The NFL on Thanksgiving: Digging Into the Turkey Day Tradition

Football and Thanksgiving Day go way back, and the NFL saw an opportunity immediately.

November 20, 2023

Thanksgiving and football go hand-in-hand, and have largely done so since both came into popular fashion in the U.S.

While Thanksgiving became a more accepted traditional holiday in the aftermath of the Civil War, football started to emerge on college campuses around the same time. Various schools would converge in a single location for the holiday – often New York – and play football, thanks to time off from classes and/or work.

This, along with a number of burgeoning high school football rivalries being played in New England, caused the football-Thanksgiving connection to take off in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Meanwhile, as the NFL tried to gain popularity, it latched onto this growing tradition in the 1920s, with various teams playing on the holiday from the league’s inception. But the Detroit Lions are known by most as the original NFL Thanksgiving Day team — they first scheduled a game on Thanksgiving in 1934 and have played on the holiday every year since (with the exception of a break from 1939-1944).

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys followed the Lions lead, as they began hosting annual Thanksgiving Day games in an effort to build a national brand. It’s safe to say that strategy has worked.

Thanksgiving Turkeys

Given the national attention paid to the NFL on Thanksgiving, it should come as no surprise that some iconic moments have come from the traditional slate of games. Two of the more infamous moments came in the 1990s. The first was Leon Lett’s fumble debacle in the 1993 matchup between the Cowboys and Dolphins in a rare Dallas snowstorm.

Miami’s kicker Pete Stoyanovich lined up to kick a potential game-winning field goal from 41 yards away in the final seconds of the matchup. Dallas blocked the attempt and appeared to be set to come away with a victory, but Lett inexplicably came dashing through the snow and touched the ball, allowing a truly thankful Miami to retake possession and try again for the win from the one-yard line. As one can expect, Stoyanovich converted the second attempt.

Five years later, referee Phil Luckett became the center of the storyline. That year, the Lions played host to the Steelers. The game went to overtime tied at 16. Jerome Bettis of the Steelers insisted he called tails on the coin toss, but Luckett said Bettis called both heads and tails and awarded the coin toss to the Lions when the coin landed on tails. The Lions got the ball first in overtime and won the game with a field goal.

There have been different sides to this story, with Bettis sticking to his story that he called tails, while others have sided with the referee. Regardless of who is right and wrong, this remains one of the most infamous moments of football on Turkey Day.

Thanksgiving Day 2012 is one that ex-QB Mark Sanchez would rather forget. He committed what is now known as the “Butt Fumble,” when he coughed up the ball after colliding with the backside of his offensive guard Brandon Moore. The Patriots’ Steve Gregory scooped up the ball and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown in an eventual 49-19 Pats victory.

Stuffing the Stat Sheet

It hasn’t all been bad or strange, of course — plenty of players have delivered standout Thanksgiving Day performances throughout the years. Randy Moss made quite an impact in his rookie season when the Vikings took on the Cowboys in 1998. He had only three catches and three targets, but he took each to the house for 163 total receiving yards in the Vikings win.

The Lions are 8-2 this season, but most of Detroit’s seasons have given been lean years, and Peyton Manning was there to take advantage in 2004 when he carved up the Lions for six touchdowns in a 41-9 win for the Colts.

In 1997, he ran through the Bears for 167 yards and three touchdowns…. in the first half.

Those performances both came at the cost of the traditional hosts of games on Thanksgiving, though the home teams have also had memorable moments. It should come as no surprise that Barry Sanders was the centerpiece of those moments for the Lions. In 1997, he ran through the Bears for 167 yards and three touchdowns …. in the first half. He and Detroit were so dominant that Sanders didn’t take the field for the final two quarters.

We couldn’t leave this write-up without discussing Tony Romo, given the attention he received as the starter for the Cowboys. That story began in 2006, when Romo had just taken over as the Dallas starter. He cemented his status with the team on Thanksgiving Day by dismantling the Buccaneers to the tune of a 306-yard, five touchdown performance.

Speaking of Dallas QBs, Clint Longley had a very forgettable pro football career, except for his Thanksgiving performance in 1974. After starter and future Hall of Famer Roger Staubach was knocked out of the game with an injury, the rookie Longley led three touchdown drives, including a 50-yard Hail Mary bomb to Drew Pearson to beat the Washington Redskins 24-23.

Leftovers at Night

Most of those moments came when the NFL scheduled only two games on Thanksgiving. However, in 2006, the league expanded its holiday offering to three contests. That third game has rotated with no traditional host, but it gets a lot of attention as the primetime matchup, and we’ve seen some big moments in those games as well.

The Steelers-Ravens rivalry appeared in the primetime spot in 2013, which produced Mike Tomlin’s infamous subtle interference along the sidelines during a Jacoby Jones kickoff return.

Other interesting matchups we’ve seen include the Harbaugh brothers squaring off (2011) and Super Bowl rematches. Most recently, we’ve seen divisional rivalries take over, and this year is no exception with the Seahawks and 49ers squaring off.

This Thanksgiving, we have three divisional matchups with either current or historic rivalries. The day kicks off with the Lions (-7.5) hosting the Packers at 12:30 pm ET. Next up, the Cowboys (-11) will host the Washington Commanders. The day concludes with the Seahawks hosting the 49ers (-7).

Dale Weber
Dale began working at RotoWire in 2017 writing MLB game wraps. He now covers primarily MLB, NFL and racing, but also has experience writing in a wide range of sports, including MMA, golf and soccer.