Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

27 Nov 2005

FO in the NYT: Leftover Thanksgiving Myths

Until I started researching this, I had always just assumed that the Lions and Cowboys get some kind of edge by playing on Thanksgiving. Turns out that both teams have worse records on Thanksgiving than they do in home games as a whole, and there doesn't seem to be any advantage to having three extra days of rest before the next game. Free registration required.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 27 Nov 2005

20 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2005, 7:55pm by Jerry


by Nathan (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 1:40pm

interesting article, thanks.

by MME (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 1:48pm

Agreed, interesting.

Does anyone know why the Lions and Cowboys were chosen to host?

I have to say, though, that advantage or not, it is silly that these same 2 teams play on Thanksgiving every year. Rotating the hosting teams seems far more sensible.

Which, of course, means the NFL will never do it.

by B (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 1:50pm

If only you had told me this before I picked Detriot to upset Atlanta.

by Loophole (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 2:12pm

#2: Why the Lions and Cowboys every year? The answer for the Lions is "tradition." The Ford family and the auto company advertisers pull a lot of weight in the NFL. [That's also probably why two superbowls have been awarded to Detroit, exciting destination that it is.] They want to keep intact the tradition they started. As a Lion's fan, I like it, but I can imagine it must be kind of boring for everybody else.

by Adam (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 3:04pm

I really don't find it boring. I think most people are going to watch Thanksgiving day football regardless of who is playing.

The only time I cursed the NFL for putting Detriot on thanksgiving was that ugly day in 1998.

"He said heads."

Go eat yourself Phil Lucket.

by the K (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 3:35pm

Actually, I think it was in TMQ some time ago that I had read that, back when the NFL started playing games on Thanksgiving, only the Lions and the Cowboys volunteered to host. Today, the tradition as said above is what keeps it that way. As long as the Lions and Cowboys want home Thanksgiving games every year, they will have them. Given that it's widely considered an advantage (which is disproved in this article, heh heh heh) to play the short week at home, they aren't likely to give up the Turkey Day games.

by Josh (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 3:36pm

I certainly don't think the Chiefs should be playing on Thanksgiving. I'm not normally one who cares about PC stuff with team names, but I do think it's distasteful to have a team that Native-American groups have complained about to be playing on the day which is in part about remembering the help they gave the Pilgrims. I recall several years ago both the Chiefs and Redskins played on Tgiving, and I thought that was offensive. I don't know, maybe it's just me.

by Cowboy fan since 1966 (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 3:52pm

In the mid 1960s, when the NFL front office (under Pete Rozelle) first proposed playing a game on Thanksgiving to help boost the popularity of the league [remember, this was back in the days when MLB really was the national past-time], none of the teams were in favor of it.

The Cowboys were just beginning to overcome their terrific struggles as a new franchise, and the more marketing genius Tex Schramm thought about the national TV exposure on a major holiday, the more he liked the opportunity to play before such a large audience. He then volunteered to host the game annually.

After the game became a successful holiday tradition, other teams realized the mistake they'd made in refusing the original league offer to host such games and started demanding that the game rotate every year so they could all share in the glory.

Tex, however, reminded Rozelle how the other teams had scorned his original proposal and how Dallas had made it work -- and how the Cowboys wanted to keep their big holiday game. To his credit, Rozelle showed class and loyalty and rewarded the Cowboys by mandating that they could host the holiday game for as long as they wished to in the future.

Playing on Thanksgiving may or may not be an advantage over other teams (though Tom Landry liked to use it as a springboard for December runs to the playoffs), but it played an important role in establishing the Cowboys as "America's Team" in the 1970s and building the international popularity that they enjoy today.

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 8:00pm

The NFL DID move the Thankgiving day game out of Dallas to St. Louis (of all places) in 75 and 77. The 77 game was particularly memorable since it featured a 10 minute bench clearing brawl started by (of course) Conrad Dobler.
Miami won that game 55-14.

The league saw the error of its ways and moved the game back to Dallas permanently.

The old AFL had thanksgiving day games rotated through several cities and even had 2 games in 67 through 69.

That meant (and I remember it well) that there were FOUR pro games on Thanksgiving during those 3 years.

by mm (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 11:41pm

They say the Superdome will be ready sometime next November.

What would be more appropriate for Thanksgiving day than to have the return of the Saints to the city of New Orleans?

by Francisco (not verified) :: Sun, 11/27/2005 - 11:45pm

The Cowboys and Lions playing at home.

by Browns Dude (not verified) :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 12:36am


if you replying to mm, there will be 3 Thanksgiving games starting next year.

by JonL (not verified) :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 12:55am

What I want to know is, have Dallas/Detroit ever had a bye the week before the Thanksgiving game, and has that given them any advantage vs. years they don't have a bye.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 2:36am

Re #9: Beat me to it. I didn't know the reason why, but I knew that Denver had played MANY of its old AFL rivals on Thanksgiving day back before the merger. I was wondering if anyone knew why, so thanks for answering before I had a chance to ask.

About the article- I think it's interesting, but certainly not conclusive. MDS points out that Dallas and Detroit have a worse Thanksgiving record than regular home record, but also goes to great lengths to point out that the league tries to schedule good opponents for the Thanksgiving games. Perhaps the reason they have a worse Thanksgiving record is that they play tougher teams on Thanksgiving? What's Dallas's Thanksgiving home record, and non-Thanksgiving home record versus teams with winning records? I suspect when you start breaking it down like that, you'll find that Dallas and Detroit do, in fact, gain some extra advantage on Thanksgiving day.

I do agree that there is not necessarily an advantage concerned on the week immediately FOLLOWING the Thanksgiving game, however. Yes, there's more time to rest, but the body also needs more rest because it's been worked harder, and I suspect that teams get injured more often on Thanksgiving. Also, looking at the numbers, teams coming off of a bye week don't necessarily perform better than teams who are not coming off of a bye.

One of the things I take comfort in, however, as a Denver fan... is that Denver has the best record in NFL history (tied with Minny and Philly) in post bye-week games... so I suspect that while the normal team wouldn't necessarily get an advantage after the Thanksgiving game, Shanahan and company will manage to wring some slight edge out of it.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 2:37am

Double post, but I'd be interested to see Dallas and Detroit's Thanksgiving DVOA from the past 7 seasons compared to their non-Thanksgiving home DVOA over the same span. I understand that 7 seasons is a pretty small sample size, but it would at least give a nice idea one way or another, a starting point for arguementation.

by VarlosZ (not verified) :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 2:38am

In reality, the league's efforts to schedule good teams for the nationally televised games cancel out any such edge, and the Lions and the Cowboys have worse records on Thanksgiving than they do in their other home games.

Isn't this a problem for the study, then? You compared the Lions and Cowboys Thanksgiving records to their non-Thanksgiving home game records, but you shouldn't you also look at their opponents' records in all road games for years in which they play on Thanksgiving?

by Dennis (not verified) :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 12:47pm

I think TMQ or someone recently did a study of this and found that Dallas and Detroit have a better winning pct. on Thanksgiving than they do overall. I can't find the article, though.

by Michael David Smith :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 12:51pm

Yes, TMQ did find that, and he was correct, but he was comparing Thanksgiving to all games. I think it's more accurate to compare Thanksgiving to all home games.

by Richie (not verified) :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 4:03pm

Let's look at Detroit/Dallas DVOA on Thanksgiving, compared to all other home games.

by Jerry (not verified) :: Mon, 11/28/2005 - 7:55pm

What are the plans for the third game? Thanksgiving night? NBC? ESPN?