The modern tradition of football on Thanksgiving day goes back to 1934 when Detroit Lions owner George A. “Dick” Richards wanted to get more people in the seats and improve the popularity of his team.
Richards bought the team that year and moved the team from Portsmouth, Ohio to its current location in the Motor City. The Tigers, Major League Baseball, were the team in the town. Richards, who owned a major affiliate of an NBC network, worked out a deal for the parent-station to show the game nationwide.
Teams had played on the Holiday before, but the expanded broadcast brought on a larger audience. The Lions had the largest crowd of the season of 15,000 people. The Lions have gone on to host a game every year except 1939-1944.
Then in 1966, the Dallas Cowboys began hosting a game. With the exception of 1975 and 1977, they have hosted the second game on Thanksgiving every year since.
The last, hopefully, change to scheduling format of the day’s games occurred in 2006. In order to maximize the monetary profit of the day, the NFL added a third game today with a floating host team. It is marketed it as a new “Thanksgiving Tripleheader.” Only two teams, the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, have hosted the evening game since its inception.
Over the 82-year history of Thanksgiving NFL games, minus a four-year period, it was put on hiatus for World War II, there have been plenty of memorable moments. Here are the five best.
#1 The coin flip controversy
In 1998, with the Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers headed to overtime, the first rule change occurred because of something that happened at a Thanksgiving day game. As the captain of visiting Steelers, running back Jerome Bettis was asked to pick heads or tails during the coin toss to decide who starts the extra session with the ball.
Referee Phil Luckett tossed the coin in the air. Bettis started to say “heads,” but wanted “tails” and changed his response mid-flight. The coin landed on tails and Luckett said the Steelers called heads and awarded the football to the Lions. Bettis protested that he called “tails.” But, it was to no avail. The Lions received the kickoff and proceeded to score the winning points without the Steelers getting the ball.
Luckett was mocked and criticized, but he was correct. A microphone that could pick up sound on the sideline picked up Bettis telling head coach Bill Cowher that he said “hea-tails.” Because he said both, the rule stipulates that Luckett take the first response as his choice. Thus, Luckett was correct in deeming Bettis’ choice as heads.
In order to avoid another controversial and confusing moment during the coin toss, the NFL changed the rule forcing the visiting captain to make the call before the coin is flipped.
#2 The Jim Schwartz rule
Another Thanksgiving moment that changed a rule for the better occurred in 2012. Once again, it involved the Lions.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz threw his challenge flag saying that Houston Texans running back Justin Forsett’s elbow was down near the 25-yard line before he finished off an 81-yard touchdown run. However, coaches are not allowed to challenge plays that were automatically reviewed - scoring plays and turnovers. Since Forsett’s run was ruled on the field as a touchdown, it was subject to automatic review. At the time, a coach that challenges a scoring play or turnover was assessed a 15-yard, unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the ensuing kickoff and negated any potential review.
Because Schwartz threw the challenge flag at an improper time, the touchdown stood. Replays clearly showed the running back was down. The Texans went on to win the game 34-31 in overtime.
After the season, the NFL changed the rule to allow the review to continue - the penalty, however, still stands. Had the rule been initially written this way, Forsett’s touchdown would have been overturned. The penalty would have given the Texans a first down, but the Lions would still have had the opportunity to get a stop.
#3 The butt fumble
Also, in 2012, the NFL had a highly memorable play on Thanksgiving. In the primetime game between the Jets and New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to scramble up the middle. However, as he neared the line of scrimmage, he ran into the backside of one of his offensive lineman and fumbled.
Patriots safety Steve Gregory picked up the ball and ran it into the end zone for a defensive touchdown. The Patriots were able to blow the game open with the help of Gregory’s score. He gave the Patriots a three-touchdown lead, which grew to 35-0 before the Jets got on the board just before halftime.
“The Butt Fumble” has become one of the more famous NFL plays in history. Sanchez has bounced around as a reserve and offseason quarterback for several NFL teams, but his name is synonymous with this play.
#4 Leon Lett lets Cowboys victory “slip” away
The Cowboys led 14-13 over the Miami Dolphins in final seconds of a snow-covered Texas Stadium field. Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich tried for a game-winning 40-yard field goal, but it was blocked by Cowboys defensive lineman Jimmie Jones. The ball bound and rolled downfield as NBC broadcaster Dick Engberg exclaimed: “The Cowboys will win.” However, since the ball traveled past the line of scrimmage, it did not become a dead ball until it stopped moving. With the ball still spinning on its end, Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett came running downfield to cover it and end the play. But, instead of being able to fall on it, he slipped in the snow and knocked the ball forward. With the Dolphins now able to jump on it and get possession back, they did so around the two-yard line. Stoyanovich’s second attempt at the winning was good as time expired giving the Dolphins a 16-14 victory.
The Cowboys would have won the game if Lett had just left the ball alone. Why did he go after it?
In an NPR interview in 2015, Lett said, “I think I got the rules mixed up there.”
He later went on to say in the interview, “Of course, my teammates and the coaching staff were all upset, and I could understand that. And I was upset. I had basically messed it up for the entire team.”
Lett also called it the worst day in his NFL career.
#5 Eagles bounty on Cowboys kicker
Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas had played 20 games with the Eagles before he was cut. He quickly signed with the Cowboys and went into the Thanksgiving day game in 1989 believing he was a marked man.
According to Zendejas, Eagles special coach Al Roberts called him to say that head coach Buddy Ryan put a bounty out on the kicker. At the time, it seemed unlikely, but Zendejas’ release from the Eagles was less than amicable.
Zendejas was hit with a blindside hit that left him sprawled out on the Texas Stadium turf by Eagles special teams player Jessie Small. The 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound linebacker came out of nowhere to send the 5-foot-9-inch, 200-pound kicker flying.
After the game, which also involved an injury to Cowboys young quarterback Troy Aikman, head coach Jimmy Johnson was fuming in his press conference. When asked if he said anything to Ryan about the injuries, he responded by saying that he couldn’t because the opposing coach “took his big, fat rear end up the tunnel to the locker room.”
In Ryan’s defense, he never met the opposing coach after the game. His response was that he resented Johnson called him fat.
Nothing has ever been proven and the matter really hasn’t been discussed much since the incident.
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