, but the team doctors weren't convinced they should clear him. That was an indication that the ultimate decision might not come until pre-game warmups.

When the inactives came out at 7 p.m., Watkins wasn't among them. Cordy Glenn was out with a sprained ankle suffered in the opener, however, which created an even greater sense of urgency for an offense that had its least productive game in a decade a week earlier.

The real issue wasn't whether Watkins would be able to play, but how effective he would be against a formidable Jets defense. He looked like any ordinary receiver in the opener, when the offense generated next to nothing in the passing game. The Bills need him to perform
like one of the best wideouts in the NFL, the way he did down the stretch a year ago.

Last season, Watkins had 35 catches for 679 yards and six touchdowns in the final six games. Projected over a full year, those numbers measure up to the game's elite wideouts, such dynamic players as Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall and DeAndre Hopkins.

Those four have two significant things in common: They all had at least 109 receptions and averaged at least 12 targets a game. That's what Watkins needs to be for Tyrod Taylor and the Bills' offense to function at a high level and help end the 16-year playoff drought.

Early last year, when he was hobbled and not getting the ball as much as he liked, Watkins publicly demanded more targets, at least 10 a game. He even admitted that his agent had appealed to the Bills' front office for Sammy to get more involved in the attack.

Watkins had four catches for 43 yards in Baltimore. He was targeted six times. If he's fine physically, as he insists, he needs to be targeted more. Taylor, his quarterback, wouldn't take the bait.

"The game dictates where the football goes," Taylor said Tuesday. "Certain teams are going to give you those opportunities where you can take your shots with him. Some games are not. So we just have to be better at executing whatever play is called and if we get a chance to
get him the football, then get it to him."

Taylor needs to stop talking about execution and get his star the ball. After the opener, he talked about "taking what they gave me." It's not good enough. The Steelers don't talk about taking what defenses give them. They get the ball to Brown and dictate to defenses. In last
year's finale against the Jets, Watkins had a career-high 11 grabs for 136 yards.

The Bills didn't pay a king's ransom to draft Watkins so he could be a decoy, someone who gets catches when teams allow it. If the Bills can't make him the unquestioned focus of the passing game, something is wrong. Either defensive coordinators are catching up to Taylor or
Watkins is hurt.

Watkins should be judged by the highest standard, the one he showed over the last six games a year ago. If he's fine, as he says, then he has to be a major factor. On Thursday night, the Bills were desperate to beat the Jets and even their record at 1-1. History shows that only 12 percent of teams that start 0-2 make the playoffs.

So they needed him more than ever, and maybe that's why Sammy was so determined to play through the pain and gut it out, on three lousy days' rest.

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