Every year, the Lions play on Thanksgiving. And every year, a nation wonders why. It wasn't always like this, not when Barry Sanders made the Lions a team worth watching in the '90s, not when Bobby Layne made them a force in the '50s, a couple decades after the tradition was born. Otherwise, a lot of bad teams have played a lot of bad football for a lot of bored fans.
The Lions play on Thanksgiving because owner George A. Richards came up with the idea in 1934 as a way to attract more fans, and it worked. They play on Thanksgiving because of history, which is the only reason they need. (Did you come up with Thanksgiving football?) Of course, history is also the reason the Lions maybe shouldn't play on Thanksgiving. Their critics would say they've lost the right.
In their last 20 Thanksgiving Day games, the Lions are 5-15. That includes nine losses by double digits, five losses by at least 20 points and two by least 30 points. Half of those teams finished in last place. All but four of them finished with a losing record. This is what the Lions are serving America every Thanksgiving, to which America responds, "When do the Cowboys start?"
Dan Campbell watched the Cowboys on Thanksgiving growing up in Texas. But not before watching the Lions. And then he played for both teams on Thanksgiving, twice in Dallas, once in Detroit. He even caught a Turkey Day touchdown to give the Lions an early lead over the Dolphins in 2006 -- before a 27-10 loss amid a 3-13 season. He knows what Thanksgiving football means to the people of a place.
So why should the Lions still play on Thanksgiving?
"To me, it’s special," Campbell said Tuesday as the winless Lions prepare to host the Bears on Thursday. "I remember watching the Lions growing up and it was part of Thanksgiving. That’s how I think of it. Win, lose or draw, it was like, ‘Hey, the Lions are part of Thanksgiving,’ just like the Cowboys are.
"But I think this city deserves it. It’s easy to say, ‘You’re not winning games, so you shouldn’t have it anymore.’ Well, I’m selfish, man. No, it should stay here. I’m part of the Lions and I’m the head coach. Look, we’ll make it worth it. We’re going to make it worth it.”
A win on Thursday would be the Lions' first on Thanksgiving in five years. They were blown out of the building last year, then blew out their GM and head coach. They're hosting a team on a four-game skid, playing a backup QB in Andy Dalton. Last time the Bears brought a backup to Thanksgiving, the Lions lost to Chase Daniel. When they showed up with a future backup the next year, the Lions lost to Mitch Trubisky. See what the critics are saying?
For one year, anyway, the Lions can tell them to can it. They can give us a game worth watching until the bigger games later, a warm-up dish we don't dump for the dogs. They play on Thanksgiving because they played first, and that's the last word. We eat turkey. We watch the Lions. (We fall asleep). Traditions are timeless, but not entirely stiff. It's Campbell's turn to give this one a twist.
"This is a big game, man," he said. "There is nothing like Thanksgiving. Nationally televised, everybody’s watching, all the families, even more than normal. You know the spotlight is on. You want to go out and play your best performance, your best game, and certainly to win. That’s what this thing is about. This will be special. This will be good.”