Football News

A history of the NFL and Thanksgiving

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 16:58, 24 November 2021

Since its inception in 1920, the National Football League has played games on Thanksgiving Day, in a tradition that’s since become one of the most deeply engrained in American culture.

NFL 2021 Thanksgiving fixtures:

Thursday 25th November

Chicago Bears vs Detroit Lions (5:30pm)

Thursday 25th November

Oakland Raiders vs Dallas Cowboys (7:30pm)

Friday 26th November

Buffalo Bills vs New Orleans Saints (1:20am)

When did Thanksgiving NFL games begin?

Over the league’s first eleven seasons, between three (in 1929) and eight games (in 1926) were played on Thanksgiving day. Five times in the six years between 1931 and 1936, the league featured three Thanksgiving contests, each typically featuring the New York Giants, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Cardinals – an ancestor of the modern day Arizona Cardinals.

In one of the games in 1934, the Bears defeated the Detroit Lions by a score of 19-16. This was a huge game at the time, as the Bears would go on to finish that regular season a perfect 13-0, with the 10-3 Lions finished behind them in second place in the league’s Western Division. What no one knew at the time, however, was that the contest was also of massive historical import. This was the first time the Lions had ever played on Thanksgiving. They’d do so again each of the next four years, before a six-year hiatus (1939-44) due to World War II… and, come kickoff on Thursday, will have done so, as the home team, in each of the 77 Thanksgivings since!

Why do we always see the Lions and the Cowboys on Thanksgiving?

This is because the first owner of the Lions, George A. Richards, also owned a radio station that was a major affiliate of the NBC Blue Network (the forerunner to today’s American Broadcasting Company), and negotiated an agreement with NBC to carry the Lions’ Thanksgiving games live across its network.

From 1945 until 1965, the NFL featured a lone Thanksgiving game each year, always hosted by the Lions. Other leagues, like the short-lived All-America Football Conference (1946-49) and the American Football League (1965-69; the leagues merged in 1970) featured football on Turkey Day, but, for more than two decades, the Lions were the sole constant.

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys, who’d been founded six years earlier, added their name to the Thanksgiving menu. Rumor has it that the Cowboys sought a guarantee that they, like the Lions, would regularly host Thanksgiving games, since games on days other than Sunday were seen are far less desirable and financially risky. There is probably some truth to this, though the decision was apparently reach for a much simpler reason: the Cowboys decided to host games on Thanksgiving because there’s otherwise not much else to watch on that day. In football-crazy Texas, that’s just good common sense!

In 1975 and 1977, then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle experimented with replacing the Cowboys as Thanksgiving hosts with the at-the-time exciting St. Louis Cardinals. Then, as now, the Cardinals were no match for America’s Team in terms of nationwide interest and popularity. Plus, the Cowboys posted winning records with clockwork consistency and were perennial Super Bowl contenders. Thus, with those two exceptions, the Dallas Cowboys have hosted every Thanksgiving since 1966.How has Thanksgiving NFL changed through the years?

How has Thanksgiving NFL changed?

Until 2006, the NFL’s Thanksgiving schedule consisted solely of a Lions’ home game in the early time slot (typically between noon and 1:00 pm Eastern time; 5-6 pm UK time), followed by a game from Dallas in the late afternoon slot (4:00/4:30 pm Eastern; 9:00/9:30 UK time). A decade and a half ago, the NFL game expanded its Thanksgiving schedule, adding a third game, which is played in primetime (8:00/8:30 pm Eastern; 1:00/1:30 am UK time). Originally a part of the NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football schedule, since 2012 this third game has been broadcast on NBC as part of its Sunday Night Football package. Unlike the day’s first two games, there are no restrictions on the location and participants in the third Thanksgiving game. This game tends to – though, as you can see with this year’s Bills-Saints matchup, does not need to – feature a divisional matchup.

In the modern era, the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day games are noteworthy for their celebration of the history of the league, with many teams playing on Thanksgiving wearing throwback uniforms and, in some cases, stadiums using classic logos on the field and around the stadium.

Memorable Thanksgiving moments

Needless to say, nearly a century of Thanksgiving football has yielded more than its fair share of memorable moments. To try to provide you with a comprehensive list would be a Herculean undertaking. However, here are 10 of the most significant games, performances and moments of the NFL on Thanksgiving:

1920: The beginning. According to an urban legend, kin the NFL’s inaugural season, the Chicago Tigers and Decatur Staleys challenged one other to a Thanksgiving duel, in Chicago. The stakes were, frankly, quite significant: the game’s loser would be relegated out of the league at season’s end. There is no evidence that the encounter was actually meant to be a duel – however, the Tigers suffered a 6-0 defeat on the day and, after a 27–0 win over the non-league Thorn Tornadoes the next week, never played again. Adding insult to injury the Staleys moved to Chicago the next season, and renamed themselves the Chicago Bears.

1929: In a local rivalry game against the Bears, Chicago Cardinals fullback and kicker (this was common in the early days of the sport) Ernie Nevers sets a pair of monstrous NFL records, rushing six touchdowns and accounting for all of the Cardinals points (extra points included) in a 40-6 victory.

Nevers’ record of 40 points in an NFL games still stands, though he now shares the record for rushing touchdowns in a game with the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara, who ran for six touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Day 2020.

1962: The Lions hand the Green Bay Packers (who entered the game 10-0) their lone defeat of the season, in a game that was known as the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre”, due to the Lions defense sacking legendary Packers QB Bart Starr eleven times.

1974: Unknown backup quarterback Clint Longley takes over for legendary Cowboys QB Roger Staubach, who is injured during the game. Longley enters with Dallas trailing 16-3 and, with two long touchdown passes, leads the ‘Boys to a memorable and improbable victory over Washington.

1976: Despite one of the worst showings in NFL history by a quarterback, the Buffalo Bills enjoyed an offensive performance for the ages. While backup quarterback Gary Marangi completed only 4 of 21 pass attempts, for 29 yards passing, and an astounding 19.7 rating, the now-infamous O. J. Simpson set the (since broken) NFL record for rushing yards in a single game, with 273, in a 27-14 loss to the Lions.

1980: Overtime was not added to the NFL regular season games until 1974. It did not debut on Thanksgiving until six years later, when the Lions and Bears end regulation tied 17–17. It was not a long extra session, as the Bears’ Dave Williams returned the opening kickoff of overtime 95 yards for a game-winning touchdown and – for over 30 years – the shortest overtime period in NFL history, at just 13 seconds (the new record is 11).

1993: In one of the most famous ending in Thanksgiving NFL history. In the dying seconds at a snowy Texas Stadium, the Cowboys, leading the Miami Dolphins 14–13. Miami’s Pete Stoyanovich comes on to attempt a game-winning 40-yard field goal. His kick is blocked by Cowboys defensive lineman Jimmie Jones. At that moment, NBC announcer Dick Enberg proclaims that the Cowboys will win”, as, according the rules, since the blocked kick landed beyond the line of scrimmage, the play would be blown dead once the ball stopped moving, with possession awarded to Dallas. HOWEVER… 

The ball landed in the thin snow and began to spin on its nose. Rather than simply wait for physics to do its jobs, another Dallas defensive lineman, Leon Lett, runs over, unnecessarily, to fall on the ball and gain possession. Once near the ball, Lett slips, falls, and knocks the ball forward. By rule, the ball is now live. The Dolphins fall on it at the two-yard line, bring Stoyanovich out for a second chance to win the game, which he does. Final score: 16–14, Dolphins. 

1994: With future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and backup Rodney Peete out injured, third-stringer (and future Cowboys coach) Jason Garrett is forced to start at quarterback for the Cowboys against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. He leads the Cowboys to a 42–31 win.

1998: It’s not often that a wide receiver single-handedly destroys an opponent. Thanksgiving Day 1998 is an occasion when exactly that happened. A rookie named Randy Moss – who looked unlike any receiver we’d seen before and had already taken the NFL by storm – walked into Texas Stadium, and caught all of three passes. Of course, those three passes were good for 163 yards and three touchdowns in 46-36 win. It remains, to this day, one of the most astounding performances in NFL history.

2008: The Titans  blow out the Lions by a score of 47-10. In addition to being one of the most lopsided results ever history on Thanksgiving, the game brings the Lions’ record to 0-12, which ultimately becomes 0-16. While that was, at the time, the 33rd winless season in NFL history, it was the first under the 16-game schedule.

2012: The “Butt fumble”. There’s no dignified way to describe this. In a primetime matchup against the New England Patriots, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez takes a snap and runs headfirst into the backside of one of his offensive lineman. He fumbles the ball, it’s recovered by the Patriots, who returned it for a touchdown.

The NFL’s Thanksgiving record-holders

The Teams

The franchise that’s taken part in the most Thanksgiving games is… yep, the Detroit Lions. The Lions have taken part in some 81 Turkey Day contests. Unsurprisingly, the Cowboys are second, with 53, followed by the Bears and the Packers, with 36 apiece. The win column looks similar, with the Lions having notched 37 victories on Thanksgiving, followed by the Cowboys with 31 (as we just mentioned, though, in far fewer games), the Bears with 19, and the Packers with 14. The Lions have lost a whopping 42 times on Thanksgiving – doubling the total of the second-place Cowboys (21). The Packers (15), Bears and Cardinals (15 each) round out the top 5.

Four teams – the Saints, Ravens, Texans and Panthers – are unbeaten on Thanksgiving, though it’s worth mentioning that none of them has played  more than three times on Turkey Day. Among teams that have played at least five times on Thanksgiving, the Philadelphia Eagles (85.7%; 6-1 record) and the Los Angeles Rams (80%; 4-1) have the best win percentages. Meanwhile, no team that’s played more than three times on Thanksgiving is still winless (sorry, Browns). The lowest winning percentages among teams with Thanksgiving Day wins belong to the Steelers (2-6) and the Atlanta Falcons (1-3), who’ve each won just 25% of their games, and the Cardinals (6-15-2), who’ve won 30.4%. 

The most points scored by a team on Thanksgiving is 55. It’s been done twice, almost twenty years apart – in 1997 by the Lions against the Bears, and in 1977, by the Dolphins against the Cardinals. On two other occasions a team has topped 50 points on Thanksgiving: the Lions (52) against the Packers in 1951, and the Cowboys (51) against the Seattle seahawks in 1980. That Dolphins outburst came in the third-most lopsided Thanksgiving game, a 55-14 hammering of the Cardinals. The second-biggest Turkey Day beating came six years to the day later, when the Lions beat the Steelers, 45-3, while the record for Thanksgiving blowouts is held by those aforementioned 1980s Cowboys, who beat the Seahawks by a 51-7 score.

Ten times there’s been a shutout on Thanksgiving – the only teams to suffer the fate more than once are the Dolphins (twice) and, yes, the Lions, five times.

The Players

The single game record for non-passing touchdowns on Thanksgiving is still that Ernie Nevers performance from 1929. The mark for passing touchdowns is, in fact, also six, achieved twice – first by Miami’s Bob Griese in 1977, and against by Peyton Manning in 2004. Four other quarterbacks – Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger and Johnny Green – have tossed five TDs in a Thanksgiving game. Eight times, a quarterbacks has thrown for over 400 yards on Thanksgiving – Troy Aikman’s 455 in that 1998 Randy Moss masterclass is the top tally, with Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Kirk Cousins the other to top 440.

The top rushing performance remains that O.J. Simpson outburst from 1976, with no other running back having come within 75 yards of his total (273). Barry Sander 1997 game against the Bears (167 yards) in the only rushing performance of the past 30 years to even get within 110 yards of Simpson. The top receiving game in Thanksgiving history came in 2012, when Texans great Andre Johnson caught nine passes for 188 yards. Four others – Lance Alworth (185 in 1964), Anthony. Carter (184 in 1987), Richie James (184 in 2020) and Amari Cooper (180 in 2018) have gotten to at least 180 in a game. 

The career leaders in passing yards and TDs are, unsurprisingly, longtime Lions and Cowboys QBs, Stafford (3,000 yards, 18 TDs) and Romo (2,647 and 22 TDs). Similarly, the greatest receiving yardage tally belongs to great ex-Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (970), while Lions Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson’s 11 touchdowns are four more than any other receiver’s. Finally, and fittingly, Turkey Day’s  leading rushers (yards & TDs) are a trio of greats: NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith (1,178 & 13), and fellow Hall of Famers Barry Sanders (931 & 8) and Tony Dorsett (723 & 9).