Thanksgiving Day celebrations are synonymous with football, and the two go together like steaming sliced turkey and canned cranberry sauce. Since the NFL’s inception in 1920, Turkey Day pigskin has been a tradition. The first Thanksgiving Day NFL game featured QB Fritz Pollard’s Akron Pros and RB Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs.
Pollard, the first African-American quarterback in the NFL, led the Pros to a 7-0 victory over the Bulldogs. The Detroit Lions’ tradition of playing host to a Thanksgiving Day game began in 1934 when they met the Chicago Bears. The Bears beat the Lions 19-16 in what was the first NFL game to be broadcast nationally (aired on NBC radio).
Since 2006, the NFL has supplied us with a day-long turducken fix through the installation of a “Thanksgiving Tripleheader”. This year the Detroit Lions (4-6) welcome the Buffalo Bills (7-3), the Dallas Cowboys (7-3) clash with the New York Giants (7-3), and the New England Patriots (6-4) visit the Minnesota Vikings (8-2).
Over the course of this long-standing holiday tradition, there have been several outstanding individual offensive performances which are worth mentioning.
The Quarterbacks: Manning, Griese, Romo
Peyton Manning (2004)
Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, so it’s not surprising to see his name here. During one of Manning’s four MVP award winning campaigns with the Indianapolis Colts (he also won league MVP once with the Denver Broncos), he put on an epic Thanksgiving Day display against the Detroit Lions.
On Turkey Day 2004, Manning carved the Lions’ defense for 236 passing yards and six passing touchdowns. Manning had more touchdowns than incompletions in the 41-9 massacre, and accomplished this colossal feat in less than three quarters of play.
Bob Griese (1977)
The only other QB to throw for six touchdowns on Thanksgiving is Miami Dolphins’ Hall of Famer Bob Griese. In 1977, Griese threw for 206 yards and six scores against the St. Louis Cardinals in a 55-14 holiday blowout. Griese’s performance is particularly special because he was legally blind in his right eye, wearing thick eyeglasses underneath his helmet. “Mr. Peabody” had no problem seeing through the Cardinals’ D on that day.
Tony Romo (2006)
The year 2006 was a statement season for Tony Romo, as he solidified his position as the man behind center for the Dallas Cowboys On Thanksgiving Day of that year, Romo roasted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense for 306 yards and five touchdowns. Dallas destroyed Tampa Bay 38-10, and the undrafted QB would eventually become the Cowboys’ all-time passing leader.
The Wide Receivers: Megatron, Moss, and Sharpe
Calvin “Megatron” Johnson (2015)
Calvin Johnson is the best wideout to wear a Detroit Lions jersey, and the show he put on vs. the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving Day 2015 was somewhat superhuman. Battling through an ankle injury that had him limited in practice, the 6-foot-5” 235-pound Johnson bullied Philly defenders. Megatron fought through ankle discomfort and double teams, eating up eight receptions for 93 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions devoured the Eagles 45-14, and Johnson logged another chapter in his legendary Hall of Fame career.
Randy Moss (1998)
Randy Moss was born in West Virginia, but he grew up a Cowboys fan and dreamed of playing for Dallas. Moss’s dream came close to becoming a reality, but the Cowboys passed on the outspoken wide receiver in the 1998 NFL Draft, citing character concerns. Moss fell to the Minnesota Vikings, and the Marshall product promptly torched Dallas on Thanksgiving of that year. The future Hall of Famer turned all three of his catches into touchdowns, totaling 163 receiving yards in the process.
Sterling Sharpe (1994)
Former Green Bay Packers’ superstar Sterling Sharpe still holds the record for most receiving TDs on Thanksgiving. In 1994, Sharpe gobbled up nine catches for 122 yards and four touchdowns against the Cowboys, albeit in a losing effort. Sharpe surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in five of the seven seasons he played in the NFL, and was well on his way to being enshrined in the Hall of Fame before injuries shortened his career.
The Running Backs: Sanders and Smith
Barry Sanders (1997)
Legendary Lions’ running back Barry Sanders has a history of dazzling the masses on Thanksgiving Day. The elusive powerhouse often seemed to be sprinkled with magic dust as he danced around the football field, making would-be tacklers look foolish. On Turkey Day 1997, Sanders smoked the Chicago Bears’ defense for 167 yards and three scores. The Lions blew the Bears out of the Pontiac Silverdome, winning 55-20.
Emmitt Smith (1996)
The runner-up in the galloping gobbler RB ranks is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith (Sanders is fourth all-time). Smith powered the Dallas Cowboys to a 21-10 Turkey Day victory over the previously named Washington Redskins. The turkeys were duly basted as Smith scorched the Skins for 155 rushing yards and three TDs.