When I was in the NFL, there was always a feeling among many -- especially coaches and GMs -- that the Lions and Cowboys had an unfair advantage playing at home every Thanksgiving Day.
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On a normal week, teams:
• Watch tape of Sunday's game on Monday as well as get treatment.
• They are off on Tuesday. This is a union rule, but also a good idea.
• Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are the main practice days.
• Saturday is a 30-minute walkthrough, usually, and then the team travels to the away city or stays at a local hotel for the home game.
So both teams have to condense six days into three during Thanksgiving week. The advantage day for the home team is Wednesday since they don't have to travel. The players can go home and relax before they head to the team's hotel for meetings the night before the game.
A second advantage gained from a Thanksgiving game is a 10-day break to rest up at a critical point in the season. Now, you can say both away teams get this break, too, and you are right, but Dallas and Detroit get it every year.
The final advantage is hard to measure, and that is the publicity the team gets.
This is why Dallas wanted to play on Thanksgiving. Former Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm was a brilliant marketing man who saw the value of having the whole country be able to see his team on national television on Thanksgiving Day, a day in which people would be gathered at homes and a natural TV audience would be available to watch football.
In the AFL, before the merger, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt had the idea to play at home in Kansas City on Thanksgiving. When the merger came this game was taken away from Kansas City.
The first coach to raise the issue of a competitive advantage was Vince Lombardi, whose Green Bay Packers had to travel to play to Detroit every Thanksgiving.
In 1962, which might have been Lombardi's best team, the Packers made their traditional trip to Detroit and ended up being upset by a very good Detroit Lions team. After that game Lombardi was able to get the NFL to start rotating the teams that had to play in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
To my knowledge, the next discussion about this came after I became general manager of the Redskins in 1989. The Cowboys had been down and we were told by the NFL office that the networks were concerned about the drop in TV ratings for the Dallas games, so the NFL asked for volunteers to host a Thanksgiving Day game.
The idea would be to keep the Detroit home game intact but rotate the site of the second game. But shortly after that, the Cowboys starting winning again and the networks did not want to give up Dallas as a Thanksgiving TV game.
Not long after that a motion was put in front of the owners to rotate the Thanksgiving Day games, because of competitive reasons. This was proposed by the Competition Committee, which was chaired by Jim Finks, the now deceased Hall of Fame GM of the New Orleans Saints.
This proposal received a lot of support among the clubs and generated heated and long discussions. However the stats did not back up the argument of the Cowboys and Lions enjoying an unfair advantage.
Detroit had not been a consistently good team, so their winning percentage was not any better. And although Dallas had been a consistent winner, there was not any big swing in its winning percentage except for one stat: When Dallas had a winning team and played with the 10-day break after Thanksgiving, they rarely lost. In fact, at one point Dallas had a long winning streak after Thanksgiving.
The next argument, led by Hunt, was that having the same two teams play on Thanksgiving every year gave them an advantage in publicity. After all, both teams were guaranteed a game on national TV on a big ratings day. He also pointed out that both teams were from the NFC and this was an advantage to that conference. This was a big argument at the beginning of the free-agent system in the NFL.
The votes were beginning to add up in favor of passing the resolution to rotate the Thanksgiving Day games. There was then a break in the meeting, and at that point Detroit and Dallas began to work the room to get some votes. When we came back, the momentum had begun to change from a room that had a majority of teams favoring a switch in the format to keeping the games in Dallas and Detroit.
Both Dallas and Detroit spoke about how these games had become a great tradition in both of their cities. Detroit had the game on Thanksgiving since the 1930s. Discussions then centered on letting Detroit stay at home but force Dallas to play in different cities on Thanksgiving, but Dallas fought that.
Finally, some of the older owners, such as Wellington Mara of the New York Giants, spoke about the importance of tradition and keeping the status quo. After he spoke -- I do not remember if he spoke first -- some of the other veteran owners spoke to also keep the status quo.
The games would stay in Dallas and Detroit.