NFL football is as much a part of our Thanksgiving tradition as gobbling turkey dinner, pretending to fall asleep while the rest of the family washes all the dishes and remembering to wear elastic pants.
Since 1920, professional football has been played on Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions started hosting games on Thanksgiving in 1934.
In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys were added to the Thanksgiving tradition, and the two teams have been hosting the Thursday afternoon contests ever since. Heading into the 2013 iteration of this gridiron tradition, Dallas has played in 44 Thanksgiving games, bested only by the Lions, who have played in a record 72. (Click here for a full list of games and results.)
Since 2006, the ever-expanding NFL schedule has included a third game on Thanksgiving to round out a holiday of more than 10 hours of televised pigskin.
And now there's one more tradition the NFL should institute: Appointing one team as the annual host of that Thursday night game.
Truthfully, my initial reaction to the evening addition back in 2006 was a gross sense of saturation. We already have football from just after noon in the East until well past pumpkin pie, so was it really necessary for the NFL to add another game to the schedule after all our friends and relations have called it a night?
Then I remembered the spirit of the holiday. Nothing about Thanksgiving is necessary. The holiday is centered around a meal—a bountiful feast—where the sharing of good tidings is best exhibited by gorging oneself on an enormous winged beast and all its trimmings.
Thanksgiving is all about excess, so why should the NFL's Thursday schedule be any different? A night game gives people something to watch as the holiday winds to a close on the East Coast, and affords those out West an opportunity to watch football instead of listening to your Aunt Ruthie tell the same story about the time she accidentally brined her turkey in vinegar.
"It took months to get that smell out of the drapes."
"That's great, Aunt Ruthie, but the Broncos won the toss and have elected to receive, so…"
Thanksgiving NFL History
The Lions and Cowboys have been hosting Thanksgiving games for generations, but many people may not know that Thanksgiving football was once more synonymous with Chicago than Dallas.
While the Bears have not taken part in a Thanksgiving game since 2004, a team from Chicago has played on Thanksgiving more than 50 times since the tradition began.
Starting in 1922, the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears faced off on Thanksgiving for 12 straight years, with at least one Chicago team playing in a Thanksgiving game in nine of the subsequent 13 seasons. For a quarter century, Thanksgiving was Chicago's football holiday.
The Bears franchise has played in 31 Thanksgiving games, only bettered by the Lions, Cowboys and Green Bay Packers.
The Packers have played in 34 Thanksgiving games heading into the 2013 contest with the Lions. Since 2001, the Packers have played on alternating Thanksgivings, each time facing the Lions when Detroit's game is hosted by Fox. (Fox televises an All-NFC matchup each season, and with both Detroit and Dallas in the NFC, one of the two must face an AFC opponent, with that game televised on CBS.)
Last season, Detroit faced the Texans on CBS while Dallas hosted the Washington Redskins in a not-so-clever NFL play on Thanksgiving "Cowboys and Indians" that never would fly this year with all the hullabaloo around the Redskins name. This year, Dallas hosts Oakland.
Only eight franchises in NFL history have played 10 or more games on Thanksgiving. The Arizona Cardinals, by way of St. Louis and Chicago, have played 23 times on Thanksgiving, but just once since 1985. The New York Giants have played 14 times on Thanksgiving, but just three have come since a 7-7 tie against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938.
The Denver Broncos have played 11 times on Thanksgiving, while the Kansas City Chiefs have played 10 times. No other current or former professional football team has played more than nine times on Thanksgiving Day, not even the Pottsville Maroons nor the Dayton Triangles.
Thanksgiving Night Tradition
Since 2006, the NFL has played a third game on Thanksgiving, initially using the game as a way to add leverage for negotiations between cable providers and NFL Network. With a nearly-full season of Thursday night games on the league-owned network, the NFL has smartly moved the Thursday night Thanksgiving game to network television, which is now shown annually on NBC.
The ratings are tremendous. Primetime football is always a ratings bonanza, but the Thanksgiving game in primetime has been an unbelievable hit with football fans at a time on the annual holiday that was never slated for football.
So, NFL, let's galvanize the tradition by giving the night game a permanent home.
Since 2006, the NFL has played night games on Thanksgiving in Kansas City (against Denver), Indianapolis (against Atlanta), Philadelphia (against Arizona), Denver (against the Giants), New York Jets (against Cincinnati), Baltimore (against San Francisco), New York Jets (against New England) and again this year in Baltimore (against Pittsburgh).
In this eight-year run, only the Broncos, Ravens and Jets have competed more than once, with just New York and Baltimore—alternating the last four seasons—hosting more than one.
Is that the NFL's plan for this burgeoning tradition? Alternate between New York and Baltimore?
To be honest, it's not a horrible plan.
Baltimore is a perennial contender and while the Jets aren't quite as competitive every season, they are an AFC team and they are in New York, which is the biggest television market in the country and the center of the NFL universe, for whatever that's worth.
Rotating the game between two cities would give fans of each team an alternating taste of Thanksgiving tradition. It would also serve to avoid any prolonged periods of futility with one franchise saddled with a nationally televised holiday game.
Still, there are better options. Or at least one better option.
Turkey Night Options
The NFL would need to pick a good enough football town to ensure a sell out no matter how bad the team becomes. The game needs to be competitive for television too, so choosing a team with a solid home-field advantage may curtail any potential off cycles.
There have been enough issues with some moribund Detroit teams over the last 20 years that the NFL would not dare put a traditional holiday game in a town that wouldn't fill the building or bring in ratings after a few down years.
Certainly Baltimore and New York qualify as good football towns, but there are others, and possibly better ones too. Pittsburgh and New England could certainly handle the gravitas of the event, and both the Steelers and the Patriots have a national draw that will entice fans around the country to tune in.
Green Bay and Chicago could stake a claim to their pre-existing Thanksgiving traditions as well, but there is no way the NFL would usurp the Lions by adding another division rival to the Thanksgiving slate. In fact, with Dallas and Detroit both in the NFC, it's unlikely the NFL would give a permanent seat at the Thanksgiving table to any NFC team.
Sorry Seattle and San Francisco. You would both be gracious hosts for the late Thanksgiving game, but it really would have to be a team from the other conference, so you are both out of luck.
Luck, you say? What about Indianapolis? The Colts fit all the criteria. So does Kansas City, which also has some history in the Thanksgiving games.
Both would be fine choices, but the NFL currently has one Thanksgiving game in the Eastern time zone and one in the Central, so it stands to reason that a permanent home for the final game should be in the Mountain or West.
The list of AFC teams in those time zones is slim: just Denver, Oakland and San Diego.
While it would be quite a trip to put a Thanksgiving game in the Black Hole, the only logical choice is Denver.
Denver is the team. Denver is the city. It would have to be Denver.
The Broncos have already been in the late game twice since 2006 and have some tradition playing on Thanksgiving, including four appearances since 2001. The Broncos have one of the most ardent fanbases of any team in American sports, let alone the NFL, and would take the honor of hosting the late Thanksgiving game with the pride and passion it deserves.
Denver could also provide a series of great rivalry games on Thanksgiving, hosting Oakland, San Diego or Kansas City some years, while facing off against the likes of New England—a great AFC rivalry between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady recently—or New York—a family affair between Peyton and Eli—until Manning eventually retires.
Even without Manning, Denver has proven to be one of the marquee franchises in the NFL with an incredible home-field environment. The Jets and Ravens are fine choices, but the right choice for a permanent home on Thanksgiving night has to be Denver.
Detroit, Dallas then Denver: An NFL Thanksgiving tradition that should start as soon as next year. Or as soon as Aunt Ruthie finishes another story.