NFL Thanksgiving Day Football History, Trivia, and Fun Facts
The NFL has played Pro Football on Thanksgiving since 1920, although records indicate that “professional” football that pre-dates the NFL was played on Thanksgiving as early as 1892. We’ve pulled together some fun facts and history about the NFL’s traditional Thanksgiving Day Games that you may not have known.
NFL Thanksgiving Game Facts & Trivia
If you are any kind of football fan, you probably already know that the NFL traditionally hosts Thanksgiving Day games in both Detroit and Dallas. Since 2006, there has also been a Thursday evening game played at various locations. (The 2020 night game was re-scheduled due to a covid outbreak) Here are some fun and interesting facts about the NFL’s holiday tradition:
- in 2022, the NFL will brand the Thanksgiving day games as the “John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration“
- As of 2021, The Detroit Lions have the most wins on Thanksgiving (37), as well as the most losses (43).
- The tradition of the Detroit Lions playing on Thanksgiving Day began in 1934. The Lions have played on every Thanksgiving Day since 1934, except during 1941-1944 when no games were played due to WWII.
- The Dallas Cowboys have the 2nd most Thanksgiving wins behind Detroit. The Cowboys are 31-22-1 all-time (as of 2021).
- The Dallas Cowboys have the 2nd most Turkey Day losses with 22.
- The tradition of the Dallas Cowboys playing on Thanksgiving day began in 1966 when the Cowboys were still part of the AFL.
- The St. Louis Cardinals replaced the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving during the 1975 and 1977 seasons. Dallas has hosted in every other year since 1966.
- The Packers vs the Lions is the most frequent Thanksgiving game matchup (21 games). The Lions hold a 12-8-1 record in those contests.
- The Bears vs the Lions is the 2nd most frequent matchup (20 games) The Bears have a record of 12-8 in those games.
- Troy Aikman’s 455 passing yards vs. Minnesota in 1998 is most of any QB on Thanksgiving.
- Matthew Stafford has the most career passing yards on Thanksgiving. Stafford surpassed Tony Romo’s career mark in 2017 vs. Minnesota.
- Tom Brady (2010 vs. Detroit) and Dave Kreig (1994 vs Buffalo ) are the only 2 QBs to post a perfect passer rating of 158.3 on Thanksgiving.
- Ernie Nevers holds the record for most touchdowns during a Thanksgiving game with 6 in 1929. The modern day mark is held by Sterling Sharpe who scored 4 TDs vs. Detroit in 1994.
- In 1951, Detroit and Green Bay combined for 87 points, the most points ever scored on a Thanksgiving Day game. The Lions won 52-35.
- The first televised Thanksgiving Day game was in 1953 on the DuMont TV Network.
- Two QBs have thrown 6 TD passes in a Thanksgiving game. In 1977, Bob Griese tossed 6 TDs passes in a 55-14 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, while Peyton Manning matched that feat by throwing 6 of his own during a 41-9 win over Detroit in 2004.
- Tampa Bay & Cincinnati are the only current NFL teams that have played on Thanksgiving and not have at least one win. They are both 0-1 on Thanksgiving.
- The Jacksonville Jaguars have never played on Thanksgiving Day. The Carolina Panthers made their first franchise appearance in 2015, which was a 33-14 victory vs. the Cowboys
- OJ Simpson has the most rushing yards in a single Thanksgiving Day game with 273 yards vs. Detroit in 1976.
- The Philadelphia Eagles have the highest winning percentage of any team on Thanksgiving with more than 2 appearance. They are 6-1 all-time.
- Both the Baltimore Ravens an the Houston Texans are undefeated (2-0) on Thanksgiving.
- The record for most pass receptions in a game is 12 by both Colts WR Marvin Harrison (2004 vs Detroit) and Lions WR Brett Perriman (1995 vs Minnesota).
- The most receiving yards on Thanksgiving was 303 by Cleveland’s Jim Benton in 1945. The most since then was 188 by Andre Johnson of Houston in 2012, followed by 185 by San Diego’s Lance Alworth vs. Buffalo in 1964 and 184 yards by Minnesota’s Anthony Carter in 1987 vs Dallas.
- The Chargers played on Thanksgiving in 2017 for the first time since 1969.
- In 1998, Dallas’ Troy Aikman (455 yards) and Minnesota’s Randall Cunningham (359 yards) combined for 814 yards passing in a single game.
- Other than the Cowboys who have done it three times, the Dolphins are the only other team to win a Thanksgiving day game, and the Super Bowl in the same season. Miami did it in the 1973 season when they beat Dallas 14-7 on Thanksgiving, and then won Super Bowl VIII over the Vikings 24-7.
- From 2006-2011 the NFL Network broadcast the Thanksgiving evening game. Beginning in 2012, NBC has broadcast the Thanksgiving evening game.
- “Red” Grange made his professional football debut for the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving in 1925.
- In 1962, the Detroit Lions beat the previously undefeated Green Bay Packers 26-14. The Lions sacked QB Bart Starr 11 times in the game that the media dubbed “The Thanksgiving’s Day Massacre.”
- Cameron Jordan has the most sacks in a Thanksgiving Day game with 4 in 2018.
Career Stats on Thanksgiving
- Most all-time passing yards on Thanksgiving is Matthew Stafford with 3,000
- Most all-time passing TDs is Tony Romo & Matthew Stafford with 18.
- Emmitt Smith has the most all-time rushing yard with 1,178 and the most rushing TDs with 13.
- Most all-time receiving yards in Jason Witten with 903 followed by Herman Moore with 834.
- Calvin Johnson leads all receivers with 11 career TD receptions on Thanksgiving
Why do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving
The Detroit Lions began playing Thanksgiving Day football in 1934. Lions owner George Richards felt he needed a way to draw more attention to his team. Richards owned Detroit radio station WJR and worked a deal with NBC to broadcast the Lions Thanksgiving Day game across the nation. He also heavily promoted the game locally which resulted in a sellout. That 1934 game between the 10-1 Detroit Lions and the 11-0 Chicago Bears still holds the distinction of featuring the two teams with the most combined wins in a Thanksgiving game. Chicago won the game 19-16.
Cowboys owner Tex Schramm decided to play Thanksgiving Day games starting 1966. The event was a big success as they sold out the Cotton Bowl and a new tradition was born. The league replaced the Cowboys with the St. Louis Cardinals for a couple years in the mid-1970s, but the Cowboys returned to host in 1978 and have done so ever since.
Brief History of Thanksgiving Game Awards
It may seem like these often goofy awards have been around forever, but the tradition of a Thanksgiving Day award began in 1989. John Madden (then with CBS and later with Fox) began awarding the “Turkey Leg” to the player chosen as the MVP of the game. The initial recipient was Hall of Fame Defensive End Reggie White of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Galloping Gobbler replaced the Turkey Leg in 2002. The Trophy has gone through a few changes since over the years. It initially consisted of a Turkey in a Heisman-Trophy-like pose.
The “Gobbler” later switched to a bronze-like statue of a Turkey with a football.
In 2011, the look of the Galloping Gobler switched to a clear plaque with an engraved image of a turkey.
When NBC broadcast the AFC games, they never had an award. After CBS took over broadcast rights for the AFC games, they started awarding the All-Iron Award in 1998 with Phil Simms as the presenter. The All-Iron Trophy is a metal iron on a wood base. Herman Moore of the Detroit Lions was the first recipient.
NFL Network gave out a “Pudding Pie” award from 2007-2011. NBC took over the evening broadcast in 2012.
There was a change in 2017 as CBS did not officially hand out an award and Fox merely awarded a “Game Ball” to Minnesota QB Case Kenum. NBC has not awarded any sort of trophy, but does announce a “Player of the Game.”
Random Thanksgiving Award Facts:
- Emmitt Smith has won the Turkey Leg / Galloping Gobbler 5 times
- Herman Moore of the Detroit Lions has won both the Turkey Leg and the All-Iron Award
- Tony Romo & DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys have won both the Galloping Gobbler and the All-Iron Award
- Randy Moss has won or shared the Turkey Leg award in both his Thanksgiving Day appearances (1998 & 2000)
1974 – Clint Longley: One Hit Wonder
With the Cowboys trailing 23-3, unknown backup Clint Longley entered the game for the injured Roger Staubach and led Dallas to a 24-23 victory.
1993 – Leon Can’t “Lett” it Be
On a snowy Thanksgiving day in Dallas in 1993, the Cowboys were clinging to a 14-13 lead with under 20 seconds left as Miami lined up for a game winning field goal try. After the Cowboys blocked the kick, apparently clinching a win, Leon Lett inexplicably slid into the football, making it a live ball which was recovered by the Dolphins. Miami made a field goal on the next play to win the game in a most improbable way.
Watch the video of Leon Lett’s Thanksgiving Day blunder at NFL.com
1998 – Jerome Bettis Calls “Tails,” referee Phil Luckett says he called “Heads.”
On the overtime coin flip, Bettis can be heard calling “Tails,” but the official claims he said “Heads.” Apparently, Bettis did say heads and then changed it to tails, but all you heard on the audio is heads.
The Lions went on to win the game in OT, 19-16. See the video of the coin flip at nfl.com.
2012 – The “Butt Fumble”
Watch the Butt Fumble video on YouTube
The NFL has produced a great video clip on the history of NFL on Thanksgiving that you can check out on YouTube.by