Lions and Cowboys: The Titans of Thanksgiving?


Jackson Piercy

The Dallas Cowboys take the field. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

The NFL’s season typically reaches its midpoint around Thanksgiving–but since 1966, two teams have dominated Turkey Day television. One of these teams is the Dallas Cowboys, arguably one of the greatest dynasties professional football has ever seen. The other is the Detroit Lions.

So, why would the Dallas Cowboys, one of the most winningest franchises in NFL history with five Super Bowl championships, 33 all-time playoff appearances, 23 division championships, 10 conference championships and 28 players in the NFL Hall of Fame, share a day with the Detroit Lions?

The two teams do not have much common ground– The Lions have not won a playoff game since 1991.

The decision to play on Thanksgiving was more about publicity than anything. The Lions had the head start on the turkey bowls, playing their first Thanksgiving game in 1934 after the owner bought and moved the team to Detroit. This owner, G.A. Richards, made a deal with CBS to air a live game of Detroit Lions football on Thanksgiving. Unlike the Playoffs, the Lions haven’t missed a Thanksgiving game since the first one in 1934.

The Cowboys share a similar story and a similar situation. Six years after the creation of the franchise, Tex Schramm, the general manager of the Cowboys at the time, needed the publicity of a Thanksgiving game to help boost ticket numbers. The NFL was hesitant to allow a fledgling franchise that hadn’t won anything yet to get what was then the second biggest primetime slot outside of the Super Bowl. Still, they allowed it. Since then, the Cowboys have only missed two Thanksgivings: 1975 and 1977.

Since their first Thanksgiving appearances, these two teams have gone in completely different directions, until recently.

The Cowboys have fielded multiple Hall of Fame quarterbacks, won numerous playoff games and had the pleasure of having the NFL’s all time leading rusher. They’ve been one of, if not the most, profitable franchises in the NFL.

The Lions, however, won their last championship in 1958. Since then, they have won a singular playoff game. They’ve also had the pleasure of going through the first of two winless seasons since the number of games was expanded in 1990.

What has been the most interesting trend between the two teams in recent history is the regression to the mean. Dallas has not had great success in the past few seasons, similarly to Detroit.. Since going 0-16 in 2008, Detroit has gone to the playoffs twice, with Dallas attending four times. Dallas has only won three more playoff games than Detroit in that time. The success is basically the same, it’s just that Dallas has more publicity. This season, the Cowboys and the Lions have seen similar win-loss records.

That being said, that doesn’t muddy the impact of the Cowboys, or the Lions, for that matter. They’ve been staples of the Thanksgiving tradition much like stuffing, fighting with relatives and those silly little hand turkeys that your little cousins make every single year. It is a  tradition as American as any, really.