Thanksgiving Day traditions run deep. For many in America, those traditions have long centered around family, football and the Dallas Cowboys – often all three of them at the same time.
Dallas will host an NFL game on Thanksgiving Day for the 48th time in the past 50 years on Thursday. The game always draws incredible TV ratings. Carolina, on the other hand, has never been invited to play on Thanksgiving Day – until this year.
The Panthers are stoked.
“It’s an honor,” quarterback Cam Newton said.
“We deserve it, but it is a privilege,” defensive end Kony Ealy said.
“This is big,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “I went from sitting down on the floor, watching the Thanksgiving game on a box TV with my family to now I’m actually in the game?! C’mon.”
In 21 seasons, the Panthers have checked every box except this one as far as playing on the NFL’s grandest stages. They have played numerous Sunday and Monday night games. They have played in every level of the playoffs and in one Super Bowl.
But this is their first Thanksgiving Day contest, and they know it also will be the first time that many casual fans see a Carolina team that has startled the NFL world with its 10-0 start.
Many Panthers fans on Thanksgiving Day will alter their normal routine, ensuring they aren’t taking a nap or still eating when the 4:30 p.m. kickoff rolls around on CBS. Or they will be DVR-ing the game during a late Thanksgiving dinner and frenziedly trying to watch it before they find out what happened elsewhere.
Although the Panthers insist they don’t need to prove anything to anyone, oddsmakers disagree. Carolina actually opened as a one-point underdog to the 3-7 Cowboys. “A little disrespectful,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera called that.
Or, as Norman said a little more pointedly in a shot at the oddsmakers: “We don’t give a you-know-what. At the end of the day, we are 10-0. … We’re going to make you eat your crow. And once you eat crow, don’t come and talk to us because we don’t care anymore.”
Through-the-roof TV ratings
In terms of regular-season games, there is nothing bigger than being the Cowboys’ sparring partner on Thanksgiving Day. Last year, Philadelphia took that spot – and trounced Dallas 33-10.
The game wasn’t close. But as far as ratings go, that doesn’t matter. It’s the only game on – and it stays on – in millions of homes around America. An estimated audience of 32 million watched the Eagles-Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game in 2014. That made it not only the highest-rated NFL game of the 256 regular-season games but also the most-watched show of the 2014 fall TV season (including every show on every network).
Detroit hosts a Thanksgiving Day game every year, too, but the Lions usually haven’t been as good as the Cowboys and normally serve as the undercard. In recent years, the NFL also has added a third game at night.
But it is almost always the Cowboys game that draws the biggest ratings, as “America’s Team” inspires a love-or-hate emotion with most sports fans. People watch Dallas no matter when the Cowboys play. This year the Cowboys have been involved in the most-watched game thus far (vs. Seattle) and the fourth-most watched game (vs. Philadelphia in Week 2).
And star quarterback Tony Romo suffered a broken collarbone in Week 2. Romo, who is 4-0 in his career against Carolina, is back for this game.
Lett, Longley and Bettis
Detroit started playing on Thanksgiving Day in 1934. In 1966, the NFL was casting about for another team that annually would host a second Thanksgiving game. Dallas volunteered. Except for 1975 and 1977, when St. Louis briefly took the Cowboys’ place, Dallas has hosted a Turkey Day game ever since.
Dallas doesn’t factor in all of the most notable highlights of Thanksgiving Day NFL football – Pittsburgh was playing the Lions, not Dallas, when Jerome Bettis and referee Phil Luckett had their infamous coin-flip mixup in 1998, for instance.
But the Cowboys have had a hand in most of them. I vividly remember watching a Dallas game with my family at age 10 in 1974, when rookie Cowboys quarterback Clint Longley took over for an injured Roger Staubach and threw a 50-yard TD pass to Drew Pearson in the final minute to beat Washington.
Leon Lett’s famous gaffe came on a rare snowy Thanksgiving Day in Dallas in 1993. After Dallas blocked a field-goal attempt in the final seconds, Lett ran to the ball, tried to recover it and fumbled it away. Just leaving the ball alone would have clinched the game. Instead, Miami got a second chance at the winning field goal, which the Dolphins made.
Over the years, almost everyone involved in football has watched the Cowboys play at least a little on Thanksgiving Day.
Panthers offensive tackle Mike Remmers grew up in Oregon. His Thanksgivings were filled with pickup tackle football games with his older brothers, a lot of food and a heavy dose of Monopoly. (“My theory is buy everything,” Remmers said.)
But watching the Cowboys always came into play at some point.
“I wasn’t really for or against the Cowboys,” Remmers said, “but they were always on. Usually, by then, I was on my second or third plate.”
‘Now we’re in it’
Not everyone likes working on Thanksgiving. Rivera has coached and played in Thanksgiving Day games and sounds like he’d just as soon skip this experience.
Said Rivera: “It is kind of nice to be asked to play on Thanksgiving Day. … But it has kind of taken the fun of the holiday out for us more so than anything else. So you might as well just focus in on playing the game. … It’s kind of like having to play on Christmas, which I’ve also had to do. It does take a little bit from it.”
And not everyone watches in America watches football on Thanksgiving, either – even football players. Panthers defensive end Mario Addison remembers going to his grandmom’s house in Birmingham, Ala., on Thanksgiving and the day being so full of calories that there was time for little else. His grandmother cooked for two days to get ready, and Addison always skipped watching football in favor of another Thanksgiving tradition – the post-meal nap.
“Everybody would sit at the table,” he said. “And we’d eat. And we’d eat. And we’d eat again. And then we’d go to sleep. Then we’d wake up and eat one more time.”
There will be no sleeping on this Thanksgiving for the Panthers, though. They finally have made it to this stage with a key role in one of the NFL’s biggest showcases. Eight of Norman’s family members are coming to Texas to watch him play in person – a far cry from those Thursdays in front of the TV in Greenwood, S.C.
“I remember the chicken, the cranberry sauce, kicking your feet up, having a beverage, watching the game all those years,” Norman said. “After you give thanks to God, the game is the best part of Thanksgiving. And now we’re in it.”
Thanksgiving story lines
5 things CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will undoubtedly bring up during the Thanksgiving Day Dallas-Carolina matchup at 4:30 p.m.:
1. Tony Romo. A longtime media darling, Romo is recently back from injury and has the most career TD passes in Thanksgiving Day games (in large part because he has played in so many of them). Romo is also 4-0 in his career vs. Carolina.
2. Cam Newton. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated this week and is in the middle of his best season. A convincing win Thursday could help him in the MVP race.
3. Greg Hardy. The defensive end's checkered past at Carolina, his matchup with former high school and college teammate Michael Oher – Hardy will be one of the day's dominant storylines.
4. Dez Bryant vs. Josh Norman. The Panthers want to match cornerback Norman up with wide receiver Bryant as often as possible in what should be one of the biggest keys to the game – and a focus of CBS’s cameras on every Dallas offensive play.
5. The oddsmakers. Dallas was favored in this game to start the week, despite being 3-7 compared to Carolina’s 10-0. That rankled many Panthers fans.