The NFL should ditch Lions, Cowboys Thanksgiving tradition

NFL: NOV 24 Redskins at Cowboys
Dak Prescott (left) and Ezekiel Elliot (right) of the Dallas Cowboys following a Thanksgiving Day game on Nov. 24, 2016. Photo by Matthew Pearce / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

By: Joe Pohoryles

Last night, the NFL released its full 2020 schedule, sending the football world into a frenzy of game-by-game predicting, strength-of-schedule searching and calendar circling. While primetime games and heavyweight matchups drum up the most excitement, the Thanksgiving slate draws similar attention upon the schedule’s release.

Thanksgiving has become as synonymous with football as it is with turkey and stuffing, and every year the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys get to host a game in the afternoon preceding a night time smackdown between a pair of division rivals.

While the Lions and Cowboys get to host on Thanksgiving every year, I believe the NFL would be better off doing away with the tradition. Instead, the league can cater the contests to feature different teams every season. If the NFL scheduled the best teams for Thanksgiving, there would be much more hype surrounding the day than there already is. 

Look at the NBA on Christmas. The NBA owns Christmas Day, consistently pitting the best teams and biggest stars in the league against each other for non-stop, high-quality action. In 2019, the reigning champion Toronto Raptors faced a playoff-caliber Boston Celtics team. LeBron James’ Lakers fell five points short against their new-look crosstown rival Clippers, featuring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, in the battle of LA. Those were just two of the five games.

For the NFL on Thanksgiving this year, the night game features reigning MVP Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who boasted one of the best defenses in 2019. In the afternoon, the Lions will face the Deandre Hopkins-less Houston Texans, while the Cowboys’ stacked offense will look to defend Jerry World against the perpetually inept Washington Redskins.

The most compelling matchup by far is the nightcap. The Detroit Lions have not won a playoff game since 1992. Their top draft pick this year, former Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, was born in 1999. The team went 3-12-1 last season.

Meanwhile, the Texans headlined the offseason with questionable moves from head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien, and may not be the same playoff team that they were last season. If they are, then it could be a beatdown that’s over by the second quarter; if not, then it’s just two mediocre-at-best teams duking it out.

The Cowboys always generate views, so it makes sense for the NFL to highlight them every year. They’re also expected to be good this season, making them a theoretically good candidate for a marquee game slot. However, looking at recent years, their match-ups hardly turn out to be interesting. Here are the results for the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving games over the past 10 seasons:

2019: Buffalo Bills over Cowboys, 26-15

2018: Cowboys over Redskins, 31-23

2017: LA Chargers over Cowboys, 28-6

2016: Cowboys over Redskins, 31-26

2015: Carolina Panthers over Cowboys, 33-14

2014: Philadelphia Eagles over Cowboys, 33-10

2013: Cowboys over Oakland Raiders , 31-24

2012: Redskins over Cowboys, 38-31

2011: Cowboys over Miami Dolphins, 20-19

2010: New Orleans Saints over Cowboys, 30-27

With the exception of wins over the Redskins twice (the same Redskins that finished 8-7-1 in 2016, and 7-9 in 2018), plus the 4-12 Raiders of 2013 and the 6-10 Dolphins of 2011, the Cowboys have lost, often to much better teams by much larger margins. If they are going to play every year, can the matchups at least be even?

As a Redskins fan myself, I get to see my team play on Thanksgiving every few years. This isn’t me whining about not getting to see my team on Thanksgiving enough. In fact, given the state of the franchise, it would probably make Thanksgiving less stressful if they didn’t play. In any case, Lions and Cowboys fans get to watch their team on Thanksgiving every year. Other fanbases rarely get to.

Why not feature teams worthy of primetime attention and give their fans some added excitement to their holiday? Obviously, Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football scoop up major showdowns every year, but what football fan wouldn’t want to spend Thanksgiving watching the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs take on the Saints, who are making one final push in what will likely be Drew Brees’ final season? That game will instead take place on Dec. 20. 

When was the last time Chiefs fans got to see their team play on Thanksgiving? Try 2006. I’d say they’re due for an appearance, especially since they have the league’s best quarterback on their team.

The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers look like two of the NFC’s best teams this season, and they play each other twice a year. Why not play one of those games on Thanksgiving? Neither team has played on Thanksgiving since 2014.

What about the revamped Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Green Bay Packers? It remains to be seen how well these two sides will actually perform this season, but Tampa has not appeared on Thanksgiving since 2006, and fans have seen Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers go head-to-head just twice. They’re scheduled to play on Oct. 18.

I’m not trying to attack the Lions or Cowboys here. Once the Lions can field one of the league’s best teams, I’d be happy to see them square off with an equally powerful opponent. Once the Cowboys actually prove themselves as Super Bowl contenders, I’d love to root against them in a potential playoff preview. If either team warrants a spot that season, and they go against a worthy opponent, I’m all for it. I just don’t understand why they have to get a game every year.

The argument is futile (good luck prying the Thanksgiving game away from Jerry Jones), but it’s one worth making. The NFL will be fine either way, but for the sake of the fans, why not promote the best teams on a football-centric holiday instead of continually shoving two consistently underwhelming teams down our throats for the sake of tradition? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

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