The NFL played its first Thanksgiving game in 1920. The 82 years since have been full of notable games and performances; some good and others much less so. Records have been set, stars have shined and one player mistakenly tried to recover a blocked field goal.
With so much NFL history coming on Thanksgiving, it would be difficult to create a list of the 20 most memorable moments. Cutting the list down to five is even more difficult and means memorable moments like O.J. Simpson's 273-yard rushing performance in 1976 and Lawrence Taylor's 97-yard game-winning interception return touchdown in 1982 are left off the list.
With that said, here is our list of the top five most memorable Thanksgiving NFL moments.
No. 5 - Jerome Bettis called "hea-tails"
The Lions and Steelers played a back-and-forth game in Detroit in 1998 with the teams ending regulation tied 16-16. The game went down in history, however, for what came next. Jerome Bettis appeared to call tails during the coin toss, but referee Phil Luckett instead said Bettis called heads.
The toss landed on tails, giving the Lions the ball despite protests from Bettis, Bill Cowher and the rest of the Steelers. Detroit took advantage, taking the kickoff and driving down for a game-winning field goal. Everyone thought the Steelers had been robbed, including Cowher who said it was wrong the game was "decided by the guys who wear striped shirts."
Luckett, who was heavily criticized, insisted Bettis called "heads-tails" and he took the first selection. It turns out, he was right as David Pincus wrote:
In only a few days, technology vindicated the beleaguered referee. Pittsburgh television station KDKA enhanced the audio and found that Bettis had given two separate commands. Removing all ambiguity, a sideline conversation between Bettis and Cowher was also picked up, one where the Steelers back clearly defines that he said "hea-tails."
In addition to inciting a pre-social media firestorm, the "hea-tails" debate also changed the NFL forever. Shortly after the game in Detroit, then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue changed the rule so players would be forced to declare heads or tails before, not during, the coin toss.
No. 4 - Barry Sanders zigs and zags through Chicago
Detroit has long been a regular participant on Thanksgiving and in the 1990s that meant the country got to sit back and bask in the glory of Barry Sanders. In the days before NFL Redzone or Sunday Ticket, fans weren't able to watch every game. Depending on what part of the country you lived in, Thanksgiving may have been your only chance to watch Sanders that season. Thrust into the spotlight, Sanders rarely disappointed.
He played in 10 Thanksgiving games, during which he racked up 931 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns. His best Thanksgiving performance came in 1997, when he put on a show against the Chicago Bears. Sanders finished the game with 167 rushing yards and three touchdowns. His scores weren't 1-yard touchdown runs either. Instead, it was classic Barry Sanders. He cut in, cut out and left Bear defenders grabbing for air (highlights can be found here).
It was also a historic night as during the game, Sanders passed Eric Dickerson to move to No. 2 on the NFL's all-time rushing list. The performance also helped him eclipse 2,000 yards for the season.
No. 3 - Randy Moss lights up the Cowboys
There was very little question about Randy Moss' talent heading into the 1998 draft, but some teams shied away from the wide receiver due to off-the-field concerns. Before the draft Moss said teams would "regret" passing on him, and then made it his personal mission to make sure they did.
Jerry Jones and the Cowboys famously passed on Moss, opting for defensive end Greg Ellis with the No. 8 pick instead. The Vikings traveled to play Dallas on Thanksgiving during Moss' rookie season and he didn't waste any time making an impact. Moss hauled in a 51-yard touchdown less than two minutes into the game, burning Dallas' secondary on a flea-flicker.
Moss caught only three passes in the game, but all three receptions went for touchdowns; the flea-flicker and a pair that went for 56 yards. He finished the game with 163 receiving yards and also drew a 50-yard pass interference penalty. Ted Glover of the Daily Norseman remembered the performance:
Dallas always held a special place in Randy's heart...the dark place deep in a man's soul, where one thinks of revenge, and smiting the enemies before you, and listening to the wailing and lamentations of the women who's men you killed. Jerry Jones promised Moss that Dallas would draft him if he was on the board ... and they passed. Moss never forgot, and his first opportunity to exact revenge came that fateful Thanksgiving Day in 1998.
To Dallas' credit, they held Randy to 3 catches ... for 51, 56, and 56 yards. All for touchdowns.
Moss was simply the best player on the field that day.
While Moss was busy shredding the Dallas secondary, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman did everything he could to keep Dallas in the game. He finished with a career-high 455 passing yards in the loss, a Thanksgiving record.
No. 2 - Clint Longley saves Dallas
The NFL's version of a one-hit wonder, there is a good chance that you've never heard of Clint Longley. After all, he only attempted 68 passes during his three-year NFL career. It just so happens, 20 of those attempts came during a wild and improbable Thanksgiving day comeback.
The Cowboys hosted the rival Redskins on Thanksgiving in 1974. Both teams entered the game battling for the playoffs and they traded field goals early on. The Redskins took a 16-3 lead in the third quarter. Then things got worse for Dallas not long after, when star quarterback Roger Stauback was forced to leave the game with an injury.
Enter Clint Longley.
A rookie out of Abilene Christian, Longley had never attempted a NFL pass when he stepped on the field to take over for Staubach. Most people watching thought the game was over, apparently including Redskins head coach George Allen.
"I can still see George over there after Roger got knocked out," Cowboys coach Tom Landry said, via the Chicago Tribune. "Boy, he was spitting on his hands, rubbing them. He knew he had the ballgame won."
Longley had other ideas. He came in and started attacking the Redskins. He later said he felt like a "gunfighter with the football" during the game and trusted his arm to hit open receivers. Nicknamed the "Mad Bomber" Longley did as you might expect and started throwing bombs.
A 35-yard touchdown pass made it a six-point game and the Cowboys went to take the lead later in the third quarter. Washington, however, took the lead back soon after and led 23-17 heading into the final minute of the game. Longley completed just 11-of-20 pass attempts, but that last completion proved to be the game winner.
With 28 second left in the game, Longley threw deep down the left side and hit an open Drew Person in stride for the game-winning 50-yard score.
Longley attempted only one more pass that season and was traded to San Diego during the offseason. Still, that Thanksgiving day performance will go down in history. Blogging the Boys called it the third best game in Cowboys regular season history:
In the face of tremendous pressure, Longley remained preternaturally calm. On fourth and six at the Dallas 44, he found Bob Hayes open for a six-yard gain, eking out a first down. On the next play, Longley passed incomplete to Pearson. On second and ten from midfield, the rookie signal caller decided to return to the original #88. Pearson was supposed to run a post route, but opted to keep to the sideline, where he managed to split the two Redskins defenders. Longley moved away from a fierce rush, slid outside, read what Pearson was doing, and heaved the ball 56 yards; Pearson caught it in full stride at the 4, and scored untouched.
When asked by reporters about this game years later, Pearson told them: "I still say [Longley] was the best deep passer I ever played with. I'm sure he could throw farther than Roger. He could have been one hell of a quarterback in the NFL." For the game, Longley bombed his way to 11 of 20 for 203 yards and two touchdowns in just under 30 minutes work.
No. 1 - "It's Leon Lett, NO!"
The 1993 Thanksgiving game between Dallas and Miami would have been memorable just for the weather. Abnormal subfreezing temperatures in Dallas led to the game being played on a snow covered field. For the first 59 minutes, the game was about what you would expect. Two good teams going back-and-forth in difficult conditions.
It's the final minute, however, that makes this the most memorable Thanksgiving game.
Trailing 14-13, Miami had driven into Dallas territory as the clock wound down. With 15 seconds to play, Don Shula called for the field goal. Pete Stoyanovich lined up a 40-yard field goal for the win. He had made two of three attempts in the game, but his game-winning attempt came out low off of his foot and was blocked by the Cowboys.
The ball landed and rolled to the Cowboy 10-yard line while Dallas players began to celebrate on the sideline. Everyone knew not to touch the ball ... everyone except for Leon Lett. Lett ran down the field and gave a sliding attempt to recover the ball. He ended up kicking the ball instead and a huge pile up ensued. The Dolphins ended up recovering on the 3-yard line, setting up another game-winning attempt. This time, Stoyanovich didn't miss and the Dolphins stole the game 16-14.
The play has gone down as one of the biggest blunders in NFL history. It also resulted in one of the more humorous reactions you'll every see. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was on the sideline and the camera found him holding his arms in triumph with a huge smile on his face as he thought Dallas had won. His facial expression slowly starts to sour while his arms lower as he watches Lett and the ensuing pileup.
Don't feel bad, though. The Cowboys didn't lose another game that season and went on to win the Super Bowl. Lett eventually turned the blunder into a Snickers commercial.
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