The NFL has a longstanding tradition of Thanksgiving Day football, folklore that has been played on the holiday every year since 1945 (the tradition actually started in 1920, but was halted from 1941 to 1944 due to World War II). The Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys have hosted a Thanksgiving Day game for over 40 seasons, with the Lions hosting a Thanksgiving Day game every year since 1945 and the Cowboys since 1978. Detroit actually started hosting Thanksgiving Day games in 1934, but paused the tradition from 1939 to 1945 due to World War II. The Cowboys started in 1966.
Since the Lions and the Cowboys have hosted games on the Thanksgiving slate every year since 1978, it's no surprise their players own the all-time records on Thanksgiving in several categories. The NFL added a Thanksgiving night game in 2006, and have typically pinned the holiday's marquee matchup in the primetime slot, so some standout performances have emerged from the nightcap.
The NFL on Thanksgiving is a tradition that wasn't completely halted by the COVID-19 pandemic (the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were moved from Thursday to Sunday), which wasn't a guarantee a few months ago. In this week's "By The Numbers," we give thanks to the league's all-time leaders on Thanksgiving.
Most Passing Yards on Thanksgiving (All-Time)
- Matthew Stafford (Lions) -- 2,705
- Tony Romo (Cowboys) -- 2,338
- Troy Aikman (Cowboys) -- 2,174
Most Passing TDs on Thanksgiving (All-Time)
- Tony Romo (Cowboys) -- 18
- Matthew Stafford (Lions) -- 17
- Bobby Layne (Lions) -- 14
- Danny White (Cowboys) -- 14
Most Rushing Yards on Thanksgiving (All-Time)
- Emmitt Smith (Cowboys) -- 1,178
- Barry Sanders (Lions) -- 931
- Tony Dorsett (Cowboys) -- 723
- Walter Payton (Bears) -- 423
Most Rushing TD on Thanksgiving (All-Time)
- Emmitt Smith (Cowboys) -- 13
- Tony Dorsett (Cowboys) -- 9
- Barry Sanders (Lions) -- 8
- Joique Bell (Lions) -- 5
Most Receiving Yards on Thanksgiving (All-Time)
- Jason Witten (Cowboys) -- 903
- Herman Moore (Lions) -- 834
- Calvin Johnson (Lions) -- 769
- Michael Irvin (Cowboys) -- 722
Most Receiving TD on Thanksgiving (All-Time)
- Calvin Johnson (Lions) --11
- Cloyce Box (Lions) -- 7
- Michael Irvin (Cowboys) -- 6
Not surprising to see Cowboys and Lions players dominate this list -- since both teams play on the holiday every year -- even though it's a good look back at the players who have played a lot of games on Thanksgiving. Tony Romo has had plenty of standout performances on Thanksgiving, having three games with 3+ touchdown passes on the holiday. Romo has tossed 18 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions in 10 Thanksgiving starts.
Barry Sanders has four 130+ yard performances on Thanksgiving, saving his best games for the holiday. Even though Sanders averaged 4.47 yards per carry on Thanksgiving, the Lions went 7-3 in his 10 games played. Smith has eight 100+ yard rushing performances on Thanksgiving in 12 games, the most notable when he ran for 144 yards on 23 carries in his final Thanksgiving Day game for the Cowboys in 2002 -- at the age of 33.
Johnson had just one game on Thanksgiving where he didn't have a receiving touchdown -- in nine starts. Moore has three 125+ yard receiving games on the holiday, the most notable being the seven catch, 169-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills in 1994.
Let's take a quick look at the top single-game performances on Thanksgiving.
Most Passing Yards on Thanksgiving (Single Game)
- Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1998) -- 455
- Kirk Cousins (Washington, 2016) -- 449
- Tony Romo (Cowboys, 2012) -- 441
- Matthew Stafford (Lions, 2012) -- 441
- Philip Rivers (Chargers, 2017) -- 434
Most Passing TD on Thanksgiving (Single Game)
- Peyton Manning (Colts, 2004) -- 6
- Bob Griese (Dolphins, 1977) -- 6
- Matthew Stafford (Lions, 2015) -- 5
- Tony Romo (Cowboys, 2006) -- 5
Most Rushing Yards on Thanksgiving (Single Game)
- O.J. Simpson (Bills, 1976) -- 273
- Bob Hoernschemeyer (Lions, 1950) -- 198
- Earl Campbell (Oilers, 1979) -- 195
- Walter Payton (Bears, 1981) -- 179
- Barry Sanders (Lions, 1997) -- 167
Most Receiving Yards on Thanksgiving (Single Game)
- Andre Johnson (Texans, 2012) -- 188
- Lance Alworth (Chargers, 1964) -- 185
- Anthony Carter (Vikings, 1987) -- 184
- Amari Cooper (Cowboys, 2018) -- 180
- Don Maynard (New York Titans, 1960) -- 179
A few other nuggets from standout Thanksgiving Day performances:
- Sterling Sharpe has the most receiving touchdowns on Thanksgiving with four, which he accomplished for the Green Bay Packers in 1994.
- Cameron Jordan has the most sacks on Thanksgiving with four, reached in 2018 when the New Orleans Saints faced the Atlanta Falcons.
- No player has ever recorded three interceptions on Thanksgiving.
- Five players have rushed for three touchdowns on Thanksgiving: Jim Braxton (Cardinals), DeMarco Murray (Cowboys), Ed Podolak (Chiefs), Barry Sanders (Lions), and Emmitt Smith (Cowboys) -- Smith accomplished the feat twice (1996 and 1998).
- Tom Brady (Patriots) and Dave Krieg (Lions) are the only two starting quarterbacks with a perfect passer rating of 158.3 on Thanksgiving (minimum 20 attempts). Krieg did it in 1994 and Brady in 2010.
- Simpson's 273 rushing yards were an NFL record at the time. He also ran for two scores in a loss to the Lions in 1976.
- Randy Moss (21 years, 286 days) is the youngest player to catch a touchdown on Thanksgiving (1998). Donald Driver (34 years, 297 days), is the oldest. Ezekiel Elliott (21 years, 125 days) is the youngest player to run for a touchdown on Thanksgiving (2016) while Marcus Allen (36 years, 247 days) is the oldest (1996).
- Drew Brees (39 years, 311 days) is the oldest player to throw a touchdown pass on Thanksgiving (2018) while Robert Griffin III (22 years, 284 days) is the youngest (2012).
The NFL has plenty of tradition on Thanksgiving, along with more records made to be broken over the coming years (some maybe in 2020). Enjoy the football and have a happy Thanksgiving!