Niyo: Lions will remain Turkey Day tradition despite grousing

Detroit News

Everybody’s got jokes.

That’s part of the Lions’ Thanksgiving tradition, too. It’s one they’ve earned with their play on the field, just as they’ve earned the right to keep this holiday staple they cooked up way back in 1934, when then-owner George A. Richards convinced NBC radio to broadcast a Lions-Bears game nationally.

Both things can be true, is what I’m saying, and today is probably a good time to remind people of that, as the winless Lions (0-9-1) and the bumbling Bears (3-7) set the table for this country’s annual football feast Thursday with a nationally televised game at Ford Field.

This is the third consecutive year the Lions’ Thanksgiving game features two teams with losing records, and as the Chicago Tribune noted this week, the cringe-worthy combined record of these two division rivals (3-16-1) is the worst for any Thanksgiving matchup since 1987.

More: Lions hungry for first win; Bears could be main course

So with the Lions looking hapless again and having lost four in a row in their showcase event — and 15 of the last 20 Thanksgiving games — their long-suffering fans should prepare to hear plenty more cracks like this while they wait for the turkey to come out of the oven.

“Let’s end the tradition where one of the football teams on Thanksgiving Day has to be the Detroit Lions,” comedian Bill Maher said last week on his late-night HBO talk show, drawing huge laughs from his live studio audience. “For a very important reason: Pretending that this is a must-see game is key to how we avoid talking to our families for three hours.”

Not exactly original material there, obviously. Same goes for “Fox & Friends” co-anchor Brian Kilmeade, who groused Wednesday, “The Lions are ruining every Thanksgiving because they’re always bad.”

But since it’s a sentiment no doubt shared by many, let’s put that notion to rest once more.

According to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, there has been “no change in the league’s commitment to this tradition” of the Lions’ sitting at the head of the table and hosting the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day opener.  And what’s more, it hasn’t even come up at recent owners’ meetings, McCarthy confirms. So the easy rejoinder here to Maher & Co. is, essentially: Stuff it.

Fact is, the last serious threat to the Lions’ tradition — and the Cowboys’, too, for that matter — came more than 20 years ago, when Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt (and Saints owner Tom Benson) backed a proposal in the spring of 1999 to rotate the two annual Thanksgiving Day games among all 31 teams. (The Houston Texans hadn’t yet joined the league as an expansion team.)

The argument then centered around a perceived competitive advantage enjoyed by the Cowboys and Lions, though it was about more than that, obviously. It was about wanting in on what had become one of the game’s premier platforms, with a captive audience that annually makes the Thanksgiving slate the highest-rated NFL TV event outside of the playoffs and Super Bowl.

Dallas and Detroit had the support of then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue back then. But it was Lions vice chair Bill Ford Jr., responding to what he’d termed an “ambush” by “mean-spirited” peers, who rallied corporate allies and then stood up at the owners’ meeting in Phoenix that spring and made an impassioned argument that seemed to resonate throughout the room.

Look, the Lions didn’t invent Thanksgiving football. They certainly don’t own it. But as Ford Jr. pointed out to those NFL owners, the Lions’ Thanksgiving tradition is older than nearly three-quarters of the franchises in the league. And not only did it start in Detroit, it became part of our way of life here, passed down from one generation to the next and embraced even when it wasn’t viewed as a valuable commodity by the rest of the league.

For more than 30 years, Thanksgiving was purely the Lions’ domain. Then the Cowboys joined the party in 1966, volunteering to host a late-afternoon game. And finally, as a way of appeasing Hunt — and, ultimately, the rest of the league — the NFL added a prime-time Thanksgiving slot in 2006, rotating teams through it. (There have been a dozen different hosts over the last 15 seasons.)

Problem solved? For the league, yes. For the Lions, well, that’s another story.

Last year’s Lions-Texans game on Thanksgiving was another embarrassing defeat for the home team, as you may recall. The 41-25 loss also proved to be the last for head coach Matt Patricia, who was fired two days later along with general manager Bob Quinn, by owner Sheila Ford Hamp.

Now the wishbone has been passed on to GM Brad Holmes and rookie head coach, Dan Campbell, who actually played in Thanksgiving games with both the Cowboys and the Lions. Having grown up in a small town in central Texas, Campbell was reared on the tradition, in fact. And when he was asked this week to make a case for preserving it, he didn’t hesitate.

“To me, it’s special, because I remember watching the Lions growing up and it was part of Thanksgiving,” Campbell said. “Like, 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.’

“I think this city deserves it. And in the simplest form, to your question, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, you’re not winning games, so you shouldn’t have it anymore.’ But to me, I think … well, I’m selfish, man. No, it should stay here. I’m part of the Lions; I’m the head coach. … Look, we’ll make it worth it, all right? We’re gonna make it worth it.”

Until then, just understand the jokes will get passed around like cold leftovers.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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