The NFL on Thanksgiving

by Tuesday Morning Tailback

As we head into another Thanksgiving, we’ll look at the tradition that football has played on that day. These games have been a regular occurrence since the NFL’s inception in 1920. In fact, six games, featuring all league teams were played on Thanksgiving 1920. The tradition of football on Thanksgiving actually dates back nearly a half century before the NFL’s launch when Yale and Princeton began an annual college football tradition in 1876. Of course, the strongest Thanksgiving Day traditions belong to the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, who have each hosted home games for decades.

Through the league’s first two decades, the teams who played on Thanksgiving regularly rotated. During 1939 and 1940, there was what was called the “Franksgiving” controversy. President Franklin Roosevelt officially moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday to second-to-last Thursday in November but several states rejected the proclamation. This meant that Thanksgiving was celebrated on two separate dates, depending on which state one was in. The only two teams to play the game those years were the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles, as Pennsylvania was a state which recognized the proclamation. In 1941 a compromise was reached that Thanksgiving would occur on the fourth Thursday of November and the NFL resumed scheduling regular Thanksgiving games in 1945 after a four year hiatus during World War II.

The Detroit Lions began their tradition of hosting a Thanksgiving game in 1945 and will host their 69th consecutive Thanksgiving Day game this Thursday against the Green Bay Packers. This matchup holds a special tradition as the two teams met in Detroit for 13 consecutive Thanksgivings from 1951 through 1963, with the Lions handing the Packers their lone loss in 1962.

Starting in 1966 a second Thanksgiving game, usually hosted by the Dallas Cowboys, was added. Since 1978, a late (4:00pm Eastern) game in Dallas has been a permanent fixture following the early (12:30pm Eastern) game in Detroit. Each year the visiting teams for these games include one AFC and one NFC team and are scheduled so that networks will alternate between games in Detroit and Dallas. This year the Cowboys host the Oakland Raiders. Since 2006, a third NFL game on Thanksgiving has been played during prime time, with no set teams or locations. Pittsburgh travels to Baltimore this Thursday night.

Aside from the Lions 26-14 victory over the Packers in 1962, some notable Thanksgiving games include the Bills and Lions in 1976, when O.J. Simpson set the NFL record for most rushing yards in a single game with 273. In 1980, the Bears and Lions played in the first Thanksgiving overtime game, which was also the fastest overtime period in NFL history at the time, when Chicago’s Dave Williams returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a game-winning touchdown. In 1993, a rare snowstorm in Dallas dominated the low scoring game with Cowboys Leon Lett touching a live ball following a blocked field goal at the end of regulation. Miami recovered the ball and got another shot from a much shorter distance, and won the game 16-14. Last year’s prime time game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets featured the infamous “Butt fumble” by Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, leading to a New England touchdown and a Patriots rout.

Here’s to a great Thanksgiving with great football in 2013.

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Tuesday Morning TailbackTuesday Morning Tailback is a weekly article during football season which take a critical look at the NFL. We do this from the base belief that NFL football is the greatest game in the history of mankind, but some recent policies and the overall direction of the league has chipped away at this greatness. Our primary goal is to spark debate on these subjects, so please leave your own opinion on this article in the comment box below.

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