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Know your history: The Thanksgiving Classic

How did America’s Team become a Turkey Day fixture?

Washington Redskins vs Dallas Cowboys - November 28, 1974 Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images

It’s a given every single year that the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions are going to be playing on Thanksgiving Day. It’s become a timely tradition for both franchises, and each team’s fanbase looks forward to their respective Thanksgiving Classic each year. But how did that come to be? For the Cowboys, their tradition of playing every Thanksgiving started in 1966, which coincided with their first ever winning season. Check out this video for the full history of the Cowboys Thanksgiving game:

Through the years, there have been some truly memorable games on Thanksgiving for Dallas. None are more infamous than the 1993 game against the Miami Dolphins. After a disappointing loss to a bad Falcons team that ended a seven-game win streak the Sunday prior, Dallas entered Thanksgiving at 7-3. The Dolphins, led by Don Shula, were 8-2 and had gone 4-1 since losing Dan Marino to a torn Achilles.

The game was billed as a clash of titans, a potential Super Bowl preview; the previous season, Miami had reached the AFC Championship game, losing to the Buffalo Bills team that went on to lose to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. The game was made even more interesting by the field being covered in snow and sleet that day, making it difficult to even see the markers on the field.

Dolphins quarterback Steve DeBerg played terribly, hitting on just 58% of his passes and throwing two interceptions. Troy Aikman didn’t have a great game either, but did lead his team to a 14-7 halftime lead. But the Dolphins defense came alive in the second half, shutting out the Cowboys’ potent offense. Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich made two field goals to cut the Dallas lead to 14-13, and with 15 seconds remaining in the game he went out to attempt a 41-yard field goal. Then this happened:

Leon Lett, now the defensive tackles coach for the Cowboys, foolishly tried to scoop up the blocked kick and allowed the Dolphins to recover it at the one-yard line. That set Miami up for the game-winning field goal, which Stoyanovich made this time around, and the Dolphins walked out of there with a 16-14 victory. In the long run, it didn’t make much of a difference: Miami went on to lose their final five games of the year, missing the playoffs entirely, while the Cowboys went back to the Super Bowl to once again beat the Bills.

The Cowboys’ opponent this Thanksgiving is the Washington Football Team, who they have faced quite often in this traditional game. Their matchup in 1974 is quite memorable, in particular. Both teams were playing well: after starting out 1-4, the Cowboys won four in a row and entered Thanksgiving Day with a 6-5 record, while Washington came in at 8-3 on a four-game win streak.

Things started horribly for the Cowboys, as Roger Staubach went 3/11 with an interception to take a 9-3 deficit into halftime. Washington scored a touchdown out of the halftime break and Staubach got injured, bringing in backup quarterback Clint Longley. Having never taken a regular season snap in his career to that point, Longley was suddenly responsible for digging the Cowboys out of a 16-3 hole. Not only did he end up doing that, but he did in spectacular fashion.

Longley first hit Billy Joe Dupree for a 35-yard touchdown pass, and then he helped lead a 70-yard drive that ended with a Walt Garrison touchdown run at the goal line to take a 17-16 lead. Washington running back Duane Thomas later retook the lead with a 19-yard touchdown run, giving the Cowboys precious little time for one last comeback. That’s when Longley ended up launching a 50-yard bomb on a last second Hail Mary, and Drew Pearson outran his defender to catch the pass and cross the goal line for a walk-off touchdown, giving Dallas a 24-23 win after the extra point was made by Efren Herrera.

Recently, Dallas and Washington have had even more notable Thanksgiving clashes. Apparently the new rule is to have these two play on Thanksgiving every two years, because they faced off in 2016, 2018, and now this year in 2020.

In 2016, the Cowboys were riding high on their rookie duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Winners of nine straight, Dallas entered the game with a league-best 9-1 record, while Washington was 6-3-1. Dallas got off to a hot start, withy touchdowns from both Dak and Zeke leading to a 17-6 halftime lead. But Kirk Cousins and the Washington offense came alive in the fourth quarter, throwing three touchdowns. However, Dak and Zeke each added a touchdown of their own in between those three scores from Cousins, ultimately keeping the gap a little too wide for Washington to overcome. The Cowboys walked out with a 31-26 victory, extending their winning streak to ten games.

Two years later, neither team was playing as well. The Cowboys had just won two in a row to improve to 5-5, with the midseason trade for Amari Cooper boosting their dormant offense, while Washington was 6-4 and had just lost Alex Smith to a devastating leg injury in the previous game. Turning to Colt McCoy, Washington managed to keep things close; they trailed 10-7 at halftime. Then Cooper took over the third quarter, scoring two touchdowns and finishing the day with 180 yards on eight catches:

A touchdown run from Prescott early in the fourth quarter widened the lead to 31-13 and effectively ended the game. While Washington would score two unanswered touchdowns later that quarter, it merely dressed up the final score of a game that the Cowboys won handily to get them above .500 for the first time all season. Meanwhile, Washington lost four of their remaining five games after this one.

Now, once again, the two teams meet each other on Thanksgiving. Both teams enter at 3-7 and featuring quarterbacks who were not starters at the beginning of the year. The winner of this game will claim first place in the dreadful NFC East, at least until Sunday, which promises to make this another exciting installment in the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Classic.